In 2002, after an intense involvement with web design and net art, we started using videogames as our main medium. Art creation and appreciation has always been a playful activity for us. Even in videogames, we tended to ignore the competitive aspects of rules-oriented sports-like designs in favor of a more playful form of interaction with lots of room for imagination.
The games that made us do it
Tekken was very formative for us. It’s a two-player fighting game but we played it as a romance and sex game. We loved how we could make our avatars interact with each other. And we invented stories about how Ling Xiaoyu Yu would visit Jin Kazama’s house and they would end up making out on the floor.
We also really loved the immersive environments that videogames would allow us to explore. Ico was a real revelation in that respect. We enjoyed hanging out with Yorda in the bright sunlight, looking at the doves hopping around like chickens, and feeling the gentle breeze. That was plenty for us. We had no need for solving puzzles, fighting ghosts or even discovering the story.
When it came to stories, we fell in love with Silent Hill 2. We enjoyed the fact that we couldn’t make heads nor tails of it. That made the fiction so much richer for us. And it also hooked into the complex psychology of game characters, especially avatars, who never really exist in a clearly defined fashion. They are not you and they are not themselves. What they say may be a lie they’re telling themselves, et cetera. Silent Hill’s story feels so much more real than the neat “hero with problem solves problem” storylines in most other media.
And finally there was Black & White 1. We spent hours in its world, feeling part of a living eco-system and above all interacting with the autonomous “creature.” We were delighted about the strong bond that could exist between a human and a synthetic being. Even some of the quirks of the software contributed to this as they reminded us that the creature is not so much a simulation of something else but its own reality. It was real! A real computer being.
Videogames became a medium
We envisioned a grand future for videogames when they would embrace these wonderful unique qualities. We saw a medium that could charm humanity as a whole and fill the gap that was left by the inadequacy of film to address the complexity of contemporary society.
Step one would be to take videogames seriously as a medium for expression. We could see the attraction of competitive forms of play and even the pulpy stories that such structures lead to, but we felt that holding on to them would limit the potential of the medium. One or two artists adhering to certain restrictions can lead to interesting results. But if these become rules that everyone needs to obey, a medium suffocates.
Especially a new medium like videogames. Videogames didn’t start out as a medium. Their name is not a coincidence. Videogames really were games in the beginning, electronic games. But as computers developed more sophisticated graphics, audio and algorithms, they outgrew those origins and became a medium.
To this very day, most developers resist this evolution. They insist that videogames are still primarily games and that all visual presentation, characters, stories and even themes only exist in service of the sport. Or when they are advanced they will claim that the two go perfectly well together.
We never believed that. And we also felt it’s needlessly complicated. When you embrace videogames as a new medium, a whole range of possibilities opens up. They run on computers. Computers can do anything!
I guess we approach videogames pretty much in the same way as a painter approaches a canvas, or a writer a sheet of paper. We have an idea in mind, a little chunk of reality, maybe a memory, or a fantasy, and we want to make it more tangible, more perceptible. Because we want to spend time in that idea, contemplate it further, explore it. And, of course share it with others.
This is probably why we always felt that videogames were more similar to architecture than to film as a medium. We wanted to create spaces for a user to visit. But not just buildings. Entire realities, worlds, environments. Places that were inhabited. To some extent our games attempted to be simulations, but only in as far as a painting or a novel is a simulation, a representation. The purpose is never to take you away entirely from your own reality, but instead to enrich your existence with beauty, with aesthetic elements that you could relate to, that could bring joy, that would help you embrace life as it finds you.
Tales of Tales
Part of our desire was cultural. Computers are about connecting things. We wanted computers to connect with all of culture. We saw the computer network as a natural evolution of the people network, a network that extends through time. Hence our desire to work with fairy tales and existing texts.
The way a fairy tale morphs into different shapes and stories over time and space reminded us a lot of the flexibility of computers to present many realities simultaneously. In our first game –we were young– we wanted to incorporate all of the different versions of the story of Sleeping Beauty. But without intimate knowledge of these stories you would never be able to make sense of it all. You would just be traveling through a “narrative environment”: a place where you knew every element has meaning but you don’t necessarily know what it is.
Much like our dear Saint Bavo Cathedral in our home town of Ghent. A Gothic masterpiece filled with baroque and rococo art. We deeply enjoy simply being in that space, feeling immersed in its history and connected to the stories that each and every object emanates. We can only place a small number of these. Most figures or ornaments mean nothing to us. But that doesn’t matter because we know that they are meaningful, or have been at some point, to someone. We feel cradled by ancient wisdom as by a loving mother: we don’t need to know what it means, we trust that we will be taken care of.
To be, to feel
Up until our last game, we had no inclination to tell a story. We only wanted to create “narrative environments.” Places soaked with story but without the need to tell any. Places where our souls could find rest. Often in the knowledge that there are no heroes, that there is no solution, that life is complicated, but that that’s okay, because the birds flutter and clouds float and the wind blows. The world is beautiful.
Our games were about being, not seeing. And about feeling real, not looking real. They were made for human bodies. Not just eyes or ears or fingers. But entire bodies, including the thoughts and memories, conscious or not. We wanted to connect to that, to being human, to living on earth. It wasn’t about providing some momentary fun to forget about your sorrows. On the contrary, it was about showing how those sorrows are beautiful, how living, having a living body, is amazing. Not just as an organic being, but also as a cultured, social one. We are connected to others, through similarities and through differences, we can empathize with others, we can care for others, we can love them. And we can also be hurt by them, and hate them and feel alone. But the connection is always there. Between people, between people and history, place and time.
It’s not easy
Despite computers being a major inspiration and enabler, they haven’t exactly been easy to work with. We’re very proud of the eight games we have been able to wrangle out of this stubborn technology. But only with respect to the grave inadequacy of both software and hardware to our ends.
Personally we don’t mind some things being broken in our games. For us, it adds to their charm and even their believability as synthetic beings and locations. But it was never our goal. We would prefer things to be perfect. We console ourselves with the knowledge that you can’t have both, or at least I haven’t seen it in this medium: either a videogame is interesting or it is a solid piece of technology. Many games are solid, skillfully engineered software programs.
We are sad that we haven’t been able to make anything we can consider a masterpiece. Computer technology evolves so slowly and along such convoluted paths, that we know it will not be ready in our lifetime, let alone we. We can only hope that our modest contribution can inspire future, more capable generations.
The Sunset we love
Sunset is a bit of a hybrid. We embraced conventional first person navigation because it seemed that successful games with similarities to our own all use it. We thought if it takes FPS controls to enjoy our work, we can do that. We also noticed that such games compensated for a certain poverty in gameplay with lots of text, often a complete story. So we wrote a story. Initially we were content simply creating the characters and the environment and then having events happen without any justification. But we were afraid that some people with dysfunctional imaginations would again be weirded out by that. So we invented a story to embed all our narrative elements in. It was fun to do. And if it helps people enjoy the game, no problem.
We’ve always enjoyed loops, repetitions. Six girls in The Path, open and closing a box in Vanitas, going back and forth between sea and café in Bientôt l’été, twelve tunnels of love in Luxuria Superbia. So going up and down the elevator to progress the story in Sunset felt very natural to us. The elevator panel allowed us to incorporate a start menu, another convention we had never used. And the repetition could be used for handing out missions since our character was, conveniently, a housekeeper here to do chores.
Using such conventions made production a lot easier. Suddenly a big chunk of the work wasn’t personal anymore. We didn’t need to think or to design. Instead we studied and copied. It felt kind of dumb, but we just flipped that switch in our brain and stopped worrying about it.
The choice for conventions, even if we felt that they diminished the play experience (Auriea can only play Sunset for a very short time before the first person camera makes her nauseous, for instance), gave us a lot more time to focus on building an environment, which is what we love to do.
We love the apartment we created, with its subtle but complex soundscape, its shifting light, its reflections and shadows. We love how it changes over time, as if it were a character. We love how it evolves from a sterile box to a messed up nest, in parallel with the player’s interaction with a game.
We love Angela, we adore her. It’s still hard to believe we created her. She feels so real to us. Her words, her sound, her looks, her ideas, the way she moves, the way she dresses. We wouldn’t mistake her for a real person. She has too many flaws for that, too many computer quirks. But somewhere in that little electronic box, there’s a living creature made of bits and light. And she will always be there for us, like a patient Madonna, to breastfeed us or to lament our corpse.
— Michaël Samyn.