Most people tend to have intense, fleeting, relationships with their grandparents. As a child you probably saw them infrequently, but remember them being warm and kind, or maybe a little scary and different. As you grew up they might have faded in relevance, becoming sort of a nuisance, a nagging reminder of obligations and adulthood. You might grow old enough to realize how lucky you are to get to talk to them when they’re still around. You learn from each other. You get to have some time together. Sometimes you realize it too late, and they’re already gone. Either way you might look back on the time you did have, at any age, and wish you could remember those memories clearly. Wish that you could hear what they had been trying to tell you now that you’re older and wiser. Playing Leive Oma made me feel like I could go back into those memories one more time.
Lieve Oma (dutch for “Dear Grandma”) is a 2017 game made by developer Florian Veltman from their memories of their own grandmother. You walk through a forest with your grandmother, in different seasons, in different times in your life, in a 3D top-down forest with a beautiful, evocative, color palette that recalls Proteus or Firewatch. Sometimes you’re picking mushrooms, sometimes you’re just walking to get out of the house, but always she’s there with you, going at her own pace. The two of you talk, and you slowly fill in who these two are outside of these walks, what their lives must be. You might as well be some forest spirit quietly observing, except that you control the grand-child’s movement. Thanks to excellent sound design and some light movement from all the trees and plants, the scene feels alive all around you and there’s a real joy in just taking in your surroundings even when neither of you are talking. I think there’s only one spectacular appearance from an animal in the game, but in remembering the game I kept thinking I saw little critters darting in and out of the underbrush, scampering across the path.
When I was a kid, my family would go to Massachusetts to visit my maternal grandmother. Her house was quiet and still, decorated with thick drifts of cat hair and delicate porcelain Hummel figurines that I both longed to use as toys and was terrified of breaking. She baked incredible cookies that were so thin as to be almost translucent but still with a little chew to them and kept a ziplock bag of homemade pita chips in a bottom drawer in the kitchen. I remember exploring the woods outside her development, scampering over the ancient stone wall to get to the tree-lined colonial cemetery where I would run through the low branches and wonder at the faded headstones. Playing Lieve Oma brought all those memories flooding back, tinged with nostalgia. It made me feel better about my time with my grandmother than perhaps it really was. It made me feel closer to her in a way I hadn’t expected.
What would our relationship have been like if she had lived longer? If my allergies hadn’t meant I spent most of every visit camped outside in the yard or the woods? There is probably no point were you can think that it’s OK if your parents or grandparents pass, that you’ve gotten to know them enough, gotten enough time with them. But you can do your best to spend time and be present, knowing that when they go all you will be able to say is “That was the time we had. I did my best.”
In Lieve Oma the scene plays out from a removed view. The older woman reaching out, trying to talk to the girl as she becomes a surly teenager. The little girl, trying to express her concerns about her parents, her life, not having the words. You have sympathy for both them and think of the times you’ve been on either side of that conversation. It’s so rare for our conversations with our parents or grandparents to ever go the way we want them to, it seems. But seen from outside you can tell that they’re both trying, with love, to hear and be heard. And in the end you’re left with time just spent being together, enjoying the forest, picking mushrooms. Those silent moments you carry with you long after they are gone.