IndieCade 2018 Trailblazer Award – Tale of Tales

Back in 2011 I met Michaël and Auriea at the 54th Venice Biennial. At that point they had already been Tale of Tales for almost ten years. They were the first people from this community of independent developers that I ever met. The Path had come out a couple of years prior. It was a game that challenged the status quo and redefined our landscape on every level – commercially and visually -- in how it was played, and how it was displayed in galleries and stores.

I was very anxious to meet them. On one hand I was excited to meet the people that to me demonstrated the validity of our medium as culture. On the other hand, I was worried that they would be too much, too “far out” to engage with me: to have the patience to share their thoughts and their vision, to be friendly with just some video games nerd.

But they were immediately friendly, and interested, asking me about what I was working on, making fun of the gamey stuff we were making, offering feedback and advice in a way that was both professionally and humanely sensitive; never for a second dismissive. Since then, I saw them help many of our colleagues with the same passion, optimism, and kindness.

Over the years, this positive influence has spread, through their participation in the community and of course more evidently through their work. While the rest of us were making 2D platformers with a twist, they were making an exploration-based MMORPG, when we were making procedural dungeon crawlers, Tale of Tales were making games about grief, memory, adolescence. As we were finally opening up to those topics, they moved on to tackling romantic distance, and the physics of sex.

There is the work of an entire generation of creators through which I can see the trails blazed by Michaël and Auriea. For example the radical idea of a game where you just walk around and see, made Stanley Parable possible, inspired the Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and scenes in the Uncharted series – I’m quoting their creators here.

And, it is not like Michaël and Auriea simply left us to take note of the innovations in their work. They gave us constantly updated manifestos that captured their "here and now" take on our practice. The Realtime Art Manifesto, the Notgames Not-a-Manifesto, and the Beautiful Art Program.

Tale of Tales have opened a portal from games to the other disciplines and artforms around us, without any best practices being already defined on how to do so. They designed their own, invented their own tools. Even a quick look at their work is enough to marvel at how they found ways to include sculpture, painting, dancing, literature, and theater often years before other developers attempted to do so.

One of the reasons they could – I believe – is that they themselves do not come from a strictly technical background. And not only did that make it easier to work with talents from different art forms, and allow them to approach this medium with unrestrained ingenuity, but – possibly, and most importantly – it showed to all of us without a technical background that we are also allowed to make games.

And so too with the players – by reaching out to people who think they don’t like or will never like video games. Tale of Tales keep finding ways to tell them “look at this, look at the fantastic things that this medium can do! looks at this, you thought it was just dragons, and monsters, and battles, but it’s also beauty, and sensuality, and loss, and humanity”.

Take a moment to think about the new kind of visual realism they introduced; the diversity of their protagonists, the paradigm of no competition, no guns, no dying, no game over, no levels, no boss rounds, no scores. They did all of this without ever being distant, or cold, or cynical, without ever resorting to a cheap joke or parody (which is always the easiest way to critique something) instead with a subtle and exhilarating sense of humor they are also never afraid of aiming at themselves, when appropriate.

I once was begging Michaël to do some work together, and he told me that when he collaborates with someone he needs to marry them. He wasn’t proposing to me (unfortunately) but trying to explain what I had the chance of witnessing every time I got to curate their work, or when they invited me to visit their studio in Ghent: an intimate and at times wordless collaboration that is so clearly more than the sum of its parts, that is in itself an argument for making games with the people you love.

What I’m trying to say with all of this, is that when many were taking Tale of Tales’ radical and provocative work as “middle finger” to the industry, it was really about their index finger, pointing at the moon. They are always taking one step forward, and luckily never waiting for us to catch up.

That’s what happened again in 2015 when Michaël and Auriea announced they were not making video games anymore. What some people heard is “we are done with you!”, to anyone that had been following their incredible journey was understood as: “we are about to set sail, are you coming with us?”. I think that one of the reasons for this award is to let them know – we are listening, take us where we are going next.

— By Pietro Righi Riva – Santa Ragione