St. Croix River research
Residencies help art professor develop historical video game
October 20, 2015
What would it be
like to navigate the St. Croix River like a French explorer 200 years ago?
Dave Beck, an
associate professor of game design and development-art at University of
Wisconsin-Stout, spent much of his summer trying to re-create that time and place
on a video screen.
Beck is in the
process of designing a computer video game, “Tombeaux,” that will provide a new
and interactive way to connect with the history of the St. Croix River, which borders
central Wisconsin and Minnesota.
When “Tombeaux” is
finished, likely in 2016, players will be able to explore the river through the
convergence of various environments, cultures and peoples.
“People who play the
game will be able to travel through time and learn about the history of an area
in a medium that’s exciting to use,” said Beck, director of the game design and
development-art Bachelor of Fine Arts program at UW-Stout.
“Tombeaux” a first-person narrative, historical walking simulator.
Tombeaux is one of the
original French names for the river, meaning river of the grave.
During the summer, Beck
continued his work on the game during two art residencies in Nebraska, one at
Homestead National Monument in Beatrice, Neb., and the other at Kimmel Harding
Nelson Center for the Arts in Nebraska City, Neb.
places are a long way from the St. Croix River, Beck started the game in 2014
during another art residency at Marine on St. Croix, along the St. Croix River.
That residency was sponsored by the Science Museum of Minnesota.
During both 2015 residencies,
Beck made considerable progress on “Tombeaux.” For example, he photographed a
replica homestead cabin, the one that’s on Nebraska’s state quarter, and added
it to the game and did research on historic events of the era that tie in with
exploration and development along the St. Croix.
“Tombeaux” is a
“history mash-up,” or comparable in literary terms to creative nonfiction, Beck
Along with the Nebraska
cabin, the items in the cabin in “Tombeaux” and nearly all other aspects of the
game will be historically accurate, Beck said. Examples include the canoes,
plants and quotes from characters in the time-travel-style adventure.
A ‘passion project’
Beck is creating the
game largely on his own, a major project, but he’s committed to making the game
available to as many people as possible, possibly for free or for a very low
He has friends who
are lending their voices for the characters and hired a composer from the Twin
Cities to create the game’s seven musical scores.
“It’s a passion
project,” Beck said.
The game website is live. Beck also is chronicling the progress of
“Tombeaux” in a blog, which is available at the website.
The project is
important to Beck as a professor of game design and development. He gave a
presentation about “Tombeaux” Oct. 14 at an International Game Developers
Association event in Bloomington, Minn.
very strongly that, as an instructor who teaches in the art or design field,
one must walk the walk in addition to talk the talk. My game will most likely
sit in some of the same venues, festivals and social networks as my students’ projects,
and that is nothing but an invigorating and exciting feeling to me,” he said.
He has learned while creating “Tombeaux” the value of social
media to promote his work, and he plans to require his students to do the same
“My hope is that I’ll be able to speak and act as both a
mentor and a peer to these students. We’re participating in applied and
creative learning together, both in and out of the classroom.”
In addition to the
two 2015 residencies, Beck was a consultant for a week during the summer with
the Minnesota Historical Society on the issue of how to use video games in
Also this year, he finished working on a two-year project
with the UW-Stout Discovery Center and an outside client to create a game about
the Lewis and Clark expedition navigating a boat up the Missouri River. The
player uses a real wooden tiller as controls for the video game to steer Lewis and
Clark’s boat while avoiding snags in the river and trying to safely arrive at
camp for the night.
The project has been permanently installed and is playable
at the Lewis and Clark Missouri River Visitors Center in Nebraska City, Neb.
Top: "Tombeaux" will take players along the St. Croix River.
Middle: Dave Beck
Bottom: The game will include a historically accurate cabin.