Interview

An Interview: Michaël Samyn of Tale of Tales

Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn themselves. They’d go far in the modelling industry if their games stop selling.

Tale of Tales is perhaps the most unique and divisive developer currently working in games today. Founded in 2002 by husband and wife team Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, this Belgium-based developer seeks to push the boundaries of what games can be, with co-founder Samyn stating that they create their own works out their frustration with how little they believe games to have evolved. Their games have attracted praise and scorn in equal measure, with the duo seeming to take particular delight in the negative criticisms they receive (evidence of which you will find in the interview below).
They’ve been accused of making games that “aren’t games”, or making “overly arty” and “pretentious” creations. They’ve worn their non-traditional nature on their sleeves, however, having even founded a website (notgames.org) that celebrates games that apparently “aren’t games”, having even come up with a “NotGames manifesto”, challenging developers to think outside the box, and to make experiences that explicitly reject the structure of games as an art form.
The duo has made games that explore various different themes and topics: life and nature (in the incredibly unique online game The Endless Forest), death (in the short interactive vignette The Graveyard, perhaps their most divisive game), childhood (in the dark, disturbing experience that is The Path, their most widely-known work), Biblical history (in the mysterious, Wilde-influenced Fatale), pointlessness and beauty (in the oddly-addictive virtual Skinner Box Vanitas), French literature and space travel (in the hypnotically bonkers and very very French Bientôt l’été), sex and pleasure (in the colourful and esoteric Luxuria Superbia), and finally political tensions, black rights and housekeeping in their most recent and most deliberately accessible work, the Kickstarter-funded Sunset. In said recently-released game, you control American expatriate Angela Burnes, cleaning a luxurious penthouse apartment once a week before sunset, trading flirtatious notes with your employer as a revolution rages in the streets of the fictitious South American city below.
Despite its developer’s arthouse arthouse roots and the decidedly non-commercial and esoteric nature of the games that they have made, Sunset’s Kickstarter campaign was a runaway success, reaching way over its original goal thanks to its 2,228 backers, myself being one of them, as I must now disclose (yes, I’m in bed with the industry, sorry). Sunset has now been released into the wild to perhaps the warmest critical and audience reaction Tale of Tales has received so far. They very kindly agreed to do an interview with me, and so I sat down (in the non-literal sense) with Michaël Samyn, the male half of this most unique of developers, to talk about Sunset, accessibility, and spooky scary ghosts.

The Kickstarter campaign for Sunset was a huge success. You received far more than the initial goal and with it you gained a swathe of new followers. Since the venture was so successful and your games aren’t exactly the most commercial of ventures, do you see yourself returning to the platform in order to fund any future projects?
Yes. Especially since arts funding is drying up as Europe becomes more right wing.

From the beginning of your Kickstarter campaign you made it very clear that you wanted Sunset to be your most accessible game, in order to break free of the “arty” corner you’ve so often been shoved into (hence why you hired Leigh Alexander and Ste Curran for design consultation). Now that it’s out, the reviews have been written and the dust has settled, do you believe you’ve achieved your goal of accessibility?
We’ve achieved the best we can with our particular taste and skills. But people still think Sunset is fresh and original, which is flattering but means that it’s still not accessible enough to reach the wide audience that we would like to reach. But we’ve really worked hard. So we’re quite certain we can’t do any better. If Sunset is still “too artistic” for you then we apologize if that’s a problem for you. We also feel sorry for you if that’s a problem for you. And we encourage you to open your mind and educate yourself before life slips you by without you even realizing its beauty.

What was it that prompted you to strive for such accessibility?
The initial impetus was that we noticed that some people responded to our work the same way as we respond to art we dislike (i.e. typical ironic contemporary fine art). We didn’t want our work to be perceived like that because we don’t create our work like that. To us our games are simple and beautiful and very easy to play. And we believe they would be accessible to a wide audience if the game industry wasn’t such a closed off niche. So the problem we were trying to solve was not accessibility in general, but accessibility to people who would actually try to play our games. But there was also a sort of ethical concern: that we should at least try to share our work with as many people as possible and not make it difficult by challenging people’s expectations too much.

Sorry, this is a bit of a generic question but I’m interested in the answer. Looking back, which of your games do you consider the best and which do you consider your worst?
That’s difficult to answer because our work is released in the public sphere and our own opinion is just one of many. There’s also different reasons why a piece can be good. I love Bientôt l’été and Fatale for their deep probing in my psyche. But I’ll probably play The Endless Forest or Luxuria Superbia a lot more because they’re so light hearted and uplifting. Vanitas is very dear to me but thousands of players can’t be wrong about The Path.
We have also always, purposely, tried something different in each game, explored a different aspect of the huge artistic potential that videogames have. So in a way each game is the best game, in the sense of the best we could do, with our limitations.

What’s the current status of An Empty World? (A collaborative project that Tale of Tales announced back in 2013. Little to no information about it has been released since. It has a trailer: https://vimeo.com/73765829)
It’s on hold. But we have ideas for it. We need to find funding first.

Do you hold any video game in particularly high esteem above all others?
In the AAA sphere, Silent Hill 2, the first Black & White, Ico of course, the first Tomb Raider, and the work of Quantic Dream. In the indie sphere, I love Nuprahtor‘s work, Noby Noby Boy, Mountain and, of course, Dear Esther, Dinner Date and Amnesia. But to be honest, none of these, however much I may cherish the memory of playing them, can beat experiences in other media. There’s music, paintings, sculpture, film, architecture, literature, etc that has had a much deeper effect on me than any videogame. I think this is a shame because I still believe this medium has great potential. I just feel this potential is not sufficiently encouraged and games never seem to escape the quagmire of pop culture. There’s nothing wrong with pop culture as such. But there is something very scary about a community that only has pop culture and nothing else.

Who in your opinion are the best game developers currently working today?
We are. I wish that wasn’t true. I wish there were people I could look up to. But there’s always something wrong with them. I have plenty of idols in music, painting, film and literature. Enough to not feel like a jerk. I don’t make distinctions between media when it comes to art. I don’t excuse videogames because they’re supposedly too young to produce art. I would if I saw sincere attempts at producing art. But I don’t. In videogames, calling a game a work of art is considered an insult, or at least a warning.

Do you have interest to work in any other forms of media? With your games you’ve proven that you’re more than capable.
Absolutely. We love realtime technology but we hate how videogames limit our audience. Many people have prejudices against them. And games demand quite a bit of technology to run which makes them difficult to access. Also videogames are not taken seriously as an art form and we would love to produce work in a world where we are not freaks and weirdos but actually encouraged to experiment more, to delve deeper, to be more thorough. In videogames all we hear is “wow, hold your horses you pretentious schmuck, make a Mario clone already!” It’s very frustrating for a creative person to have to hold back all the time.

This is more of a question for myself. My favourite game of yours is Bientôt l’été
You have good taste!
-and I couldn’t help but notice something: that game features two lovers communicating lightyears apart in a disjointed manner, not unlike communicating online. You two both met and began creating online, and didn’t first meet each other face to face until some time later. I suppose my question is this: is that aspect of the game deliberately self-referential, or is it just a coincidence I’m reading too much into?
It’s totally and completely self-referential. We make art about our lives. And we are in love with the way we fell in love. Even if it happened within a context of tragedy.

You are to be stranded on a desert island by a dastardly gang of cutthroat pirates. You’re allowed to bring one film, one book, one album, and one video game along with you. Which of each do you bring?
Hartley or Godard?
Duras or Nothomb?
Foetus or Bach?
I don’t need videogames on a desert island. There wouldn’t be any electricity. Let alone a computer to run them.

Many Kickstarter backers (myself included) were extremely disappointed in the dearth of explosions and the complete lack of guns and/or knives in Sunset. Are you planning to patch these in for Sunset version 1.1 to atone for such flagrant false advertising?
We have released 7 games without a single explosion and only one with a gun and one with a sword. I’d say the 10,000% increase in Sunset should be sufficient for now. But we might add some ghosts that can eat you.

Tale of Tales’ website: http://tale-of-tales.com/
You can also follow them on Twitter @taleoftales
Feel free to follow me on Twitter if you lack any and all semblance of taste: @ComedicPerson
Thank you for reading. Please do check out Tale of Tales’ other work if you’re interested, and have a nice day!

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An Interview: Tom Jubert

Tom Jubert

“As long as I remember I loved games, I wanted to make games.” -Tom Jubert, pictured here trying (and failing) to dissapear in a puff of smoke.

You only have to glance at the games Tom Jubert has been involved in to know that he’s a man of rare and enviable talent. He’s worked as a narrative designer for a vast array of highly-acclaimed projects such as The Swapper (my favourite game of 2013), The Talos Principle and the Penumbra series, and additionally has written or helped to write the storylines for FTL: Faster Than Light, Lost Horizon (the game, not the Capra film and/or its musical remake), The Organ Trail, Cargo! The Quest for Gravity, and many, many more. In addition all of those, he’s also done solo work, having made the fiendishly clever brain-melting flash-based puzzler Ir/rational Redux, and its text-based precursor ir/rational (singular).
Basically, he’s one of the most talented and prolific writers currently working in games today, which makes it even more remarkable that he agreed to do this interview for me.
Not that I’m complaining or anything.
Join me as I talk to Tom Jubert about video games, storytelling, video game storytelling, and pressing X to sex.

What drew you to video games as a storytelling medium?
The better question is what drew me to stories as a video game medium. As long as I remember I loved games, I wanted to make games. Everyone has that moment when they click with something – realise that they are in some way built for this. The possibilities of video games blew my young mind, and the wonderful thing is that every year we get closer to delivering the sorts of experiences that I originally (and rather optimistically) dreamed video games could be. Add to this a fascination with classic sci-fi and fantasy literature and you have a career path.

Are there any video game storytelling techniques/tropes in particular that really irk you when you’re playing a game?
– Unnecessary recaps
– Obviously switching to pre-rendered cutscene
– You village was destroyed by an evil power
– You are either a very cool, buff gentleman, or a highly approachable tomboy
– Diary entries
– You have dialog options, but they reduce to good, evil or tell me more
– Press X to sex
– So many more

In a blog post discussing the usage of slavery in FTL: Faster Than Light, you concluded by saying this:
“…it would be irresponsible of anyone to put out a game…without thinking at least a little about the stance they are necessarily taking by making a game at all. Subjects like slavery and war are not simply there for our amusement – when we deploy them in interactive fiction we also need to design the choices and outcomes in a way that doesn’t undermine their seriousness, but instead uses it to express something worthwhile.
Keeping this in mind, do you think that there are any games that don’t use their subject matter to express something worthwhile? Are there any games that go too far?
Absolutely. I find Call of Duty, and everything in that general area to be not only quite stupid – which is forgivable – but also morally and politically rather unpleasant. I don’t think I need to spell out why. Silly can be fun. Shooting dudes can be fun. Glorifying war is just stupid. And I know the guys make efforts to add an edge to CoD – to simultaneously question the machinations of these huge military organisations – but it always falls back on ‘You’re an American shooting bad people for America!’

FTL is a procedurally-generated game, and as such the story is too. How did you approach the challenge of writing a consistently compelling storyline while having to juggle with the fact that most players will die and start over a lot before they ever reach the end?
To be honest most of the principles were in place when I came on board, and I followed Justin (Ma, co-creator of FTL)‘s lead. We kept the length of the texts down, tried to provide more variation in more commonly encountered scenarios, and to subvert clichés. That being said, I learnt a lot I’d like to take to the next project!

How do you often write a game story? Do the developers explain their universe to you and just have you fill in the gaps, or do you aid the creation of said universe in the first place?
Depends if it’s a narrative design gig (e.g Penumbra, Swapper or Talos) or a writing gig (e.g FTL or Driver). For the latter I just get told what story has to be on the page, and I write whatever’s needed. For the former I come in when the game is in concept stage (ideally) and the studio says for instance ‘We are making a first-person puzzle game set in a digital world, and we like religious and psychological themes.’ I then develop a bunch of different one page plot pitches for discussion, we select something to develop, and we move forward from there. Narrative design is the real deal – you’re involved in game design, regular team meetings, you control the story and how it’s implemented.

Whatever happened to Ir/rational Investigator? (Ir/rational investigator was a planned commercial sequel to Jubert’s free 2011 game Ir/rational Redux, announced in 2012. News about it almost completely dried up 2013-onwards)
So here is the full lowdown. We had ready and submitted a vertical slice of the first 20 mins of gameplay to the 2012 IGF competition. We released The Swapper in May 2013, and I went back to planning out the remainder of Investigator. Unfortunately at that time I was offered two jobs I didn’t want to turn down – Talos, and something else that didn’t go so much to plan. Fast-forward a year, and the moment I get off Talos Croteam (developer of The Talos Principle) is ready to go on the DLC. In addition to this I have another personal project on the go, and the truth is that I am currently prioritising the other project over Talos, because I think it is both closer to what I really want to do, and commercially a more promising venture.
All of this is basically pretty damning of my ability to finish Investigator, but it remains on the list. The team is still out there, somewhere, and I know at least some of them are happy to come back and finish the job.
In the meantime, I actually emailed Valve the other day to see if they would consider releasing the vertical slice as a way to repay the fans who have been waiting so long for a game that’s never officially been canned or delayed. I don’t think they will take me up on it, but one way or another I will get that demo out to those that want to play it.

Is there any one particular game that you believe is better than the rest in terms of its story and how it tells it?
Nah. I’m not a believer in excessive quantification of aesthetic value. I think about it this way. If the world were ending tomorrow and we could only save three pieces of art to represent humanity to whoever comes along in the future, we wouldn’t go about deciding which pieces by trying to quantify their value and then selecting the three ‘best’ pieces. The sensible thing to do would be to select three pieces of recognized value, of course, but also of very different aesthetic form and sentiment. We would want to show the great variety of what we can do, because there is no one best way to go about things in practice.

Bit of an obvious one, but here goes: what’s your favourite game of all time?
I am duty bound to say Planescape: Torment, but I refer you to my previous answer.

Who in your opinion is the best narrative designer/writer currently working in video games?
Good question. Again, I’m not going to fall into this objectivity trap, so I’ll name a few. Chris Avellone, Erik WolpawJordan Mechner, Dan Houser, Lucas Pope, Paolo Pedercini.

Final question: you are to be stranded on a desert island by a dastardly gang of cutthroat pirates. You’re allowed one film, one book, and one video game. What do you bring?
For the book I suppose I would take something vast and non-fiction, because as I grow older I will find new passions within it of every possible kind, whereas a novel will be strictly limited in tone and topic. I have never read it, so maybe The History of England by one of my favourite philosophers, David Hume. I believe it comes in some pretty lengthy volumes. For the film I suppose I would take something which made me feel in good company. Something classic from my childhood that helped me understand my place in the world. Let’s say Clerks. No, Breakfast Club. There, I had two. For the game… god only knows. I think after enough years there are very few games I wouldn’t want to cast into the ocean. I want to say Tetris, but I think I would regret it immediately. I suppose I could finally get into Dwarf Fortress.

Follow Tom Jubert on twitter: @TomJubert
He also has two websites:  Here and here!

You can also follow me on twitter if you lack good taste and/or common sense: @ComedicPerson
Have a nice day/night/midday/afternoon/dawn/helpmeI’mtrappedinanendlessgapingvoi-