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Interview: Tale Of Tales

Auriea and Michaël of Tale of Tales.

Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn are the creative team behind Tale of Tales, who are often known for their firm stake in presenting games that ask more of us. They will readily admit the games they make are not necessarily something all gamers will enjoy--gamers as we know them were not really their target audience when they began. At the same time, The Path did catch a fair number of eyes, and is probably among the most well-known of their titles.

To date they have released The Endless Forest, where players interact in an online space; The Graveyard, which stirred up some controversy as people debated whether or not it was a game (the creators dub it more an exploration and experiment); The Path, a take on Little Red Riding Hood; Fatale, which was my among my first reviews for this site; and Vanitas, a small treasure box to play with on an iDevice.

As someone who is part of those who believes games are an artform that can be explored (and hasn't yet fully done so), I wanted to talk with this couple about their work, inspirations, and goals.

The cast of girls and young women from The Path.

GayGamer: Your two latest game releases [The Path and Fatale] allow for reinterpretations of rather old tales which have stayed with us due to their power in certain archetypal characters and story tropes. One of your next projects, The Book of 8, focuses on Sleeping Beauty, and seems to be another such case. Yet these tales have been passed along and shaped in many different directions based upon who tells the story, and who is listening. Considering the scope and audience of games, how do you feel that interaction has changed, and how aware do you allow yourselves to think of who your audience might be?

Auriea & Michaël: When we started Tale of Tales, we did so with the explicit desire of making video games for people who don't play them. We had experienced a lot of wonderful things in video games ourselves and were inspired by the potential of the medium. But at the same time, we understood why most of the people we knew had no interest in video games and no desire to play them. Both the subject matter and the interactive structure of games are off-putting for all but the most devoted. So we decided to make video games about things that were of interest to people outside of the gamers audience and that were far more accessible in terms of interaction.

In the mean time, we have learned that it is very difficult for us as independent developers to reach an audience that plainly rejects video games. While it is very gratifying to hear people say "I don't play games but I would play yours," there's a lot more hurdles that need to be overcome before everybody will start playing video games. And we cannot do this on our own. On the other hand, we have also discovered that there is an interest for the kinds of unconventional games that we make within the existing audience for video games. We hope this is a growing group and that perhaps this may be a way for video games to ultimately reach the audience at large.

There's many reasons why we like to work with old stories. But perhaps one of the most important ones is that we don't want to tell stories through games. If we make a game about a story that everybody knows already, we don't need to tell it again. Which doesn't mean we don't like stories. Just that we prefer to be immersed in them rather than hear somebody tell them to us. In a way, we want our games to have the emotional and intellectual effect of a story, without needing to go through plot development.

We choose our stories without much thought. A simple fascination with a character can be enough. It is through the actual making of the game, and later the playing of it, that we explore the themes of the story and get an idea of what it might mean to us. That's the power of procedurality and interactivity: it allows us to present the building blocks of an event, a situation, a story, for the player to put them together in a way that pleases them, or in a more random way, generated by the software. And this mental construction is always temporary. It's a continuous playing with the question "What if?" Interactive software allows us to explore our own feelings about all sorts of things. It's not a one way channel where the designer creates the environment and the player follows a given path through it, overcoming predefined obstacles and receiving predefined prizes. Or at least it doesn't need to be.

That being said, we do love to position ourselves in the long string of tellers of stories that are being reinterpreted throughout the ages. Playing with these old stories through an interactive medium somehow feels closer to the oral traditions of storytelling than the more linear interpretation in print and film. We feel some of these stories have lost some of their power through the modern age and we're trying to find it and bring it to the surface again. Fairy tales are not just for children. And stories from the Bible are not just for Christians. They are part of our culture and carry with them the wisdom of many centuries.

We have an ambiguous relationship towards our audience. On the one hand, we feel that we need to explore this medium and go as far as we can to discover what it is capable of. But on the other, we also feel a responsibility to keep our work accessible, to try and reach as many people as possible. The latter is difficult for us because we can't trust our own instincts. As artists, what we find logical and easy is often not so for many people in the audience. So we rely entirely on playtesting for making our games more accessible. And with our limited budgets, there is not always sufficient time for elaborate testing. But we've sort of settled on the idea that we need to make both kinds of projects: small experimental ones that only appeal to a small group and larger more accessible ones through which we reach a larger audience.

Salome with the head of John the Baptist on a platter.

GG: Of your games, the one that most captured my imagination had to be Fatale, largely because of its presentation and history. Your own talk of it referenced not just the tale of Salome, but in particular Oscar Wilde's stage play. While many draw comparisons between film and video games, I find myself more apt to draw a comparison (if one must be drawn) between the stage and a video game, as the developers provide the script that I, the actor and director, follow and enact; which then allows for spaces to be of my interpretation, even if I must follow the script's main goals. Many touches in that particular game seem to support such a vision and made the game a delight for me, so I was wondering how you view games in terms of the control the audience has over their actions.

A&M: Interactive media and theater have in common that they are both real-time. As such, they create a situation in which artists and audience are much closer together than in any other medium. And the experience of the piece relies entirely on the collaboration between the two. You can ruin a video game experience by playing badly and you can ruin a theater performance by coughing very loudly. Video games, thanks to their virtual nature (which is a fruit of them being software), have the added advantage that they are extremely intimate. You're not sitting in a room with other people trying to make the stage play happen. It is just you, on your own, and the stage. In many cases, you even find the roles of actors and audience reversed, and you often play both simultaneously.

Our games rely heavily on the performance of the player. We like to offer the player a limited number of actions without forcing them to perform them. This way, the actions become a sort of language that the player can use to communicate with the game. This language can be in part alien or a little bit mysterious, so you are encouraged to use your imagination to give meaning to what your are experiencing. This sort of play is probably very close to acting, or perhaps to playing an instrument.

It's a pity that not more people have the 'talent' required to play in this way. Most people prefer to be guided through their media experience. This is why films are so successful, and rules-based goal-oriented games. Maybe this is a transition period, though. After all, this is the first medium, after thousands of years of culture, to give so much power to the audience. It may take some time for people to get comfortable with that.

Even as developers, we have a long way to go. In general there's two schools of thought regarding the player's activity in a game. One school focuses on the mechanics and wants to give the player unlimited freedom within a given set of rules. They see video games as an electronic version of traditional games. The other school considers video games as a medium for storytelling. They restrict the freedom of the player for the purpose of giving them a sort of emotional roller-coaster ride through the story. The mythical ideal situation is obviously a mixture of the two: to somehow allow the story to grow out of the activity of the player. Being engineers, most game developers conclude from this that there is no place for authorship in games.

We don't agree. There is most definitely a place for authorship in games. Just not the same old unidirectional kind of authorship that non-artists think happens in media. In fact, the computer gives artists a tool to break out of the impasse that post-modernism has thrown art into. Because as authors of an interactive piece, we are no longer restricted by the old idea that our work needs to send a clear message to its audience. We are no longer restricted by the notion that somehow art should be about self-expression. These were all misguided ideas to begin with anyway. Art has always been about the spectator. But only now, through procedural, interactive technology, can we actually work with the spectator as an ingredient in the creation of the piece. It's no longer simply about interpretation and empathy. It's about living through a thought process, about experiencing the emotion as if you were there. While at the same time being fully aware of the fact that you are playing, that you are experimenting. Video games can be as immersive as films. But, ideally, they are never as manipulative. They don't need to be. The player's activity required for the experience, creates a sort of contract between the work and the spectator. And it is together that they create the experience, both, ideally, equally active.

Scarlet from The Path.

GG: The presence of women in games is still rather diminutive, and their presence as self-actualized persons and not just sexually exploited characters is even more rare. In each of your games I've played so far, women are the focus of the game, whether or not I'm playing as them; yet, their sexuality is also considered. Fatale in particular seemed to have a large focus on Salome's sexuality, and while she had some elements of sexualization, it was part of the main story (theoretically warning women off such a path), while your version played with the idea of the Laura Mulvey's concept of the male gaze (if one interprets playing as John the Baptist). In an industry that often goes in the opposite direction of yours, how do you go crafting these female characters?

A&M: We draw after life. Life is very complicated. And the medium of video games allows us to investigate it in all its complexity (at least when you leave the beaten path and let go of the idea that a game should be built around a rigid system of strict rules). We find women beautiful in their complexity. Beautiful in the poetic sense: a beauty that moves us. The shallow beauty of a pretty face or a large bosom doesn't move us. And simply presenting a woman who is strong -like a man- is far too simplistic for us.

We are moved by the fragility of human life. And to some extent, perhaps, this fragility is expressed more directly through a female character than a male--women having been second class citizens for a big part of Western history.

Our interest in female characters is probably also in part the result of working together as a hetero couple. Since we live together, gender-related topics are something we don't shy away from in our games. On the contrary: we probably use our work to explore some of the more mystifying aspects of the other sex, of our partner. And part of that is indeed the complexity of sex, sexual attraction, sensuality, sexual fantasies, but also love and tenderness and togetherness. We don't feel a need to simplify these topics. If only because complexity is at the heart of the interactive medium: the more facets we can include in our work, the more points of view, the more nuances, the better. The work becomes richer and the chance increases that the player might find something in it that is meaningful to them.

But we don't need to go that far to realize how painfully inadequately women are often portrayed in video games. In part this is probably because video games haven't really embraced the idea that they are an art form yet. Many games are still being made as a sort of digital sports, and the avatars in the representation are really not much more than pawns on a board. As soon as designers start choosing characters because they want to explore who they are and how they think, the representation of both men and women in games will become much more nuanced.

Because men, by the way, are also completely misrepresented in games. But this is part of a long tradition in Western culture where men prefer to be considered simple and straightforward. This has lead to a particularly awkward situation in sex specifically, where women are considered these complex creatures that are difficult to satisfy and have the capacity for all sorts of pleasure while men are supposed to be these simpletons who are easy to please and for whom sex is more a matter of skill than intimacy. And many men allow themselves to lead these simple lives, the life of a warrior, so to speak. But there's a lot more potential in men than our cultures give them credit for.

Hopefully some of that can be explored through Fatale, which is as much about the feelings and thoughts of John the Baptist as it is about Salome. We're not content to simply accept that there is such a thing as the male gaze, for instance, and judge it quickly. We want to explore this tendency and think about it, without judging. But also that other tendency in men, to sacrifice their lives for a higher purpose: what is that all about? And what happens when a man can let go of his "mission"? What thoughts and feelings emerge then?

GG: You've started experimenting with different platforms, notably the iPhone and iPad, making boxes. How do you find their set of controls alters your approach to how you design?

A&M: Different controls are actually always welcome as inspiration. And the combination of touch and tilt in the iPhone allows for a very interesting new set of interactions. But it's not a major thing as our focus is always on the virtual and on the imagination. Ideally, we want the control mechanisms to disappear. And this is hard to do with the iPhone and iPod touch because they are so small and with the iPad because the glass of its screen is not pleasant to touch. When interacting with these mobile devices, you can never really make the player forget about the hardware. This is probably why we end up making boxes. We confirm the existence of the hardware box by creating a software box, because it's impossible to deny the presence of the device. This is ultimately why iPhone and iPad are not so attractive to us and development for handheld devices is a low priority at Tale of Tales.

From their project, 8.

GG: Kellee Santiago had a somewhat large debate with Roger Ebert this past year, after which she has come out stating that she respects his views but she already considers games art, therefore she's much more interested in what games can do next. In various bits and pieces I've read from you online, you seem somewhat between the two, still wanting to make sure that the idea of games as art reaches beyond just our circle of 'people who game,' and yet wanting to see the games movement push further, explore more thematically rich stories and experiences. Focusing on your next projects, what are your goals? In what ways do you hope to push beyond what you've already done?

A&M: It's easy to say that games are art. But that statement is meaningless when you see how most video games are not created as art. Is it fair for games to demand to be called art while most of the people who make them do not work in an artistic way at all? Kellee Santiago is a good friend of ours, and we consider thatgamecompany and Tale of Tales to be sister companies. Their work is certainly created from an artistic motive. But this is so incredibly rare in video games. We would like to see more of it, of course. But we don't see a lot of development studios hiring artists to lead their productions. Games are still mostly lead by business and technology and simple entertainment. And art usually remains an afterthought.

As for our own work, our biggest problem is not pushing beyond what has already been done. That is really easy. This medium has such vast unexplored potential that it's almost impossible to not do something entirely new every time. Our concern is more that we need to somehow connect to certain conventions enough to allow people access to our work. This is mostly because the two major games that we're prototyping now both have the potential to appeal to a relatively large group of people, if we take care of that in their design. After those prototypes, we've planned a project that will probably only appeal to a small elite. But that's ok too, we need that kind of balance.

The first prototype is a re-imagining of the first game we designed with Tale of Tales but that we never succeeded to publish. That game was called "8" and the codename for the current project is "The Book of 8". The general idea is to bring the world we created for the 8 project to an audience in a more modest form than the original design, one that we can handle as a small independent studio. We're excited about 8 because it is a much more light-hearted experience than most of the games we've done before. It's about a princess who fell asleep because of the curse of a fairy. But her true prince never came and now she has been sleeping for far too long. Her palace is dusty and dark and together with a little girl, you will set everything right so that the princess may finally wake up. It's about fairy magic, hopeless love and care for children.

The second prototype is very different from anything we've ever made. It's not based on a story. There's no characters in it. It's not exactly abstract but it also doesn't really feature a simulated world. It's a little bit like a rail shooter, except that it's about creation instead of destruction and about sensual interaction instead of aggressive violence. It also consists of two parts: one part being created by Auriea, the other by Michaël. This is a new process for us. But it fits with the theme. Michaël is working on the part that is inspired by flowers and sex. While Auriea is dealing with cosmology and geometry in her part. We hope to meet on the plane of the divine and the sublime.

Both projects are still in their prototyping phase with absolutely no plans yet for production, let alone publication. So it will be a few more years probably before anyone can play them. Which is a strange situation to be in. On the one hand, we need a lot of time to really investigate these ideas and experiment with interaction. But on the other, while we are doing that, our ideas about game creation also evolve. Sometimes it feels like our theories are way ahead of our practice. And then it gets frustrating to work on that "old stuff". And other times we discover things while working that we hadn't really considered in our thinking before. We'd prefer to be able to work a lot faster. But the current technology is simply not good enough. The hardware isn't fast enough and the authoring interfaces are inadequate. Hopefully that situation will change within our life times.

Graveyard, less a game, more an exploration.

Many will still debate whether or not the majority of Tale of Tales' output thus far has been what we would normally call games; a debate I think worth having to allow us to examine exactly what it is about games that appeal to different people. They certainly are interactive art in some fashion, and if we step back, interactive art would be an apt umbrella under which to place games that aspire to such.

Of course, not every game has to be art, just as not every movie or book does. What I love, and I fully realize this is not everyone's cup of tea, is that they are willing to ask me to engage, rather than focus on the nebulous word 'fun.' With that, I wish to thank Tale of Tales both for this interview and carving out a space to provide us with a different look at the medium.

N.B. All images were taken from Tale of Tales' Flickr gallery, which has some rather gorgeous wallpapers and screenshots, if you have interest in such.


Briker Ed said:

Just seen their status on facebook saying you've done the interview with ToT and I rushed over to read it :D

I really like all of their work so far and The Book of 8 is among one of the most anticipated titles for me (that, and Superbrothers: Sword & Sorcery EP).

Thanks for interviewing them!

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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Briker Ed on Interview: Tale Of Tales: Just seen their status on facebook saying you've done the interview with ToT and I rushed over to read it...

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