You are in a graveyard– it’s not spooky or menacing, just a calm park with gravestones, accentuated by the chirping of insects and the rustling of the breeze. You play an old woman. She walks with a limp. You walk to the center of the graveyard where there is a bench. You sit down.
This is short description of what could happen in The Graveyard, a game designed by Belgian developer Tale of Tales. It blows your mind because it is so different from your traditional game– there is no obvious “goal” and no such thing as winning or losing. There is so much more room for interpretation, so much more room for imagination. Tale of Tales has repeatedly released games that have no linear storyline, including The Path, where you play one of six sisters and be Little Red Riding Hood going into the forest to grandmother’s house. Whether or not you choose to stay on the path or go wandering off into the woods is your own choice. More recently, they released Fatale, which they present as an interactive vignette based on the story of Salome.
At the core of Tale of Tales is Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, who are the founders of the company and design/ direct all of their projects. They are not just game developers but media artists, with a thick portfolio and prizes such as the SFMOMA Prize for Excellence in Online Art to prove it.
Q. Why do you choose to develop games that don’t have a linear storyline?
A. Mostly because everybody else develops games that do have one.
We believe that linearity is not compatible with interactivity. But we also believe that you can do anything with the interactive medium. That includes linearity. So we’re not purists about this. It’s a more personal choice.
We feel that linearity limits the potential of the interactive/generative medium. We’re interested in the idea of collaboration between player and machine, where both parties are equal. So we don’t think that the machine should be leading the player (as happens when a game is structured along a linear storyline), nor do we think that the player should have all the power to change everything. It’s a collaboration in which, perhaps, both parties can be surprised by the actions of the other.
On a more practical level, it is simply very difficult to marry linearity with interactivity without falling into what David Cage has referred to as the format of pornography in which bits of story and bits of action are arranged in an alternating sequence. This is not necessarily a bad format (most videogames use it) but it does leave us a bit unsatisfied both as players and as designers. Because, instinctively, we want to have action and story wrapped into one experience. This is a very difficult thing to do. And in practice, it almost always leads to the action defining the story. Which, when it comes to games, means that you can only have a small range of stories (stories about themes that are compatible with game activity: winning, losing, triumph, defeat, antagonism, rivalry, competition, etc).
At Tale of Tales, we always start with a story, or a narrative situation, and design interaction to express it. But rather than actually telling the story, we assume that the player already knows it (after all, in the end, there really is only one story, isn’t there?) and start the experience from there. It’s a little bit like medieval paintings and sculptures that depict scenes from the Bible or from mythology without explicitly telling those stories. Simply playing with the symbols and letting the imagination of the viewer do the work.
We never really want to tell a specific story. We have no big message for humanity. We’re more interested in suggesting themes and seeing what people think of them. We never want to convince somebody. We just want to point something out, something that people might not have noticed before. And then it’s up to them to decide what they think about it.
We tend to think of interactive art as more similar to painting and architecture than to cinema or literature.
Q. Do you think there is a difference between media art and games? What is your definition of a game?
A. We don’t like to define terms. Because then any discussion quickly becomes a semantic one. And people start saying that our work is bad because it’s not a game. As if a carpet would be bad because it’s not a closet. Those are silly discussions.
We prefer to use terms as they are used in the field, without clear definitions. As such, media art seems to be an evolution of fine art: a way to create works that can be seen in a gallery or museum. Games, on the other hand, are made for distribution. There is no “original copy” of Doom. And it doesn’t sell as an “limited edition” either -at least not exclusively.
At Tale of Tales, we enthusiastically embrace the potential of software to be copied and distributed endlessly. The direct contact between creator and audience is one of our main motivations. We’re even willing to sacrifice some of our artistic ambitions for this. It’s often more important for us to reach our audience than to send out a clear message.
That being said, we find many artworks to be more playful than games. Computer games are often very strict. They are about obeying rules and performing well according to certain expectations. We like to introduce some of the playfulness and openness of art into the medium.
Q. How important is atmosphere (the surroundings of the game player) to the experience?
A. Atmosphere is probably one of the most important elements in our work. Probably because our main goal is to put the player in a certain situation where he can experience what it feels like to be in that situation and get the opportunity to think about things that he might not have thought about otherwise. As such, “atmosphere” is not just “icing on the cake”, a pretty little extra. It is very close to the essence of the design.
We want to create an environment that you can step into, that you can become a part of. To a large extent, we even use interaction to enhance this experience.
Q. Does religion play a role in your game design?
A. Not really. We’re interested in certain religious texts, but more because of their impact on cultures than because of their spiritual meaning. We’re not religious ourselves. We don’t even believe in science! But religion is an important part of the society that we live in and we are critical of this society’s refusal to admit this. So we like to confront people with this. And we want to embrace our religious traditions as part of who we are.
Q. What do you think is the difference between first person and third person viewpoints in role-playing games?
A. A mundane, but very important, difference for us is the difference between getting sick and not getting sick. Our bodies have a hard time with games in first person viewpoint. They often make us nauseous.
Disregarding this, we are very much aware of the psychological implications of the way in which you control a game. The first person viewpoint is an ego-centric viewpoint, a point of view that implies power over your environment. Perhaps this is why it is so ubiquitous in shooter games. The third person view, in which you see your avatar, implies empathy with at least one character in the story. As such, it seems to be more suitable for social games and for narrative games. It’s easier to imagine being another person when you see what that other person looks like and how he or she behaves.
But we like to play with the ambiguity of camera viewpoints. In the end, you always play a game from a first person perspective. It’s always you, the player, who watches the game and controls the activity of at least one character in the story. Whether you see this character or not is, technically, a detail. So even when we use the third person viewpoint, we like to include the idea of the first person viewpoint. We like to play with the separation between player and avatar. So sometimes, in our games, your avatar may start doing things that you didn’t tell her or him to do.
The avatar is clearly more at home in the virtual world than you are. He or she is not only a connection between you and the story. Sometimes we let the avatar represent the story, in the independence that it gets from running on a computer. And then the experience becomes one of collaboration between avatar and player (perhaps this might be considered “second person viewpoint”). But we always leave things open in our designs. It’s up to the player to choose how they like to play.
Q. When you create interactive elements, do you have a story in mind for that interaction?
A. Yes. But maybe not in the sense that story is often seen. People tend to think of stories as series of events with a certain well-defined structure that leads from one point to another and culminates in meaning. We never think that far ahead. Because there’s too many variables when dealing with interaction. For us a story is a situation, characters, setting, etc, but not plot. We use the term “story” as in “the candy wrapper in the gutter tells a story” or “that man’s wrinkles tell the story of a lifetime”. So it’s more about a _potential story than an explicit one. It’s about imagination.
Then we create interactive elements mostly to stimulate the imagination, and possibly to guide it in a certain direction. But they are often more like questions than demands. We like asking questions like “What do I feel like when I do this?”, “What does it mean when I do that?” So, in terms of story, our interactive elements ask questions about the narrative implications of actions. Some of these implications can be predicted by us as authors, but not all of them, and definitely not the personal nuances of these implications. That way, each experience of our work becomes highly personal and unique.
Q. Movement seems very slow in your games. Why is that?
A. Actually it’s not. In our games, movement is realistic. And often defined by the actual movement of the character, as animated by our animation collaborator Laura Raines Smith. The reason why it seems slow is that in most other computer games, movement is much faster than natural. Because it is fun to speed through levels and because gamers tend to like absolute and direct control.
On the other hand, most of our games are about stopping what you’re doing, slowing down, and taking a moment to think and feel something. Unlike most games, which put you on a roller-coaster ride away from your own life, our games act as pause buttons. Take a moment and allow yourself to breathe. That’s why their slowness might come as a kind of shock when you start up the game. Like a speeding truck coming to a sudden halt. But once you get used to it, it quickly starts feeling natural. You just have to stop fighting it and adapt to the program.
A. “They look like monsters to you?” is one of our favourite quotes from one of our favourite games (Silent Hill 3). And it expresses our feeling about this perfectly. What others may consider to be dark or surreal is perfectly normal to us. So we would describe this ambiance as reality.
What we find surreal is the increasing US military presence in Afghanistan or the fact that the EU is willing to give US banks more access to its citizens’ private information than the EU government itself, or the lack of response from the West to oppression of Palestinians, or the fact that developing countries owe industrial countries money, or simply advertisements for Coca Cola in refugee camps in Africa. Those things are truly dark and surreal!
Q. What shaped your interests for these “dark” elements? For instance, do you enjoy horror films or novels?
A. I think this is another expression of how we try to expose things that generally tend to be underexposed. In videogames, for instance, you are always the hero, you always win. So we’re interested in what it feels like to be the victim instead, the loser. We’re not naturally morbid. We’re strive for balance. When everybody is too happy, we try to make them feel sad. And vice versa.
Q. Your definition of horror seems very unique. How would you describe “horror”?
A. We wouldn’t [describe horror]. We have no idea.
Some people say horror is about fear. But we don’t feel that that’s a very interesting emotion. Desperation and lack of power are much more interesting, for instance. But so are love and kindness.
Q. Do you feel that horror (or apprehension) manipulate emotions in your audience better than other genres?
Horror is easy, in a way. Because you can’t really make design mistakes. Every design decision that doesn’t quite work contributes to the feeling of unease. In a way, horror is a haven for bad design. The fact that the combat controls in Silent Hill are very clumsy, contributes to the feeling of weakness that is a big part of the game’s emotional effect, for instance.
Also, in our experience, horror is an easy way to get away with art. To some extent, art is about exploring the unknown, about asking questions, about confronting the audience with the unfamiliar in the familiar. For people who don’t appreciate contemporary art much, all art must seem horrific. The unknown is always frightening at first. So when you have artistic ambitions and you work in a popular medium, like we do, your work quickly gets interpreted as horror. With The Path, we used this “weakness” in the audience to our advantage. Many scenes in The Path would look like normal art installations in a museum for contemporary art. But in a videogame, they suddenly look scary.
Q. Do you think there is a hazy overlap between life and death?
A. Not at all. Life and death co-exist. In a very clear way. There’s nothing hazy about it. And there’s no overlap. Life and death may be the only true opposites. Everything else is a lot more hazy. We’re all programmed to love life. But many people find it hard to do that in the light of death. So they tend to block out the idea of death or trivialize it.
As artists, we’re interested in what happens when you don’t ignore death, and when you do give it a prominent, “noble” place in your life. Death is not a disease. And death is a great mystery. It is a big part of our lives, whether we want it or not. Death motivates many of our behaviours, and it influences many of our thoughts. In some of our pieces, we explore these connections between life and death.
Q. Was there a specific incident in your life that made you think more about death?
A. Not an incident as such. But having an old grandmother who was very aware of her own approaching death and wasn’t afraid to talk about it, even if it was difficult for her children and grandchildren. In a way, she probably prepared us all for her death this way. So when we were carrying her coffin in church, it was a serene, almost satisfying moment. Like giving her one last hug before laying her to rest. This experience probably encouraged us, on some subconscious level, to not run away from the idea of death, but embrace it, and live with it, and talk about it in our work.
Q. As a small developer, what do you bring to the table that large commercial game studios cannot?
A. In theory, there’s nothing we can do that large commercial companies could not. But in practice, this is not true. Large commercial game studios are either large and commercial because their first priority is to make money or because they want to make big games. The case of the latter is rather sad because, while these people are motivated by creative ambition, they are forced to work in a commercial way because, basically, the technology is primitive. Because computers are still too slow and too unreliable, small armies of engineers are required to work long hours on each and every large game. This is very expensive. As a result the game needs to be very commercial. So it ends up being beneficial that the artists are pushed into a corner. Because their ideas may be too risky.
The disproportion between the high degree of technical complexity and the lack of creative input in terms of content and design is so enormous that it has effectively lead to stagnation in the development of videogames as a medium. It is quite possible that videogames die before computer technology reaches a level where development becomes as comfortable as music or film creation.
At Tale of Tales, we try to find ways out of this stale-mate situation. We insist that the author is the central figure in games creation and that everything needs to submit to his or her artistic vision. We try to remove the obstacles that stand in the way of that by making different sorts of compromises. Like reducing the size of the game, instead of increasing the budget. Or working in a non-profit way with arts funding. We believe this is our task and even a duty.
So, as a result, we can offer more meaningful content, a more personal style, unique forms of interaction, games that make you think, that make you feel, games that don’t abuse you by being designed for the lowest common denominator. Again, in theory, none of these things are impossible to achieve by large commercial studios, if they would put the artistic vision of a talented author at the center of their production process. But, apparently, in practice, they are not willing (or capable) to do that.
Q. What factors make you (Michael and Auriea) compatible?
A. We’re both heterosexual and one of us is a man and the other a woman.
That is only partially a joke. There are differences between the genders, both in terms of art creation and appreciation. We are both interested in how the other gender thinks and feels. And we try to include all those facets in our work. It helps when you have a live specimen of the other gender in the room.
In terms of talents, we only complement each other to some extent. We are both artists and as such, we’re lacking in the more technical and administrative departments. But we share a similar artistic vision. We’re probably just the right amount of different to complement each other and the right amount of similar to agree on the things that are important.
Q. How do you feel about your business model? Do you feel current digital distribution outlets support the type of work that you do?
A. We’re old school internet people. We still think that our own website is our major “distribution outlet”. We will always try our best to optimize our own space. That being said, we are obviously aware that larger groups of people gather elsewhere. And we do want people to see our work. So far, we’ve been lucky enough to get distribution through the most important channels for PC game distribution (Steam, Direct2Drive, Gamer’s Gate, Gametap, Gametree, etc). We’re glad with the openness towards our work, but we wouldn’t call it actual “support”. These outlets tend to cater to hardcore gamer hobbyists and after decades of repetition of the same basic ideas in videogame design and content, many of these people are extremely reluctant to try out something new. So we feel a lot more can be done to educate the audience and encourage players to be a little more adventurous.
Digital distribution is not just a business model for us, though. It’s a matter of principle too. Digital distribution allows us to address our audience directly, without too many filters in the way. And it makes sense on a technical levels, since, in the end, all we’re doing is copying bits from one disc to another. The most efficient way to do this is through a network. And as a bonus we consume less of the planet’s resources.
A. The first game we published was a multiplayer game. It’s called The Endless Forest and it’s still up and running, and thriving more than ever. The Endless Forest and its community of players are very important to us. We’re going to continue expanding The Endless Forest as long as we can. It’s a free game, so development gets tricky sometimes.
Next to that, we do have other ideas for multiplayer games. Hopefully we’ll get around to some of them.
Q. What kind of game do you see yourself making in 10 years?
A. It’s hard to say. Because everything changes all the time. And we pride ourselves on being flexible.
In the end, we probably will want to make a game about being in love. Because that’s what brought us together and being together is such a big part of our lives. But 10 years is too soon. There’s still a lot we need to learn before we can properly address this topic. Hopefully we’ll live long enough.