I stand on the banks of the St. Croix River and watch it flow past, listen to the birds singing overhead. The water is clear and sounds like a whisper.
On the other side, something glows golden, and I walk into the water and past an island, coming up to a birchbark canoe. The glowing object is a basket of wild rice, and I pick it up. An Ojibwe woman’s voice fills the air, talking about old ways of living off the land had been disrupted by the arrival of rifles, alcohol, and companies with an unquenchable thirst for beaver furs.
Decades later, I stand in the same spot and watch lumber and paddle boats compete for space on the St. Croix. The bluffs have been stripped naked, the water is filled with white pine floating down to the mills, and big flat-bottomed craft carry immigrants, provisions, newspapers, and the mail upstream to what was recently the far-flung frontier of America.
Leaping through time, a new video game immerses players in a small slice of the St. Croix over a significant span of 200 years. Players wander a section of braided river channels, bluffs, and a cabin perched overlooking the river among a stand of huge white pine.
Titled Tombeaux, the game was developed by Dave Beck, a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. It’s objective is not to score points, or set speed records, or blow up bad guys, but simply to witness a couple centuries of stories.
Born on the banks
Beck first began work on it while an artist-in-residence at the historic Pine Needles cabin on the river in Marine on St. Croix. (All proceeds from the $4.99 game are being donated to the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, which runs the artist residency.)
The game was released this fall after four years of development. It was first available to play at The Phipps Center for the Arts in Hudson during the Heart of the River art show. It is now available to purchase and download on game platform Steam. At a wandering pace, it takes about a 30 minutes to cover the two centuries of story.
“Tombeaux encourages the player to take their time as they investigate and wander through its world. My hope is they will forget they are playing a game but instead experiencing an interactive, historical movie of sorts,” Beck said.
Beck teaches digital imaging, 3D design, and game development at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. He is Director and Associate Dean of the School of Art & Design.
“I was essentially living in the real-life version of the future level of my video game,” Beck said of his stay.
The cabin in the game is partly an homage to Pine Needles, which was was built in the early 20th century just north of the village of Marine, and still looks out over the St. Croix with a phalanx of tall trees standing guard. A player can see how a stay on the St. Croix today would remind an artist that all rivers were once as wild and free.
The game was completed at additional residency programs around the country, and in Beck’s free time.
Seeking to get the details right, he enlisted help from numerous people, and spent hundreds of hours doing historical research. In August 2015, he brought an early version of the game to the St. Croix Watershed Research Station, where he let the staff play it and offer feedback.
The details bring the game experience to life. Fifteen different characters narrate their experiences along the river, sharing the hopes and hardships of life on the frontier, and the sorrow of a paradise lost. There are Ojibwe men and women, French fur traders, American adventurers, loggers, steamboat captains, Scandinavian immigrants, a National Park ranger, and even an American president.
As players explore the river, they pick up objects and hear the human stories connected to the item, while watching the scenery change from pristine to polluted.
The experience of traveling through time on the same section of river had an unexpected impact. We see the trees cut down, the river level raised to float logs, the water contaminated, a place of serene beauty becomes an eyesore.
People and progress
Beck assembled a stable of voice actors to record the dialogue, and they gave the characters depth necessary for the game to succeed. Tombeaux is based on real people, places, and events, but blends together fiction and non-fiction artfully to express the experiences of life throughout the river’s recent history.
Optimism crashing into harsh reality is a running theme, and the actor voicing settler Kristina Nilsson makes players feel the disappointment and loneliness of life where their farm can’t sustain their family, and her husband spends all winter gone at a logging camp.
“Why must I share my husband with a lumber baron? A scoundrel, who takes his labor but returns but a fraction of its profit,” Nielsen laments.
What starts out as a place of promise, with seemingly endless resources of fish and game, lumber, and space, slowly becomes the setting for destruction and failure.
This is why the game bears its name: A tombeaux is a song or poem written and performed to mark the death of someone, related to the word “tombstone.” Some explanations for the St. Croix’s name credit French fur traders who left crosses at comrades’ graves on its banks.
The game Tombeaux basically argues that the past two centuries have seen the death of the St. Croix.
Destiny and destruction
At the beginning of the game, the St. Croix is a place of healing. The narrator, the one common voice heard throughout the six levels, finds relief from “consumptive ailments.” His health improvements seem to also be inspired by the apparently unlimited opportunities in the vast land of forests and prairies.
In Tombeaux, the river starts to suffer once the American frontier reaches the region. Three decades after Lewis and Clark first crossed the continent, the St. Croix Valley was opened to settlers and loggers. This was another step in America’s march westward, fulfilling what many whites saw as the nation’s destiny, to control the land from coast to coast.
This was the “New World,” never mind the indigenous people who already lived along the river. It was a chance to leave dirty old Europe behind and “remake the world.” The game quotes one of America’s “Founding Fathers” to make this point.
“We have it in our power to begin the world over again. A situation, similar to the present, hath not happened since the days of Noah until now. The birthday of a new world is at hand, and a race of men, perhaps as numerous as all Europe contains, are to receive their portion of freedom from the event of a few months.”
– Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
The vast land represented a new start for people who had been born with limited opportunities, no land or wealth to provide for their families, no way up, and just one way out: across the ocean. They came to America by the boatload and were encouraged to keep going west, where the country needed to expand its population. Once the American government acquired land from Native Americans, they gave much of it away to white people willing to farm it.
This new start for the settlers meant the end for the river’s riches. The wildlife was slaughtered, the prairie sod plowed under, the old-growth forests felled. The ambition of claiming the bountiful country as American soil was perhaps only matched by its steady destruction.
Soon after Tombeaux’s hunters report easily killing dozens of animals in a day, both settlers and native people find themselves starving.
Later comes the boaters who violate the silence, and invasive species that disrupt the ecosystem. Ultimately, the river is almost unrecognizable, clogged with trash and waste.
The inexhaustible resources are exhausted.
The river remains
It might seem a sour note to end on: the St. Croix befouled and taken for granted. That possible fate is important to keep in mind, but hopefully is being prevented by people and organizations working to protect the St. Croix.
The last moments of the game give players reason for hope. The view suddenly lifts from the water, seeing the original cabin surrounded by pollution and dead trees, then climbs into a fog, only to emerge among the towering white pines of the game’s beginning, the little cabin far below, the birds singing.
Maybe humans have screwed up our chance with the St. Croix — but there is always a chance for another fresh start.
The narrator closes the game by reading a poem called “I Bring You Beauty from the River,” written in the 1920s by Ruth Lusk Ramsey at her cabin near Copas.
I bring you beauty from the river,
Shadowy hills in a rising mist,
Pine trees standing high
And a river flowing, flowing,
Flows forever by.
I bring you beauty from the river
Where leaves a golden carpet lie.
There are no smoky buildings here
To shut away the morning sky—
Just shadowy hills in a rising mist
And pine trees standing high.
That’s the same poem that closes James Taylor Dunn’s 1964 book about St. Croix River history. Dunn’s family built and owned the Pine Needles cabin before donating it to the Research Station for artist residencies in 1999.
It seems fitting for the game to mirror the ending, as Tombeaux is an interesting modern supplement to Dunn’s exhaustive book.