Dave Beck has created a time machine.
Well, not exactly, but the digital artist and University of Wisconsin-Stout game design professor has gotten about as close as possible with his video game, Tombeaux.
The game was created as part of the Artist at Pine Needles program, a residency the Science Museum of Minnesota offers in which an artist spends weeks at a cabin along the St. Croix River and creates something based on their experience.
Beck first had the idea for Tombeaux about 3.5 years ago. At first, he says, he “didn’t know fully what at that point” he would create. He did know he wanted to focus on “what water can do and how it changes our lives on a daily basis.”
“I wanted to tell a story about [the St. Croix River] specifically and how it played a part in the history but also about how it could help us consider the future as well,” Beck says.
In Tombeaux, players explore a slice of the St. Croix River as it was hundreds of years ago. As the game progresses, players investigate the river and a cabin, hearing narration from the main character and interacting with objects in the virtual world. Each time the player enters and exits their cabin, they will notice changes in the game world.
On their journey, players will hear narration from other characters as well. Unlike the main character’s journals, which were written entirely by Beck, the stories these characters tell are taken from written historical accounts. Likewise, nearly every object in the game is either based on its real-world historical counterpart or a replica of such an object from the time period. Beck describes it as a “digital archive.”
While the idea for Tombeaux came only a few years ago, Beck's interest in games goes back a lot longer.
“It all started honestly with me as a child,” Beck says. His father worked at IBM—not as a game designer or even a programmer, but as a salesman. He would bring home all sorts of computers and gadgets, and Beck, being a curious young boy, began toying around with them.
Equally crucial in Tombeaux's background is Beck’s interest in art. He began working in sculpture, but quickly decided to switch to the digital realm.
“My skills and any knowledge of digital technology actually surpassed what I could do with analog technology,” he says, adding that he’s “pretty much entirely self-taught in the digital realm.”
Tombeaux’s direct predecessor was an animation Beck made called Log Jam. Created during another residency at the Science Museum’s St. Croix Watershed Research Station in 2010, the 24-minute installation “asks the viewer to contemplate the cyclical process of death and rebirth, while also discovering the calming effect of chaos.”
With Tombeaux, Beck wanted to create something more interactive. “A little bit of ownership by the viewer or player, but not too distant from a film,” he says. Inspired by so-called ‘walking simulators’—games where players experience a linear story in a confined space with limited interaction—Beck began designing Tombeaux as an “interactive historical experience.”
“It ended up being a little more complex than I wanted,” Beck says. His one-man team grew as he enlisted the help of a programmer named Ben Malone, a musician named Joselyn Fear and a handful of voice actors.
All of their work paid off this past fall when Tombeaux was released. It has garnered generally positive reviews on the online game store Steam, and Beck is donating 100 percent of the profits back to the St. Croix Watershed Research Station.
For those interested in Tombeaux but not necessarily skilled at video games, Beck stresses that the experience is not necessarily designed for “the typical gamer.” It can be enjoyed by almost anyone with an interest in the history of the St. Croix River.
“I knew going into it that I was designing this for a specific crowd,” he says.
“At the end of the day, I wanted to make this in hopes that maybe there’s teachers that would want to download it for their students to play, in an elementary classroom where they’re learning about local or regional state history.
“I really want people to think about what this river’s been like. What it was like 300 years ago, what it’s like now, what it could be like in the future as well.”