Being x, doing y, in z.

It is difficult for us the express in words what we are trying to do with our creations at Tale of Tales. We call them video games, but we are well aware of the fact that we are stretching the meaning of the term when we do this. We continue, however, because, for us, the meaning of this term has already been stretched. Perhaps not by the way that video games are being designed, but definitely by the way that they are being played. By people like us.

The medium that is used by games -realtime 3D- is attractive to us as artists because it is a powerful tool for simulation. So far, game technology has been mostly used for simulation of objective factual reality. But we are interested in using it to simulate a subjective reality.

Many of our ideas originate from a question in the form of

“What would it feel like to be creature x, doing activity y, in location z?”

Our designs often start as an attempt to find the answer to this question -although they may outgrow this initial empetus later. Not by showing how it feels to be x, doing y in z, but by creating an environment in which the user can, if not experience the sensation itself, at least contemplate the experience by themselves.

We share this purpose with many artists, throughout the ages. Baroque composers, renaissance painters, romantic poets, all have similar aspirations. But their work relies entirely on the imagination of the viewer to create the effect. The interactivity of computer technology allows us to give the user a more active role in the piece, which we hope will stimulate the imagination more than mere observation. This is how interactivity becomes a crucial part of our work.

We don’t think we are the first designers to use the medium in this way. Many video game designers have and do. But creating the sensation of “being x, doing y in z” is most often of less importance than the fact that the end product needs to be a challenge-based, entertaining game (or a clear plot-driven narrative, for that matter). There are various reasons for this, both economic and artistic. But as players of video games, we have often been disappointed when our experience was interrupted by the requirement to play the game (or progress in the story). As a result, as designers, we try to create games with the tables turned: simulation becomes more important than gameplay, meaning becomes more important than fun (and sensation more important than communication).

We have probably made the mistake in the past of presenting our personal choice as something that the video game design craft as a whole should aspire to. That was wrong. To us, as video game consumers, moving away from challenge-based entertainment-focused gameplay towards poetic and meaningful experiences, feels like progress, simply because this leads to an increase in the offer of games that we enjoy. But is not progress in any absolute sense -unless you consider greater diversity a form of progress.

There is nothing wrong with games that offer fun and entertainment. There is nothing wrong with games that try and evoke meaning through gameplay. Games have been around for ages. They will never become obsolete. It is naive to think that they will ever turn into something else. And it is naive to think that anything threatens their existence. But computer technology was not invented for the sole purpose of creating and playing games. And to consider video games as the ultimate form of interactive entertainment or art, is simply premature and unnecessarily restrictive.

At Tale of Tales, we are not interested in creating challenging skills-teaching gameplay with rigid rules and predetermined goals. We may use these kinds of structures in our work if they contribute to the sensation of “being x, doing y, in z”. Some themes are served by this, some are not. But we feel no obligation whatsoever as designers to include such forms of interaction in our work.

The challenge of non-linearity

When Auriea and I made the choice to create art with game technology, we did so based on our personal experience with video games. That experience had influenced our previous work, but, oddly, it had never entered our mind that we could make a video game ourselves. Possibly because we were not as interested in playing video games as we were in immersing ourselves in the virtual worlds and characters that they presented. But at the time, we were hardly aware of that distinction.

Ever since we started using interactive media for our art, we have wanted to create worlds, environments that surround and embrace, living organisms that respond to the viewer’s presence. We tried very hard to do this on the web, always working on the edge of the technically possible (as a result many of our net art pieces are now broken by the “advances” of technology). But at some point we realized that we were pushing the technology in a direction that it didn’t want to go. So we gave up and turned our attention to game technology, more specifically realtime 3D.

Realtime 3D offered us the possibility to “do for real” what we had always had to fake in the past. To really create a space, to embody the user in that environment, to make a living world that would do things on its own as well as respond to input. We have always been interested in creating things to play with that also play with you, or even play with other things.

When we were working on our first game project, 8, our interest was in creating a beautiful world that people could walk around in and be in. We added puzzle elements because we thought we needed to give people something to do while they were in the virtual world, or a reason to return to it. In that sense, gameplay was kind of an afterthought. So much so that we even hired an external game designer to “do that dirty job” for us. As designers, we had absolutely no interest in creating a game. Our focus was on the world, and the stories and characters in it. And on making it feel nice to be in this world and to interact with it.

For us, interactivity is not about “making interesting choices” or “overcoming meaningful challenges”. It’s about make-belief. About becoming part of a story, about being embedded in a world, about filling the shoes of somebody else for a while. For us, computer entertainment is not this democratic medium that empowers the viewer to do “anything they choose to do”. Instead, it’s a powerful medium to allow people to experience an unusual emotion, to be something else, to be in another place. For us, interactivity is travel.

And we believe that this is the strength of the medium: it can take us places, places we never imagined could exist, or places so familiar that we almost forgot they did. But the simple idea of being immersed in a living virtual world, despite of its clear appeal, is in fact very problematic for contemporary designers. We’ve all been trained by linear media to think that there must be reasons for things, that there must be a causal chain in whatever we do. I think this is why we all love games so much. On the one hand, video games do allow us to enter these virtual worlds, while, on the other, they don’t abandon us in them: they give us “something to do”. In this respect, the game structure takes the place of the plot structure we are so familiar with in cinema and literature: it creates linearity in an otherwise non-linear medium. The game as safety net.

This makes sense because non-linearity is unfamiliar. It is unheard of in the art and entertainment that we know. Non-linearity, and the unpredictability that comes with it, is frightening, not just to the audience, but also to the authors. For authors, it is difficult to create something of which they don’t know what it will become, how it will behave. Something truly interactive and emergent. So they create games instead and bend the interactive and generative qualities of the medium to their will, so that the author remains in control of the user’s experience at all times. This is the traditional approach to art making.

It’s understandable to want to hang on to it. But I think this is an intermediary phase. I think, in time, we will learn how to create truly non-linear works. Works that embrace the idea that there is not a single center or a single truth. That there is not a single story to tell, or even a multitude of stories. That a new story can happen every time. Such works may not give us the same kind of pleasure that we get from games. But they will give us something new, a new experience, new insights. A new art form worthy of this new technology.

Why do all those people play video games now?

Video games are far more popular than the niche-attitude of the hardcore culture could justify. It’s simply impossible for the entire audience of video games to consist of over-educated geeks and obsessed hobbyists. Not with sales numbers this high. There’s simply not enough people in the world who are nerdy enough to think that collecting all the gold coins on a trail or shooting all the nazis in a dungeon -or doing it as fast as you can- is “cool”. Something else is going on in video games. Something that appeals to people far outside the hardcore niche.

Games have been around for ages. They’ve always been a popular pastime. But video games, especially of the more recent generations, have become far more important than any other form of gaming in the past. They reach a much larger audience and are starting to have major cultural impact.

Video games must be so popular because they offer something different, something unique, something that the player cannot find anywhere else. This unique thing can not be their design in terms of rules and goals. While essential to most video games, rules and goals are hardly unique to the electronic medium. Playing a game is something that can be done in many ways. You don’t need a computer for it. A piece of paper and a pencil suffice. So why blow these huge budgets on something that can be done in a much more simple, cheap and convenient way? Or more to the point, how come it makes economic sense to do so (given that video games are popular enough to return on the huge investment)?

Because there’s something about video games. They give us a kind of experience that no other form or entertainment can. They allow us to lose ourselves in virtual worlds, to travel to places that could not exist, to become friends with people who you would never meet. In the previous century, cinema replaced books as the major source for story telling. The reasons are obvious: cinema is easier to consume and more efficient in terms of story-telling and evoking emotions. Watching a film can be a deeply sensual experience with an immediacy that is virtually impossible to achieve through reading a book. Games take the physicality of cinema one step further. By putting the viewer in the scene.

Books solicit sympathy, cinema actively encourages empathy but video games generate involvement. This goes far beyond playing soccer or chess! This is not merely a competition or a measuring of strength or intellect. We’re involved in a fictional world, we care about the characters in it, we feel like we’re there. In a much more visceral and direct way than was possible in any other medium before. Sure, the underlying systems may be cold logic and obscure code. But the effect is direct: video games gives us the sensation of falling down the rabbit hole ourselves.

And this, my fellow amateurs, is where our focus should be. On creating an involving experience for our audience. This is not just about games, no matter what the internet experts might claim. Most contemporary video games might be games in essence. But this is not what makes them unique. And it is its uniqueness that makes the medium appealing. And therefore its uniqueness that designers should focus on.

Make art with computers!

Despite of its popularity and social penetration, computer technology is still in early stages as a medium for artistic creation. The modest attempts triggered by the advent of the Compact Disc in the early nineties, were quickly forgotten when the internet hijacked every PC on the planet. Now it seems like video games are taking up the challenge, slowly and painfully. But while the CD Roms of the nineties often approached the medium with a certain freshness and purity, video games are dragging an enormous load of baggage with them. And voluntarily so, as many designers insist on the heritage of not only several decades of video game history, but, also even of the millenia-spanning history of game creation itself.

I argue that this is not necessary.

Computer technology is a new medium. We should look at it with a fresh pair of eyes and try to discover its strengths and its weaknesses. We don’t need to ignore the history of other media. Other media can be very inspiring. But why limit our interest to games? The computer artist can learn as much from painting, photography, theater, comic strips, cinema, literature, music, sculpture and architecture as he or she can from games.

I understand why games are of interest to developers of interactive art: games are possibly the only form of entertainment from the past that is interactive. So there’s a lot to learn there. But why limit ourselves? With computers everything can become interactive!

Who plays video games, really?

In your average game store, customers do not read reviews. They do not post on forums, they have never been motivated to leave Amazon feedback just to “send a message,” they do not blog. They do not know which publishers have poor reputations and which ones have good ones. They do not know the names of famous Japanese game designers; they might have Mario Kart Wii at home, but they do not know who Miyamoto is.
Leigh Alexander

Reading this felt so comforting to me. I know this. Everybody knows this. The math is simple. There are simply not millions of hardcore game fans out there. A few hundred thousand, perhaps, if even that many. But video games sell in millions of copies. Most of them to people who couldn’t care less about the discussions on this and other blogs. That is the gaming audience! That is the people we are working for. Not the clever reviewers, the whining commenters and the nagging bloggers on the internets.

This ties in neatly something we have talked a lot before but apparently have a hard time expressing properly. Maybe we should try again…

Beauty on The Path

rose on the pathgrandmothers house in the rain
robin in a field of flowerscarmen and the woodsman wolf

see larger versions on The Path gallery page and on flickr

We have released 4 new screenshots of The Path. The other screenshots on the site are quite old by now and the game has changed a lot in this year of production. Once we get to beta (we are very close!) there will be a deluge of images and video. For now, we just want to give you a peek at what we’ve been up to.
ahem, some quotes from a recent text we wrote about the aesthetics of the game…

“You control the avatar, but she also has a life of her own -directed by Drama Princess, a home-brew alternative AI system. The foliage on the trees turns out to be careful arrangements of gothic ornaments. What first seemed like sound effects, is in fact a continuously changing musical soundtrack -created by Jarboe. Random signs of decay on the screen become helpful hints for navigation. The entire forest feels natural but closer inspection reveals its artificiality. This is not the real world. You have entered a fabrication, a story, a memory, a dream.”

“Painting with the aesthetic palette of realtime 3D rather than using the medium for the simulation of reality, The Path could not have been made without contemporary technology. Yet it clearly sets itself apart from any other Next Gen game. The hand of the artist shows. Sometimes messy and strange, sometimes verging on the sublime. Harvey and Samyn are not in complete control. A large part of the attraction of game technology is its potential to surprise. Rather than locking down the look of each and every scene, The Path contains systems that alter the aesthetics of the game in ways that the creators may not have expected. To some extent, the players themselves can decide what things look like. Walking down the path, for instance, changes the time of day. Depending on where you enter the forest, you will be wandering through a bright and misty environment or a dark and spooky one.”

And if all that still sounds overly mysterious, hopefully we’ll be able to pull back the veil with some video… soon, soon, soon.

A video game as playing cards

Would it be possible to design a video game like a deck of playing cards? A virtual world with characters, objects and artificial life but without an implied goal or ruleset. Perhaps, like many decks of cards, accompanied by a manual that proposes several different games that can be played within this environment. Somewhat similar to the way in which games like Quake and Halo allow for multiple types of multiplayer games with different objectives but set in the same environment and using the same characters and game objects. But without the application having to switch modes explicitly. Just like the pictures on the cards don’t change. The game to play would be entirely up to the player(s). Depending on how they act, the game would be different.

In a traditional computer game framework, one could think of a virtual world in which the player decides to play either an adventure game, an action game or a strategy game, depending on what they do in the world, perhaps on which studies their avatar takes and jobs they choose, for instance.

It would be even more interesting if the game itself would also have input so that somebody who sets out to be a soldier in the game ends up becoming a diplomat because the death of his wife made him allergic to aggression. The player of such a game would be required to actively suspend disbelief and really play his role in all earnesty, without trying to manipulate the game into becoming something pre-defined and expected. “Playing Cards Next Gen”: where the cards themselves can change the nature of the game.