Interview with Alex Mayhew

Tale of Tales interviews

Alex Mayhew

I first came in contact with the work of Alex Mayhew at a Macromedia conference in Amsterdam in the late nineties. I don’t even remember if he was there personally but the presentation of Ceremony of Innocence then, made a lasting impression on me. It has influenced and still influences almost all interactive projects I work on.
Developed at Peter Gabriel’s Real World, Ceremony of Innocence was one of many interactive projects that embraced CD-Roms as the ultimate means of distributing rich interactive content back then. Hardly any of those projects would be called a game these days, but many of them had an aesthetic and conceptual maturity that computer games, be they mainstream or independent, are still desperately aching to achieve. In 1998, the future was within our grasp!

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Luckily, the creator of that era’s masterpiece is still around, and very enthousiastically working on a multitude of new projects, some perhaps even involving old pal, Peter Gabriel.

Innocence, Beethoven, cursors and the Wii

Tale of Tales (ToT): Could you tell us anything about your recent projects?

Alex Mayhew (AM): Future and present projects are under wraps, sorry. There are a couple of web 2.0 collaborations happening with Peter Gabriel. One combines memories and user generated content in a very poetic manner. Can not really say more than that. The other is about communities and communication. All are being treating in confidence at this stage as it is all highly stealable and I am under NDA. I am also working on developing tools, one for allowing people to create play and interactive story spaces and the other to enable people to create GPS based experiences. All of these projects are informed by my artistic work and the tools based projects evolved from my wanting to create experiences (like games) myself in a more intuitive manner.

There is also The Hive which is a project that has refused to die. We are currently in discussion with a Canadian company, Xenophile Media, who we are looking to develop a TV series and game with (plus other arg elements).

Beethoven’s Hair is a flash game I did, also for Xenophile Media, as part of a cross media project based on the true story of a lock of hair that was cut from Beethoven’s head and the story of how it passed down through history.

ToT: A lot of these projects testify of a very specific approach to designing for interactive media, I think. While many games, including our own, attempt to put the whole body of the player in a virtual world, your work seems to be built more on the idea of extending the arm of the player to allow him or her to interact with a virtual set of objects lying on an imaginary table in front of him or her.

There is room for more poetic but engaging experiences too that have yet to be exploited.

AM: I think that was most noticeable in Ceremony of Innocence where I explored many different forms of interaction. The consistency of interaction in the 60 odd interactive elements was that there was no consistency. The game play was about discovery through play. And this changed from element to element. The game space was treated more like a dream, but in order to do things in dreams there still needs to be a kind of logic. And part of that is this extension that you describe. To me, part of the reason for getting rid of the cursor or to play with its behavior was done in order to implement a more tactile form of interaction. It was not always successful but where it worked it worked well and for the time was quite different to anything else out there.

ToT: How do you feel about Nintendo embracing a similar idea with their new input device for the Wii which also functions like a virtual extension of the player’s arm?

AM: I think it is great as it tells me I was onto something all those years ago. But more importantly the Wii is widening the definition of game. I would just like to see that in a more emotional context too plus see it used in a more ‘impossible’ dream like context. Basically there is room for more poetic but engaging experiences too that have yet to be exploited. But it is great to play tennis with my mum and to go fishing with my daughter. Also I have learnt a great deal from the Wii. Now I am thinking about how we can use the mobile phone as if it is not a mobile phone. I can not say too much but let’s just say it involves butterflies.

ToT: Do you think the Wii controller could be used for the small and delicate gestures that your work involves?

AM: Wii-Play fishing shows that small gestures can be just as exciting and engaging as big gestures. I would really welcome the chance to develop for it as it sits really well with the kind of direction I would like to take things. However I would not repurpose old work for it so the question becomes void. I would want to design especially for the platform, which may mean exploring a number of movements including less delicate ones.

Roleplaying butterflies?

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ToT: One of the results of the way in which your designs offer the player a virtual arm into an imaginary world is that the player is always him- or herself and never really plays a part in the story, as he or she would when represented by an avatar in a virtual world. In the case of Ceremony of Innocence, e.g., you get the feeling, as a player, that you’re peeping at other people’s mail. But you don’t feel like you are Sabine or Griffin. You just look at them and discover their story. It’s a very nice mechanic, I think. Is it a conscious choice of you to use it? And if so what does it allow you to do that a role-playing type of approach doesn’t?

AM: I have never got into role playing. I have tried a larp once. And played a few games where I was forced to play someone who I am not and do not want to be. I like the idea of the user as themselves entering into a fantastic world. Why become someone who you are not? I am not saying there is no room for role play but there is plenty to explore in ourselves in a more direct manner. Does this make sense? Even the Hive or Beethoven’s Hair, you do not become a butterfly, but your spirit has somehow entered through the computer via the cursor and into the butterfly. You are right, it has more or less been a constant in my work and most people do not realize the distinction between this approach and role play. I have just realised, because of your question, this may be one of the many reasons why I like Loco Roco so much on the PSP. You do not become the little Roco but you help him navigate around the world by tilting the environment. Have you played it? Such a beautiful, playful and life affirming game. Wii Sports is an interesting example where you can make your character look like your self.

ToT: Why does your work often involve small objects?

AM: Originally, in the early days, you could not move a lot of things around a lot on screen for processor reasons. This was a very good reason for keeping things small. Plus I found the cursor so boring and with a cursor you are constantly reminded that you are using a computer. However it is quite practical because of its small size. But so a small object, that was not a cursor, could allow for this functionally but not be as sterile looking as a cursor. It also seemed to me in the early days of multimedia that we all accepted this strange pointy little object without question. I questioned a lot of things at the time and the cursor did not escape.

ToT: And why do your projects often feature insects?

AM: Partly because they are small (see reasons above) and also you do not have to deal with a range of facial expressions but one can still read emotion into them. But this is just part of the answer. The other reason may have to do with trying to stop my brother from torturing them all the time when we were really young. I remember he used a magnifying glass to set fire to ants and it really upset me. Later he would take pleasure plucking the wings off flies and feed them live to his carnivorous plants. Don’t get me wrong, I have been known to kill cockroaches in my old kitchen with no moral pangs, but it is the doing it for sadistic pleasure that really gets me. Insects have a soul and spirit no matter how basic it is and, in a way, have a right to try to survive just as we do. And this makes them a great device in the virtual realm as they can be a simple representation of life and can be highly symbolic in their meaning.

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For example, in Beethoven’s Hair, it is the actual butterfly on Beethoven’s Grave that comes to life, this is representative of the eternal spirit. In The Angel, it is a fly that is irritating but can not help being what it is. Just like we can appear irritating and insignificant to others but we all have something to offer.

With Message Quests and The Hive it takes the idea of the butterfly and wasp as equal opposites. I do not always use insects but it has become my motif and I am happy to have it.

Art, games and conventions

ToT: There has been a lot of talk on game blogs about the desire of game developers to see their medium as an artistic one. Some people claim games are already art, others say they should become it. Your work has always been unambiguously artistic, both in terms of content and form. But I get the impression that in your experience making interactive art is not a bed of roses. In a way you’ve been there and done that. How do you feel about the combination of games and art? Do you have any recommendations for game designers who aspire to be artists?

AM: The most important thing for me is to follow your vision and intuition. Inform yourself of trends and what is happening but be very careful for this not to stifle your work. Let yourself be inspired by what’s around, not restricted. And inspiration can come from so many different sources other than the medium you are working in.

The argument I always refuse to have is: what is art? There is no answer and it’s completely subjective. I spent too long at art school to have that debate. However, there is art everywhere, whether it is truly art is up to the viewer/player. Just as you can paint or sculpt art, or use installation or video, you can use game. It is just another medium. And like every other medium it comes loaded with pre-conceptions. I intentionally do not think about any of this this when I create as it is irrelevant to my passion, also I would find the whole debate stifling creatively. I do not care how people view my work. I of course, am always surprised and happy when people like it.

I have no room for point systems in my own work. Just like I have no room for the rules of design. I go on intuition.

One other point on this. Generally, in the industry, games and art do not make good bedfellows. The industry is money lead and not art lead. Often artistry or artistic practice are not viewed with much importance or if they are, it is very much about conforming to the various commercial game norms which usually means ignoring the bulk of recent art history and getting something to look as real as possible (which demands quite a bit of artistry but is questionable to me whether it is art) There are exceptions. I.e. Loco Roco and Okami and of course Tale of Tales.

ToT: Your work involves very little traditional gameplay. Instead you give the user plenty of opportunity to interact in very playful ways without strict rules or goals. Why this choice?

AM: Because I prefer to think of game play as playfulness in a magical realm, or in a dream where there are no exact rules. Rules can be rigid and points can remind us we are only playing a game. It is a rather like dancing for fun and dancing for competition. The two things can be two completely different experiences. In the game world it is mostly competition. Having said that, point systems can be very useful and so can rules. I just have no room for them in my own work. Just like I have no room for the rules of design. I go on intuition. Whenever I have strayed from that, it has got me into trouble.

ToT: Compared to what happens in the games industry, your work is immensely innovative. But your innovation deals with interactivity as its medium, and not with games in the traditional sense. Do you eschew conventional game structures on purpose?

AM: I don’t completely. And if I do it is not intentional. I just do what feels right to me. I actually like quite a few conventional games. But I like them in the same way I like fast food. And as I get older I have less appetite for fast food. I guess it is fair to say I have taken game conventions and stripped some of the elements out and replaced them with others. And this may have played with people’s expectations of game, sometimes to the work’s benefit but mostly to my detriment. I.e. I have not produced a best selling game yet and have always found it difficult to get funding.

Beauty, representation and modernism

ToT: Your work is beautiful. It has a kind of aesthetic maturity that many designers envy.

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AM: Thank you very much.

ToT: You’re welcome. But to some extent you “cheat” because you limit yourself to working in 2D media. Have you ever considered working in three dimensions?

AM: One should also maybe look at the history of art before making this judgment. One could say that “realistic” 3D representation of time and movement through space, is something that artists grew out of years ago. The birth of photography forced artists to look at space in a different way. After all how could they compete with the camera? Artists like Picasso embraced the notion of rendering images that captured space, time and movement in a way that was closer to the human experience; more realistic in an expressive way.

So I could argue that only working in 3D is cheating, or retrograde. But I don’t think it necessarily is, I am just saying there is room for different means of representation. Games like Loco Roco are partly so refreshing because they are not 3D. I would never critise it for not being so. It is not a question of one approach versus another. It is a question of whatever suits your purpose.

Also, it should be stated, that I have worked with 3D. But it is true to say this has been limited. I am not so much into 3D representation, but more the idea of using 3D technology to express space in a more impossible way. When I say impossible, I have no interest in mimicking reality. I want to do something closer to a dream space. I love the flexibility that 3D engines can give you. The fact that we can easily let the player look at an object from different angels is fantastic. I am also seduced by 3d technologies great abilities to give physics to an object or an experience.

The logistical problem I have had with 3D is the potential production time, effort and cost. To make something very small and interactive, and to make it look “good” can take months, sometimes years. I was loosely involved in a project that consumed a vast amount of people’s time and budget that was going for a couple of years. What was there to show at the end of it? Very little that actually worked and looked good. Working in 2d, flash and director can be quick and immediate and far more manageable. But my ambitions for the future do extend to 3D and I do see it as part of my future. Hopefully tools will become more accessible and intuitive to use, either that or someone gives me a team to lead with a big budget to realize my dreams in 3D. Either option will do me. Please make cheques payable to Alex Mayhew. (:

It is in someway about breaking free of the viewfinder in a way that can be more expressive and poetic.

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ToT: I can see your point about realism in art and how modernist art has invented something new. But I feel that your work connects a lot better with the artistic concerns of pre-modern art than with modernism. While not 3D technically, your work is always representational and often looks much more realistic than a lot of 3D games do. It looks more like baroque trompe-l’oeuil paintings come to life than it does like a cubist or fauvist painting.

AM: Very well observed, you are good. (;

The point is it is a still a different way of representation. Yes my work in some ways looks realistic, for example I hate not using shadows to give depth. And in that sense it can really suit 3D technology. But my focus is different, it looks elsewhere, not in the obvious place, not through the conventional frame to the scene in front of us. It is in someway about breaking free of the viewfinder in a way that can be more expressive and poetic. In that way it is similar to modernism. It is strange, I have never really thought about my work in this way because I usually do not question it.

Interview conducted via email by Michaël Samyn in May and June 2007. The text has been rearranged a bit for readability. All animations by Alex Mayhew.

Read more Tale of Tales interviews.