Monday, May 6, 2013

Interview: Tale of Tales on art, game criticism, and independent development

20060508One of the more interesting indie developers out there is Tale of Tales, a small team devoted to the idea that games can indeed be art. Games like The Path, The Graveyard and their newest title, Bientôt l'été, are not there for simple entertainment. These games look for deeper meaning, engage with players on an intellectual level and aim to be rewarding, rather than "fun."

Thing is, these games are often given a poor critical reception for lacking that basic "fun" factor of the more commercial game projects. There is one quote in the below interview that I think it especially worth noting, because it goes to one of the concerns I have with the games industry as an opportunity for artistic expression; where in other fields the artists can rely on critics and authors to approach their works as art, in the games industry that is the last thing that many critics are capable of doing;

"It would be very nice for us if game journalists educated themselves a bit about art. Maybe then the criticism could get a bit more nuanced. Which I think would be very helpful. We don't think of ourselves as such great artists, but criticism along the lines of "the game is not fun" or "this is not a game" or "I don't understand this game" don't help us much further, and only encourage us to explore less, experiment less, be more conservative. Which is the opposite of what journalists should be doing."

The full interview:

Digitally Downloaded: What inspired you to set up Tale of Tales?
Michaël Samyn (MS): We had already been working together on websites and internet art, under the name "Entropy8Zuper!". When we switched to videogames, we felt we needed a company structure. So we started Tale of Tales. The collaborations simply continued. In another medium.

As artists we are attracted to digital media. On the one hand because they are so easy to distribute (so we don't need galleries or museums). And on the other because we are fascinated by the procedural and interactive potential of software that runs in real time. There's something enormously attractive about the idea of creating art that is never quite finished, that is defined by the very changes it is capable of. Software allows us to create art that can reach out to the spectator and play with them, and allow them to alter their experience of the work to their own whim. We love the intimacy that is involved with this. Though we wish technology were a bit more stable, powerful and usable.

The Path
DD: You've been in operation for over ten years now. How has your company changed in that time, and how has your approach to game development changed?
MS: It feels like we are continuously changing. We're continuously exploring this medium and trying to understand what we can do with it, continuously learning. And the context changes all the time as well. So we continuously need evaluate our position. It can get rather tiresome sometimes.

I think, over the years, we have grown more confident in terms of how we see our work in relation to more conventional videogames. In the early years, we had trouble reconciling with what seemed like our negative attitude. We wanted to remove most aspects from games that people are used to in favor of focusing on those that interested us. Now a sort of minimal attitude comes more natural to us and creating realtime interactive projects for their own sake has become more intuitive.

But we're still trying to figure out where we fit in terms of audience. And we're always balancing between a desire to make non-commercial sincere artistic projects and another desire to give something to a wider audience.

DD: You have focused entirely on developing games that are closer to art than the kinds of games that people traditionally buy. How do you commercialise these projects when they are so different?
Auriea Harvey (AH): The trouble is that we are deeply convinced that there is a large group of people out there that would be interested in our work. But they never play games. They firmly dislike games. And we cannot reach them. As an independent developer, we are limited to people who already buy other games. Games that we try to make alternatives for, rather than follow.

Luckily for us, a lot of gamers are not too pleased with the trends in videogames. Some of them gravitate towards our work. This is still somewhat problematic for some because a dislike of conventional games does not immediately imply any enthusiasm for — or experience with — art.

So far, with the exception of The Path, we haven't been too concerned about commerce. We have been able to acquire small non-commercial art subsidies that allowed us to be independent of the market. But we don't like being too dependent of those subsidies, either. So we're happy with the sales that we get. Even if they could not support out company yet, they do give us a bit more freedom.

In some of our next projects, we will be trying to reach a wider audience. We are frustrated by the fact that many people do not understand some of our pieces. Because they are so simple and obvious to us. So we want to try and make something that is equally simple and obvious for other people too.

The Graveyard
DD: Would you say there are any common themes to your games that you would like people to take away from their time with them?
AH: I'm not sure if it is really a theme, but one of the things that is important to us is that players bring themselves to our games. Just sitting back and letting the experience wash over you doesn't work with our games. The player needs to be more active. Up until the point where they have to figure out how to enjoy the game, even.

We build our games as semi-living entities. They have their own existence and are not simply sitting around for you to play them. You have to approach them gently and see what they do. We think of playing our games as something that you do together: player and game play together, with each other.

A real theme that is also very closely connected to the technology, is the idea that there are always multiple ways of looking at things. That doesn't necessarily mean that "there is no truth". But it does mean that whatever we think and whatever we feel is only a fragment of the potential. And we can try to look at things differently, or play with a different mindset to get different effects. always partial, always temporary. There is a truth underneath all that. But I guess our message is that this truth is always complex and that we have to accept that we will never really completely understand it. And that there is a certain beauty in that fragility that feels like home.

DD: Like most arthouse games, your titles tend to polarise critics. Does it concern you that there seems to be fewer critics out there that operate under the assumption that games can be a means of artistic expression? Why/ why not?
AH: In our experience, actually most game writers start from the assumption that videogames can be art. But many do not understand the consequences of this position and have a very personal conception of what art is or what it should be. We do have some sympathy for such an attitude, which tends to be rather conservative — our own artistic tastes are rather conservative too. But it does often mean that they can't find a way to enjoy our work — since we are doomed to make modern/contemporary art.

It would be very nice for us if game journalists educated themselves a bit about art. Maybe then the criticism could get a bit more nuanced. Which I think would be very helpful. We don't think of ourselves as such great artists, but criticism along the lines of "the game is not fun" or "this is not a game" or "I don't understand this game" don't help us much further, and only encourage us to explore less, experiment less, be more conservative. Which is the opposite of what journalists should be doing.

DD: How do you see the games industry developing into the future?
MS: The game industry always seems to be at a crossroads. The crossroads between taking videogames to the next level and becoming a medium for all and remaining exactly where they are and optimizing within the sort of mega-niche of gamers. So far the industry has always chosen the latter path. I remain hopeful, but realism forces us to see absolutely no development in the future of the game industry. Things have been the same for 30 years and will continue to be the same forever.

Bientôt l'été
DD: Bientôt l'été, your most recent title, is a truly wonderful thesis on human interactivity. One moment more than anything else stood out to me when playing it however - what was the meaning of the gun?
MS: Bientôt l'été is a bit of love song to Nouvelle Vague cinema. And many of these films feature a gun, often in parody of American cinema of the time, I presume. But there's also a few guns in the novels of Marguerite Duras, that inspired the game. Most notably in Moderato Cantabile which starts with a crime passionnel: a man shoots his lover in a café.

In the game, of course, it serves the purpose of a conversation piece. To put the gun on the table is the ultimate gesture. The meaning, as most things in the café, is unclear, ambiguous. Also you can't fire the gun, or even threaten with it. You can only show it, suggest it, propose it. Many things could happen from that point. We like how it triggers our imagination.

DD: What would you do if you had the kind of budget for a game that the blockbusters are given?
MS: That would depend a bit on whether we would have to make the money back or not.

If commerce is of no concern, we would probably spend it on the Magnum Opus we are dreaming of: a four part trilogy about Catholic ideas and imagery, and the modern need for spirituality. We are fascinated with religious art and would like to add a contemporary bit to that tradition.

If, on the other hand, we had to be sensible in terms of finances, then I think we would make a big videogame based entirely on its narrative context (as opposed to built around play mechanics). The ultimate videogame-as-expression that would mean the breakthrough of videogames as a medium. It would make all current blockbusters suddenly look their age (dragging along game concepts from the eighties) and would start a golden age for humanity in which a new medium would help us solve all of our problems and make everybody's life on this planet pleasant and fulfilling.

DD: What is next for your studio?
AH: We are currently making a relatively small iPad game based on a larger research and prototyping project (http://cncntrc.tumblr.com). This should be done in the summer. In the mean time, we have started preproduction on a large, but very simple, game with an all star team. And we are looking for ways to reboot our very first game idea (http://tale-of-tales.com/8), possibly through Kickstarter.

DD: Finally, what games are you playing at the moment?
AH: The most recent real game we played was an alpha version of Frictional's current project. That was very exciting. Other than that, I'm afraid it's "games shmames" here. All we do is play Candy Crush Saga and Spelltower. We can't seem to be bothered with anything more substantial. Hopefully that will change soon. We would really love to play more. But all the shooting and jumping and zombies and soldiers just don't appeal to us. And my New Years resolution not to kill any virtual creatures doesn't make things easier of course.
Reactions: