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.

A scene along the St. Croix River from Beck calls “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.

Although those 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 said.

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.

Dave BeckA ‘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 cost.

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.

“I believe 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.

A scene inside a cabin from 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 thing.

“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 museum exhibits.

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.