Video game takes players down St. Croix, through history
MENOMONIE, Wis. — There’s more to video games than shooting zombies and running through a war zone. Look no further than Dave Beck’s virtual St. Croix River.
Beck is a professor of video game design at the University of Wisconsin-Stout who has designed a video game based on the scenic river dividing Minnesota and Wisconsin.
When players start Tombeaux, the St. Croix water level is low. As they move forward in the game and in time, the water level rises.
“It’s a really interesting barometer for measuring environmental conditions, but also human emotion and how people react to a situation,” Beck said.
Players can also move about through time to see how the area has changed and developed, he said.
“I wanted the player to see how much this river has evolved and lived through, and what the environment and people have lived through,” Beck said. “I didn’t feel it would be as powerful a statement if it was just one era.”
Beck was inspired by Gone Home and Dear Esther, games where players explore a space and objects embedded in that space to tell a story.
He was also inspired by the river itself, spending a month in a St. Croix cabin, sketching, photographing and prototyping. He got the idea to use the water level as a game mechanism while canoeing the river.
Beck said he has always been fascinated by the river’s role as a state border, a lumber highway and a touchstone for the Ojibwe people.
“It’s a significant and powerful icon in the history of this area, of the upper Midwest,” said Beck.
Because Beck is working solo on this “passion project,” rather than with a team like most video games, Tombeaux won’t be available until the second half of next year, he said.
“I’m putting most of the stuff on my shoulders to get it done, and so it’s taking a lot longer,” he said. “I have total control over it, which could be dangerous because I might not know that my idea isn’t as good as I think it is.”
The biggest and therefore slowest aspect of creating the game has been the research, Beck said.
“I want to make sure everything I do has meaning and connection to history and legitimate facts,” Beck said.
Becky has been diving into history books and researching at the Minnesota History Center, the North West Company Fur Post in Pine City, Minn., and the Mille Lacs Indian Museum in Onamia, Minn.
The game will use the Ojibwe language, and the credits will have a bibliography.
Every object in the game is modeled on historical objects, Beck said.
“You can connect every object in the game to an actual object in history,” he said. “Everything is digitally curated to make it as rich and real an experience as possible.”
Jennifer Sly, manager of digital learning and assessment at the Minnesota Historical Society, said Beck’s video game and others like it offer new possibilities for education.
“One challenge in video games set within a historical period is that you want to give players agency and choice, but it’s hard to do that without changing the historical timeline because history already happened a certain way,” Sly said. “Dave Beck’s work is one way to let users explore history in different times.”
Beck intends Tombeaux to be free or low-cost and wants to put it in front of as many people as possible. He also gave the game simple controls so it will be playable even by people without much video game experience.
HISTORY AND ART
“I’m not making this to make money,” he said. “It’s more about allowing people a chance to see what games can do for learning and giving insight into history and the world around you.”
In addition to making the game accessible online, he is considering exhibiting the game at museums and festivals along with images and 3D-printed versions of key objects in the game.
“I’m really interested in making sure this comes off as a piece of art as well as a game,” Beck said.
The Pioneer Press is in a media partnership with Forum News Service.