The past year has been a crucial one in our artistic careers. Probably as significant as our switch from net.art to videogames in 2002. We’ve made a similar switch now, although much more radically.
The first half of the year was spent working excessively hard on what would turn out to be our last commercial release, Sunset. We tried our very best to make it work but despite all of our efforts and the glowing reviews (repeated now in Game of the Year lists), Sunset sold insufficiently to justify our continued engagement with the game industry.
But as it turned out, exiting from the commercial market also stimulated us to abandon the format of games altogether. We hadn’t realized how much our creativity had been shackled by the demands of this format (and its audience) until we allowed ourselves to think beyond it. Out of the flood of ideas and creative energy that came to us, we decided to embrace a concept dear to our hearts, and simultaneously also one most risky to present to an audience.
Thanks to the support of our small following and a few good friends, we were able to conclude the year on a high note by raising enough money to start our first post-games project, entitled Cathedral-in-the-Clouds, that we will devote 2016 to, and hopefully much more.
Tale of Tales in 2015
an overview by Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn
We had received a grant for creating
Sunset from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund in December of 2013. Sunset was originally meant as a small project to work on in between two big productions: The Book of 8 and An empty World. But we weren’t able to gather enough support for those, so Sunset became the focus of our activity. We did not, however, want it to be a long production. Which ended up meaning that we basically crunched from start to finish with the biggest team with had ever worked with.
In January 2015 we were far enough along to release the
first official screenshots of the game.
In February we started offering
pre-order of Sunset and we released a small preview build of the game, containing three unconnected sessions, for the press.
Thanks to the press preview build, Edge Magazine featured Sunset in March. We considered that a good sign because that same magazine had also
featured our most successful release to date,
The Path, long before release in 2009.
We decided to extend production time of Sunset by 2 months.
At the end of the month we did some playtesting.
And we released
screenshots of the preview build.
In April we did a whole lot of interviews with the press. That is to say
Auriea did the interviews, mostly on Skype. It was a conscious choice to remove Michaël from contact with the press because we’ve had bad experiences with negative reactions to things he says. Apparently even when he tries to be diplomatic (“and believe me, I ALWAYS do!”), people end up feeling disturbed. So much so that they will refuse to even consider our games because he once said one thing wrong (and they often don’t even remember what it was). Apparently hatred for the creator means that you are forbidden to enjoy their art.
On 15 April we celebrated Ling’s first birthday. Ling is a cat that we got after years of Michaël refusing to have a pet (mostly because of the annoying hair everywhere; but as a Russian Blue, Ling sheds a lot less). We <3 Ling.
In April, our game
Bientôt l'été was featured in
a little documentary for Arte.
And a great documentary about independent games,
Game Loading: Rise of the Indies was released with a lengthy interview with us, at our dining table.
We also released
more screenshots of Sunset, preparing for next month’s release.
On 21 May we released Sunset via Steam and Humble.
The Sunset trailer had already been premiered on the Two5Six festival in New York on the 16th, where the game could also be played.
As Steam and Humble offer virtually realtime reports of sales being made, it only took a few days to realize that Sunset was not going to be the commercial success we had hoped for. We knew what the sales graphs of our games look like: a big spike in the beginning that quickly drops to a steady trickle (interrupted by discounts). The spike of Sunset’s first days was just not big enough.
Together with the fatigue following a year and a half of crunching, this realization hit us like a brick with instant depression and conflict between the two of us. We were irritable with each other and cynical online. A bunch of things happened from there…
Earlier that month, we had released the little Twine prequel to Sunset: “
A Day in San Bavon” that we was also featured
on Polygon. We had originally intended to release more free games running up to the release of Sunset but didn’t manage.
Sunset was presented at the
ShowCase in Los Angeles but it would later become the first Tale of Tales game NOT to be selected for the actual festival. We took that as a sign.
We had always talked about Sunset as our last game. We were ready to start doing something else. But we hadn’t really made any plans. We were so confident that Sunset was going to do at least well enough to sustain us for a few months after release that we had not bothered with a Plan B, as we usually do. At this point Sunset didn’t even sell well enough to pay our collaborators.
This lead to more depression which was further exasperated by the sudden death on 27 June of our other beloved cat, Louis, who had been with us only 6 months but to whom we had grown very attached.
On 21 June we announced our decision to stop making commercial videogames. This was met with such an overwhelming show of support that caused an unexpected spike in the sales of Sunset through which we were able to pay our debts. Tale of Tales was saved, ironically.
But we were serious about our departure from commerce. We had each set up
Patreon pages in the hope that people would support our choice for not-for-profit creation. And they did. And still do. Please join them! We really like the idea of patronage: to be able to create work for people who appreciate it, rather than for an anonymous mass that needs to be manipulated into buying your things.
Next to our disappointment, abandoning videogames also felt like a weight falling off our shoulders. Especially with regards to way we communicate in public. To demonstrate that freedom to a friend and fellow developer, Michaël tweeted some things that instantly proved how right we were about the game industry and how happy we should be with our decision. More about our adventures with
GamerGate in a footnote below.
In an attempt to keep ourselves afloat financially, we started applying for all the grants we could think of. In July the Nederlands Letterenfonds and Gamefonds granted us a modest budget to create a prototype for a literary game with Belgian novelist Gaea Schoeters. It will be the only game we’ll work on.
August would see the third edition of the Notgames Fest that we co-curate with the Cologne Gamelab. So we actually played a lot of games in August, in order to make a selection for the show.
Despite keeping busy, the uncertainty about our future continued to cause depression and conflict. We deal with it in different ways. One day Michaël went out to get bread but kept walking, visited the abbey garden and the park and ended up in the railway station where he took a train to the seaside. He buys a packet of cigarettes despite not having smoked for over a decade and spends the afternoon in the dunes, thinking up a plan for a new direction.
Auriea throws herself into her personal artwork, does some consulting work in Paris, and goes on a teaching job interview, such is her determination to do just about everything differently from now on.
It was the first time in quite a while that we visited Cologne in August without attending the Game Developers Conference. We went solely for the
Notgames Fest that we helped curate. The show also included pieces by net.artists Olia Lialina and Jodi and it was remarkable to see how well they worked together with the games.
We also used our time in Cologne to see some art. And it was our visit of the wonderful Wallraf-Richartz museum that triggered the idea for our next big project.
Since shortly after we had scheduled two meetings in Paris a week apart, we decided to give ourselves a short holiday during which we visited all our favorite museums and churches, which obviously inspired us even more.
At the invitation of House of Indie we were mentors in their Headstart Summer School for budding Indie Game developers. We gave a talk on Aesthetics titled “Nothing Else Matters” and we took the whole group on a tour of Antwerp’s Cathedral of Our Lady and Sint-Carolus Borromeus Church. (
Our notes can be found here.) We enjoyed being tour guides taking indie-devs to a place we have often said was a major inspiration for us. It felt beyond grand to share our thoughts about it with others, pointing out features and stories in the ecclesiastical art and architecture. That was it, we were hooked on the subject.
We needed to take a moment and look at what we really want our future to be. We attacked our hobbies and personal passions with a renewed energy. Michaël continues his 3rd year learning to play classical guitar.
Auriea opts for a traditional printmaking course and long-pose life drawing which she loves to do. The focus and concentration, surprise and study required for such practices is something we both find very healing.
We had wanted to learn traditional ballroom dances for a long time and finally decided to give it a shot. After a very fun trial lesson, however, Michaël’s back hurt so much that he couldn’t even stand up straight anymore. So we’ll need to get into shape if we want to learn how to dance. The doctor recommended taking long, vigorous, walks and he’s been doing that every day since. It’s a good thing to combine with his new nicotine addiction!
Auriea would ultimately turn the disappointment at not dancing with Michaël into a
On 10 September, our first ever publicly released game, The Endless Forest, celebrated its 10 year anniversary. This prompted us to submit a new grant request to expand the game.
spent a week in Oostende for an art research residency at the seaside.
At the end of the month, Sunset was awarded a Dutch Game Award in the “Special” category. It was the first time that Belgian studios were eligible. As much as we feel flattered and grateful, it does strike us as typical for the game industry that our work can only be respected for being “special.” Although we do wonder about all the other games: why give awards to games that are not special?
We announced our new project,
Cathedral-in-the-Clouds, promising more details next month, by which we meant a Kickstarter campaign. To record footage for the presentation video, we visited many museums and churches in Oostende, Brussels, Bruges, Ghent and Antwerp.
In October we launched the
Kickstarter campaign for Cathedral-in-the-Clouds after working hard on creating the text, video and images for the presentation page. We decided to focus the presentation on Michaël, in part because
Auriea was busy with other things, but also because we were still worried about online harassment and as a black woman she’s a prime target. We just didn’t want to expose her to that. And our love for the Flemish Primitives provided us with a fantastic reason: Michaël happens to be Flemish himself. We thought the Kickstarter audience would appreciate that connection.
Admittedly, we were quite concerned about proposing a project deeply inspired by Christian religion and imagery. Especially because many people interested in our work seem to be dedicated atheists, and some atheists can be extremely aggressive. So we tweaked and massaged our message until it was sufficiently clear that we mean no harm. It’s a bit sad that we have to be so “educational” instead of just releasing a stream of art and poetry. But such are the times we live in.
The response to our Kickstarter campaign was much more positive than we had feared. Many people seemed to really appreciate the idea and supported the project generously. But there were just not enough of them for the longest time. Which was painful for us because this project is part of our moving away from a mass audience to focus on a much smaller intimate group. Due to the nature of crowdfunding, however, this groups stills needs to have a sufficient size.
We never gave up believing and just continued to spam and email people about the campaign. This was a full time job during the entire month. And then in the last few days, when all predictions had given up on us, a storm of enthusiasm gathered, mostly on Twitter, and in a spectacular display of internet power (with a little extra push from a good friend), Cathedral-in-the-Clouds reached its funding goal.
If it hadn’t, we would have been completely broke the next month, with no prospects of income any time soon. We would have only had our Patreon campaigns to feed us.
But there was more to be delighted about: with our backers we had succeeded to get a non-profit art project inspired by medieval religious imagery off the ground. If that doesn’t strengthen one’s belief in the potential for greatness and kindness in humanity, we don’t know what will.
At the end of the month we visited Bilbao to collect the “Best Original Idea” award for Sunset in the
AzPlay festival in Bilbao. We took the opportunity to travel west to explore the ancient pilgrimage of Santiago de Compostela.
Sad news from the Flanders Audiovisual Fund: they’re not going to support the expansion of The Endless Forest because this requires a remake of the engine (after ten years of action) and they have a rule against remakes. Other than that they assured us that they really love our work and think we’re important artists…
Surprisingly, Sunset appeared on several “game of the year” lists. So that was nice. Gamasutra even included us in their
Top 10 Game Developers of 2015. Of course we’re left to wonder if this only happened because we quit. We’ll never know.
We’re currently working on a prototype for the literary game with Gaea Schoeters to be presented in Amsterdam on 8 January. Then a jury will decide if we get funding for the production of the full game.
Auriea is making plans for a big tour of the USA to talk at various universities in March and April of next year. About games yes, but also things relating to the new life of Tale of Tales.
In general we are winding down the more game-specific part of our professional practice. We are gaining all kinds of new interests and skills and see for ourselves a brighter future.
Transitioning to a non-profit career is going to be strange. No more idle hopes for unexpected wealth. Just careful managing of what we have, to make it last as long as possible. So that we can create our art with all the sincerity and integrity we desire.
Most of next year will be devoted to Cathedral-in-the-Clouds. This will require journeys to museums and places of worship in order to physically experience the work of the great masters. We really want to understand the effect that this work has on us, if only to use as a reference for our own. And we want to learn how the medieval painters used the high technology of their time in order to better use that of ours. This is not the kind of stuff they teach in schools anymore, as virtually most art education has been infected with some strange mutation of the modernism virus. Sometimes we think we should start a school of our own.
But first: let’s make art!
We are looking forward to slow and dedicated work on the dioramas of Eve and the Virgin. They are simple productions in essence. So we can really focus on getting everything right. And next to that there’s the glorious VR cathedral that will house versions of the dioramas, where cyberspace meets the sacred. That will be fun!
Hopefully we will also find ways to further expand the Cathedral-in-the-Clouds project. We have many ideas we’d really like to explore. And following the ancient tradition, we are enthusiastically embracing the prospect of all kinds of
commissions and patronage.
We know the world is lost. We don’t believe humans can fix it. Because they don’t want to change the system that causes the problems. We’re longing for the apocalypse. But in the mean time, we want to really look at the world. Perhaps with the eyes of a lover saying goodbye. The beauty, the joy, the sheer magnitude of life. And pay tribute to all of it in our work. A prayer. A wish to experience beauty each and every day of the entire year.
—Michaël & Auriea, 31 December 2015.
TRIGGER WARNING! If you identify as a gamer and you feel comfortable communicating in the first person plural as a representative of the consumer masses who are always right, you might want to avoid reading this.
One advantage of moving away from the game industry is that we can finally speak honestly again. While we were involved in games, we always felt like we should hold back and not share too much. The game industry never really understood independent development. Structured along the old producer-consumer model, independent development was seen as simply another business plan. And the things that independent developers say consequently become their marketing and PR. One wrong move and you’re dead.
The difference with the spirit in which we started our involvement with the internet couldn’t be greater. Back in the 1990s, we enjoyed being fully open towards everyone. We were totally comfortable exhibitionists. We could be frank and poetic and sometimes people would disagree or misunderstand but that didn’t cause any problems. We enjoyed each other’s presence. We didn’t feel the need to think alike.
In games, it seems people are always looking for a fight. Maybe that’s because of the competitive nature of the pass-time. Or maybe games simply attract competitive people. Anyway, we were never interested in that aspect of the medium.
So if you say one thing that some gamers dislike, they will forever refuse to even consider your work. Even long after they’ve forgotten why they hate you so much.
We did want people to play our games. So we became more and more silent. Everything we said could and would be used against us. And the audience just couldn’t handle the poetry, the intellectual playfulness, the ambiguity and the conceptual experimentation we enjoyed.
Notgames was a first radical withdrawal from the public discussion. We were tired of the constant repetition of that insidious little phrase “not a game” that was thrown around as an insult each and every time someone dared to even dream of something outside of the narrow conventions of videogames.
With Bientôt l’été we were able to make a game that is completely beyond what most gamers can handle. It wasn’t on purpose. This is just what we make when we stop worrying.
Sunset was different. We wanted it to be successful. If only to see if it was possible. So in a sense it was another experiment: could we create something that gamers would enjoy if we just try to meet them halfway, by throwing in a bunch of conventions that we otherwise wouldn’t care about?
We couldn’t actually say that of course. We couldn’t say anything. We had to put on a show. If we wanted Sunset to be welcomed, we couldn’t share what’s on our mind or say what we really think. We allowed ourselves to be forced into the position of opaqueness that consumers often accuse producers off. Now we know that, at least in games, this is mostly caused by the consumers themselves: their lack of patience, their lack of respect, their eagerness to jump to conclusions, their constant hunting for material that confirms their naive world view.
So when the commercial failure of Sunset gave us a perfect excuse to close the door on the game industry we felt liberated. And when in a playful conversation on Twitter I gleefully demonstrated our freedom by typing “Fuck games! Fuck gamers!” our years of self-censorship were proven as absolutely vital by the storm of
GamerGate abuse that followed. To this day those people can’t get over those four words said jokingly on the internet (or at least they pretend to; it’s so ridiculous that I’m never sure if they are actually sincere about their hurt feelings, especially considering they never care enough to take the context into account and actually interpret things). For over twelve years, we had sweat blood and tears crafting different types of games against all odds and they never paid any attention. But when, even after quitting, those four words are uttered in jest, and in a conversation, they suddenly appear out of nowhere, like a good old lynch mob.
On the bright side, this event erased any and all doubts in our minds that might have developed about abandoning the game industry. Fuck games, fuck gamers and fuck the game industry.
So long, and thanks for all the fish!