Father and Son: videogame or emotional experience?

Giuliano De Felice University of Foggia, giulianodefelice@gmail.com
Open Access
  • Book/Game
  • How to Cite

Father and Son. Tuo Museo, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, available on App Store and Google Play, free to play.

De Felice, G. 2018. Review: Father and Son: videogame or emotional experience? Archeostorie. Journal of Public Archaeology. 2: pp. 175-176.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.23821/2018_7d

CC BY 4.0 © The author(s). This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

The news was hot for weeks about the extraordinary success of Father and Son (http://www.fatherandsongame.com/), the videogame produced by the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and created by Tuo Museo. “The first videogame in the world to be published by an archaeological museum,” as the claim rightly states, in the highly efficient publicity campaign promoting the whole operation. The figures speak for themselves: 2 million downloads in 10 months, translated in 7 languages, with other versions (including Neapolitan dialect) on the way, as well as a theatre performance, a video and a novel, all inspired by the videogame. It is the media sensation of the year, and not just in the field of archaeology.

I was curious too, so I embarked upon this fascinating voyage between past and present, and after a good hour or so I emerged from this enchanted world, thrilled on the one hand, but with some doubts and quite a few questions, on the other.

What we liked

Apart from the pros and cons of the game in itself, which we’ll discuss shortly, the real innovative aspect of the Father and Son software lies in its flawless promotion, which doesn’t neglect any aspect, either in the product itself or in the bundle of services. An active presence on social media, close attention to retailer feedback, meticulous monitoring of figures and metrics: the quality is indisputable on these points, and represents a benchmark for any future digital promotion of cultural heritage.

And, indeed, as we should remind ourselves, this is not a secondary aspect. The problem of the maintenance, conservation and management of cultural assets should not only involve the assets in themselves, but extend to the activities and products of enhancement and enjoyment, especially digital, which are all too often still connected to episodic and experimental solutions, devoid of any costs–benefits analysis or real monitoring. Each of us, at least in Italy, could give an example of the digital non–sustainability of our cultural heritage.

The important element of what I would call ‘methodological innovation’ can be flanked by another in terms of style and content: the launch of a contemporary creative language that is innovative and light. In an instant the visual style of Father and Son does justice to decades of laborious research on formal correctness and photorealism at all costs, which has poisoned virtual archaeology, and with it, a good deal of archaeological communication. And so we are teletransported to the present, close to the concept of how to present cultural heritage enshrined in the Faro Convention, which asks us all to make it central to our activities, including ‘digital’ communicators.

Here at Archeostorie we’ve said it a thousand times: the digital in archaeology must support creativity above all else. Seeing how simple it is here to pass from a living city to its ruins, without indulging in over precision and accuracy, is more than satisfying, to say the least. And seeing it at Pompei, well, that’s almost a heresy… a splendid heresy!

What gave us some doubts

The remarkable success and the media storm took me straight to the store with high expectations, which were promptly confirmed upon first opening the game: the meticulousness of the presentation, the afore–mentioned style, the easy use and simple and intuitive commands instantly captivated me. But after a few minutes a question started to buzz round my head: what am I supposed to be doing? I looked for an answer in the various actions available. Nothing. Then, after about ten minutes of going around Naples hither and thither, on foot or on a scooter, I sat down, got up again, went out onto the balcony, went back inside, and started to wonder whether I’d gotten something wrong.

The same sensation assailed me when I realised that the interactive dialogues, well, they’re not really that at all. So I was suspended in a lovely, fascinating world that, nevertheless, remains a pure exercise in style, in which all the instruments that have been so well crafted are not fully expressed. I played the whole game (though I’m not in Naples and so I couldn’t unblock the extra contents) and at the end of it I must confess that part of the initial allure had disappeared, especially because of the slow and monotonous interaction.

In the absence of any real dynamic action, the charm of the beautiful ambients disappears, and gives way to the frustrating sensation of feeling yourself channelled along a predetermined flow, on a guided tour which you cannot leave. Innovative, fascinating, virtual, but above all guided. Even the cognitive and didactic aspects remain on the sidelines of this tour between past and present, entrusted, it seems, to the descriptive captions of some objects in the museum and to some of the dialogues between the characters.

In conclusion

What Father and Son really knows how to do well is to enchant us: like in the scene of the eruption of Vesuvius where the countdown is inexorable, and you understand that there’s nothing you can do. A pure thrill, and an unexpected one too, I’d say, especially on your smartphone, thanks in part to a very high quality audio, which nevertheless risks not being appreciated (I was able to enjoy it only because I used headphones). From this point of view Father and Son is a perfect example of an intelligent use of technology and creativity as publicity tools.

So doubts about the actual playability tend to remain in the background, if one considers its merit of having contributed to raise the bar of production ‘quality’ and affirm the role of ‘creativity’ as a language which is as important as, if not more important than technology in presenting Cultural Heritage to the general public. Quality and creativity, two fundamental concepts, especially in the context of the Faro Convention, which seeks to increase the inclusive potential of cultural communication, opening the door to interaction, and so obviously to games and videogames, beyond the dominant formalism and notionalism.

But perhaps that is just where the problem lies, in the word ‘game,’ which, for my generation at least, suggests something else. Father and Son probably shouldn’t be considered a game at all, but a new experience in the enjoyment of cultural assets. A thrilling and unexpected experience, and more especially, light years away from the sterile fascination of digital classicism, of which we’ve all had our fill by now, every time one speaks of digital communication in archaeology.

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