[In this extensive interview, conducted at this year's GDC Europe, Belgium-based art game duo Tale of Tales discusses how they first got into making games and the extreme frustration that they feel with the state of the medium.]
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn met in person for the first time in 1999. Two digital artists who had used the web as a medium decided, once they became a couple, to dive headfirst into the world of games. In 2005, the two launched their first game: The Endless Forest, "a multiplayer online game and social screensaver."
This week, The Graveyard, previously available on PC and Mac, was released for Android.
Since then -- with the help of collaborators -- the duo has released games such as The Graveyard and The Path (links open up Gamasutra postmortems). These games have provoked much interest and controversy; many gamers say they simply aren't games, while supporters say that their unusualness is what makes them refreshing.
In this extensive interview, conducted at this year's GDC Europe, the Belgium-based duo discusses how they first got into making games, the extreme frustration that they feel with the state of the medium -- both in terms of creativity, and how it might be digging itself its own grave commercially, too.
What appeals to you working in Europe, rather than in the U.S.?
Auriea Harvey: I'm married to him.
Is that the only reason?
AH: I'm actually from the internet. I'm not from the United States anyway. It doesn't matter to me where I'm from or where I'm living. I could live anywhere. But I'm working here because we're married.
Now that I think about your question, I couldn't say that there's anything that appeals to me about working in Europe, but there's definitely something that appeals to me about working in Belgium.
And that's there is no game industry, and you sort of just make it up yourself. You make it up as you go along. Everyone who makes games in Belgium is doing it in a different way. And there's very little common ground amongst us. There's like 10 of us.
You have to make your own community, and the community that we make ends up being this international thing. It doesn't become this local situation -- which I always dislike because it starts to seem homogenous. The community that we make isn't made up with people with our same cultural background, or our same idea about what's fun, or what's not fun, or what's beautiful or interesting or meaningful. We are always reaching out to people in Spain, in Italy, in Austria...
Michaël Samyn: Almost by necessity.
AH: Almost by necessity, to find common ground. But even that common ground... You find where you overlap, like with us and the guy who makes Amnesia, there are places where we overlap, and there are places where we're completely different. And that's in part cultural, and that's part in taste. So, it's interesting where you find that common ground.
MS: You mean, as opposed to the U.S.?
AH: I wouldn't start there. I wouldn't start down that road, but I'm just saying that because you end up making your own community so much in Europe, you end up with an interesting diversity of opinion, and a diversity of game making.
It sounds like because you're more isolated from the commercial industry...
MS: I think not just the game industry. I think, in general, media, too.
AH: Yeah, I was going to say, it's not trendy. The lack of trendiness in our local situation makes us reach out to people who we normally... If there were a whole bunch of people around us making games, we might just go, "Oh, let's get together," and we all end up sort of, I don't know...
MS: Working for each other? [laughs]
Where there would be a mode of approach -- like a movement.
But there's a lack of a movement.
AH: So we created our own movement, you know what I mean? [laughs] And this movement is, like, people from all over...
MS: No, that's true. We meet each other in this movement on the level of what we stand for and what we do, and not just because we have to live in each other's street [laughs]. Which is a big difference.
AH: Which I find appealing, but that, again, may be because I come from the internet.
You were very direct in saying with The Path that you created characters that were pieces of you. Most games are not like that.
MS: But I think the question of content in games -- often games seem to be either about other games, or about other media. I mean, I would say the large majority of games are either about games, or other media, in terms of content.
Maybe sometimes there's a root of an idea that comes from personal experience, but that is often very much expressed in the conventions of media as we know them. There's not a lot of invention of expression in the medium, I find, it seems so far.
AH: It seems to me that often game designers are dependent on their fantasy. I kind of like that, but on the other hand, the content usually comes out better if that fantasy is tempered also by life experience. I guess that's the success of BioShock. In a way, it's like, "Yeah, you couldn't have been in Rapture, under the sea," but the writer tries to inject, I don't know, a bit of their own philosophy, or whatever.
A cultural perspective.
AH: Cultural perspective, yeah, we'll call it that. And that helps. And so in that sense, Ken Levine, his experience affected that.
MS: Yes, but actually it's a good example... My remark to that is, basically, what you do in BioShock is, you run around shooting crazy people. So, the expression has nothing to do with this content, as far as I can tell.
AH: Right. That's the problem.
MS: That's where they fall into the conventions. Instead of thinking, "What is our game about? And how can we express that in interaction, in everything else?"
AH: In something that's not a voiceover, not a cutscene.
MS: Line one of the bullet list of when BioShock was being created was "first person shooter". There was no way around it. It had to be...
And if you start there, how can you possibly hope to even express your theme? You make it hard for yourself, actually, as an artist, putting such restrictions on your form.
When I talked to Ken Levine about one of the inspirations for BioShock, it was during the financial meltdown in America, when Alan Greenspan, who was an Objectivist, said, "I thought this was going to work."
AH: But I was wrong.
But I was wrong.
MS: That's nice. [laughs]
AH: After all those years being the brainiac.
MS: Yeah, but, exactly! That's interesting, isn't it?
AH: That's more interesting than running around shooting things -- that's all we're saying.
MS: Yeah. Can't we express that in a game? That kind of realization, that his ideology failed? Isn't that beautiful? Isn't that more beautiful...
AH: Or more tragic? Than the 10,000 deaths of BioShock? Somehow that is the most tragic aspect of things. And to not get a full expression of that in the game -- in the game. Not just as the project as a whole -- because you get that -- but in what you do most of the time, or what the main joy of that experience is supposed to be. Right now, it's bullet porn.
I have a background in being very much a gamer, and of course I have aspirations of making games. I think most people, at least in their head, do, who play games.
On one hand, I can see the cultural relevance, but on the other hand, I might be another Ken Levine -- not to compare myself to him -- in the sense that I would want to stick with the conventions that I've enjoyed in games in the past.
AH: That's all right, too. But let's just realize that there are two different things that could happen. One is this, and one is that.
It goes back to the industry, right?
People have something... Whether it's a stake in the industry from a commercial perspective, or just a stake in what they've creatively enjoyed for years.
AH: Yeah. I mean, one of the hardest lessons I've had to learn as a female in the games industry is all these guys really like what they make. I did not understand that for years. It was only until I talked to the maker of Alan Wake, and we were talking about it...
MS: Also a typical example of a game that we think could have been a lot more.
AH: Yeah, and I was expressing to him what I was saying about, well, "Yeah, would it have been more interesting without the shooting." And suddenly it dawned to me as I was talking to him, "Wait, he wanted to make the action game where the main thing is killing the zombies," or whatever the hell that was. He made exactly what he wanted.
And suddenly it clicked. "Oh, so, those guys who make Call of Duty want to make a 'sailing down the side of a mountain shooting shit' game." It was like, "Oh, okay. I get it now. This is why everybody seems so happy and creatively satisfied."
I took it seriously when they said "I'm making a game based on Objectivism that is talking about the financial crisis." I was like, "Okay. Let's do that!"
MS: Hey, but maybe they do. Maybe they succeed for gamers that are like them, that are used to the conventions.
AH: I know. I'm just saying my misunderstanding of the games industry, as a non-gamer, coming in making games -- I was taking the subject matter and the content in the cutscenes seriously. I was honestly looking for the stories that are on the back of the box, or the media, the propaganda, that they put out about the game.
I was thinking, "Oh, all this content is in there somewhere, and I just have to find it and I'm missing it," whatever. When in actuality, no, they really want to make another fucking first-person shooter. That's amazing to me. Still, to this day, I'm amazed by that.
I mean, they're always talking about creative frustration, and I'm just like, "Why don't you just make that thing you're talking about? I don't understand. Why are you making this other thing?"
It's money, right? And a developed audience.
AH: Well, that was kind of what I thought, but it's more than that. I think people really like it. I mean, they really like these things. So, all these guys get together and go, "You know what would be fucking cool? What would be awesome?" And they really do think it would be fucking awesome to make Duke Nukem Forever. I mean, okay. Now, I get that.
You talked about people pushing against certain constraints, while still wanting to create games like this. I think that's actually true. I think people who talk about that do feel they're constrained. But at the same time they do have this drive and desire...
AH: To make the thing that they love, from their childhood or whatever. But then I feel like they're just making excuses, often. You know, make a copy of Another World because you loved that game, and you thought it was genius. Go ahead and do that, but don't try to claim, "Oh, but I put this other level on top of it, that smeared some art content on top of it, so therefore I've made something of artistic worth."
MS: You feel that duality in a lot of games, I think, on several levels. That duality between sort of, yeah, like a more mature artistic experience, aesthetic experience, and a more playful, childlike interactive experience. And yeah, the tension is there, just because it seems like the creators don't choose. They want both things to be there, but both things are fighting with each other, and don't want to be in the same game.
Or, at least, expressed as a game. Narrative versus gameplay -- that's another level in which you see this kind of contrast.
MS: Yes, but that's a dangerous path, because then you slide very quickly into linear versus nonlinear, and that's really not what it's about. It's about expressiveness, about aesthetics. It doesn't have to be story. It could be a painting, too, or a cathedral, or a poem.
I think all of those things can be expressed with things that are very much unique to the medium, and all that. And I would actually argue that gameplay is one of the strange components that is not unique to the medium, that comes from that old age-old history of playful interaction between humans, with sports. It, in and of itself, is an alien factor. I'm not against alien factors. I really think we should embrace as much as we can, and mix it all up.
You mentioned a cathedral. Sometimes the visual communication in games is less about communicating meaning, and more about communicating aesthetics, or information. Even though it's such a visual medium. Do you have any thoughts on why?
AH: That's interesting.
MS: I think one of the problems when addressing this issue is that we're dealing with a lot of engineers in this industry, or people with an engineering -- or sort of a more scientific -- mindset.
And when you talk about expressing meaning, they often take that a little bit too literal. [laughs] As in language -- I have an idea, and I tell this idea to you. That's not really what happens in a lot of art. It's often a lot more intuitive, and artists play with the aesthetics. They don't know exactly what this message is.
AH: There's a lot more ambiguity.
MS: Maybe they're making the painting because they want to find out what this feeling is that they have. And I do see that happening in games. There's a bunch of artists working in games, and they're not talking to the game designer or to the programmer, and they're just doing their own thing.
AH: But I think also the deal with games is it's not a visual medium. I mean, it's multimedia, to use a '90s word for it. So the visuals are not really the most important thing. And sometimes you see games that are an overweight of visual sensation to the detriment of, perhaps, the sound design, or the dialogue. I mean, how much bad voice acting have you seen in a really beautifully visually crafted game? So, you need all these things to work together, and to be brought up to the same level, and to support each other, I think.
MS: This is where the cathedral is a good example, because it's architecture, but also painting and sculpture.
AH: And sound and atmosphere.
MS: Theatre also. All these things come together.
AH: And I think that it helps if game developers think about all of these elements together, and don't sacrifice on the words that are being said. It's like you've got these characters that look great, but when they open their mouths, they sound like California surfers in armor or something. [laughs] You're just like, "Why did they write this? What are they saying?" Or the type of atmosphere that is created by the words or the music -- it's like, all these things support the visuals, and the visuals support the rest of it.
Aesthetics needs to be looked at as a larger area -- not just visuals. Personally, we think that aesthetics extend to the interactions that you do, like the way that you interact with the world, and the way the characters interact with you.
Do you think they need to look at it more holistically -- is what you're saying?
AH: Yeah. That's what I'm saying. Exactly what I'm saying.
When you talk about the aesthetics of gameplay, it's not an immediately comfortable concept. People don't think of gameplay as having an aesthetic.
AH: In fact, control schemes are taken for granted. I mean, most games are AWSD with the mouse, or something like that.
MS: They're taken for granted, but within very strict limitations. Like, you can't really experiment with that. So, if you deviate from the convention, players will respond, "Oh, that's bad!" Try doing AWSD, and change it to AZWD or something. People would freak out! And I would call that an aesthetic assessment, actually. Aesthetic appreciation is also about recognition...
AH: In a sense, that's what's kind of cool about new control schemes like the Wii or Kinect, or something like that, or the Move. You get to start over. There's not this convention in your way, so you can think about how the characters interact with you, how you interact with the environment, in a different way, finally. So, it's not all this weight of convention. And so then that's when your interactivity can become aesthetic, when you make the interactivity suit your world, suit the thing that you're making, and can make that, also, part of the expression of what you're working on.
MS: I really think game designers put a lot of effort in making the controls feel nice. Feeling nice is aesthetics. But I think they do it just for that purpose, and I think that's where, sort of, there's something lacking for me, where you could use these aesthetics to put other types of emotions than just "it feels nice."
AH: I guess that's what they were trying to do with games like Heavy Rain. This is kind of what we're talking about, when we mean aesthetics of interaction.
MS: That's definitely an experiment in that direction. I'm not exactly sure if it's a successful one...
AH: But I enjoy the effort. That it's an attempt at an aesthetic in interactivity.
As someone who's an outsider, what attracted you to getting involved in games?
AH: I just thought I could do it. We thought we could do it. We were making digital art anyway, and then we were playing games just for relaxation. For kicks. We could rent games. We were renting games and movies at the same time. I don't know why. We just did it, because we thought it was like, "Okay. Well, there's this thing in the video store. Let's do this."
It's not that I never played video games. I played Mario as a child once or twice. We had a Game Boy -- somebody had a Game Boy. I played Tomb Raider 1. I wasn't a gamer, but a friend of mine had a PlayStation 1, and I ended up going, "What's that?" And I played that. But it sort of stopped there.
And I moved to CD-ROM games, playing Myst and loving that and loving games like that, that sort of genre of full-motion video CD-ROM games that was happening in the '90s. I played several of those, without really thinking they were video games. So, I still didn't "play video games."
MS: And I think when we started working on the web, those kinds of things influenced us.
AH: Yeah, I specifically wanted to remake games like Myst on the web, but that was impossible at the time, because it was so slow. You couldn't have big images. You could make image maps, I remember.
I experimented with early web 3D stuff, just because I was like, "I could make this environment where you're walking through this..." But then all that sort of disappeared for a long time. When we met, we were working on the internet. And when we started playing games again, after I moved in...
MS: Doom II has been on my mind with every web site I made. Doom II, specifically -- that experience of being in that space, not the shooting and all that -- has always been on my mind with any interactive project I have made.
AH: But I think we still thought of games almost subliminally like, "Well, this is just this thing that people do." Like, it wasn't one of those things where we were really passionate about games, as such. It was just another thing, like, "We're renting a movie. Let's rent a game." Okay. They're sitting right next to each other.
MS: Yeah, exactly. And we also didn't want to make movies.
AH: And we would just look at the back of the box and go, "Well, that sounds kind of interesting!" Like you read a video. And it was interactive. Since we were already interested in interactive things, we're like, "Well, this is interactive."
So, when we were playing all these games, it suddenly dawned on us, "Well, this is interactive, and this is art. Why don't we make a video game?" It was such an innocent and naive thought that I laugh about it now, but it was really like that.
We were like, "Well, you know, how hard can this be, to get Sony to put this on a disc?" We literally thought that if you make something nice, you just go talk to Sony, and they go put it on the PlayStation. You know what I mean? It's, like, so mind-blowingly naive. [laughs]
MS: The transition happened when sort of the early signs of Web 2.0 started to appear, and suddenly this web was changing as a medium, and it suddenly felt a lot less comfortable to us, to make these kinds of artworks we liked to make.
AH: But we also just felt like we wanted to level up -- doing something more formal. I mean, the internet is a very casual thing. Anyone can make a website. We were like, "It's like making a movie, and then you have somebody distribute it, and it's on a disc, and people can go to the store and they buy it." We wanted it on store shelves. And we thought that this could just be something you could do, like, "Start a company, we make a game."
MS: That's true. And that's, actually, sort of personal. Because at that point, we were sort of done with talking about ourselves, only. [laughs] So we wanted to make something for other people.
AH: So, we started thinking, "Well, what kind of game can we make?" We had this little moment where we were doing design research at a postgraduate thing, so we had two years that we could use to learn how to make video games that were basically free years. So we were like, "We can learn how to make this." We already knew a bit about programming, a bit about 3D. We knew we wanted to make 3D games, so we just did it.
But the first thing we did was all the research, of going to GDC, meeting other developers. Because it's like, "Who makes these things? And how do they make them? And why are they made like this?" And reading all kinds of things online.
And sort of, then, that's when my first misunderstanding happened, because the first question I asked is, "Why do games all seem so similar? Why are there these genres? Why is it, like, RPGs and FPS? Why are these genres there?" There's no way to understand that as an outsider.
So, all I saw was that there were really delightful things in video games, and lots of opportunities, but people weren't taking them. So, I really thought all game developers were stupid. I literally thought, like, "Were they just really geeky, and into shooting stuff, so that's why it's always like that?" It didn't occur to me that this is what they wanted to make, yet. I still thought that they were trying to tell stories. Because there was so much story in it.
MS: And in all these conferences, people are always talking about that, too -- about wanting that. About wanting more.
AH: Yeah, I mean, we're strictly... I'm not talking about puzzle games, like Tetris and stuff. We really wanted to make this sort of immersive, narrative, 3D thing happen. So, all those immersive, narrative, 3D things were usually about shooting stuff, or fighting, or blowing shit up. I was like, "Why is it always like that?" I can see you want that to exist, but why is it almost exclusively that? Or even in RPGs, why is it always this battle arena, with a random battle?
And I thought they were just dumb. You can not do that, too, you know! It's like, I just want to go up and shake somebody -- "You know, you can not do that!" They kept doing it. Or an adventure game, where it's always like some pre-rendered background point-and-click. It's like, "Why is it always like that?" For years. [laughs]
And so, that's why our games turned out the way they did. Because we immediately decided we were not going to do any of that -- because we don't like that stuff. We're going to do all these other things that we do like.
Things like in Ico, where you hold hands. Like, Ico was one of those perfect games for us. Because it was just like... Yeah, you have to battle shadow monsters, but that's so minor, to everything else.
MS: I couldn't do it. [laughs]
AH: You couldn't do it. I did those parts! But it was still like, that's so minor compared to everything, and you were so overwhelmed with the beauty of it, and everything. I said, "That's where he put the emphasis." I was like, "That's what I'm talking about. You put this emphasis on these things that you're really talking about, that you really want."
Or in Silent Hill 2, I gave it a pass because you don't have to fight at all. Well, except for the boss rounds. But it's like, for the most part, you just run away. I was like, "That's brilliant." Or you get the knife, but you never use it. I'm like, "Fuck! Mind blown. That's beautiful."
And those are the things I'm thinking about. The fact that that happens so rarely, I couldn't understand it until years later, when I realized that they like first person shooters. And then that's it. So they make another one.
We're at a point where industry dollars are going to go to more similar, high-budget games, and fewer games in the middle get budgets. And then indie. I think we're seeing a stratification happening.
MS: I think we're seeing a slow suicide. [laughs] I mean, isn't that like attrition? To always put more and more money on a more and more narrow path? Where will this end? At one point, right? Where there's nothing anymore. Death. Suicide. I mean, I'm not an economist, but that seems to be where it's going, no? Or is it just a console/PC thing, and well, after that, it's all going to be Facebook?
AH: Or is there always a strong undercurrent of things that aren't?
Activision is very specifically doubling down on things like Call of Duty and World of Warcraft, and sort of saying, "We don't need anything else, because we can make these things so titanic that they'll dominate." Whereas a company like EA, its closest competitor, is saying, "We're going to send tendrils out into the different market segments."
And I wouldn't say they're necessarily going to send them out to creative avenues. That's not how it's thought about from the corporate side. So, there are definitely different approaches in the commercial games industry, but it's still about market share, or market targeting.
MS: Yeah, well, the companies you mentioned are publishers. I think in any medium, the publisher's concern will be commercial. There are always, like, small record labels and small book publishers; those exist. But the ones you mentioned are not the small ones. [laughs] So, that's normal.
What's more surprising is, actually, there's not more pushing coming from developers to diversify, to work with other themes, to try and reach other audiences, for instance. Which is just getting harder, and harder, and harder, as things remain restricted to these few formulas.
So hard now that, indeed, if you want to reach a broad audience now, you have to make some FarmVille or something. You can't really make this kind of media game that the games industry has been hoping to make for so long, and trying to get very close to, as well. Now you can only make that for a hardcore audience, anymore. I think that's suicide. [laughs]
There are definitely people saying similar things, that we're going to niche-ify. But I think that's the expectation now, in a way -- that the console space will become a niche.
AH: It already is.
MS: But isn't that stupid? They're already connected to the TV. Build them into the TV! I mean, there's so much opportunity there. That's where I agree with Auriea. You know, a lot of publishers and developers say, "This is commercial. We're doing this for commercial reasons." Bullshit. Commercial would be expanding, and trying to reach everybody. They're doing this because they really love shooting shit up. [laughs] They really love that. It's an artistic choice.
AH: That's good that you love what you do, but don't expect that to get you anywhere.
MS: I think they're happy with it becoming a niche, totally happy with that. That's sort of strange, as a commercial company.
AH: The fun of being me is I get to just look at this and not care too much about it. We're just going to make what we make. I insist that I am not in the games industry, even though I come to things like this, sometimes, to my utter folly.
My point being just that more people need to make this stuff for itself, for the love of the medium, perhaps. And not care so much about where the industry is going as a whole. Because that's sort of like, "Oh, they have a big meeting, and they decide that this is how things are going to be," which is how it always felt about genres, to me.
MS: I think this is sort of something that happens because commerce is similar to games. Winning a game is a little bit like selling a million copies. Maybe this kind of mindset of making games, liking games, is similar to being successful?
I find that a lot of developers that I've spoken to over the years, to some greater or lesser extent that I cannot obviously say, but I perceive, have been co-opted by the marketing departments of the companies they work for.
MS: How do they get co-opted?
I think they get enticed by the idea that if they listen to these people, they will make a game that people like better.
AH: Rather than listening to the people themselves, or listening to themselves, listening to their own hearts, their own minds and desires, beyond mechanics. It just seems like, in no other medium is it so focused on this. I mean, y