Tombeaux-Lievable: Video game explores the history of the St. Croix River

Nikki Lanzer

SCENES FROM THE ST. CROIX. Tombeaux, an interactive game created by UW-Stout’s Dave Beck.
SCENES FROM THE ST. CROIX. Tombeaux, an interactive game created by UW-Stout’s Dave Beck.

Get your paddles ready – the time has come set sail on the mighty St. Croix for a grand river expedition.

A virtual one, that is.

One computer-savvy UW-Stout professor is in the process of making this a reality with the development of a new PC video game.

Dave Beck, the university’s director of game design and development, hopes to release Tombeaux in 2016. The computer game will allow players to enter the world of the French voyageurs of two centuries ago, giving them an opportunity to become explorers as they navigate down the St. Croix River, which today forms part of the border between Minnesota and Wisconsin. Through this interactive experience, players will also be able to brush up on their history as they encounter a wide variety of that time period’s cultures, environments, and geographic features.

The inspiration for Tombeaux came to Beck during his 2014 residency at Marine on St. Croix. It was an idea that flowed from his appreciation for water and the environment.

“I often don’t even call this a game, but instead an ‘interactive experience’ or ‘art-game.’ It provides a different avenue to soak up material that has been around for hundreds of years, but not noticed as much in its previous forms of delivery.” – UW-Stout professor Dave Beck, on his digital creation, Tombeaux

“In much of my work, I aim to focus on the convergence between people and the environment,” Beck explained. “I’ve also always been fascinated by how water can serve as a symbol of panic, life, and power. With this in mind, I decided to make the game specifically about the St. Croix, including its history, ecosystem, and inhabitants.”

As the game took root and began to grow, Beck was able to end his 2014 residency with a rough prototype. The professor then continued with the project during a pair of artist residencies in Nebraska last summer – toiling away on his computer to ensure that every last detail would enhance the quality and authenticity of the game.

“I tried to recreate everything as closely as possible to the historical fact,” Beck said. “This means that when I wanted to create a cabin, or an Ojibwe wigwam, or a paddle-wheel steamboat, I couldn’t necessarily just Google ‘steamboat.’ Instead, I spent time in historical libraries and texts that have photographs of actual steamboats from the St. Croix.”

Beck expects Tombeaux to engage players in a completely new way than what they’ve grown accustomed to from other computer games, giving them a refreshing and unique experience that will foster both historical awareness and appreciation for the St. Croix and its surroundings.

“I often don’t even call this a game, but instead an ‘interactive experience’ or ‘art-game,’ ” Beck said. “It provides a different avenue to soak up material that has been around for hundreds of years, but not noticed as much in its previous forms of delivery.”

And in this “art-game” of sorts, players will soon discover that the characters’ skills and objectives may be slightly different than what they’re used to.
“There’s no running, jumping, shooting, or capturing,” he said. “Instead, there’s the ability to explore various environments, collect artifacts, and learn about a historical time period in which we would otherwise just be experiencing through literature or a museum display.”

Beck believes the key to success in this 3D narrative intended for gamers and non-gamers alike is its interactive component.

“Being a professor – and also a father of two young children – I’ve observed how important the digital and interactive element can be to successful learning and engagement,” Beck said. “My hope is that it will allow people who normally wouldn’t find interest in history to have an access point to their heritage and surroundings.”

But more than anything, the professor merely wanted for Tombeaux to give players an exciting, historical, and adventure-filled experience.

In the words of those French explorers … Bon Voyage!

For more information or to stay up to date on the progress of Tombeaux, please visit the game’s website www.tombeauxgame.com.

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