Level With Me is a series of interviews with game developers about their games, work process, and design philosophy. At the end of each interview, they design part of a small first person game. You can play this game at the very end of the series.
Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn make provocative games and game-like artworks as Tale of Tales, based in Ghent, Belgium. Together, they've made The Endless Forest, The Graveyard, The Path, Fatale, and Bientot l'ete. Their most recent project is Luxuria Superbia.
Robert Yang: So, what's going on these days?
Auriea Harvey: Well.... we're going into a phase right now, to explore how I can be more of the face of Tale of Tales. When reporters would talk to us, they'd mostly talk to Michael, because I didn't want to have to deal --
AH: So I'm thinking, how can I help us by taking a more active role in the dialogue around our games? I can totally speak to people, but I'm also shy, and I don't want to express too much because I can get cynical about games. Michael's more forward while I'm more... withdrawn.
RY: But that's part of making games, right? You can change what a game is about by changing how people talk about it.
AH: I agree, but that's partly what made me so cynical! With most art, you experience an emotional or gut-feeling that determines its value, but you also have to educate yourself and know what you're looking at. I just don't like the idea that what's said about a thing is more important than the thing itself. I have this thing about context. Who made this? What were they trying to do? Games that can't give me that -- you know, like big games by EA -- who designed that?
RY: Design by committee, shareholders, focus-testing... I agree that for games with giant teams, it's rarer to see a unified voice emerge from those.
AH: I do admire directors who manage large teams, and the level of work that comes out of huge studios, on a technical craft level. We're not directors... I mean, I guess I'm the data director and Michael's the process director --
RY: What does "data director" mean?
AH: The things you see, mostly. Michael's more in charge of the programming, the process, maybe the things you feel, the intangible things. We both end up doing everything though. But for our collaborators, we just say, "hey you make great music" -- we don't tell them what to do. "We want you to do that, but for this." Actually we need a concept artist now, and I just can't find someone I like instinctively. Usually it's like a bolt of lightning for us.
RY: If I needed concept art, I'd see that more as how I need to learn to draw, to just do my own concept art.
AH: I see it that way too. But for The Path, it was just the two of us who did almost everything but the music. I modeled 14 characters in 2 months.
AH: It was suicide! And now I know I don't want to do it again. And if we had known ahead of time, we wouldn't have done it.
RY: Yeah, in The Path, there was so much... stuff. So many places, so many models.
AH: We modified a lot of stock 3D models for that. But when we needed something more specific, we'd just maybe hire a random modeler off Polycount or something, and it was like hell, it never worked out. It's a strange dynamic where you are their boss instead of a collaborator.
RY: So how do you find people?
AH: With Fatale, we saw Takayoshi Sato's work in Silent Hill 2 and wrote him an e-mail. "Hey, we're making a game, want to make a model for us?" And he said yes. That's how it usually works, literally. We're working with a writer right now... actually, she found us. She writes science fiction / fantasy stuff, and I read a few of her stories and was enchanted.
She's also written for games before.
RY: Isn't it hard to collaborate on writing or design? You have this vision of the game, locked inside your head. It's so hard to communicate and share that. If it's not just an art asset you can swap out, but it's the core design or what the game is about... it seems really hard.
AH: I don't tell the writer what to write, but we have a very good back-and-forth about it. I send her pictures of things and my own writing too, so it's more like a conversation. It certainly changes things. But in this case, I wanted that change. You have to want it. But when working with a concept artist, I'm more opinionated. The other day, Michael was telling me, "you know, working with a concept artist is going to change how it looks -- and the problem is that you already know how it looks." I can't expect someone else to draw like me. You know, the writing is a bit like concept art too. When she writes, it's like she's giving me textual concept art. You see things in your head when you read it.
RY: A lot of Tale of Tales games adapt texts. The Path adapts Little Red Riding Hood, Fatale adapts Oscar Wilde's play Salome...
AH: Yes, but we think our interpretation comes more from our interactivity. We do adapt more because we realized we weren't writers. We know that's not our forte. We like adaptation because people already know the story, like with Little Red Riding Hood. It already exists. It's in the tradition of re-telling fairy tales.
RY: I'd even put it in this "chamber theater" kind of tradition. A lot of the text from Salome is plopped right into Fatale.
AH: Yeah, we're into the idea of virtual theater, of a virtual actor. Like the girl in white in The Path was from a project called 8, and now we're going to put her back in 8 again. To us, it's the same exact girl. The same personality. She's an actress, she can be in any story.
RY: I felt the same about Half-Life 2. Valve's NPC idle AI is very expressive. If you just sit there and watch them, they do all these subtle things. Maybe they'll look at you for a moment, then look off to the side, etc. all this fidgeting that's pretty nice.
AH: The first time I noticed something like that was in Ico. He's just standing there and it's beautiful. That was the first time I thought, "wow, that's a character." It's just idle motions, but it doesn't feel like it.
RY: Do you still like what Fumito Ueda says about subtractive design, and is that important to your practice?
AH: I think I'm pretty maximalist by nature, I like lots of stuff. The other thing that Fumito says is about increasing the "density" of things... But balance that with what you can do. People who make games are really hard on themselves. You think, "oh, just another hour." But it's not healthy, I know that now.
RY: I'm very unhealthy, I think.
RY: I'll work in huge spurts and do nothing for a day or two. I think me and many indies out there... we don't know how to pace ourselves. It's like if we're not cranking it up to 11, we're not being efficient. There's pressure. "I have to make a game so that maybe I can sell it and make money so that maybe I can eat food."
AH: It's no different for us. It's just, I like having a healthy mind. [laughs] Now I schedule that shit! And I know Michael would be laughing his ass off if he heard me saying this because I'm so bad with schedules. We used to work all the time, roll right out of bed in the morning and to the desk. Now that I'm officially middle-aged, we quit by 8 PM and no work on Sunday.
RY: The Lord's Day.
AH: Yeah, it's a sin! You can burn yourself out. After The Path, we were so burnt out that we had to make Fatale, otherwise we'd think we could never finish anything again -- four months, start to finish, which is really fast for us. We were also just really obsessed with paintings of women who chop off the heads of men...
RY: [laughs] Is that a genre?
AH: There are a lot. All these stories from The Bible or mythology. Salome, Judas, Samson's hair getting cut by Delilah. There's also this painting by John Collier of Clytemnestra standing outside the house of Agamemnon, balancing this huge axe, looking like a total badass. I saw the painting in real-life, and stared at it for 10 minutes. And in the background there's a curtain leading into the house, and I wondered, what's behind this curtain? I wanted to make a game like that, where you find out. We used Oscar Wilde's Salome instead, and Michael saw lot in that too. We put in lots of anachronisms to draw links between modern Middle Eastern situations and a more cliched one. I wouldn't say we were entirely successful at bringing that out, but it was a chance for us to play around with ideas. I'm still really interested in exploring a game that's less about movement and more about stillness.
RY: I was reading the play last night, and at the end, Salome dies. And, not that any adaptation has to address every part of the source, but that seems like a huge thing to leave out of Fatale.
AH: Fatale is very much about a moment. It's that instant after John the Baptist's head is chopped off. In the play, he's not supposed to look at her and he doesn't want to look at her. But when his head is chopped off, that's actually the only moment possible when he CAN look at her. It's the remnants of the party scene. And then if you restart the game, it's morning, and Salome is dancing, almost like an alternate ending, and suddenly you're the king and you look at her.
RY: I felt disconnected from John the Baptist. I, as the player, wanted to look at her, but he didn't.
AH: You're not John the Baptist, he's dead. You can see his head. You're a floating ghost.
RY: But wouldn't his ghost also not want to look at her?
AH: I think we're saying that, deep down, he did want to look at her. He protesteth too much, you know? It's about the tension of looking.
RY: I like this "tension of looking." You've talked about how first person games give you motion sickness. I think that's why your first person work is so distinctive -- you don't take it for granted, you use it because you have to. "This better be worth it."
AH: Yeah, that's why the navigation in Fatale is so "weird" -- we did all these tests and it turned out that kind of camera motion was the only one that didn't make me sick. I hate WASD with mouse-look, it's like nails on a blackboard. I tried to play... Max Headroom?... No, Max Payne! That almost killed me. There's something about cameras in PC games. I played Dear Esther even though I knew I was going to get sick. I played for 5 minutes! It was heroic. Same thing with Half-Life 2. The first scene was so beautiful. It makes me sad because I want to play Gone Home.
RY: Speaking of Gone Home -- lately, I've been thinking a lot about "personal games" -- in what way are your games personal?
AH: For the longest time, all our work was about us. It was so autobiographical. Now I want to look more outwards, to make things for people that didn't necessarily say everything about me... but it always is. Like, The Path, is totally about me!
RY: Oh, really?
AH: The game is about everyone who worked on it. It becomes about all of you. Well, The Graveyard is intensely personal, in the sense that I based the character on Michael's grandmother... and then she died. The cemetery is based on a specific cemetery that Michael went to when he was young, and he remembers it feeling so alive even with all the graves.
It's about letting people find a way in. They'll get whatever they're going to get out of our games, we're not trying to make a specific point. I do think "personal games" is important, in terms of making games expressive.
And... I like when that happens? [laughs]
RY: Okay, let's design a first person game together now! You said you wanted to go first, because you didn't want to have to play it and get sick?
RY: Right now, it's a really basic thing. You're a capsule standing in a featureless void. Now what?
AH: [pauses] It needs water.
RY: [laughs] Why do you say that?
AH: I'm really interested in mythological personifications of bodies of water... like, there's these stories where the lake is a woman, and then a man jumps into her, and then two children are born. That's weird for a game, but I've been thinking about that a lot.
RY: Okay. What color should the water be?
AH: Oh. Green, perhaps?
RY: How big should this body of water be?
AH: It should be a pool, sometimes shallow and sometimes deep. The reflection is important. It shouldn't look too photorealistic with all these ripples... it's more about the reflection and what you see in it. I remember we had a big mirror in our game. I like mirrors. In Silent Hill 3, when Heather looks at this mirror and it starts bleeding, or in Tomb Raider 1 when she meets her doppelganger...
RY: Is this a natural pool or man-made?
AH: It's natural. So perhaps it's surrounded by woods.
RY: What are the interactions with this pool?
AH: Well, you can gaze into it. But you don't see yourself.
RY: No one would notice anything special. In a lot of first person games, you can't see yourself.
AH: Okay, maybe you see... the thing you find most beautiful. You see... another place. Is that a cliche? You see the next level. Maybe it's a door.
RY: Is it daytime or nighttime?
AH: Night is nice. You'd get the stars and sky reflected in the water. Or maybe you're in a studio, with artificial lights? The trees are actually lamp posts. What you see in the water isn't what you see around you.
RY: I can do that, but what do you see in the water then?
AH: Maybe... maybe there are things you can hold onto. You don't sink down. It gets deeper and deeper. I don't know how to hold onto things in a first person game without a gravity gun. Maybe there are buoys, or you hear the most beautiful sound in the world and you find the source of it and you drown. You want to get there. Eventually something pulls you out and you get lost.
RY: But it's a small pool. How can you get lost in it?
AH: Maybe it's a big pool. And there are things floating in the water and you grab them.
RY: Do you see your hands? Or is the hand invisible and implied?
AH: Implied. In first person situations, I'd prefer for people to feel like themselves.
RY: Do you like body awareness in games?
AH: I liked it in Mirror's Edge... but then people look down and want to know who they are, and then are you going to tell them? I prefer more "spatial awareness", where the environment is more important than I am.
RY: That's a good way of putting it. So you start in the pool?
AH: ... Yeah. I think my idea with the water was about what you're doing there, which is, you're trying to meet someone. Maybe this is a sentient pool! [laughs] Oh god.
RY: How would you know it's sentient? [laughs]
AH: Maybe the lake is a person, a... a mermaid? That's too literal. [pauses] There's whispering.
RY: Can we hear what it's whispering?
AH: I feel like I'm at my shrink.
RY: Game journalism is therapy.
AH: It should be telling you about how it's the lake. But it's not The Lady of the Lake.
RY: The Dude of the Lake? The Guy of the Lake?
AH: Yeah, most river gods were male. So this lake can be a man. And you hear it telling you... The dictionary definition of water. But that's insane? It's reciting bodies of water. "The Danube, the Rhine, the Seine, the Mississippi..." And after a while, you want to dive down. "Pacific!" Okay, you don't start in the pool, you have to go into it of your own free will. And I take it back, it can a small pool where you can see it all. Maybe you're on an island.
RY: ... and you're also surrounded by fake-tree lampposts?
AH: [laughs] Are you trying to make something really fucked-up? Are you scared by the randomness you get by tapping into the subconscious of a game designer? What's the intent of this?
RY: The intent of this series is... instead of some (kind of bullshit) roundtable interview where you all have to talk over each other, this is more a playable roundtable, where you all have to deal with each others' sensibilities. If this is how you approach design, then that's great, don't moderate yourself.
AH: But my design process starts with me getting an idea, and then three years from now...
AH: Then suddenly, we go and make that. We've done this a lot. It's about the ideas that survive. So I can't be so concrete so quickly... Okay. I'm in the water and I see trees in the sky like a Magritte painting, then suddenly the water is reflecting something different, and I look down at my feet and see something else that's not in the sky. That makes me want to dive deeper. So maybe the buoys are a way of getting down into the water. I can't get any deeper without pulling myself down. Because down there is my heart's desire, the thing I want. It's calling to me! Why don't I drown? I don't know, you just don't! You're in another world. Someone else can decide what's calling you. And forget all the artificial stuff. It's all calm nature above the water. I think this makes a nice intro.
RY: I like your approach. I'm teaching game development in a university right now, and I overhear some games students there, working: "What are the 5 different player types? How can we make a system for each type?" That's a totally different way of thinking about games and interaction.
AH: Well, I never went to school for this!
RY: It's okay, most of us didn't.
AH: I studied sculpture, I mean... It's why I make 3D games, thinking spatially. I put myself there, trying to figure stuff out. That's how I design. This is why we really like Quest3D, it was a real-time development environment. Always on. You can sit there and watch people play while making changes to it. And when we did The Path, I could design the world while the girls ran around, and then say -- "oh, that's where the swings should go."
RY: But wouldn't the girl NPCs get in your way? Maybe you want to put this tree there, and then suddenly the
girl gets in your way?
AH: Sometimes. I'd just wait until she left.
AH: It was my way of talking with the game. Now we use Unity and we can't really do that anymore. I mean, everything else about Quest3D was hell, like the import / export process, with 500 animations in The Path, breaking all the time. Ahh! So now, in Unity, I'm trying to temper my own feeling of being in a space.
AH: I'm trying to design for people, not just myself. I want to make sure other people can get there.
RY: Thanks for your time.