Matt Ritter has buried people close to him in his virtual graveyard. But that is not the reason he built it.
Welcome to Boon Hill is what Ritter calls a “graveyard simulator.” He made it after reading the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters. It’s a series of poems that are written as epitaphs from the perspective of the deceased. Boon Hill is his way of expanding on that idea, engraving the words on stone, then planting them in the earth so that the experience is as much about walking around and being in that gloomy space as it is about reading the elegies.
Boon Hill differs from Spoon River Anthology in a number of ways but most significant is the perspective the epitaphs are written from. Rather than as autobiography they are written as if by family members or close friends. This is an effort to make the graveyard somewhat believable—important to Ritter is capturing the direct experience of being in a cemetery rather than deliberately letting it swell to more artistic reaches. Ritter has been to many a graveyard around Europe, sometimes for tourism, other times to honor someone who had been buried there. And what he’s picked up on from his time at these burial grounds is that you can learn a lot about people while there.
“You don’t necessarily learn a lot about the dead person from a grave,” Ritter says. “You can. But you learn a lot more about the people who were there to see them off. You can see the flowers they bring, or other things. You can watch the funeral, or see what kind of headstone they got.”
He recalls one particular gravestone that had written on it the word “Dependable,” summing up a human’s entire life with a single word, a shame he says. On closer inspection of the “context clues,” as he puts it, Ritter guessed that it was done by a sibling as so much of the deceased’s family were already buried around them. He doesn’t know that for sure but the investigative exercise proved compelling.
It’s that experience that is primarily what Ritter wants Boon Hill to provide through what he deems “inferred stories.” He has gone through the effort to create an entire timeline, family trees, detailing the relationships over generations of people in Boon Hill, all in order to decide who’s buried there and why. “My hope is that if I put so much thought into each grave that would make there be these invisible lines between them that players could pick up on,” he tells me. “Even if they drew entirely different interpretations than my original intention hopefully the lines and the seeds are there.”
None of this is communicated inside Boon Hill itself. In fact, developing the idea has been a process of letting go of the tether he initially placed around the player’s wrist. It started off as a treasure hunting game set in a graveyard. It had a randomized map so you could play it over and over, exploring a new layout each time on your quest to find the treasure. But this meant that what Ritter truly wanted for it was made secondary. And so the decision was made to abandon any cause to entertain the notion of it being a ‘game’.
Now when you enter Boon Hill there is no obvious goal or objective. You can walk into the graveyard’s main office at the entrance and speak to a person who gives the idea that your character is there to look for a specific grave. However, upon looking into the filing cabinet that would assist in this goal, you find out that the grave they might be looking for isn’t listed. Now what? You go for a wander.
There are family plots to find, unmarked graves, older plots that bring with them a much stronger eeriness. Most interesting are the gravestones that are placed outside of barriers, beyond fences, they’re by themselves as if they have been expelled from the town. You can also speak to a gothic girl, mourners who have profound reflections on life to share, and another person practicing lines for an upcoming performance. You can even lay flowers. Boon Hill also has a more light-hearted side as you can lie in an open grave and discover claims that the place is haunted. Ritter put this in there to remark on the silliness of Boon Hill‘s concept.
“It’s a game about a graveyard. It’s absurd,” he says. “I don’t think I could approach it from an entirely serious perspective. Death is the ultimate joke. We laugh because it surprises us and makes us uncomfortable. Who hasn’t thought about laying in a grave? Who hasn’t chuckled at a silly epitaph they heard some famous person had?”
There was one other reason that encouraged Ritter to make Boon Hill. On one of his trips, he came across a gravestone with his name on it. You can imagine how freaky that must be. But, more than that, the date of birth of the grave’s occupant was very close to his own. Words can barely describe that moment. But the way Ritter tells it suggests that perhaps you or I will one day have that same experience, either in Boon Hill as he probably hopes, or in one of the world’s many graveyards.