An abandoned Kentucky coal town is being revived in a video game created by university students whose work has earned top national honors.
The “Appalachian Mining Town” game developed by students at Eastern Kentucky University was selected as one of five finalists for the national E3 College Competition event.
“It's an incredible honor and I know all of us were surprised," said Nick Tiemeyer, one of 15 students who developed the game that proves national recognition is possible with work at EKU. "You don’t assume, when you think of the game industry, that you can do it here. You think of the West coast primarily. You think you have to go to California.”
The game was submitted to the competition by the students via EKU’s Gaming Institute and was one of 400 submissions from schools across the country, according to a release. The EKU Gaming Institute is part of the computer science program through which the students can earn degrees specializing in game design.
“To be listed on the top five of any school submission [in the E3 Competition], I was kind of blown away by that,” Gaming Institute director George Landon said. “That's a really high recognition for our program, but I knew our students were capable of doing it.”
In “Appalachian Mining Town”, players act as a historical surveyor investigating coal mines loosely based on Blue Heron, Ky., a coal town on the banks of the Big South Fork River in McCreary County that was abandoned in 1962.
The students developed the game in a spring 2018 Environment Design for Games course. Tiemeyer said Blue Heron was chosen as a model for the setting because of its connection to students who live in the area. The team of students included coders and visual artists.
“We wanted to select a region or an area close to home and unique to us,” Tiemeyer said. “Referencing that gave us something that we could go take pictures of and record sound of to make it accurate.”
Blue Heron was an operating coal town from 1937 to 1962 before it was closed because it was unprofitable, according to the National Park Service. Once the town was abandoned, the buildings were removed or left to decay. The community was rebuilt in the Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area in the 1980s as a museum with open buildings that are referred to as “ghost structures."
Tiemeyer said the students recreated the Blue Heron themed layout using images from street views on Google Maps. Tiemeyer worked as an environment artist on the game, creating most of the buildings in the town.
Jonathan Hale, EKU’s game art faculty member, helped Landon design the Environment Design for Games course so students can apply and connect the skills they learned in their classes. Hale was the instructor and adviser.
“It’s completely different [than other classes] because usually they have to create a single object or 3D model, then they do the next assignment and they don't really connect as much,” Hale said. “This was making models to build something bigger.”
Set in the 1800s, the objective of the game is to determine why the mining town was abandoned by collecting journal entries. After collecting the entries, the player eventually discovers cases of black lung. Black lung is a buildup of coal dust in the lungs, causing inflammation, scarring and premature cell death. Researchers recently identified the largest amount of advanced black lung cases ever, and it includes many from Eastern Kentucky.
Players "win" the game by reaching the mines after obtaining the journal entries, but "Appalachian Mining Town" was originally designed to be a walking simulator instead of a game, Tiemeyer said.
"The goal is to walk around and appreciate the environment," Tiemeyer said.
Tiemeyer also noted that the students are working on adding to the game
The game's setting in the 1800's is not parallel to the historical time line of the town it is based on. Blue Heron started more than 100 years after the start of the 17th century.
"By picking the late 1800s as a setting, you have far less technology around , so making the game setting a bit more cutoff from outside adds to some of the tension," Tiemeyer said. "Ultimately, we had to pick a topic that could both potentially be real or grounded in just enough fact that people would think they knew what the issue was. At the same time, especially in games, adding an unnatural or unexplainable variation makes things more interesting."
As for the accuracy about Blue Heron, Tiemeyer said that the students wanted a real life place to pull inspiration from and to, "have terrain that was appropriate."
“The student team did research to ensure that the town and props players see are accurate to the time period, though the town and its layout is primarily fictional,” Landon said in a statement. “Of course, black lung has been an issue in mining communities. The protagonist of the game is also a female POC (person of color), so that makes it unique as well.”
Seven of the students who worked on “Appalachian Mining Town” will accompany Landon to the E3 event in Los Angeles from June 12-14. In Los Angeles, the team of students will show off “Appalachian Mining Town” and watch people play it in an exhibition booth near gaming companies like Nintendo and Sony.
E3 is one of the largest gaming expositions in the world, and the passes awarded to the students are worth $6,000, according to Landon.
In addition to Tiemeyer of Lexington, the following Kentucky students worked on the game: John Bentley, Jonathan Danaher, Jonathan Greer, Aaron Roark and Jacob McNulty of Lexington; Michael Rawlings of Frankfort; Jonathan Baker of Lawrenceburg; Noah Bush of Winchester; Matthew Davisson of London; Lacey Lanshaw of Eubank; Quentin Rader of Florence;James Roberts-Broaddus of Tyner; and Christian Smith of Sparta. Peyton Kyle Nestmann of Charleston, West Virginia is also on the team.
The game design program at EKU has ranked in the top 50 of gaming programs worldwide for the past three years, according to the Princeton Review. The interactive multimedia track is within the computer science degree at EKU, and is concentrated on game design, 3D modeling and animation, graphics programming and multimedia systems.