Tattletale: Standing Up To The Blood And The Bullets

It’s the Art History Of Games conference 2010. Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the founding members of Tale of Tales, have just concluded their talk on whether games can be art with a resounding no. “Make love, not games”, they say. The audience responds with an awkward applause that only adds decibels to the confusion. Out of everyone, you’d think it would be this collective of open minds that fully understood the development duo and their artistic creations. But Tale of Tales only remains stalwart to their solitude in thought and determination in pursuing what they believe games can be. They’ve been painted as the advocator of the ‘art game’, due to taking the medium to new places and encouraging players to discover different emotions through it. If only that was enough.

“I don’t agree with what my parents made of me. And I certainly hope I’m not making the same thing of my own children. I have to fight these tendencies all the time. But I don’t think it’s a battle I can win. The best I can hope for is damage control.”


Like every one of us, how Michaël leads his life, perceives the world and shapes his creations is influenced by his upbringing. He was taught by his elders that being weird and original was something to aspire to, almost granting superiority to the non-conformist. Though, life has taught him that this may only bring respect from like-minded individuals; an elitist few. The sacrifice is popularity, and perhaps with it, happiness (to an extent).

“I try to be honest in my work. I try to make things from an honest artistic drive. And fight this damned rebellious streak I was brought up with. But I have to be careful. Because lapsing into conformism is not only a bad idea creatively, it’s also something I’m not very good at. Perhaps, for better or for worse, being weird is a talent. I just need to find ways of tempering the weirdness or channelling it so that my work can still connect to an audience.”

The desire to connect is not a cry for help. Nor is it a lost soul trying to reunite with its estranged kin. Michaël wants to encourage people to look inside themselves and discover a greater meaning as other artists’ work has done for him. To stare upon the cosmos and hold the gaze for a moment, connected with the others mimicking the action, including himself. Michaël makes art and he sees it “as magic, as religion, as meditation”. His most debate-stirring work, The Graveyard, asked people to accept the beauty of death. The image of an old lady, drooped on a park bench surrounded by gravestones may be his most powerful to date. But for every person who accepted the game, there seem to be twice as many nitpicking its form and rejecting it on principal alone. It’s easier, they say, to fear the unknown than it is to understand it.

________________________________________________________________________________________

“One should, in the end,

be able to make a game

about whatever one wants.”

________________________________________________________________________________________

Tale of Tales is not the only developer to make games that people rejected into the greater ‘games’ canon. They hold a semblance in their philosophy with thatgamecompany, or more specifically, Jenova Chen. Yet, where they have fiery arguments and abuse, Chen has sales figures and an enormous amount of love fired his way. Most recent of Chen’s projects to be infinitely praised is Journey, which takes the friendly and anonymous player interaction of Tale of Tales’ The Endless Forest and tweaks it into a more directed experience. Equally so, Dear Esther and Proteus contain similar design principals to The Path and The Graveyard, but the previous two titles have been more widely accepted by players. Has Tale of Tales become the developer that people love to hate?

“Usually if gamers don’t like games, they just ignore them. I think the reason why gamers don’t like us is because in the past we have told them that their hobby is childish and that most games are stupid. They have never forgiven us for this.

It’s of course an interesting question why gamers are so defensive about their hobby and why they tolerate no criticism (see the comments on Robert Ebert’s blog for example). If I didn’t know any better, I’d think they were all completely addicted to these things. But there’s more going on, I think. Not sure exactly what.

In any case, the result has been that videogames have hardly evolved in three decades. So little that now it is becoming deeply questionable if they will ever become a medium as well respected as the others. The aggressive conservatism and defensiveness of gamers is dragging the entire medium down to a level of the most base popular entertainment.

I think there will always be a layer of that sort of audience in any medium. But press, developers and publishers need to learn how to ignore them, how to reject them, how to continue building something and not allow those destructive forces to impact their work. That’s probably the positive effect of the recent issues with violence and sexism in videogames culture. Maybe they will stimulate us to finally grow up.”

The segue almost writes itself. The question has been asked of many people in recent weeks and a slew of answers have been given. Debates have arisen between journalists and players on social media, in comments on articles and in forum threads. It’s a time of great debate. Developers have only been apologetic in their response, or otherwise entirely silent. But not knowing what quite to expect from this one, I asked the question:

“What did you make of this year’s E3 and the many debates that have branched off from the event?”

Take a deep breath.

“As long as videogames are just games, they will be violent and sexist. Gamers don’t seem to mind. It seems that in this year’s E3, the violence and sexism has reached new heights. But there is no fundamental difference. It was just a bit more than some people were willing to accept. But all the protest I have witnessed was only in favour of achieving moderation. Apparently even the protesters enjoy the violence and the sexism, as long as it’s not too much.

We’ve always advocated artistic integrity as an antidote to these problems. I would love to see a games industry where we can laugh with sexy nuns as creative license and where excessive blood on the screen is justified by a greater mission on the part of the developer. It’s not like in other media, where there’s a wealth of different topics, and a certain maturity of dealing with them. In such media, an excessively vulgar work will quickly be put in its place. And if it’s well done, it might even become successful. But it’s not a problem.

One should, in the end, be able to make a game about whatever one wants. Game developers need to be able to stand up and personally defend their decisions. No amount of mob pressure should be able to change the design just because “some people were offended” because, most importantly, things should be there for a reason. But in the games industry, the reason is often not art, but money. Mostly there is no reason but dogmatic adherence to the conservative traditions of the FPS or so-called Adventure game genres. So out come the PR machines to revise the game design. We say, if the games are made with the integrity one sees in other more mature media the artistic intent for controversial elements is clearer to an audience and the developers could defend their choices. These games would be polarizing but that opens the channels for debate and new generations who build on top of new-broken ground with their own artistic vision. All of which can make the medium grow. And that, more than censorship, is what the industry needs.”

Infusing a sense of higher purpose to supply an alternative to what games are understood to be right now. That’s the stance that Tale of Tales takes. Hand-in-hand with that thinking is the search for honest, authored creations rather than manufactured portmanteaus; combinations of whatever are popular at the time. Ultimately, the argument is that it’s not the content that is the problem, but the purpose (or lack thereof) which is holding back games from moving past their infancy.

There is hope though, and I’m sure that many of you will be quick to raise the profile of a number of games and their developers as proof that change is already occurring. It is, and Tale of Tales acknowledges that more people are taking the medium more seriously. In fact, they say that it is for this reason that a focus on technical and artistic development should be urged right now. So that games can become worthy of this attention.

________________________________________________________________________________________

“I don’t think everybody

should make art about deep

self-exploration. Only people

who are good at it.”

________________________________________________________________________________________

It has been the mission of Tale of Tales, then, to reach inwardly in order to further explore this versatile medium, which they say is still very much in a virgin state. They hold the belief that to not desire to reach into the expanses of something is criminal; it’s a human obligation as much as our fervent curiosity of the universe. While the majority of games offer power fantasies, Tale of Tales explores the intricacies of fragility. Online games allow players to teabag each other’s avatars and vocally trade racial slurs. Tale of Tales removes this capability entirely and in its place are courteous gestures and playful frolic. As said though, it seems that their efforts only lay the path down for others to walk upon with an improved design, or at least, one that proves more popular. From what we understand of our human desires, the assumption would be that Tale of Tales is envious of these more widely accepted developers and their games. But that rebellious streak is engrained within, and it teaches that something that is popular cannot be of a high quality.

“This is not a value, judgment or an opinion. It’s a simple logical fact. Quality is personal. The higher the quality, the more personally someone is affected. The more personally someone is affected, the lower the amount of people with whom the experience will be shared. For something to be popular, it needs to contain elements that affect many people. These elements are shared, and thus less personal.

Of course it doesn’t work the other way around. Only unpopular things can be really good. But being unpopular does not make something good. There are many factors that affect quality. But trying to be popular implies reduction of quality.

That being said, this is not a simple clear cut situation. Is it better to affect a small number of people very deeply or to affect a great number of people rather shallowly? I don’t know. I think it mostly depends on how you affect them.”

The boldness of the previous answers drifts slightly when questioning how these ambitions for the medium can be achieved. The intention is clear but the execution is lacking. This is also visible in some of Tales of Tales’ games as their uncertainty has smeared the intent, hence why other developers have stepped in to better realise what they set out to do. Dan Pinchbeck, after having made Dear Esther, said of The Path that it had too many agendas at work that only forced the player into thinking mechanically, which was the opposite of the more open narrative intended for the player to experience.

According to Tale of Tales, the cause of this is due to working in a popular medium therefore rendering it silly to make something elitist. The result is an awkward in between, which can’t possibly be popular or fully appreciated by individuals. Due to this, Tale of Tales has adopted a very critical view of their past work and referred to themselves as “total amateurs”. They’re harsh towards their own creations in order to constantly strive for more meaningful works of art. There is some comfort though, as Michaël revealed that while he doesn’t consider his own work to be original or great, when he compares it to “the lazy, cowardly, un-original work that is produced around [him]…it means that even the most boring thing that [he tries] to do will still be insanely weird for most.” A need to further his education of game design has led to deep analysis of those other games that share the same thinking as his, yet invite praise rather than rejection and criticism.

In Journey and Dear Esther, he learned that the beauty is in their minimalism. There is just one distant goal presented to the player. This causes them to look elsewhere for focus, and so an appreciation for the environment and the sounds emerges, even finding beauty in the smallest of things. As such, purity is the distant goal that Tale of Tales hopes to reach with their next game, Bientôt l’été. In the past they have fell into the trap of adding mechanics and goals only because they felt they had to so that the player felt engaged with a task familiar to them. The integrity of their art was lost due to this.

“In most of our games so far, we tried to have a range of possible ways of playing, without demanding or recommending a particular one. A design goal was often to be as inclusive as possible. Bientôt l’été is different. The mood is much more defined and the design is tweaked towards a much more particular emotional effect than we’re used to aiming for.”

The design process is an unusual one then. Rather than building a base and working in other parts of the game over time, Bientôt l’été is being stripped of all of its verbs. The alpha versions being distributed to pre-purchasers have become more basic with progression. At first the player would walk along a beach, pausing to ‘collect’ quotes from the works of Marguerite Duras that are written in the sand. Now this is being chopped. The player would then walk into a lonesome seaside cafe and use those sentences to converse with a person while smoking cigarettes and drinking red wine. The cafe was replaced with a cyber-cafe to remove the “realistic features”, but this change didn’t work out so has since been reversed.

________________________________________________________________________________________

“The aggressive

conservatism and

defensiveness of gamers

is dragging the entire

medium down to a level

of the most base

popular entertainment.”

________________________________________________________________________________________

Though this process seems very contrived and confused, at last, Michaël feels that he is maturing as a developer by practising what he preaches. He is finding himself by delving deep into how he feels about certain things (which turns out to be more ambiguous than anything). By exposing his weaknesses through Bientôt l’été, he says he is able to remedy them and come out stronger as both a person and a game designer. You could draw a parallel at this point, as it seems that the game industry is going through a period of exposure, as people have ripped it open and poked at its squidgy organs. It is a time of change, and it is upon the shoulders of artists that Tale of Tales argues the fate of the medium lies. Ultimately, they urge a need to appeal to artistic integrity and to make games they believe in.

“Some people have a talent to make popular art, to be popular. I don’t. Everybody should pursue their talents. I’m still figuring out what mine are, exactly. I don’t think everybody should make art about deep self-exploration. Only people who are good at it. That even applies to the courage that many developers seem to lack to do something outside of the mainstream. If their desire to create something personal, something they believe in, is not strong enough to feed their courage to actually do so, we are all better off when they stay exactly where they are. Because that is where they will make their best work.”

Of course, there are those who work in the industry only to support themselves in this unstable economic time. But surely there are many who always dreamed of making a game they could call their own. Bringing this to the fore and creating something pure that doesn’t have the sole aim of being popular is what Tale of Tales wants to see more of. They’ve managed to bring an emotional experience to a small number of players, but they want to share that love with more people. Before that can happen, the most introverted of their works yet needs to be tackled and made pure. They hope that more developers will join them, and in doing so, will work to advance the medium in small steps.

“After this, I’ll try to be nicer to people. At least in my work”, Michaël concludes with a little wink.

by Chris Priestman | priestmanchris@gmail.com | @CPriestman

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