A sting in the Tale
After more than a decade of challenging conventions, Tale Of Tales calls time on commercial game development
Why Tale Of Tales is calling time on 12 years of making games
Tale Of Tales greeted the end of its 12 years as a game developer with typical self-effacing humour. Belgian duo Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn announced on their studio’s blog that they would no longer be making games – at least not commercially. “After the barrage of sad tales about depression caused by indies turning into millionaires overnight,” the post read, “allow us to raise your spirits with a story about the liberating and energising effects of complete commercial failure.”
The post outlined, with candour, the reasons behind their decision, which were chiefly financial. The pair’s most recent game, Sunset, was an attempt at mass communication, born of a desire to connect with a wider audience. It didn’t work. Despite many positive reviews – including our own in E281 – and a successful crowdfunding campaign, not to mention plentiful online coverage, Tale Of Tales reported that the game had sold barely more than 4,000 copies. More disappointing still was the revelation that the figure included the copies for the game’s Kickstarter backers, and also factored in units shifted after the price was halved in a Steam sale.
Given the circumstances, we find Harvey and Samyn in remarkably philosophical mood on a warm July afternoon, happy to look back and discuss their studio’s history with a rare frankness. They’re honest about what they perceive to be their own shortcomings as well as the failings of an industry that has proven it is unable to sustain them and their work any longer.
The studio’s journey has been a consistently challenging one, which the two concede can be attributed in part to a stubborn unwillingness to compromise their ideologies. As electronic artists under the moniker Entropy8Zuper!, Harvey and Samyn regarded videogames as a potential new outlet for experimentation. “We were interested in electronic art, because you had a direct connection with your audience and there was no middleman,” Harvey says. “In [games], of course, there were lots of middlemen, but we didn’t know that at first. We just figured we’d make a PlayStation game that was delivered on a disc.”
After a series of failures, the pair had no alternative but to become independent developers, and began to explore other ways to fund their work. Their first project under the Tale Of Tales name, stillfunctional MMOG The Endless Forest, was a commission from the Musée D’Art Moderne Grand-Duc Jean in Luxembourg, which offered enough funding to make a prototype. Further development was subsidised through money earned from the pair’s client work as a digital design team, but a Belgian arts festival provided extra funding to expand the game.
In the wake of that, Tale Of Tales decided to take its work to more festivals, attracting new donations each time. “A lot of our friends that were doing net art would make in-situ installations at galleries and festivals,” Samyn tells us. “We thought with The Endless Forest we could reverse it: take something from the space of the exhibition and put it in the game instead. That way, each [addition] could remain in the game. It didn’t have to be taken away after the exhibition.”
While The Endless Forest lives on today – partly thanks to a strong Russian following, about which Harvey admits to being pleasantly baffled – it was 2008’s The Graveyard that brought the studio to wider attention. A short game in which you play an old woman visiting the grave of her dead husband, it was sold on Steam alongside a demo, which included all the features of the paid version, minus one: in the full game, the woman would occasionally die of natural causes. The idea of selling death was so unusual, and Valve was so desperate to attract developers to Steam in the service’s infancy, that this modest experience soon found itself exposed to a bigger audience than Tale Of Tales had anticipated.
“It was such a strange experience for people,” Harvey says. “At the time, there were only a few other [similar] games, like Jason Rohrer’s Passage, and they were all crazy cuckoo to most people, so it got attention. We didn’t expect it, but [thought], ‘Hey, we’ll take it.’”
The Graveyard was developed during a hiatus from a larger project that would become arguably Tale Of Tales’ most significant breakthrough. The Path was a twisted, idiosyncratic take on the Little Red Riding Hood myth that beguiled players with its distinctive visual design and rich atmosphere. Championed by the likes of designer and author Brenda Romero (née Brathwaite), it proved a hit with critics and many of its players, but brought with it an unwanted kind of attention, the sort of aggression with which game developers have recently become uncomfortably well acquainted.
“There’s been a lot of revisionist history around The Path,” Harvey tells us. “Which isn’t to put it down, because I love it, but my God did we get a lot of hell for that game. We were fucking terrified someone was going to show
up at our house and try to kill us. All this stuff going around now with developers being targeted and harassed… I mean, let’s not be naïve here, this is not new.”
A series of smaller projects followed, including the alluringly elusive Bientôt
l’été, which is about communicating abstractly with a distant lover, and Luxuria
Superbia, a sensual and suggestive music game built around touching the innards of flowers to elicit a colourful response. Yet these games didn’t represent a conscious step back from the limelight for the studio, but rather a desire to do something different. “It’s in the nature of creativity to want to do things that don’t exist yet, I think,” Samyn explains, before suggesting that the industry would be in better shape if more creators were in a position to realise their ideas. “More experimentation and breaking of conventions would only make games more like a normal artistic activity.”
It’s clear the two never considered their games to be particularly unorthodox, nor that they would be perceived as mavericks; only in a conservative industry would their ideas be seen as radical. “We actually consider ourselves Classicists and Romanticists,” Samyn tells us. “I find it quite flattering – I’m almost 50 years old and I’m considered to be this kind of avant-garde rebel. But that’s not how it feels to me. We just very sincerely make work that we hope people will enjoy.“
Having written a new manifesto to celebrate the studio’s ten-year anniversary in game development, in which Samyn and Harvey expressed a desire to reach more players, Tale Of Tales began work on what would prove its last commercial game. Having thus far resisted all forms of compromise, the developer found itself in the unusual position of tempering some of its creative instincts to welcome a broader audience to its work.
“[With Sunset], we were perfectly willing to compromise,” Harvey says. “We talked to friends of ours who [told us], ‘If you just take a few steps towards convention for the sake of those who want to play your games, then perhaps you would have more players.’ And we were like, ‘OK, let’s try it.’”
Adopting a firstperson perspective, rather than Tale Of Tales’ preferred thirdperson camera, Sunset features a standard WASD and mouse-look interface, a more rigid game structure, and incorporated a storyline over which the player would have only limited control. “We definitely tried to use basic design conventions in a way we felt was still compatible with our design philosophy,” Harvey says.
Though the studio was under no illusions that Sunset was going to break into the mainstream, the support on Kickstarter and the efforts invested in publicising the game suggested that Tale Of Tales might finally reach beyond its normal audience. Yet Harvey and Samyn remained healthily cynical about its prospects, looking forward to its reception with hope rather than expectation. Its failure to match even these modest projections was, Samyn says, down to a confluence of factors. “People have told us [since the studio’s closure announcement] that they would have bought our game, but already have 300 games in their backlog. And I totally understand that! But that [suggests] to me that games are too cheap.”
Harvey isn’t excluding Tale Of Tales from that particular criticism, though. “As a community of independent developers, we have trained people to not be discerning – and it’s not just us, it’s the atmosphere of the App Store and things like that.”
Culturally speaking, she believes there needs to be industry-wide support for unconventional experiences and, beyond that, a realisation that the presence of offbeat fare isn’t about to threaten the existence of the big-budget blockbuster. “There’s always going to be Assassin’s Creed: Whatever, and that’s fine – your average indie developer can’t change that, despite what some elements think.”
The fury from those quarters was, Harvey admits, a factor in the pair’s decision to call it a day. “I was actually hoping, very naïvely, to reach out to people like that and to give them beauty, and to make their lives better,” Samyn says with a smile. “I failed!” For all that Samyn and Harvey may be moving on to other kinds of work, Tale Of Tales’ mission to create a space for new types of interactive entertainment has been an undoubted success. Indeed, the studio’s influence can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Take, for example, the widely celebrated Nepal Village chapter of Uncharted 2, a sequence that might not have existed had lead designer Richard Lemarchand not been so deeply affected by The Graveyard. It’s a moment that’s perhaps symbolic of Tale Of Tales’ former place in the industry: a peaceful, contemplative haven away from all the noise, chaos and violence.
Its own journey as a commercial game-maker may be over, then, but Tale Of Tales has still helped to open the gates for other studios and developers to pursue inventive alternatives to the annual iteration churn. “I couldn’t be more proud of the games that we’ve made and the people who’ve gone on to make games after us who’ve said we were an inspiration,” Harvey says. “It’s an honour to have been a part of people’s lives, and that’s all we really wanted.”
Whether you’ve played any of their works or not, the game industry will be a lesser place for the absence of Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn.
“I find it quite flattering – I’m almost 50, and I’m considered to be this kind of avantgarde rebel”
Tale Of Tales is proud of the diversity of its work. “We have not made one normal thing,” Harvey laughs, “but we’ve also never repeated ourselves”