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Passionate Frustration: Tale Of Tales' Dark Journey

November 11, 2011 Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

[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.

The Graveyard

It sounds like because you're more isolated from the commercial industry...

AH: Perhaps.

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.

AH: Yeah.

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.

Article Start Page 1 of 6 Next

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E McNeill
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I'm really glad these guys exist. In a way, I think they have a better perspective that most devs that loved games their whole lives.

Kyle Holmquist
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Spectacular interview with two obviously amazing, very vision-oriented people. We need more individuals within this industry that truly consider themselves artists, and the work they create as being worthy of the high level that true art attains. We need more visionaries as producers.

Ricardo Hernandez
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This is easily one of the best reads I have had here on this website.

Josh Bycer
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Great interview, it's always interesting to read the thoughts from very passionate people. I've played The Path and Fatale so far, I find their games intriguing but I don't think I'm understanding all the meaning in the design of either.

Josh Bycer
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Not the intention of the design, but the meaning of the games themselves. Such as what is going on in Fatale.

JoseArias NikanoruS
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I love when I end up thinking after reading an article...

I just love their perspective and agree with them. I want MORE. It's there... please, let's take it, let's write it, let's make it. Let's make FPS and RPG's and also all those games that we have been wanting for years.

Every time I imagine a new game, I always try to remember what I wanted as a kid and didn't get. And I see our present and all those things that I wanted to play back then haven't been done yet. I still want to see those games...

About the "bad" criticism they receive... I've been thinking a little about Nintendo. I'm a Nintendo fanboy so I'm very partial to them, but still, I feel like they get a lot of hate because they try to make some changes. And I feel like they got even more hate because they got a successful with something thy weren't supposed to (the Wii and the DS). I remember reading year after year "Nintendo is going down this year for sure" with some kind of ingrained resentment. Like they were angry that Nintendo tried something they didn't like and Nintendo proved that they were wrong about it not being possible and that you could actually make a great console without high-end graphics. And now we see all those articles of people thinking that Nintendo will go puff... finally. And that's talking about a huge company that takes some risks but it's still actually very conservative. So, my point is... there is so much hate and conservatism. Let's hope they grow up as well... it would be good it that happened.

James Orevich
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It's great to hear such passion and and creativity can exist in the world of games.

I have 2 mentors with polar opposite opinions.

One believes games are money making machines and you shouldn't reinvent the wheel.

The other believes you should be in the games industry to create something amazing and would be crazy to make a game for money.

Thank you for this article which gives insight into both sides from experienced and informed opinions.

Lance Burkett
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Good read. I completely share their frustration with the industry(or should I say art form).

But I think the distinction needs to be made between interaction and interface. Interaction relates to how the player emulates the fictional world in their mind and in a sense affects it and how it affects them. Whereas what they were describing has more to do with interfacing. I think the problem with Heavy Rain is that the interface tries to be used as a literal and explicit aesthetic element. It shouldn't be about how the player presses buttons, it should be about how the player interacts with the world. Because the fictional world that the game aesthetically represents are where the ideas are transmitted and where the key concepts are explored, rather than the mechanical parts of the media itself.

Why design the aesthetic aspects of the interaction at the interface level? When it is approached that way, the aesthetics of interaction are consciously analyzed by the player, which simply drags them out of the experience.

Altug Isigan
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"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."

Just love her saying that :)

Titi Naburu
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"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."

Wow, MichaŽl Samyn defined myself! I love art, but I can't create it. I can do gameplay, game mechanics, I can design how the game works, how to challenge the player. But I can't portray art, I can't do a game make you feel anything other than "it's too easy, it's boring", "it's hard but I can win" or "this is impossible, I can't win".

Nou Phabmixay
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Thanks for the article. I can only say "ditto" with the previous comments. But after placing so many negative comments elsewhere, it's nice to find something to be positive about.

Sergio Rosa
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I came to this article from "Tale Of Tales' Harvey: Game Developers Need To Think Holistically" but I'm sharing (and rewriting) parts of it since I think I have some good points on this.

About graphics and technical stuff: I see games have fallen into the "technology" trap, since they have "indulged" (for the lack of a better word) with the ideas of "graphics are everything." It takes but a small visit to Youtube to see how many self-proclaimed "hardcore gamers" will argue about games based on which one has the better graphics, or which engine is better, based obviously exclusively on the graphics, since we don't have access to all the game engines out there (I recall an argument some youtubers were having about how the internal use only Frostbite 2 was better than UE3 purely based on the frostbite 2 demo reel DICE showed at E3).

My point here is how developers add too many complications to the technical side of the games (as they said on this interview) but I think this is a part of some sort of vicious circle where you do that because that's what gamers want. You want to pushthe technology, and gamers want tech to be pushed because "that makes games better" (which is completely false). I've experienced that with my just-released indie game SteroidS (developed using UDK), a lot of comments go into "how dated it looks and how it doesn't take advantage of Unreal Engine," this last comment meaning "it doesn't take advantage of the graphic capabilities to make it look as good as Gears of War 3" (little they know I did take advantage of UDK's features, I just happened to take advantage of Unreal Script and Kismet, and that doesn't show in the visuals).

This also relates to how gamers (as well as some developers) make claims on how we desperately need new consoles, while this sometimes can be translated as "we want better graphics." Then come those claims on "how the PC offers a better gaming experience," and the reasoning behind that is basically the latest graphic card can display better graphics than the current generation consoles. In the meantime, there's still a lot that can be tried with devices such as the Kinect to create different kind of experiences. Unfortunately many of those would end up being ignored or would become a part of a "niche" because Modern Warfare 3 looks so much better than *insert fictional very original kinect title here*

About games being able to be a narrative/storytelling medium: We all know the "videogames are art" argument. We can debate whether or not games are an artistic medium or not, what merits do they have (like storytelling). However, how much importance those elements have if games will most of the time be judged based on technical aspects? I for one like the FEAR series a lot (not because they are FPS, as I'm not into FPS, for example I've never played CoD, nor I plan to), but I couldn't help to be very upset when I read this quote on the IGN review: "In terms of aesthetics, F.E.A.R. 3 provides passable graphics that look slightly dated but still get the job done."

You never hear film critics say "In terms of aesthetics, Shutter Island provides passable visuals that look slightly dated but still get the job done." A filmmaker can decide to shoot in black and white and everything is fine because that was an "artistic choice." A game developer decides to use Final Fantasy VII style graphics, gamers and reviewers alike will yell "this looks too obsolete for current standards."

But then the same people start arguing about why games aren't considered art and why Rogert Ebert is wrong when he states videogames are not art.

I for one think developers should start looking into games in a more creative ways and not just focus on make the most photorealistic games possible, and also not just give gamers "the best graphics money can buy" but make them think of games as something different. That's what many indies are doing, but the truth is indies will not change the way the world perceives games.

About the state of the industry in general: I sometimes feel certain gamers (specially the so-called "hardcore gamers") are not into gaming for the love of gamers anymore but because they like top of the line technology, and they can even feel insulted if someone suggests an indie/social/casual game. It turns out that, while "hardcore gamers" should be those that crave for videogames for the love of videogames, they are in reality "big budget games gamers" that want pixel-perfect precision and visual realism (no wonder why CoD 8 sold so many million copies last week, even if it's pretty much the same game as the other 7).

The media doesn't help either, with so much attention given to big budget games because that's what's "hardcore" and smaller games are pretty much ignored. Again, I can talk about this based on my experience with SteroidS, being ignored by many gaming sites because right now MW3 and Skyrim are the only things worth talking about (as well as Minecraft, but for the sole reason that it has a huge user base, as it was completely ignored by the same sites during almost an entire year until it gained momentum... but many brilliant indie games will not get the chance of gaining momentum because they are simply ignored).

I think the clearest example of this could be EpicBattleAxe as they provide "Gaming news and features that cut through the crap..." Visit their site and what you'll see right now is Skyrim, MW3, Uncharted 3... I'd like to know their definition of "crap," maybe low-budget, social, casual, less-known indie games?

Ian Williams
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Wholeheartedly agree with this article.

Michael Joseph
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I see games as a microcosm of the larger state of dysfunction that is all around us. Violent games can have value beyond mindless entertainment if the violence is portrayed with some decent measure of honesty. If there's no honesty, it's just gratuitous glorification at best and at worst it's propaganda/social engineering. It feels like sometimes we live in an age of lies with truth obfuscated behind so much noise.

I think it's important for people to criticize junk games, junk science, junk food, junk products, junk anything, but I don't think we need to feel frustrated at anything the industry is doing or anything end users are doing. Just keep spreading awareness and eventually there will be a wholesale return to quality and values and honesty. There's growing opportunity to create the equivalent of organic sustainable free range pesticide free high nutrient games and earn a living.

Steven An
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Isn't it great that people can make games like Braid and Limbo and earn a living? I mean, I don't see why anybody would be frustrated at the industry right's such a good time to be a small game developer!

Sergio Rosa
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I ended up writing a blog post here on Gamasutra as some sort of "response" to this, with some impressions from what I gathered. You can read it here:

Steven An
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Lack of creative diversity in mainstream projects isn't really unique to the games industry. Music, movies, news, TV, etc. etc. all exhibit this. It's just the reality of the entertainment business. I think in any medium, if you want to see really innovative, creative stuff, you need to look at the smaller examples. With smaller projects, you can take more risks. I'm glad ToT exists to make the crazy stuff they do. And to everyone who thinks their stuff is bullshit, just don't buy their stuff anymore!

I do take issue with some of AH's comments generalizing the industry and what people want to make. It's a huge industry with many people, ma'am. And please, do not judge others for what they want to make either. You're lucky enough to be able to do what you do for a living, so let others do what they do for a living as well. If they want to make COD6 - Post-Modern Warfare, let them. It's less competition for you.