Monday, June 8, 2009

Reflections with Tale of Tales

by C.T. Hutt

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve been corresponding with Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, the directors and founders of Tale of Tales, about their runaway success with The Path and about video games and the arts. In a medium that is too often hampered by convention, it’s a real pleasure to see a few luminaries pushing the boundaries and challenging the status quo both in the art world and in the gaming community. It’s an even greater pleasure when they take the time to share some reflections with us.

What do you feel is the principle characteristic video games bring to the art world?

That's a very big question. And also a rather ambiguous one. The "art world" could mean either the entire universe of artistic practices and the spectrum of experiences that people can have with art. Or it could mean the established community that surrounds contemporary fine art today: the galleries, museums, artists and collectors.

The distinction matters to us because we feel that the two have rarely been more opposed. Contemporary fine art seems to be all about negating the very thing that art has meant for centuries. The modernist avant-garde has turned into the new salon.

We have always been inclined towards a more traditional form of art making. We enjoy figuration, narrative, beauty, even spectacle. As a result we could never get comfortable in the gallery space. The internet, and later games, have offered us an opportunity to address our audience directly, without the need of filters like museums, galleries or critics. And we're not the only ones. If it were up to the establishment, art would have all but disappeared from this planet due to its extreme elitism. But thanks to the computer and its ubiquity, new channels have opened for the creation and enjoyment of new forms of art.

On top of that, videogames, or the interactive medium in general, offers a new way of art making that is more suitable to our post-modern sensibilities. The older media are perfect for one-directional straightforward mass communication. But this doesn't seem to fit with the world anymore. People are not that easily defined anymore. And we don't accept simple truths so easily anymore. Newer computer-based media are capable of dealing with this richness, the ambiguity and the highly personal and intimate atmosphere that contemporary communication requires.

We also believe that videogames technology offers the potential to realize the dream of many artists of involving the viewer in the artwork as an essential part of it. So far, this has always been a theoretical premise that happened mostly in the imagination of the viewer. But now we can make this a lot more real. Now we really can put the viewer inside of our painting and we really can make art that is about him or her. Artworks become collaborative environments where the experience consists of a continuous flow between artwork and viewer.

What is the greatest challenge independent video game publishers currently face?

Probably remaining independent. Mostly remaining independent of commerce. In fact, not many independent developers succeed in that at all. And many, if not most, seem to consider their practice to be a commercial one. As a result, the independent scene is not doing much in terms of pushing the medium forward. We should be out there, exploring deeply in the potential of the medium. But most of us are happy to stick to tried-and-true ideas and we merrily re-use retro-genres.

Obviously it's not easy. And I'm sure many are trying to find a compromise. But we can do better. We think there should be more non-commercial support for research of the videogame medium as a creative technology.

Recently, there has been a surge of interest in independent video games such as The Path and Braid. Do you think this will last? Has it affected your work in anyway?

It seems that everybody who is involved with videogames feels that the medium is capable of much more than we are currently seeing. As a result, it would only be logical that games like Braid and The Path get a lot of attention. They may not go very far or may be very flawed, but they show us a slight fragment of what we all dream of as the future of games. This interest will last as long as the dream exists.

The interest as such hasn't affected our work much. Maybe it sounds arrogant, but we know what we're doing. We have a job to do and we're doing it. We're very interested in seeing how other people respond to what we make. But we're not quite ready to change direction yet. There's a lot of work left to be done.

That being said, it's been quite encouraging to see how positive most of the games press has been in their response to The Path. We had never seriously considered a future for ourselves within the games industry. We had always assumed that the industry was perfectly content making hardcore games for hardcore gamers. But things may be changing. We used to be firmly on Chris Crawford's side when he claimed that the future of the interactive medium lies outside of videogames. But we're not so sure anymore. Maybe there is room for expansion. We'll see.

Do you agree that more mainstream publishers are, in a way, hindered by their own success?

Obviously their success does not hinder them in their goals of making money. Though it may hinder them, in the long run, in establishing a stable business.

Because, in the long run, the current practice of extreme competition in a cramped space cannot continue. It is already the case that the majority of all games published never returns on investment. The survival of the industry depends on the small amount of games that become hits. When achieving that hit status is the only way to make a profit, you have an industry that contains many more losers than winners. And that's not healthy. It only makes the big companies get bigger and the small ones disappear. And that's the straight road to oblivion.

The commercial success of the videogame format also hinders the creative development of the medium in our opinion. Contemporary videogames are the descendants of pinball and arcade games. Those were forms of entertainment designed to please the player and keep him spending money as long as possible. And still to this very day, many consider the defining characteristic of videogames to be "fun". So when everybody is enjoying themselves and paying money to enjoy themselves, it's difficult to decide to do something else, to go and explore what else this medium can do.

The kind of fun that current videogames offer only appeals to a small subset of the population. Everybody else is left out in the cold. This is a commercial disgrace for sure, but it is also simply unfair. Videogames technology has a great potential for a wide variety of entertainment and art. We shouldn't just make games with it.

What would you like to see more of from the gaming community?

We would like to see more tolerance and openness to new ideas. And we would like to see more respect for people with different opinions, especially if those opinions entail that they don't like videogames. The gaming community can be a very hostile place and seems extremely conservative, even defensive about its hobby. Games are immensely successful and yet gamers act as if anybody who expresses even the slightest bit of criticism is the Evil Demon From Hell Who Will Destroy Them All. Gamers seem literally afraid of anything that is even remotely different from what they are used to. They often behave, in fact, like xenophobes.

It is only through facing criticism that the medium will mature. But sometimes we wonder if that's what the gaming community fears. Sometimes it seems that they are delighted by the license to be childish given to them by games. And they don't want to give that up.

So more maturity is something we'd also like to see more of in the gaming community.

Would like to share with our readers what Tale of Tales is working on next?

We're currently working on a prototype for a sort of casual multiplayer game with the Brussels organization of Foam ( It's a game in which every player plays a plant. And players can be humans or plants.

And soon we'll start on a new small project in the vein of The Graveyard but with a totally different atmosphere and interface. This time it's about a young woman. And she dances. For her stepfather.

E3 this year seemed more focused on high-tech controls than on upcoming titles; did anything catch your eye? Are you looking forward to any releases in the next year?

Well yes, we're very much looking forward to The Last Guardian, Fumito Ueda's new game. Maybe this time he'll let us be friends with the colossi.

It was also mildly amusing to see how Microsoft takes an idea from Sony (Eyetoy) and promotes it like an idea from Nintendo (Wii). It's like they're finally doing this together. Such a show of friendship is truly heartwarming.

1 comment:

  1. Man, I really like what they have to say about art and the establishment.


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