What are the motivations for game design?
Monetary returns are an essential element, and for some the only stimuli for creation. But there are those who hold validation as an integral part of manufacture, critical acclaim and respect from contemporaries takes precedence over wealth. Nostalgia has and continues to be a potent form of inspiration; to honour heroes through tribute by replicating affecting design. In contrast, those who resolve to change the world are not concerned with imitation but crafting the unimaginable, to transcend and usurp the work of their peers. Motivation of course is often an amalgam of a number of different rationales and emotions.
But what is the impetus for those who do not fit these molds?
What drives the studio that cares little for videogame retrospection? Whose heroes are not game designers but French writers and classical artists. Designers that; reject the very game structure used for evaluation by the videogame press.
For Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, who form Tale of Tales; motivation is something else entirely…
“We share a main purpose: to bring beauty into the world.
That, above anything else, is our motivation. We actually applaud all efforts to bring beauty into the world. Even the most mundane and superficial. Because the modern world can be so horrendously ugly. But beauty is also humanity’s highest achievement. The capacity for the creation of beauty is the only thing through which humankind can claim a form of nobility that would justify its continued existence on this planet. Without beauty, humans may as well go extinct.”
Beauty has extensive connotations, however in this medium it is usually a visual element rather than beauty through theme or content. The baggage that comes with modern game design requires constants; scores, challenges, rewards or goals with no room for contemplation, just a barrage of visceral feedback. With the odd exception, beauty is found in quietude; in moments of tranquillity, often when interactivity is a minimum.
“When we talk about beauty in the context of our art and specifically videogames, it has a political dimension too. The deep experience of beauty gives humans a sense of self that nothing else can. The joy that beauty brings connects us with existence in a way that gives us pride, which makes us strong. The joy of beauty teaches us that we are noble creatures, worthy of respect and consideration. It opens our eyes and makes us aware of the nature of reality beyond reason, beyond words.
In the modern era, however, many people seem to have lost their capacity to experience beauty. We are not educated for this purpose anymore as money and efficiency have become the rulers of our existence. The thought that many millions live and die without ever experiencing beauty is horrific. What a waste of human life! As artists we want to contribute to a solution by offering beauty in a form that is accessible to people. We believe videogames provide such a form.”
During Christmas 2013 Tale of Tales offered a tangible means of experiencing this beauty. For six days only the Belgian based studio lifted the veil on the company to celebrate 10 years as digital developers. ‘Pay what you want’ for a collection of experiments & prototypes, a rare opportunity in an industry where ideas are coveted and shrouded in secrecy. Spanning 18 titles; the package contains examples of the studios philosophies; from their initial inauguration to their 2006 Realtime art manifesto, from the Notgame rejection of modern game design to the recent Beautiful art program.
This body of work is a cache of tests that have evolved into notorious releases; The Path, Luxuria Superbia, Bientôt l’été, Fatale, The Endless Forest, The Graveyard and of course 8. Other curiosities include animated screen savers, an autonomous character engine and nude character skins for Quake.
Min & Meer
Charming diminutive scenes set to a buoyant soundtrack by Gerry De Mol and Eva De Roovere. Interactive images include 1960’s Batman, a bookshelf super imposed with goldfish and Sean Connery, clocks also hold a commonality between each act as an exit into the next. The work features Dutch texts which Michael informed me are about “family life, having children, love in an aging couple. It’s very moving especially because such subject matter is very rare.” Even if you become lost in translation the whole experience is joyful and captivating and these themes resonate through interaction.
A mesmerizing study of behavioural patterns in plants. Lina Kusaite part designed leaves and flowers which are redolent as myriad forms. Interaction is minimal which forces you to look and marvel at the spectacle. Leaves resonant as stained-glass windows, Blooms drip and fall in liquidity whilst other florets take on the shapes of parasols and wind chimes. Powering all this are industrial cogs motoring away to induce growth, all bathed in a celestial bleached light.
A sparsely furnished studio at night contains silhouettes for the inquisitive. Each object turns from a blank shadow to a fully detailed representation once selected. The furniture can also be seen correctly in the reflection of the apartments windows. A dear head, a briefcase and a computer, amongst others instigate a dialogue between the owner and the observer; a similar dynamic from the objects found in Bientôt L’été.
An animated version of John Everett Millais famous painting. Commissioned by the National bank of Belgium, this resplendent screen saver changes with the time of day and season. An internal clock causes a woman to resurface every hour from a lake, in contrast to Ophelia’s inevitable drowning in Millais painting. The attention to detail is remarkably evocative as Koi and Jellyfish swim around as if waiting for the woman to re-emerge.
Luxuria Superbia is a deceptively simple title that has you ‘colouring flowers in a garden’, it is heavily suggested through text that you are actually pleasuring the device you are using. This work however controversially speaks to an audience that some would say is strictly adults only. The content of eroticism and stimulation by touch washes away with those who approach it with innocence…children. To a young child who has not yet learned to read there is no provocative text (which can be turned off anyway), just brightly coloured imagery of boats, feathers and birthday cake, and the fun of joining dots together. These Flower/lock prototypes are part of the research and development that led to Luxuria Superbia. It is fascinating to sample something that could have easily been a licentious, vulgar experience, instead of the masterful design that communicates on numerous levels.
The game that has endured an evolving Tale of tales, beginning with the inception of the studio this ambitious project (a unique take on sleeping Beauty) has been 10 years in development. Still, the intrigue has not diminished; 19th century orientalist paintings, a first person view of an autonomous character and a point and click/analogue interface. What is most interesting is the different versions of a game that you still cannot touch yet and how they relate to the changing philosophies within the studio.
One thing that becomes apparent from prototype to finished work is that Tale of Tales craft like sculptors (Auriea being one). Their designs are not realized by adding more but in stripping away the inessential, to reveal the true forms of their ideas. Game conventions are eschewed and inserted only if they incite the vision further, not because they are expected.
Tale of Tales have worked in an environment where their exertion is often misconstrued. For 10 years they have surrendered to a vocabulary that does not recognize their foresight. Appraisals that award scores by how well conventions can be replicated, but not how they can be demolished in search of the undiscovered. It is easy to be over-protective of this medium, of its history and of its pioneers, but I believe that we will gain more from the thinkers who stand outside of it. Intellectuals who see the medium not as entertainment but as opportunities to explore the boundaries of interaction.
This body of work is not a collection of videogame demos, but a sketchbook for the advancement of an interactive medium. It is an anthology that should be archived as a milestone; when the videogame evolved to accommodate a broader meaning or was left behind in pursuit of something else; a “practical embrace of the unknown, of mystery, of beauty.”