It’s not everyday you see a grandmother and grandson team up to create a video game. Yet, that’s exactly what game designer Bob De Schutter set out to do when he interviewed his at the time 92-year old grandmother Bie Verlinden about her life as a young girl.
Together, they take players on a journey to the titular medieval farmhouse in rural Belgium. It’s a place that’s rife with memories. Peaceful images about growing up on a farm and taking care of the smaller children in the family. But it’s also the stage for a series of traumatic events, when the family home suddenly finds itself on the frontline of the Second World War. Players get a front-row seat to all of Bie’s memories, as captured by her grandson.
While Brukel captures the way of life during the Interbellum, it doesn’t claim to be a historically accurate time capsule. It is, however, a faithful reconstruction of how Bie remembers it and perhaps that’s what makes it even more interesting.
About the developer
Bob De Schutter is a Belgian game designer who’s currently Associate Professor of Game Design at Northeastern University in Boston. His work and research focus on the design of video games for players in middle through late adulthood.
Interview with Bob De Schutter
Why did you decide to create a video game based on the memories of your grandmother?
She could tell these stories for hours on end. To me, it always felt like a posttraumatic thing, as she was recounting these stories almost compulsively. Even when the family told her they weren’t in the mood for it, she literally couldn’t stop talking about it. For her, Brukel became a kind of therapy process to deal with those memories
I’ve always been fascinated by this, but the moment it struck me I had to do something with it was when my dad and his brother were talking about the war - the post-war generation is endlessly interested in war history - and she starts recounting this story about how an English commander once pointed a gun at my grandfather and how, if he had pulled the trigger then, over half of the people at the table wouldn’t have been there. That became one of the key scenes in the game.
It hit me that every Flemish family probably has a story like that, whether they knew or not. That sealed the deal for me: I need to make this.
So you started recording these stories. At 92 years old, could she envision your end goal? Did she understand what a video game was?
Evidently, my grandmother doesn’t know how video games work, let alone how they’re being made. She thought it a bit weird to make a game about this, so I always explained it to her as a type of biography or documentary about her life, but with the difference that people would be able to walk around in it.
While we were building the game I would often show her the progress and ask if this was how she remembered certain things. It mattered less whether it was historically accurate, I really wanted to capture her subjective memory of those events. So if she said something wasn’t exactly right, we changed it. There’s nothing in the game that doesn’t stroke with how she remembers it. I felt that was important.
Was she a critical playtester then?
Absolutely! She wasn’t afraid to be frank with me - you know how grandparents are. I remember, after putting a lot of work in some authentic dolls, she simply said: “those dolls aren’t right at all!”. Four hours of work down the drain. I had students helping me out with asset creation, so I had to go back to them and explain to them that my grandmother wanted these changes. A bit awkward (laughs).
You have layered a ghost story on top of her memories. Why is that?
So I’m recording all these loose memories, and then it’s up to me to figure out how we’re going to tie everything together in a comprehensive video game. If we were going to treat this as just a time capsule, it would’ve been very difficult to present all the important memories in an engaging way. That’s where the ghost story comes in. I also wanted to make it abundantly clear that Brukel isn’t necessarily factually consistent.
Halfway through development, my late father comes up to me and says: “You do realise this whole thing couldn’t have lasted more than two weeks?” Sure enough, the Germans weren’t here for more than two weeks, but when you hear all these stories it feels like months or even years. So I really wanted to make sure people knew this game wasn’t historical lore. I didn’t want to present myself as a historical expert.
Finally, I also like the ghost story because it represents my view on war in a way. For most young Western people, war is unfathomable. We know it through our history books and movies, but we don’t know what it feels like. I can’t imagine fascists rolling into a foreign country, starting to shoot up the place, rounding up people and lining them up against the wall. But even though we can’t imagine it, we shouldn’t forget these things happened.
What would you like people at Relive/Herleef to take away from the experience?
It might look like Brukel is about protecting Flemish heritage through conserving memories - and it is to an extent -, but to me it’s about solidarity and tolerance. Like I said, these events took place in a short time period, yet they were able to traumatise my grandmother for life.
Fleeing was never an option for her. But if you have to live through this every day for years on end and there’s a chance to get away from it, are you not going to take that chance? So I hope people who play this will be more understanding of refugees. It’s nice if they take a bit of the history with them, but it’s not the main message.
It will always be a unique tribute to your grandmother, as well.
Yes, I’m actually looking forward to playing it again in twenty years time. There’s sure to be talk about Brukel at her funeral, and maybe we’ll play it with the family afterward. It’s something we have that other families don’t.
It also feels like coming full circle for her. Apart from putting a family in the world, she never felt like her life was meaningful. She always told my siblings that we were lucky to be able to go to school and learn everything, and how she never was able to do this as she needed to look after the younger children. She always dreamt of being a teacher and through Brukel that dream has become true in a sense, and she realises that people are listening to her story. That they learn about what life was back then, that they learn about solidarity, and - her biggest lesson of all - that we understand what a wonderful life we get to live.
Interview by Christophe De Bont
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