Emptiness in The Graveyard, and an Encounter with Yugen in Liberty City

I’m playing The Graveyard, and I have nothing to say about it. Thing is, I suspect that’s the point.

A short game from Belgian developer Tale of Tales, The Graveyard places you in the comfortable, slip-on shoes of a frail, elderly lady walking through a graveyard. You hobble past gravestones, sit down at a bench — a strange song plays — then you hobble back to the exit and the game is over.

There’s almost no content to it — nothing to collect, no one to talk to — and this is precisely why I like it. It provides the player with something we are terribly afraid of in our culture, something that petrifies us so much we can’t even admit it exists. It provides us with emptiness.

The Graveyard doesn’t aim to fill up the empty space in our brains, but rather draw attention to it. It has the guts not only to admit that the vast majority of our world is nothingness — but also to let a little of it in. What Tale of Tales are asking of us, essentially, is that we enjoy the silence.

What content the game does possess is tailored expertly to this. Birds sing, leaves fall from trees; the sound of distant traffic drifts in from somewhere far away. The experience is melancholic, yet peaceful, like hiking alone through a landscape of freshly fallen snow.

The eponymous graveyard is a tiny environment hanging in the void. It is rich and vibrant, yet this only makes us more aware of the emptiness all around. Those ambient noises — especially the muffled sirens and car horns — point to so much more outside our direct perception than we can ever experience. And who is the old woman we control? What of her past? And how about that song? We can guess, but we’ll never know.

This says so much to me of life. We’re trapped in these tiny bubbles of existence, the high walls of our minds surrounded on all sides by pure space, and however far our spaceships fly, whatever quantum laws our Large Hadron Colliders imply, there is always more out there in the universe than we can perceive.

The Graveyard provides us with a means of seeing this, and accepting it.

Playing it, I found an odd thing. I found my head starting to clear. It wasn’t so much that I was sensing the emptiness around me — rather I was the emptiness. My thoughts were coming and going on their own — frothing up then melting away again — and slowly the oceans of my mind began to fall calm.

There was nothing mystical or arcane about it, merely an experience of being right here, right now. It was very ordinary.

Video games are a better medium for engendering these kinds of experiences than we give them credit for. Many is the time I have stood gazing out over the seas of Wind Waker, or roamed the lonely cliffs of Shadows of the Colossus, playing not with any external goal in mind, but simply to be there.

There is a concept in Japanese aesthetics, and an idea central to much Eastern thinking, called yugen. We have no word for it in the West. It refers to that feeling of deep, profound happenings that can never quite be expressed. Alan Watts, counter-culture philosopher and interpreter of Eastern religion, called yugen “the sudden perception of something mysterious and strange, hinting at an unknown never to be discovered.”

This is what video games sometimes give me. The feeling of yugen hovers in the background of many games — filling me with the desire to explore those green hills behind Super Mario World’s flat levels, say — but it usually only breaks through fully when the mechanics of narrative and threat have been removed. My mind can’t empty in Another World — despite the barren, evocative landscapes — because it is so focused on avoiding death and finding a way home. It is when the designers take a step back from filling our time with obstacles and rewards, and allow us just to experience the realms they have created, that the subtler emotions like yugen are given room to manifest.

I am not implying that all games should be as devoid of content as The Graveyard, of course — just that it would be nice to see more designers utilising similar techniques to add flavour and nuance to their work.

Bizarrely enough, I think Rockstar are close to exemplary in this regard. Red Dead Redemption‘s finest moments benefitted hugely from the sense of solitary wandering that often evokes yugen. But it was Red Dead’s father-game, the triple-quadruple-mega-platinum smash hit Grand Theft Auto IV, that provided me with my most moving gaming experience of recent times.

I’m home from work, dead-eyed and zonked out. Fifty-hour weeks as a bar supervisor are taking their toll. I just get up, work, go home and pass out, then do it all again six hours later. No way to live.

So I’m home and I don’t have the energy to play anything. But I need to wind down before sleep, so I boot up GTA IV and drive aimlessly around Liberty City’s streets. Just powersliding through corners, letting the sights flow past my eyes as the day’s events tumble from my brain.

I’m not paying attention to where I’m going — just going, for the hell of it — but suddenly the car skids to a halt, and I realise that it’s me who’s stopped it. Something has caught my attention.

There’s a ramp set back from the road, a walkway leading I-know-not-where, and something about it is calling to me. I feel a prickle down my spine.

I get out of the car, the volume of the radio dropping to a tinny buzz through the open window — a wonderful detail — and head off to explore. The ramp leads me onto the platform of one of the elevated train stations. It is late, and the light is failing.

A blanket of sadness falls over me. People sit at benches, waiting. Discarded leaflets flutter past on the breeze. Little flames of luminescence spark on in the rooms of apartment buildings in the distance, and the sun goes down.

I get lonely. I can sense the frailty of all events, how the world is a dissolving of ephemera, each moment passing away as swiftly as it is witnessed.

A train is coming. I can hear it. The sound is so sad, like a forlorn cry cutting through the night air.

The train arrives. A man extricates himself from the bench he is sitting at and drifts into a carriage. Others remain. The train leaves, arcing away behind the tangle of dark buildings, over the horizon and out of sight.

I feel very involved in this world, very alive in it, in a way that hasn’t quite happened before. All these virtual people, living their virtual lives I know nothing about.

I get a sense of the enormity of existence, the muscular, writhing mass of it — and though there is a sadness at its passing there is beauty, too. For that which ends is that which is precious.

I stay for a long time, watching until the sun comes up. Out beyond the train tracks, beyond the crumbling apartments and cheap food stores and winding highways, there is more happening than I will ever know.

“Tsuyu no yo wa tsuyu no yo nagara sari nagara”

This dewdrop world —
It may be a dewdrop,
And yet — and yet —

(Haiku by Zen poet Issa)

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “Emptiness in The Graveyard, and an Encounter with Yugen in Liberty City

  1. Tom

    Considering you had nothing to say about The Graveyard, you sure wrote a lot of shit.

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  3. Being the happiest when I’m the emptiest I can sure relate to this. Except I haven’t thought about it quite the same way before.

    I’ve got a theory that the yugen of the worlds beyond worlds is what drives games dev novices towards ambitious projects, however it should be something fairly easy to implement: it just has to sit there and look pretty (in the nicest possible way). Getting it right, is a different matter altogether, per se.

    I’m not saying that you’ve sold me either of the GTA 4 or The Graveyard (your writing is fantastic, though), but you did give me a fresh way to look at big, commercial titles and their capability to emote and delight. Thanks for this!

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