How Tale of Tales lets creativity, collaboration rule game development

In this interview, conducted shortly after GDC Europe concluded, Tale of Tales discuss letting creativity and collaboration rule game development while leaving behind the ties to the games that inspired them in the past.

At this past August's GDC Europe in Cologne, Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn gave a talk entitled "The Next Ten Years of Tale of Tales" -- a look back at the studio's past work and 10 precepts for its creative future.

The studio is best known for making idiosyncratic art games, such as The Path, which have generated a lot of plaudits but also strong negative feelings from elements of the game playing community.

In this interview, conducted shortly after GDC Europe concluded, Samyn and Harvey discuss the criticism, their ideals, letting creativity and collaboration rule game development while leaving behind the ties to the games that inspired them in the past to create something utterly new instead. 

I found your talk very inspirational. 

Auriea Harvey: That was the intent. Because we find that a lot of the talks are about money, or technical things, and there are very few design talks that aren't technical -- whereas this is more about you in relation to the people who are playing your game.

I liked many of your points, but one that interested me was something like this: "Capitalize on your skills, and make a game that plays into that, rather than trying to develop game developer-like skills." 

Michaël Samyn: That's something we have to tell ourselves. Because this technology is so versatile, you don't have to force yourself to do anything specific, because there's no need to work in a specific format, I feel.

And this is a general life thing, I think. You need to figure out what you're good at, what comes easily to you -- to learn, to create -- and then do something with that. And because the technology is so versatile, with video games, I think that anybody with any kind of creative skill can do something with the medium. And I wish they would -- more people!

AH: There are many different ways of making games, now, and we find that very hopeful. It's perhaps not enough, but still.

MS: It's growing, definitely. It's something that is growing.

AH: People often think, "Oh, I'm not good at games," or "I don't know how to do games this way." You don't have to do it that way. It's okay!

MS: And we get frustrated by that. Nice artists, they're either good musicians, or they draw very well, or they're even modelers, and they say, "I can't make a game on my own!" Do it anyway!

AH: Or lead it, and find people.

MS: And if you can't program, do it very simply! There are ways of doing that. Make it very simple, in terms of simple interactions, or whatever.

AH: Or text-only. Or images-only. As we're laying it out now, we weren't trying to say that specifically. It was more just to make people think.

MS: And to keep it in our heads, too. We have to think that way, as well, because sometimes you forget.

AH: Because it makes you a lot happier than thinking about "I can't do this, I can't do that..."

Another thing is that a lot of GDC talks are about "Here's what I did, and why it worked or didn't work, and here's what I'm doing now." Yours sort of had that, but it was more "Here's what we think works." 

MS: The thing is that what didn't work is highly subjective. The last of the quotes that we showed -- the positive/negative quote that we showed -- was the exact same quote.

An ambiguous reaction to Tale of Tales' Vanitas showcased in the GDC Europe talk

It depends on how you see it. What certain people say, maybe that's good or bad. And for a long time, I think we figured these people who sit there and say, "That game is too abstract! I don't get it," we've just said, "Pssh! You're not the audience. Go away!"

And I think at this point what we're transitioning toward is taking that a little more seriously and saying, "Okay, maybe there's something we could do to reach those people a little bit better, as well, and at least give them some part of the experience of the people who have a positive experience with our games have." We're going to try that.

AH: I think in making that list of things, and also in talking about our previous games, we felt, "Let's just talk about what's good about that experience." Because we think it's sort of the last time we'll ever do a presentation where we go through all of our work, ever. It's too many things. We never talk about just the reason why this thing worked. I feel like we hardly ever give that talk!

MS: That's true! Maybe we should do it more.

AH: Maybe, if anything, we can pick a game and talk about good things. We've just talked way too much about negative things in the past, perhaps.

MS: And the thing is, we often don't recognize our own experiences of our games in the experiences that other people have. Which is good too; it's interesting. It's a little bit annoying when it's negative experiences. I hope it came across that, to us, our games are not difficult, and they're not these heavy things. Actually, all of them, in some way, are humorous to us. And beautiful. And that's why we try to make them. And we would like more people to see that beauty, and so we're going to work harder. I hope that helps.

AH: And so in making our beautiful art program list of things, we were like, "Look. We can look at it this way. Other people should look at things this way more often, and try to see the beauty that you bring to people's lives." I think that it's helpful for us, at this point, looking forward to the next thing, if that makes any sense.

When you gave your presentation, everyone was clapping at the end. That's another contrast with all the negative quotes you put on screen. It ended triumphantly. 

AH: We're done. We're done with the negative quotes. It's not that that isn't going to happen, but we're done feeling like that's bad.

MS: Objectively, I was looking at the quotes for the presentation. And I said, "Let's get some really juicy negative quotes, because that's always funny." But I was actually finding that there was not that many. There was far more positive sentiment, if you start looking. It's that the negative ones hit really hard, and you remember those.

AH: And they're really loud.

MS: But if you really survey the whole thing, the balance was definitely on the positive side.

A less ambiguous reaction, to The Endless Forest

You speak very warmly about your collaborators, including working with people who aren't in the game industry. You worked with a dancer, at one point. 

AH: Which was something we wanted to do from the beginning, for some reason. And we want to do it again. I think that collaborating with artists in other fields makes your game richer. And we always have such a great time collaborating with people, no matter what they're doing -- music, or animation, or modeling.

Our animator Laura Raines Smith, who continues to collaborate with us through everything -- it's just wonderful the way we handle it. It's like, "We're going to work with you, and you do what you do, and you give it to us and we'll make it part of our game." And it becomes that everyone who works on a project becomes on owner of this thing, and is so proud. It's really great.

It's a way of getting something external -- maybe it's a nuance of some sort. But just the fact that we had a dancer who didn't know anything about games, we explained to her everything we were going to do, and she realized, and she made this dance that was specifically made for a game, even though she's not a gamer.

I think that's an interesting thing to bring into your project, because it adds another dimension to the work. The work becomes richer. It's not some motion capture studio and you have a professional motion actor. I think that's something that can only happen in an indie game, perhaps, that's open to that.

MS: And we did specifically choose a dancer from a dance company that we really liked, to collaborate, Les Ballets C de la B in Belgium, that makes lovely work. It wasn't just any dancer -- it had to be a certain style.

AH: But we have to be open to the fact that maybe she does it wrong, maybe it's not exactly perfect, and we bring those little imperfections into it.

MS: That's what collaboration is about! It's about working with another artist and they have their input, and what they do goes into the game -- or not. That is our choice. But we're not going to tweak it too much. It's their contribution.

I found it interesting that you said that with Bientôt l’été that you wanted to bring the work of the author that you chose to a contemporary audience -- bring the feeling of the work to an audience that wouldn't access it directly. I think that's a really interesting idea. 

AH: Perhaps our execution wasn't good enough to bring it to enough people.

MS: And our choice of author was maybe controversial. (laughs)

AH: But even still, we just followed what we were feeling.

MS: I love Margeurite Duras both as a writer and a filmmaker, and I do believe that video games can bring art to an audience that is perhaps less informed about art and culture, that has known less about history or hasn't seen enough Nouvelle Vague films to really understand what is so wonderful about them. I really think that video games can help a lot as a medium, but we all need to learn how to do that. Just being able to work with Duras text is already a joy unto itself, because all of the source material is so beautiful that it made the work a lot more pleasant.

AH: Ultimately we wanted to bring the atmosphere of the things we read and felt when we went to her home on the seaside in France, all these things. We now want to replicate that; we don't want to interpret her work, as such. I think this is us, again, taking the elements that we think that games are good at, but are underdeveloped, and trying to make a whole game around that. Whether that's a good idea or not, who knows? But that's the idea we had.

MS: And it's a process, right? We're not going to get this right in one go. And other people will pick up on it.

AH: So when someone enjoys Bientôt l’été and they're staring at the sea and they get a sensation of some sort, they're actually getting the sensation that we got from the novel. And they don't have to know that that's what they're getting. Because we don't like being so didactic about the whole thing.

You can play a game like Final Fantasy or Halo that has these vistas, and you can actually have that feeling. Even though that's not the core of the experience, it's also not not the core of the experience. But you can make that part of the core because you don't have this pressure or expectation that there must be something else there. 

AH: Right. And those are the experiences that we had in PlayStation 1 and 2 games that we treasured and were like, "Why not?" It's a deeply cerebral question, but: "Why can't you build a whole game around this idea of the vista?" But luckily we're indie developers and we can just do that.

MS: But that kind of stuff probably gets into those big games, also, because they're collaborative projects. And maybe several of the artists work together to create that vista. And I wish the game designers would pay a little bit more attention to that, to make that more accessible to people who are interested in that, and not downplay it as just "eye candy" or something like that.

I thought another comment you made that was interesting is that it's harder to make a game that's already been made than to make something new. 

MS: I think so. I can't even touch the computer without innovating! There's so much potential. It's so ridiculous. Of course, it takes a bit of courage to embrace it, and go with it, and work hard to make it something that other people, perhaps, can enjoy as well. And that's where falling back on conventions is very seductive. But in and of itself, yeah, it is much easier to do something new, I find.

AH: And it is about embracing it when it happens, and seeing the potential in that idea, or that mistake, or in that thing you did on purpose that you've never seen before. Because I think this is something that happens to designers all the time, and they just go, "Yeah, but, this isn't like Halo!" or something. "I wanted to make Halo!"

MS: It's what you said before. There's a certain fear that it's not going to be popular enough, and it has to be, because the budget is so big. I think that's a pity -- to live your life in fear. Dare and fail.

The scale of projects like this is so huge that it does incorporate so many perspectives and so many creative possibilities. 

MS: What I think is a pity is that because they stick to those formulas that they have, that they know will be successful, and that gamers understand, that very choice excludes everybody else. And while the technology and the artistic skill of these people is now at a level where they could actually open up to many, many more people -- I mean, they think they're big now, but they could be so much bigger if they would only allow these people to enjoy their work. They would enjoy it! Because it's all there. There's a lot of stuff there for a lot of people to enjoy, but they don't allow them, because they give them a gun and say, "Go shoot these people." It's not even that these people don't want to, it's that they can't! They don't have the experience and the skill to get through the first level.

AH: We've seen it happen many times.

MS: And so what they do is that they play Angry Birds -- though that's a bad example, because that's hard, too! But more casual games. It's kind of a pity that they're losing so much potential audience.

And I think one other point you made that was interesting was "don't make the games of your youth over again."

AH: That was more for us than for other people, because for some people that's incredibly important. But for us, we found that we got very sentimental about certain games. It's not that we'd try to make them again; it's that you can't get hung up on that. And we would never recommend anyone to make games just because you love games. I don't know -- maybe that means stagnation.

MS: It's one of those things where you're not seeing the medium, the whole medium, and limiting yourself too much. Yes, that was interesting and that was fun, but you have to think of it more broadly as just something you make for somebody else to enjoy, and not necessarily in this or that specific way. It should be your task as a creative person to figure that out, and find, maybe, new ways of doing those kinds of things.

AH: I also feel like a blank slate right now. The games I was really passionate about are all from, like, 2005 or something, or before. I'm just feeling like now that I'm not passionate about any games, and I don't feel this need. There's nothing I want to copy. It's almost like achieving some sort of Zen state of nothing. And you realize that the nothing is all. It's like, "Oh, this is great." And who knows what comes from that?

And then going forward on our next three projects, it feels so exciting and new again. Game development becomes new again because I don't have this baggage from the past, thinking about games that I would like to live up to, so to speak.

MS: It did take us 10 years to get to that. Ten years of thinking, "I want to make that game, but without that, and without that."

AH: Subtracting everything all the time. And now it's more about, what are we adding to this? What can we add to people's lives?

MS: Starting much more lower on the potential of the medium.

AH: Thinking about the multiple positives of game development, for a change, and really feeling that.

MS: Since it took us 10 years, this is a difficult road to take.

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