A sting in the Tale

Af­ter more than a decade of chal­leng­ing con­ven­tions, Tale Of Tales calls time on com­mer­cial game de­vel­op­ment

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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”

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