Bob de Schutter pays a visit to Brukel, the ancestral farmhouse in Geel, Belgium where his grandmother, Bie Verlinden, lived her childhood days. Armed with hours of recorded audio chronicling Bie's memories and stories, Bob's goal is a simple one: to photograph items in the farmhouse which match up with Bie's reminiscences. However, as he spends more and more time in the house, Bob comes to realize that something deeper and darker is going on. The house begins to flicker between past and present, Bie's memories start coming to life - and a ghost might just be watching him. Can Bob escape the nightmare of Brukel alive?
Brukel is a lot of things. Mechanically, it's a mix of first-person adventure and "walking simulator" - you use a simple set of controls to move Bob around the house, and your primary method of interacting with items is via photographing them with your cell phone. Narratively, it's rich, historical, and sobering; it wouldn't be an exaggeration to say that the inclusion of Bie's authentic audio takes Brukel in a direction where few games have gone before. Atmospherically, it borrows quite a bit from the horror genre - you won't find many jump scares here, but later chapters feature an increasingly tense atmosphere and there are a couple of genuinely terrifying moments caused by the blurring of real life horrific events and supernatural occurrences.
Many games attempt to combine too many disparate elements and wind up with something that doesn't quite work. This is definitely NOT the case with Brukel. This game is an experience which will stay with you for a long, long time, because each element works with the others to make them just a little bit more. Bie's story of the time a German soldier came into the house, ordered her to make him an enormous plate of potatoes and onions, and then devoured the entire thing is bizarre and even a little funny when you just listen to it. When you're placed into her shoes and forced to carry the unbalanced, overloaded, tottering pan of precious veggies - part of her family's dwindling stock - from the stove to the table, you're right there with her. You get an idea of how scared and confused and unsure she is in that moment, and you understand why this interaction is one which stuck with her so strongly that she chooses to recount it to her grandson decades and decades later.
Another way in which Brukel is "more" is that it is not simply a video game, but a genuine educational experience. As you photograph different objects and listen to Bie's stories, you will learn a great deal about her daily life on a Belgium farm, the unique history of the town of Geel, its connection to St. Dymphna and how it led to a providing homes and jobs to the mentally ill, and, of course, the battle which took place there during the Second World War. Bob (who is both the developer of the game and its main character - yup, it's an unashamedly meta experience!) encourages teachers to use the game as an educational tool in their classrooms, in order to teach this oft-forgotten piece of World War II history in a unique and memorable way.
Educational it may be, but Brukel is no dry textbook. Bob's journey through the farmhouse's dark past is incredibly intense and, as mentioned before, even at times terrifying. The developer is an avid fan of horror games, especially atmospheric horror, and this definitely shows. Elegant dolls are introduced in Chapter 1 of the game as something Bie's family collected and displayed, before later returning as an instrument of fright as their eyes follow Bob around and they sometimes even appear in rooms where they very much should not be. Bob is forced to relive and survive even the most tense and dangerous of Bie's past experiences - he must escape a burning stable, hide from German soldiers in an underground shelter, and even run through the German-English crossfire during the battle itself. The danger is very near and palpable - Bob is not immune to fire or bullets, and players can expect to see an unanticipated "Game Over" screen at least once per play-through.
Mechanically, Brukel is extremely simple to play, featuring easy-to-learn controls based around moving Bob and taking pictures on your phone (or using it as a flashlight once the sun goes down). It's a fairly short game which can be experienced from start to finish in anywhere between 30 and 90 minutes. However, despite its short length, Brukel features tons of replayability, primarily in the form of non plot-mandatory "hidden objects" which provide bonus audio. (The game's press kit says that you will probably not hear every one of Bie's stories in a single playthrough, and that's definitely accurate). Plus, there are a few tricky achievements which you can challenge yourself to unlock - no spoilers, but try snapping a photograph of the ghostly figure or interacting with the radio.
Brukel is an educational tool. It's a first-person exploration game with horror elements. It's a method of preserving one women's memories and sharing them with generations to come. And, most of all, it's a game that feels like a true honor to play. You will find yourself still thinking about Brukel hours after you finish playing it - and one of the things you will definitely be thinking is "Thank you, Bie Verlinden, for sharing your story."
The GameLuster press team connected with Bob at IndieCade 2020 and played Brukel via a Steam Code provided by him at the event.