Interview: Tale of Tales on The Path

the-path-pc-art

The developers from Tale of Tales are renowned for their originality and artistic capability when it comes to creating innovative gameplay experiences, often breaking the conventional rules of the genres we have grown so accustomed to.

Founded in 2002 by Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, Belgian-based Tale of Tales has seen the release of numerous titles, including “The Graveyard”, a virtual painting, and “8”, which is based on the story of Sleeping Beauty. Their latest release takes players to the darker side of Red Riding Hood, in the PC title The Path. We were fortunate enough to have the opportunity to interview the founding pair, and learned a great deal about what drives their creative projects.

Q. “The Path” is based on the original tales of Red Riding Hood, but substantially deviates from even these more obscure versions. Do you consider the classic tales to be basis for the game, or was “The Path” inspired by an entirely separate artistic vision?

We are fascinated by old texts. Texts that do not seem to have an author, stories that pop up in many different cultures, places, and times, stories that seem to be part of human existence, even across national and cultural boundaries. That’s why we like to work with myths, religious texts, fairy tales, etc.

But we don’t simply pick one version of such a story and then make a work with it. We always try to incorporate as many versions and interpretations as possible. Our idea of creating art is not an attempt to express a certain message or emotion, but rather to create a context within which we can explore certain themes and emotions. And this exploration happens as much by us, the creators, as by the players.

So on the one hand, The Path does indeed follow the traditional story line of Little Red Ridinghood, and includes characters inspired by the characters in that story. But on the other, The Path also plays with the many possible interpretations of this tale. It does not present the story as pure fiction, but also includes a meta-layer of interpretation and commentary. It’s as much about Little Red Ridinghood as it is about what Little Red Ridinghood is about. And it starts spinning as of there until everyone gets totally dizzy.

Q. Traditional storytelling for Red Riding Hood is centered on a single girl, while “The Path” utilizes six different girls. Where did this idea come from, and what opportunities did it provide from a design standpoint?

Originally, this idea came from the working title of the game. While we were working on 8, a dreamy game about Sleeping Beauty, we came up for the idea of doing 144, a horror game about Little Red Ridinghood. So initially, we half-jokingly said that there should be 144 Little Red Ridinghood characters in the game. Of course we quickly realized that this was not feasible, so we restricted the number to 6. We kept the same idea of having different girls with different personalities visit the same narrative world.

When thinking about it now, we realize that perhaps this was sort of an expression in game terms of what we consider to be one of the most powerful artistic elements of the interactive medium: the fact that it can produce very personal experiences as a result of the active central role of the player. As such, our 6 protagonists offer the player 6 personalities to experience the story through.

Of course, closer to the narrative, the six girls represent different stages in the process of a girl growing up, which is one of the main themes of Little Red Ridinghood. The different personalities of the characters somewhat thwart the attempt to see them as six ages of the same person, but that would still seem like a very plausible reading. We are also fascinated by young women, by children growing up, in general. While youth is being celebrated as the height of human existence by our Western society, the process of growing up remains a very difficult and painful one. Which makes it rather hard to really be envious of youth. The Path offers players a chance to revisit that time of insecurity, of not being in control of your own thoughts and feelings and an opportunity to compare these thoughts and emotions to their own, current state of mind and heart.

From a design standpoint, the six avatars offer the player a way to spend more time in the game, brooding over the subjects the story tackles and feeling the different aspects of the story. Contrasting the characters against each other, also allows us to establish their personalities better. And of course to experience the same story, through a different mind, is very interesting in and of itself.

the-path-pc-4Q. Many are quick to label “The Path” as a survival-horror or adventure game. How well do you think the game conforms to these general categories, if at all? What sort of category might be appropriate for the game, if you had to invent a new one?

We have no interest in conforming to any such categories, because they are based on game mechanics and not content. Our entire “raison d’être” is that mechanics follow content, not the other way around. Survival horror and Adventure are probably the categories of games where content, story, characters and atmosphere are most important. They are also categories where action and violence are less important. This is probably why people put The Path in these categories.

But, as will be clear to anyone who has played The Path, the game doesn’t quite fit in either. It’s a bit difficult to invent a new category next to the existing ones because we would not categorize games in the same way (based on their mechanics). We would use categories similar to those used in literature and cinema. And then The Path would simply be a horror game. A psychological horror game or artistic horror game, perhaps? Hm. It still remains difficult, doesn’t it? It feels a bit like trying to categorize the films of Ingmar Bergman or Wong Kar Wai or Hal Hartley – not that we would ever claim that the Path has achieved their high artistic standard. You can do it but it feels a bit pointless.

Q. Much of the game’s design is intentionally abstract and ambiguous. How do you balance the issue of accessibility and avoid confusing players who are unaccustomed to the game’s unique “silent film” presentation?

Nobody is accustomed to anything that is unique. That would be a contradiction in terms!

This is a difficult and sensitive issue, though. We never ever set out to make obscure or confusing work. We want our work to be pleasant, to make you feel good. It makes us feel good to play The Path and we know that many people feel the same. But other people are confused and weirded out by the game, sometimes even depressed. We’re a bit disappointed by that. We do want people to experience something special and to think about and feel conflicting things. For us, this is pleasurable. But for other people it is not. Often they don’t find this a bad thing, though. They like feeling confused and being forced to think about things they don’t want to think about. Ultimately, this is probably alright. They’re just a different kind of people, and they are open minded enough to play with The Path in a way that suits them.

Of course, part of the problem is due to the content of The Path, and not its presentation. We are dealing with some very disturbing and confusing subject matter here – elements that are even on the verge of taboos in some cultures. Definitely not things we think about for fun. Part of this comes from personal experiences of trauma and pain that find their expression in the game. It would be interesting to see if a game that uses the same “abstract and ambiguous” storytelling techniques with much more lighthearted content would still confuse people so much. Would a happy game be more accessible than a sad one?

the-path-pc-5Q. What elements of the game stand out as your favorite?

The animations and the music! But that’s cheating, in a way, because those are both created by other people than ourselves. So it’s easier to single them out.

In terms of the game itself, we are really fond of the unpredictability of the characters and the environment. Both have a level of autonomy and randomness that creates the potential of new storytelling. We don’t mind the fact that this often leads to less desirable results, because it’s worth it. To be able to think of our girls and wolves as living creatures with a mind of their own is a very lovely feeling.

Another element that we’re particularly proud of is the way in which we have used contemporary technology in a very simplistic way to create complex and dynamic visuals. We’ve always been more fond of the look of the Playstation 2 generation of games than anything next-gen. So a lot of that aesthetic sensibility has found its way in the looks of The Path. It’s sort of old school in one way, but mixed with overlays and post-processing that weren’t really feasible back then. Our goal is to find an aesthetic that comes out of the technology itself, and not a look that imitates another medium (be it photography or animation). And we feel that some older games are better examples for that than most contemporary ones.

Q. What was the greatest challenge in developing “The Path”, and what would you change or add, if anything?

The greatest challenge was getting it done on time, after realizing that we had grossly underestimated the scheduling. From what we hear from other developers, this is actually quite common in game development. So I’m not sure if we would want to change much. On the one hand, we wish we would have had a few more years to get everything just right. But on the other, we’re happy that it’s over and that the game is out in the world, being played. We always say that it’s better to make something rather than nothing. Sometimes that can be the greatest challenge.

Q. Some details in the game, such as Rose’s childish skipping animation as she runs, are disarmingly charming, yet evoke a strange pathos at the same time. How does “The Path” draw out such a range of emotions, rather than simply focusing on fear like similar titles?

Part of the reason for this is probably Michael’s inability to feel fear when watching a horror movie or playing a horror game. We’re always more interested than frightened. Pure shock tactics only annoy us if they don’t have meaning or make narrative sense (and they seldom do). And things that some people might find shocking or repulsive, we often simply find beautiful. Perhaps this is where the complexity of emotions in the Path comes from. We have no interest whatsoever in some kind of unilateral attack on the defensive instincts of the player. Above all, we want to show them beauty, give them the opportunity to experience something poetic, something moving. This often involves a combination of a tear and a smile, or a smile and a tear, depending. At the risk of sounding like Ruby, there is a certain beauty in sadness, pain, despair and misery that we don’t want to ignore. Perhaps these feelings are only beautiful in a cultural context, when we can feel kinship to characters in novels or paintings or theater plays. But even this is beautiful. Culture is a wonderful thing. It unites us as people.

Q. It has been noted that five of the seven individuals who worked on the game are female. What makes this relevant in comparison with other development studios, and how has it impacted the design of the game?

This is a difficult question to answer because we don’t have any other experience. We have always worked together (one male, one female) and our collaborators have always included women. This was never on purpose, but it’s also not an accident. For example, when we were looking for an animator for 8, we needed someone who could animate a little girl. And all the male animators we interviewed just couldn’t do it. Their girls looked like robots, tanks, sportsmen or prostitutes. Laura Raines Smith was the only artist whose work we liked. And she has animated all of our characters since then.

So we don’t look for female collaborators on purpose, but there is a certain – perhaps feminine – sensibility to our work that women are just better at, in terms of production.

This is probably one of the reasons why our work also attracts many enthusiastic female players, and/or does not offend girlfriends, wives or mothers of male players, as opposed to the work of most (male dominated) studios. We like to think of our work as emancipatory, not just for women, but also for men who have been denied access to games simply because they had no interest in machismo. We’re one of very few games studios where women play a major creative role, and that does not produce fluffy pink and cute stuff. We hope our number will grow, if only because this will add to the variety in the offer of available games.

the-path-pc-1Q. What makes “The Path” different from games produced by larger development studios? Why do you think larger studios seem less inclined to produce work similar to “The Path”?

We’ve been thinking about that a bit lately. It’s easy to become very jealous of the money and skill in larger development studios. But when you see what they do with all those resources and all that talent, it’s as easy to become extremely cynical. So we’re trying to develop a kind of pride about being a small studio, and trying to figure out what it is that we do better, so that we can focus on that in the future.

In the case of The Path, there are two things that make it very different from AAA games. The first is that it deals with serious content in a complex way and a narrative form that does not culminate in a resolution, but instead requires the player to actively participate in the production of meaning. The second is a game design where atmosphere and emotional experience are more important than gameplay and goal achievement. There have been many games from big companies that have great characters and a wonderful living world and atmosphere. But there hasn’t been a single game that does not, ultimately, destroy all of this because of the requirement to play a game. This is very sad indeed.

The reason bigger studios are less inclined to produce our kind of work is the same as why they produce the kind of work that they do. Money. Their games are very expensive to make and so they dare not take any risks. So they cater to the only certain markets. Not one of them seems to reverse the logic and simply make games with a smaller budget so that they can afford to take those risks because their audience can be a lot smaller. The real reason why they stick to big games is ultimately not money, but fear. Fear of the unknown. They simply have no idea how to make a game that does not involve enemies to shoot on, walls to jump over or points to gather. With all their money and their talent and their skill, they haven’t got the faintest clue.

Q. With the advent of downloadable content on console gaming platforms, many independent titles are finding their way to broader audiences. Is there a chance we might eventually find “The Path” on the Playstation 3, Xbox 360, or Wii?

We are not opposed to any such opportunity, but so far there are no concrete plans in that direction.

Q. What kind of things can we expect from the studio in the future? Are there any plans for additional content, or perhaps a sequel to “The Path”?

We may be adding some small things to The Path but we’re mostly eager to start working on new projects. There are a lot of things we want to do. Two new projects are already scheduled. One is a prototype and the other an “explorable painting” (like The Graveyard). There are many more ideas and concepts that we’re trying to get started.

by