Gamer’s Paradise: Tale Of Tales Throws Gaming Conventions Out The Window
In this recurring column, Leigh Alexander visits exciting new creative frontiers in the video game space, which is seeing a period of incredible growth and diversification, attracting new talent and demonstrating intriguing innovation. Here she’ll cover emerging artists, trends, and so much more.
If Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn (of Tale of Tales video game development studio) are from anywhere, they’re “from the internet.” Actually, the pair live in Belgium, where they’ve said they appreciate the opportunity to invent their own idea of what a digital game is. A cryptic couple of outsider artists who work sometimes quietly, sometimes as vocal critics, at the fringe of the traditional independent game scene, they’ve made it clear they’re not that interested in the definitions that exist so far.
The pair met in 1999, when high-level interaction online was still the domain of only a relative few pioneers, especially in the realm of what was collectively known as net.art—interactive web installations and other visual or auditory experiences that used the internet itself as canvas. Many of them felt like mysterious creative portals to imagined worlds. These days it’s easy to see how that landscape connects to games and interactive entertainment, but back then it was very much its own universe, proudly so.
After an experiment in early video conferencing, Harvey and Samyn decided to start exploring, creating together through the collaborative installation skinonskinonskin—as a couple in love, the pair describes their further work as “intimate” and “exhibitionist.” That art laid the groundwork for what would ultimately become their first project together as game developers, The Endless Forest (2005).
They’ve done a number of independent games since. Among these, The Graveyard (2008), in which the player guides an elderly woman to sit peacefully in a cemetery, and The Path (2009), a haunting interpretation of the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale, have been nominated in the Independent Game Festival in their respective years.
In The Graveyard (2008) players guide an elderly woman to sit peacefully in a cemetery.
As partners, they’re unique within video games—a long-term couple in love with creating work they hope defies traditional boundaries. In fact, their dissatisfaction with traditional parameters for games and the design thereof is widely known. In a medium governed by genre constraints, definitions and best practices geared at universal appeal, Tale of Tales sticks out like a dark appendage.
The pair is fond of answering interviews as a collective “we” (“we basically function like a single person with a double-sized brain,” they’ve said), and the language they prefer tends to be as abstract and emotive as the imagery in their games. There’s something about their mien—their elected removal from commercial interests or popular trends, their idiosyncratic language, for example—that seems familiar or expected in the art world, but not common to the logic-governed gaming universe.
Tale of Tales’ latest title, Bientôt l’Été (2012), may be its most considered and piquant work yet, arguably with a new clarity of vision that hasn’t necessarily been available from their previous work. Cast as either a male or female figure, players find themselves at a serene seaside.
As the player walks, the day slowly cycles toward sunset, into night and to pale dawn again; strolling along the junction where the waves meet the shore unveils snippets of nostalgic conversation that hint at the the pain of a relationship ending, wistful love, and fear of mortality. But a little house on the beach is the real site of the game’s subtle, complex evolution: inside, players face their partner across a chessboard, where thoughts and feelings about conversation, connection, and absolution collide with the use of chess pieces and the logic—or lack thereof—of that simple partner game.
Screen shot from Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn’s Bientôt l’Été.
Bientôt l’Été is fundamentally best as a two-player game—there’s a singular incredible thrill when the lonely atmosphere, as lovely as it is sad, allows the spectre of a real person to coalesce across that beach house table from you, there to resolve the complex lattice of your sudden shared history. An AI simulation can play the role of your partner if necessary. What happened between these lovers, and can it be mended?
“Walk and look,” the game instructs simply; “this is not a game to be ‘won’,” it also asserts, in classic Tale of Tales form.
There’s more to it than that: a network of discoverable mementos, and an oddly machine-like inner world to be discovered at the fringes of the seaside and behind the player’s own shut eyelids. Walk too close to the edge of the known world and mad, celestial bodies hum and vibrate; a shimmering border wall appears.
In the context of a game about love, conversation, and memory, Tale of Tales may largely remove itself from the world of traditional game development and its tech-obsessed rules—but those science-fiction tinged elements seem intentionally jarring and thought-provoking, a hint that they may have something to say about gaming nonetheless.
Tale of Tales’ work is often received with fascination and appreciation, deep critical analysis and sometimes bewilderment; at other times its rebellious refusal to adhere to the cut-and-dry idea that a game is a system with a clear goal or “win condition” leads purists to dismiss it. That the pair has different priorities than what most gamers and creators may be familiar frequently upends the entire (young) matrix for game criticism.
That’s what makes Tale of Tales a special presence in the indie gaming community, which badly needs anti-folk, disruptive fringe artists to stimulate the still-adolescent discussions and ideas about what and for whom games are.