Visionaries: Tale of Tales – Experiments and Prototypes

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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…

flowerlock  apartment  ThePath-GDC_IGF_2008

“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.

Min&Meer  adam&eve@quake  Ophelia-WIP-2

“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.”

fatale-wind  bientot_grey  glm00

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.

Highlights include:

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.

The kiss  TheBridge  BeautySleeping

Grow world

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.

The apartment

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.

Ophelia

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.

vernanimalcula  dramaprincess  the endless forest

Flower/Lock

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.

8

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.

vanitas_match_3  groWorld  LostMemories

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.”

Prevision: Bientôt l’été (PC/Mac)

Michaël Samyn has made numerous attempts to explain what Bientôt l’été is. Through his development blog the co-owner of Tale of Tales (Auriea Harvey is hard at work on the game: 8) has tried to convey the intricacies of his vision. Not because the work is ambivalent, but because he knows the audience can be capricious at times; nestled cosily in ‘more of the same’. The future of the videogame, for many, must be imbued with the familiarity of traditional ideas, thankfully, Michaël questions that conformist attitude. With inspiration from the novelist Marguerite Duras and her work in Moderato Cantabile he asks us to think and feel.

Bientôt l’été is a program that simulates a fictitious beach on the French Atlantic coast. An empty beach for reflection amidst ocean rhythms, where ideas are crafted and relationships are contemplated. This cogitation manifests into a collection of feelings which you can keep or discard as you wander. Sauntering the stretch of sand uncovers the underlying fabric of the program; data structures and a view of interplanetary firmament. Day and night cycles dramatize the setting, accentuated though an emotive soundtrack by Walter Hus. Set back from the shoreline is a single café which houses metaphors for communication through the internet; that our bodies exist externally of it but our minds forage resolutely inside. A conversation transpires; loaded words shrouding their true intent revealing myriad interpretations and torrents of ambiguity. The cycle of visiting the beach and café continues ad infinitum albeit with subtle changes, but what you do in Bientôt l’été however is almost insignificant next to what you feel and what you can find internally.

I asked Michaël about the minutiae of this current project and what he hopes to achieve with it.

Your development blog explores design concepts that you have wrestled with in bringing Bientôt l’été into fruition, I felt it has given me an extra layer of depth to the experience. How much does your audience need to know about the concept before they play it?

I hope not much. If only because I don’t know exactly how to introduce Bientôt l’été to a potential player. I’m not sure if reading the blog would be equally helpful to all. Some players might enjoy the piece more knowing nothing. Others, of course, may not connect to it without some help. And yet others would enjoy it more deeply if they knew more about the concept and/or the creation process.

Given the references to Marguerite Duras, I can imagine that people familiar with her novels, films and life would enjoy recognizing some elements in the game. Or they might be disappointed that Bientôt l’été is not as good a work of art as the material it draws inspiration from.
There is no perfect way to optimize the enjoyment of everyone. I hope people give Bientôt l’été a chance, perhaps multiple times, in different moods.
The development blog is intended only for people with a more than average interest in this sort of work. I’m hoping that they can function as evangelists of the piece towards people who are less inclined to such deep involvement but who might still enjoy the experience.

It seems very much about the user’s perception of their surroundings; you do not present distractions but opportunities to create feelings. Has this been hard to achieve, are there concerns that the user is usually too busy to notice the space they inhabit?

The creative technology that has emerged out of the combination of computers and games, still has some growing to do. If you make games in this medium, there is a lot of excellent material that can serve as reference. A history from early arcade games to contemporary console blockbusters, but also card, board and folk games that have existed as long as man has, and of course puzzles and sports. But if you try to make something artistic or expressive with this same technology, it’s a lot more difficult to find references. It’s much easier to make a computer version of chess, than it is to make something along the lines of The Birth of Venus or Die Walküre.

Given the medium’s heritage of games, and also some of the inherent quality of interaction probably, one of the major problems when doing the kind of work that we do is to avoid creating opportunities for rules-driven play. One of the tricks you can use for that is the notgames method: reject all game conventions. But this sounds easier than it is. First of all there is a certain doubt about the player’s capacity to enjoy themselves if we don’t give them a task to do or a goal to move towards. And then there is also the inclination that humans seem to have to turn just about anything into a game.

Humans like competition and they like the feeling of achieving something. But the kinds of activities that lead to such emotions can be detrimental to the experience of beauty. Playing tag in the Louvre is not exactly the best way to enjoy David’s paintings. Collecting as many tickets as possible will probably not help you enjoy a concert much.

So I’d say that this has been the hardest part of the design of Bientôt l’été: to design forms of interaction that complement the mood and the atmosphere without stimulating game-like behavior. One the major revelations that I have had during the development of this piece was that the answer to the question “What should the players of artistic interactive pieces be doing?” is simply “Nothing.” If you create a world and characters and an atmosphere that are intriguing and attractive, people can enjoy them for what they are. Sometimes doing an activity can enhance the feeling of presence in this virtual world. But I think one should be very careful when implementing such activities. And always keep in mind that nothing is probably ideal.

You have said that you have felt uneasy about introducing collectibles into Bientôt l’été. Has there been a desire to deliver your ideas through a Trojan horse so as not to alienate the user?

The problem was actually that it was all too easy to introduce collectibles! The collection activity was part of the early ideas about the design. What has been difficult is removing it. And I haven’t succeeded completely.

We have tried the Trojan Horse approach with Fatale I guess and it didn’t really work for us. Gamers are not fooled by random game-like structures or references. I think they appreciate our work much more if we don’t compromise, if we strive for a sort of purity, if we really go all the way and deliver something that one cannot call a game anymore, in the strict sense of the word. After all, most gamers also like other things than games, don’t they?
The game references are also impossible to appreciate for people who have no experiences with videogames. And we still cherish the dream of creating videogames for people who do not play them.

Ultimately, if Bientôt l’été is a Trojan Horse, the player will have to bring their own Greeks. Because I didn’t put any in it. Bientôt l’été is what it is. There is nothing behind the curtain.

I believe you want us to ultimately fall in love, but in what way? I felt attached to the idea of love through the beach, the holodeck and the soundtrack in addition to the stranger in the café.

I don’t really want that. It was just something I said early in the development. Something, perhaps, I aimed for in the beginning. Not for the player to actually fall in love, but to play with the avatar in such a way that it perhaps falls in love. But I have more or less given up on that tangent. Because I feel the theme of love is approached from many different directions in Bientôt l’été. It’s not just falling in love, it’s also breaking up, or not feeling love, or being confused by love, or desiring love.

Ultimately I don’t have any concrete expectations of how the player will end up feeling through playing. Even though the words and music are carefully chosen to create a rather specific mood, what Bientôt l’été ultimately means to a player will depend more on their own life experiences than on anything in the game. Bientôt l’été is a system, a device, a tool that gives opportunity to look into one’s own heart, to reminisce memories, to consider existence.

As in Marguerite Duras’ novels, you place an emphasis on what is ‘not’ being said in-between the conversations the user has. Is the unspoken supposed to manifest on the beach as more ideas to take back into repeated visits to the café?

That’s a nice interpretation. The text that appears on the beach is all sorts of things to me: distracted musing, doubts about what to say, memories of what has been said or of former relationships, etc. The kind of messy thinking that the violent winds at the Atlantic coast cause in one’s head. Reality still very much happens in between what is being said. This is how amorous conversations seem like a kind of games. You can only really do symbolic moves and hope that your partner understands the emotions behind the gesture and responds in a way that pleases you. When Marguerite Duras refrains from saying something explicitly, I don’t think she is being coy (not most of the time, at least). I think she deeply believes that the not saying or the saying of something that doesn’t seem directly related, more correctly expresses the emotions, the intent, the desire, the love. She was obsessed with precision. Her words are the closest possible expression of the feelings, even if they seem imperfect, incomplete, inadequate or absurd.

If nothing else, her words, and hopefully the way I use them in Bientôt l’été, make one aware of the fact that the literal meaning of what is being said covers only a small part of what is going on. It is a very sad state of affairs if we believe that language is our only connection to reality. To accept only the existence of things that can be said is sad and potentially dangerous. In that sense, pointing out the charming inadequacy of language, pays tribute to the richness of existence. And what nobler goal is their for art?

From following your blog I cannot separate the creator from the creation. I view Bientôt l’été as: An artist creating a love story through the means of his audience creating a love story. Have you thought about your role as a creator within your own vision? All of the elements the audience generates emotion with, have been created by you.

I see my work as a form of sharing. Since we are all human here, I assume that there will be some overlap between my life and that of the players. So I hope that they recognize certain emotions or concepts. But they will no doubt also invent new ones, that I may not share with them. Ultimately, the only thing that matters is the experience of the player. Bientôt l’été is not a tool to help understand its creator. It is not an expression in that sense. I see it more as an investigation.

I think that is one of the reasons why I like this medium so much. It puts creator and appreciator on an equal level. And the artistic experience really only happens when we collaborate. I make something and you do something and it is through your energy that the work gets electrified, so to speak, that it becomes alive and beautiful and meaningful. This is true of every art form, but much more concretely so for realtime pieces running on computers.

There is a strong autobiographical basis to Bientôt l’été in the sense that I met the love of my life on the internet, and we have done many attempts to meet each other “in cyberspace”. I am also very familiar with the kind of seaside portrayed in the game as my family lived near the North Sea in Belgium and we visited often when I was young. But I don’t see Bientôt l’été as an expression of these events and experiences. I don’t have anything to say about them. They simply come natural to me. They are more material than content.

So even though many elements in Bientôt l’été come directly out of my own life experience, I do not feel that the work is about me in any way. I feel very impersonal as an artist. I don’t feel like an individual. I feel more like a conduit for things that happen outside of me, a channel. I believe Elizabeth Grosz expressed it well when she called art a sort of framing of chaos (which is the word she uses to describe raw existence, encompassing everything, far larger than anything in the human scale – hence the need for frames).

Would you be interested in creating an augmented reality version of Bientôt l’été? The user could use real world elements such as walking on an actual beach with the projection of the phrases and the holodeck through AR glasses.

In principle, no. Because I think we already look at reality far too little. Reality is amazing as it is. I don’t want anything to cover it up. I would like my work to inspire a new way of looking at reality. But preferably in sequence, not simultaneously.

It’s a cute idea, though. I think it would also be interesting to use the audio of the game to respond to your position on a real beach. It might be a nice thing to do next to playing the game or walking on the beach. But I would be horrified if it would replace the latter.

It’s also quite essential for me that the scenery in Bientôt l’été is synthetic. It is presented as a holographic projection. I would not want to reduce actual reality to such a charade. And I think the game is more meaningful with this layer of falsehood present.

What do you think of the terminology we use to describe this medium you work in? Game, fun and play seem quite limiting to convey the ideas you are exploring here.

I do use those words. There is a game-aspect in all art. And fun could be used to describe all sorts of enjoyment, if a bit irreverently. Play is a very useful word because it has been far less tainted by the games industry than the word game. We can still easily imagine many forms of play. But you are right that these words would not suffice to convey the ideas behind the creation of Bientôt l’été or the concepts and feelings explored in it. This is why I am half-considering asking journalists not to review Bientôt l’été. There doesn’t seem to be much point to talk about it in conventional game terms. Not that I think it is so immensely different. I think many videogames have suffered from the minute vocabulary that the games press generally employs. The players have missed a lot of great experiences as a result of this, and the developers have been pushed into a Metacritic corner where they lack the energy and the courage to emphasize anything other than what can be reviewed as graphics/mechanics/sound effects/narrative or what have you.

The medium I feel I work in is not video-games, in the sense of games made with computers. My medium is that technology that video-games also use. And its (potential) audience. The more mainstream videogames are deviating from strict game structures and fluctuate towards a more general entertainment medium, the more overlap starts to exist between what we do and what they do. Our work has probably more in common with contemporary mass market blockbuster videogames than with hardcore retro games or clever puzzle games.

It’s a bit annoying that we are stuck with the word “videogames” for this medium, but we will just have to get over the literal meaning of that word and embrace the broad reality that it already represents. That will take time and effort.

Do you think the medium needs more diversity in themes and content? We know how to effectively build zombies and soldiers etc. but what about the things we do not know how to build, who is exploring those and are they important?

The zombies and soldiers that the games industry creates rarely convince me. Most often they are just pawns or tokens on a virtual game board. They do not really function as the creatures they represent because they are created as visualizations for otherwise abstract tokens in a game system. I don’t know a single videogame that was actually built around the idea of what a zombie really is, or could be imagined to be. They just use the poor zombies as something to shoot on.

I wouldn’t want to encourage everyone to try to use videogames as an expressive medium. If people are drawn to creating games, they should just do that. They shouldn’t feel pressured into making art. I do find it a problematic that some of these games use realistic looking presentations. Because it is easy to mistake such games for actual expressions. They look like art. And that is confusing and misleading.

But I do hope that people who really feel the need to actually investigate certain topics or create beauty for others get more opportunities to use the medium of videogames for this. And I think the games industry would be wise to open its arms for such people and create methods that allow such people to do their work. Because they will enrich everything, open up videogames for all of humanity and establish that coveted respect that videogames will never earn if juvenile action hero fantasies remain the central output.

I am still hopeful that at some point the console makers or the big PC game distributors will get their act together and understand that they should pour massive support in this project. Just imagine AAA budgets for videogame productions that are not about playing with guns or dolls! Mind-boggling! Revolutionary! I don’t understand why the videogames industry does not see the massive potential of such a venture. If one of them realizes this, the impact will be huge. In the mean time, we can keep an eye on what the small developers are doing and simply support them as players. If they don’t end up infusing the larger industry with more diversity, they will simply become their own thing at some point. And probably grow so big that all but the hardest core will forget about that thing that was once called games-industry.

You have stated that you want to stop being an artist and to produce for other people rather than yourself. Don’t you think that you have already been creating for others; even inadvertently, through realising your own ambitions. What you have been doing is important to the advancement of the medium.

I feel flattered that you think so. And I know that there have been a few occasions where our work has inspired the design of videogames that reached a much larger audience. But I would like to see if I can’t make something on that level myself. I’ve always more or less accepted that I’m simply too weird to ever make something for anyone outside of a small elite. But through the work on Bientôt l’été, which I consider one of the most extreme cases of elitist game design I have been involved with, I have started to think of overcoming my handicap as a sort of challenge.

Maybe I’m finally old enough to be mild and kind now. Maybe I’m just sick of rebelling. Maybe this is just a phase. Or it’s simply a form of vanity. This change in attitude may not make much of a difference to anyone but myself. I just want to make something nice now. Try to avoid my contrary nature and make something that people find pretty and fun, something that moves them without having to be very erudite or jumping through all sorts of ambiguous hoops. If only for a change.

I guess I also feel that I can do this now, because there’s so many more developers now than ever who are exploring this medium in sincerity and with ambition. Only a few years ago, it probably felt like a holy duty to me to make these kinds of experimental videogames. But now there’s several very interesting developers exploring the underwater part of the proverbial iceberg, from many different directions. So I can relax a bit. It’s very exciting!

Through the output of Tale of Tales both Michaël and Auriea have certainly earned the right to relax. Bientôt l’été however you interpret it stands as a testament to two innovators who fell in love through the internet; whose lateral thinking is often the subject of misconstrued sentiments. In my search for neoteric thinking I have not yet found the Howard Roark of videogames, but Michaël Samyn exudes many of his qualities. When we look back on the history of this medium and of the people who helped advance it, it would be nice if those who fought conventions were encouraged rather than vilified. Please support Bientôt l’été and purchase it.

For further insight view the excellent blog and Tumblr archive (excerpts below)

Footage of work in progress: