It says a lot that Belgium-based indie development duo Tale of Tales
can be seen, effectively, as an experimental outsider in the games industry simply because of the pair's focus on story-based, artistically motivated work.
By contrast, it is difficult to imagine what the film industry would be like if narrative works were substantially less popular than action-based films.
The studio, comprised of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, admit that this isn't even something that had occurred to them previously. In fact, they consider what they do an “extremely traditional approach,” - at least from the perspective of other forms, like cinema and music.
But maybe they're used to being the outsiders at this point. Their favorite games are all at least five years old, proof that “a certain consolidation is happening where the big game companies are happy producing braindead toys for the masses.” Indie companies, on the other hand, are “creating braindead toys for the cliques.” The two members of Tale of Tales are probably not exactly gunning for the Christmas card list, at this point.
But what would you expect from a group whose most commercial work is The Endless Forest
, an MMO where the description is “You are a deer. So are the other players. You meet each other in an endless forest on the Internet. The setting is idyllic, the atmosphere peaceful. You communicate with one another through sounds and body language”? It's a bit bonkers, but gloriously so: wonderfully, artistically so.
They've also just started writing up a blog detailing the development of their next game, The Path
, due in early 2009. Gamasutra sat down with Harvey and Samyn about their beginnings, their somewhat provocative views on the industry, and why teenage boys find it a complete affront to their delicate senses of sexuality to be asked to jump around as deer.
When did you start working together? Did you immediately start working under the name Tale of Tales?
Tale of Tales: We started working together in 1999 under the name of "Entropy8Zuper!" which was the merger of entrop8.com and zuper.com into entropy8zuper.org. We created Internet art and web-design. We were fairly well known in media art circles. A lot of our work was inspired by games. And we even made a few real-time 3D web-projects - one commissioned by the San Francisco MOMA. But it wasn't until 2002 that we started thinking about actually making games. A year later we founded Tale of Tales.
What got you thinking about games as an expressive medium?
TOT: It's important to make a distinction between games as such and video or computer games, when answering this. Because, even though we had used game-like elements in our web-based work, when switching to real-time 3D we had no interest at all in making actual games. For us computer games have always been something different.
Playing computer games has always been about immersion and characters and stories. The best video games were the ones that just let us enjoy these elements. But sadly, most video games, sooner or later, stopped us from enjoying ourselves - from playing - by confronting us with the rules and goals of the actual game, often by either making our character die or by blocking our progress with some inane puzzle.
So, for us, computer games have always been an expressive medium. Except for the "game" part, which destroyed the expression. Thus it was only logical for us to create video games that focused on this expression and to remove everything that did no contribute to the immersion and atmosphere.
Was your goal of embedding real-time 3D as an artistic medium one of your intentions from the beginning?
TOT: We have always been artists. We were making art with other media before. We chose real-time 3D because we thought it would be a good technology for the kind of art we wanted to make.
What was the first project you worked on?
TOT: Our relationship started by uploading Dynamic HTML love letters for each other to a common server. Later we made this "conversation" public as Skinonskinonskin
. It's still available from there.
But that was long before we started making games. As Tale of Tales, our first project was 8
: a dreamy game that takes place in the palace of Sleeping Beauty during the 100 years of sleep. We haven't been able to finish this project because it requires a larger budget than anyone trusts us with, for now.
I assume your budgets are growing over time, though?
TOT: Actually, it's the opposite. The first arts funding we got was the largest we ever got. That was for our first game project, 8
. Recently we have only been able to get much smaller budgets. This had more to do with a shift in the kind of people that are in the jury than anything else though.
But arts funding would never suffice for real video game production anyway. 8
was designed to be developed within the games industry, even if it was initiated within an media arts context. But so far, we haven't worked with any games industry funding yet. Which is odd, because it's not like our work does not benefit the games industry.
We're doing a lot of pioneering that could help everybody in the long run. So, I don't quite understand why the big players like EA and Ubisoft or even Valve or Konami don't invite independent game makers to create a project with them - for a fraction of the budgets that they are used to spending on games, we could make something that takes their entire company years ahead, conceptually.
To their credit, I must say that Sony has been talking with us - and some other developers as well - about small experimental productions for the PlayStation Network that they would fund. So somebody is doing it right.
Do you consider yourselves primarily artists?
TOT: Yes. But not necessarily in the elitist contemporary fine arts sense of the word. More in the sense that the expression, the meaning of what we make, comes first, before the technology, before the commerce, before the entertainment. But that doesn't mean that we exclude all these things. It's just a matter of priorities. Making games is only an art form when there are people who are making art with games. You know, like: on purpose.
Everybody who makes games, or at least the people in charge of the design and the story, should be an artist. We don't see much point to the whole thing otherwise. Otherwise you're just shipping products.
Product is an unavoidable part of the medium to a degree, though.
Of course. Because the high production budgets and low consumer prices require you to sell a lot of copies. We have no problem with the selling of art works to people. That's great.
It's just when the process is reversed, when people start designing these things for the purpose of selling them, that you fall into an industrial production logic. Which is hurting the entire industry because it is hampering creative progress.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, it's a matter of task division. It is absolutely vital for a marketing or sales person to think of commercial aspects first, to think of selling as much copies as required. That is their job. But a game director or artist should be focused on achieving the highest level of quality and usability. At the moment the games industry does a very poor job in allowing creative people to do what they are good at.
The industry forces everybody to think of the bottom line all the time. Even if they're not equipped to do so. It's another sign of its immaturity.
What would you say are your primary influences?
TOT: Figurative painting - renaissance, baroque, romanticist, symbolist - the Saint Bavo Cathedral in our home town of Gent, Belgium, films by Wong Kar Wai, Ingmar Bergman, Hal Hartley. And then there's a few video games: Silent Hill, Project Zero, Ico, Black and White
It seems safe to say that you appreciate atmosphere and character, then. Particularly with the games that you've mentioned, they focus on location as a hugely important part of the overall experience. Ico's castle is arguably as vital a character as its two protagonists.
TOT: It's about situations. A character in an environment. That's where the story starts. A deer on its own is moderately interesting. But a deer in a forest is poetic and immediately triggers all sorts of associations in the mind of the player.
But don't overestimate the influence of other games on our work. Painting and architecture are far more important. Other games mostly serve the function of assuring us that we're not entirely crazy. That what we find interesting in this medium is actually feasible and enjoyable.
Also, other games than the ones we really like can be very influential. If only because frustrating with their gameplay motivates us to not incorporate that kind of stuff in our own work.
What do you find exciting in the industry, both in terms of commercial and independent product?
TOT: We're not particularly fond of any industry. Much like we weren't fond of the art world before. But at least the games industry is better organized to give the audience access to our work. There is a lot of hope in the games industry, and thus a lot of support for experimental designers like ourselves. That's nice.
Is it something that you've seen improve over the last six or so years?
TOT: Honestly: no. As you can tell from our little list of favourite games, all relatively old games, we don't think significant progress has been made lately. Five years ago, the dream seemed a lot more alive within the games industry. Now it seems a certain consolidation is happening where the big game companies are happy producing braindead toys for the masses.
So far, in turn, the independents have been mostly creating braindead toys for the cliques. But I think there is still hope there. Especially since new digital distribution channels are stimulating even big companies to have pseudo-independent side projects.
What has the reaction to your titles been like from gamers? Considering that one of your main goals is to "make art for people", is it an important factor in what you do?
TOT: Maybe we should rephrase that to "make art for people, not for gamers".
We would like to make games that can be appreciated by people who are not gamers. This is why we try to deal with the interactive medium directly, rather than going through the conventions of games. These conventions often form a barrier to entry for many people who might be interested in the story, characters, interaction and atmosphere of the game otherwise.
That being said, we have received a lot more positive feedback from gamers than we had anticipated when we started on this journey. So much so, that we are reconsidering our position somewhat. In the beginning, we thought that we were making some kind of anti-games but now we can see that there are a lot of gamers who also like things that are not games in the strict sense of the word.
Even if "normal" games continue to be successful, there's a growing desire within the gaming community for other types of games, different kinds of experiences, and a growing dissatisfaction with the state of the art. There is a shared sense that this medium has more potential than just be a vessel for pretend-shooting zombies and monsters. I think gamers appreciate that we are trying to tap into this potential.
Of course there's always going to be a small group of testosterone-troubled kids who get uncomfortable with our projects. They can be very aggressive sometimes. But most of the time this is more amusing than anything else.
They're vocal, definitely. You've had feedback from that kind of audience?
TOT: Very rarely does one of these boys venture onto our forums with an attempt to start trolling. But he is always very quickly "attacked" by a bunch of Endless Forest
players - often girls, so it's a funny picture - who silence him very quickly.
Those kids usually talk about our work among themselves. On forums. So we find their comments through our web statistics where we can see which websites link to ours. The comments range from requesting guns in The Endless Forest
to some strange kind of homophobia - when they discover that all the avatars in The Endless Forest
are male, even though a large part of the players is female. There's something about our work that enrages young males' hormones. Probably insecurity about their own sexuality. They are very sensitive at that age.
It's funny because we never design our work explicitly for children. We try to make mature art for grown-ups. But somehow our work seems very attractive to some children, either to adore or to despise.
How do you feel about positive peer feedback like the IGF finalist position? Is that kind of thing important to you?
TOT: This is very important to us. Not so much as an expression of appreciation of our work, because we know how relative any jury can be. It's always some kind of lottery, isn't it? But because we hope that the selection of The Path
by the IGF opens the door for more games like this. Games that deal with content, with story, with meaning. Games that are artistically ambitious.
So far, the indie games scene has been dominated by retro games and modest "fun" entertainment. But if this medium is going to grow, the evolution will not take place within the commercial part of the industry. The independent scene needs to be the place where this can happen.
Does it seem strange to you that your work - story based, artistically motivated games - is considered experimental in the games scene?
TOT: Now that you mention it, that seems rather upside-down, doesn't it? If anything, we're taking an extremely traditional approach to creating games. At least traditional in terms of historical artistic practice. In fact, while such a traditional approach has been abandoned by most fine arts, it is still alive and well in the previous century's most successful artistic media: cinema and music.
But we're used to being considered strange. It's the same in the art world, you know. These days, it's not "cool" in fine arts circles to want to make something beautiful, moving or meaningful. It all has to be ironic and clever and fun. Contemporary art is very boring. I guess that's why we feel more at home in games. Overall, there is a very traditionalist attitude, which we share. I think we just go a bit further. But for us, this is the only logical way.
Why have you focused primarily on PC and Mac development?
TOT: Because that's the technology we have access to. Mostly because there's affordable tools on those platforms that are suitable for artists and don't require expensive teams of engineers.
Have you considered entering the console market in any way? Do you think there's room for titles like yours on XBLA or PSN?
TOT: We would love to make console games, and we do have plans in that direction. But so far, there have been no tools for consoles that allow the artist to express themselves without the aid of programmers. This is probably because, traditionally, there has been little interest from the console companies in a mature audience. While the PC and Mac audience consists mostly of grown-ups.
How difficult is running an MMO like The Endless Forest?
TOT: Once the technology is up and running, and your server hardware is in good hands, it's actually remarkably easy. It's just a lot of work. At least the way we do it. We are very involved with the community of players. We discuss new ideas for the game with them and share experiences. That's fun to do but it also takes a lot of time.
The biggest problem for The Endless Forest
is funding. It's a free game, and we'd like to keep it that way, but it's becoming increasingly difficult to find arts funding for the project, probably because all we want to do is expand the project, rather than create a new one from scratch - which is much easier to get funding for. This is something we're discussing with the players as well. And we will probably try a few things that allow players to co-fund the development.
Epic gear, I assume. Seriously though, is that something you consider a shortcoming in arts funding?
TOT: We already have epic gear! And it's free. But you can only get it on Halloween, when the Big Zombie Deer visits the forest.
Well, of course we find it lacking. But we can understand why this happens. Budget overall is very limited for new media art. And they have this weird idea that if you make art that can be distributed digitally, that it will automatically bring in money.
There's actually a lot more arts funding going to pièces uniques that only a handful of people see on some festival, than for work that gets distributed to tens of thousands of people. But we're happy enough with what we've been able to receive. We do realize that what we're doing is very very new to them, especially in Belgium.
Is there pressure to act on feedback from users? I mean, are you finding people are looking for you to add goal oriented content?
TOT: There's always people who make suggestions about adding more traditional elements to our games. But we tend to advise them to play any of the 99.9% of games that cater to this.
The Endless Forest
community is very aware of the reasons why the game is special to them. So if any new player suggests something along these lines, they are quick to explain why that is not a good idea.
How far ahead do you plan for it?
TOT: Since we don't have a reliable source of funding, there's not much planing that we can do at all. Development is kind of haphazard. Lately mostly motivated by participation in media art festivals. For those occasions, we add a bit of extra content that remains in the game after the event. It's a nice way of adding unexpected things.
But we would like it to be a bit more in control. There's a lot of things we would like to add to the game. We need to find a way to fund these.
Anything you're willing to talk about?
TOT: Apart from technical improvements we would like to implement, the most obvious addition would be the life cycle of the avatars. You start the game as a fawn. And after a month you grow into a stag. We would like to add more different ages and even death. So that here's more variation in the forest's population.
Another big thing is the introduction of all sorts of NPC creatures and areas that contain potential for stories. We have created these stories already and even have concept art for some.
Something we are also considering is the addition of a way for players to purchase special items. So they can support the game if they choose to.
And there is the desire to do stage performances with the Abiogenesis tool and live musicians.
All of these things are being discussed at length in the web forums of the game. We're actually co-designing the game with the players.
Considering that stories are so important to much of your work, does narrative have a place in The Endless Forrest, or is the experience itself the narrative?
TOT: There's a lot of narrative in The Endless Forest
! It's just that we don't treat stories in the same way as movies or books might. In interactive media, it's not about story-"lines" or plot. It's about narrative environments and generative poetry. It's about the story that the players can make happen in the virtual environment.
That doesn't mean that a computer game is just a neutral tool or a toy for the player to do with as they please. The virtual environment, the characters, the atmosphere, can still be heavily authored. And they should, if you have any kind of artistic ambition.
For us, it's about creating the potential for interesting stories. Not in a linear sense, as a story you listen to from beginning to end. But sort of as a mini-version of life itself: an experience you are embedded in, an environment that is filled with narrative elements, and the possibility to explore them. The story doesn't need to be a report of activity either. It can be a mental process , too. If anything, we try to stimulate the player's imagination.
In regards to developing a "punk economy", how difficult is budgeting projects for you? Is this full time work?
We still haven't achieved our ideal "punk economy". The Path
will be an important step in that direction.
We do develop games full time. There is no other way, really, for the kinds of games we want to create. It's a lot of work. Finding funding for this is part of that. Not to be underestimated in terms of time, but certainly not a full time activity. It's a matter of seeking opportunities and acting on them.
We do have a longer term business plan, in a way. But, given the goals we have set for ourselves, we need to be very flexible. We're also pioneering in that aspect, I'm afraid. There's no model that we can follow.
What's different about The Path, in that regard?
What's different is that we got a loan for its production and we need to pay it back from the proceeds. Maybe we've been spoiled by the so-called "free money" we've been getting through art grants. But when we realized that our next game was going to need to sell, it did make us think twice. Not that we ever considered making something that appeals to the masses. I'm sure we couldn't even if we tried.
It was more a matter of whether we have the guts to proceed with this project, knowing that failure would probably lead to bankruptcy. Then again, that's probably how many games are made. It sure gave us a lot more respect for the business side of the industry. But that doesn't mean we're giving in. We believe that there is a considerable audience for a game like The Path
. And there's only one way to test this.