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Interview with Tale of Tales
Reviewed by Feb 20th, 2014

Tale of Tales is an independent game development studio based in Belgium and founded by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn. They’ve existed as Tale of Tales since 2002. My first introduction to their games was The Path, a horror game for the PC based on the tale of Little Red Riding Hood. It’s been called a non-game and a Rorschach test, and it certainly isn’t what you’d expect from a “horror game.” The Path was brilliant and deceptively complex (sure, the objectives were simple, but if you allow yourself to explore the forest, there is actually a lot to take in).

Their games have been the subject of some controversy, mostly for defying the expectations of players and critics. Some are more like interactive experiences than traditional video games. In The Graveyard, you control an old woman walking around in a graveyard. In The Path, you control girls on their way to grandmother’s house. There are objectives, but not in the way you might think. There is no combat, but there are items to collect and a lot of fantastic places to explore.

Many of their games have been for the PC, but some are also for iPhone. The Graveyard is available for both PC and iPhone. Vanitas was released in 2009 for the iPhone Touch. They have also shown work in art exhibitions and have been involved with research projects and theoretical discussions. For the full details on the games and formats, as well as how to buy them or download demos, go to tale-of-tales.com. Meanwhile, Michael and Auriea were nice enough to answer some questions about their games:


The Path

Amy: How did you decide to make a video game based on Little Red Riding Hood? I’m really drawn to a lot of the older fairy tales, they were so different from the happy ending, Disney-type interpretations

Michael & Auriea: Through the work that we had done before using video game technology for our art, we had discovered that we were much better at re-interpreting stories than coming up with our own. Sometimes our re-interpretations deviated quite a bit, like in the Godlove Museum where we mix Biblical stories with romance and politics. But we always need that seed, that starting point. And when it comes to the choice of seeds, we often tend to dive into history. We’re very fond of ancient stories that have been part of human culture for centuries. We like the idea of being part of this old tradition of telling a particular story. So when we started making games, we came up with this idea of making a series of different games in different genres, but always based on a fairy tale and always with our symbolical daughter in it: the Girl in White.

During the prototyping of our first game project, 8, about Sleeping Beauty, the idea of doing a horror game based on Little Red Ridinghood rose to the surface. We like to do research into the subjects we work with. So we quickly discovered that the versions of the fairy tales that we’re most familiar with are not necessarily the most striking. The Grimm Brothers have done great work collecting oral stories, but they are also guilty of cleaning them up, making them suitable for children and somewhat removing some of the protofeminist aspects of a lot of these stories.

That being said, many fairy tales are so old that there is no original version. So, in a way, each version is equally valid, and one does not disqualify the other. Often the interpretation of the story by the teller, reveals more about the latter and his times and audience, than about the story itself. The Path is not different.

So the choice of Little Red Ridinghood was made quickly, without much thought. It was only when we started working with it that it became a vehicle for the themes and subjects we wanted to explore. It didn’t feel like we were deviating from the story. In fact, we felt we were bringing to the foreground some of the lesser known aspects of Little Red Ridinghood. And restoring some of what had been lost in history.

For instance, we wanted to offer an alternative for the many modern interpretations of Little Red Ridinghood in which the girl takes up a weapon and kills the wolf. Such a story of revenge only really makes sense if all you know is the sappy recent versions of fairy tales. If you delve a little bit deeper, you quickly find that there is no need for such over-the-top irony. Before Grimm, Little Red Ridinghood was quite a strong young woman already. She didn’t need a hunter to be saved. In one story she escapes on her own. In another she dies in the end, and nobody saves her. We wanted to bring some of that stubborn personality back. But not without losing the complexity of growing up as a girl, or being a woman, or by extension the fragility of all living beings. We wanted to keep the idea of being confused, and being weak, of being victimized on the one hand but also being attracted to danger, and even being cruel on the other hand.

We like complex stories. They are so much more real than the simple ones.


The Endless Forest

The colors and environments in The Path just strike me as amazingly beautiful, like when you walk into the field with the scarecrow, or the graveyard area. What inspired you when coming up with the look and feel of this game? The game is dark, yet very beautiful.

We had decided to make a horror game, and we wanted The Path to appeal to a wider audience than we’re used to. But we didn’t want to have a typical horror or gothic look. While researching the horror genre, we were most fascinated by certain horror films from the 1970s. And those films were often much more colorful than what passes for horror today. Somehow, the oversaturated colors just made things feel more bizarre, more horrific. We were especially enamored by Dario Argento’s work. His films were probably the biggest influence on our choice of colors.

Working in 3D is a strange thing. The computer is a very different medium than any other. It’s easy to make clean, perfect things with a computer. That’s the default. But we liked blurry photographs, and dirt marks and scratches, and grain. If you want that kind of texture in a computer-based art work, you have to add it by hand. To get away from the sort of gratuitous addition of such effects, and make them more appropriate to the medium, we connected all the little specks and blotches to numbers generated when playing the game. A computer game is full of numbers! And those numbers change when you play. We used all those numbers as input for certain changes to the graphics and to the sound. For some of these aesthetic effects we found a functional use, but others are just what they are: visualizations of ever-changing data.

We’re especially proud of our forest. We could have modeled realistic looking trees. Or created a tree generating algorithm. But we realized that we had no interest in simply creating a visual representation of a forest. What we really wanted was to evoke the subjective feeling of being lost in the woods. So it was more about composition and suggestion than actual representation. That’s how our tree trunks ended up pure black and how the leaves and the flowers are in fact architectural ornaments, arranged in ways to feel like plants.

The forest can also look very different, depending on where you enter it. When the game starts at the beginning of the path, it is bright outside. But when as you walk towards grandmother’s house, it becomes darker. When you leave the path near the house, the forest is very very dark. It’s difficult to orient yourself. And the sounds changes too. When you leave the path earlier, it’s more gray and melancholic. It’s all the numbers in the software talking that make for this atmosphere.

We must admit that it was especially thanks to the realtime visual programming interface of Quest3D, the engine we created The Path with, that we were so free to play with all these numbers. Quest3D’s flowchart system invites you to connect everything to everything. And this allowed us to create a very fluent organic whole, in a very painterly way, without having to plan and calculate too much.


Grandmother’s House in The Path

There has been a lot of speculation on the meanings of certain things in The Path, and my biggest question is probably just this: is it best to think of it as open to many interpretations and meanings? Did you have specific things in mind, or did you use symbolic and archetypal imagery so that the player can make their own associations? I feel like saying “Rose’s wolf means [whatever]” does the game a great disservice sometimes.

Your instincts are probably right. We don’t feel that a work of art should be a riddle, or some convoluted way of saying something plain. Our games, and especially The Path, are quite the contrary. They are tools that allow us to explore very complex and ambiguous issues. In fact, this is one of the main reasons why we are so drawn to this medium: it is the only medium in which you can say multiple things at the same time, in which you can literally leave it up to the individual player to decide where things go, what things mean. All art is like that. Art is always about the spectator. But video game technology actually gives the artist a medium in which this richness, this subjectivity can be part of the creative process. Instead of trying to mold and shape things in order to make sure that the reader knows exactly what we mean, with video games, we continuously try to add more facets, more options, more ways of looking at the same thing. This happens on a very practical level: create different types of play to allow different people to play in different ways. All the way up to the metaphysical level where it is the player who decides what it all means.

Even during the creation, this “game” had already started. We were motivated to work on the project, in order to figure out, not so much what it all means, but to find out how we feel about certain things, when we think them through. Perhaps games are thinking devices. Little machines that help you think further than you could on your own. In more traditional rigid games, the subjects to think about are probably more abstract and general. While in video games with their rich palette of visuals and sound, one can delve into much more specific and detailed realities.

So we don’t really want to make a statement about this or that. We’re more interested in finding answers to questions that start with “How would I feel if…” The answers to these questions are always very personal. And probably different from moment to moment.

For us The Path is about a few very concrete and dramatic things that happened in our own lives. These things would mean nothing to anybody else. But The Path helps us deal with this issues emotionally. We’ve heard similar stories from other players, but they had completely different life experiences. And yet other people have no experiences at all that have any correlation with what happens in the game. To them The Path is an empty shell.


The Graveyard

I take it that you are fans of Silent Hill 2? Is this why you ended up working with Takayoshi Sato for Fatale? What do you like best about SH2?

There’s a lot of things we like about Silent Hill 2. One of those is indeed the character design and modeling by Takayoshi Sato. His work is quite extraordinary. He is a sculptor, really. While most videogames have characters that are either cartoony or photorealistic, Mr Sato seems to have a talent to make the 3D shapes expressive. Even a still screenshot of an unposed model of his radiates personality. Like a real person would. And like a photograph cannot. As a result, his work feels more real than it looks real. And that’s exactly what videogames should be about for us. We were very happy that he decided to work with us. And we still feel that Electronic Arts was being foolish when they were not able to create the right environment for his talent to bloom. He’s a rare artist in an industry filled with engineers and accountants. We should celebrate people like him!

Silent Hill 2 is still a masterpiece. Not a lot of games since then come close. In fact, it seems like games are straying from the direction that Silent Hill 2 was pointing towards. A direction towards an artistically mature form of entertainment that could deal with complex subject matter in the language of video games. But such productions can only be done when the core creative team consists of artists, good artists, who complement each other. And this has become even more rare as the commercial success of video games has grown and the artistic ambitions have shrunk.

Hopefully the industry can find a way to get back on track.


Fatale

I imagine that you aren’t very fond of the currently popular multiplayer war video games that seem to be released every week or so. Do you think this contributes the general idea people have that games can’t be art? Are independent games the future? It just seems the big budget games are very sales-driven and the creators probably can’t be very creative or take a lot of risks

Actually, the war games have probably contributed to the idea that games _can be art! Because of their elaborate aesthetics.

There have always been games that were considered noble and important for culture. Chess in the West, Go in the East. Even card games and dice games and sports have generally been a socially accepted forms of entertainment for adults. But never were games considered to be art.

Even after the invention of art as we know it today, as a means of personal expression, the flirting with games by Duchamp and Fluxus, was interpreted as a provocation, testifying to how games were considered something _other than art. When Space Invaders and Pac-Man happened, nobody was wondering “Are games art?” They were not. They were games. Perhaps fascinating games, yes. Perhaps even worthy of intellectual consideration. But not works of art.

It wasn’t until Doom came around, and Tomb Raider and Myst that people started making associations with art. And to this very day, as blockbuster video games increasingly resemble Hollywood films, the public is lead to wonder about this strange new medium.

This is not a coincidence. However conceptual art may be sometimes, it is always about something. And the more interesting topics to talk about in art, are usually the ones that are hard to grasp in words, let alone mathematical equations or rules. In a way, when a subject can be discussed in game form, it’s probably not even worth discussing anymore. But the ambiguous aspect of images and sounds are very suitable for pondering the more elusive aspects of life. Especially when you can play so actively with them as in a video game presentation.

In theory it seems to make sense that independent developers should be the ones who explore the opportunities of this new medium while the big companies can’t afford to be creative because their investments require enormous sales figures. But in practice, very different things are happening. On the one hand, it is true, yes, there is a small group of independent developers that is pushing the medium to places where it’s never been before. But at the same time, there’s a much larger group of independent developers who make retro games, or cheap rehashes of the games they admired as a child, or computer-versions of board games, etc. There’s nothing novel about any of that. And a similar thing happens in the commercial industry. Yes, there’s a lot of banal shooter games and racing games and sports games and Tolkien-inspired RPGs. But there’s also Ico, and Black and White, and Animal Crossing and Little Big Planet and Heavy Rain. And even in more conventional games like Assassin’s Creed or Mass Effect, there’s small nuggets of artistically deeply interesting stuff.

So in the end, it’s hard to say if the future will grow out of the independent or out of the commercial industry. There’s clearly talent in both parts. Maybe the key is to recognize this talent and to celebrate it. And to give it prominence. Today, both on the indie scene as in the big-biz, all attention goes to games that sell a lot. But if we want our medium to grow, this attitude needs to change. It’s only normal that good games sell well. People like playing games. There’s nothing special about that. But the birth of a new medium! That is something very special. We should pay a lot more attention to that, to the occasions when a game character moves us, when something he did felt really meaningful to us, when a virtual environment is more like home than home, etc. These moments are what make this medium unique. And they should be celebrated and encouraged, despite of whether or not they made millions of Dollars. In a few years time, this will not matter anymore anyway.


The Path

What is next for Tale of Tales?

A box. We’re making another box. For the iPad this time. With Alex Mayhew (British designer, now residing in Canada, of Ceremony of Innocence fame). We have always admired his work and this game will become a platform for digital wonder.
But that’s only a small project, that will hopefully continue to grow over many years.

Our main projects are prototypes for two new games. The Book of 8 is a new version on our first, never finished project, 8. And Cncntrc (working title) is hard to define. It’s a very different game than anything we’ve ever made. It doesn’t have a story. Or characters. One could probably call it a meditative action game.
Anyway, these are just prototypes in preparation for productions that haven’t been scheduled yet. It will take a while before they are ready for release.

And before that happens, we have already planned another, smaller production: a romantic game for two players inspired by the writing of Marguerite Duras.

You can find out more about Tale of Tales or order their games online at tale-of-tales.com.

Tale of Tales @ Facebook

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