Many of Tale of Tales' games have erotic undertones, and you might begin to wonder exactly why that is. You remember I wrote about Tale of Tales' FATALE earlier in this column, of course. And after winning the Nuovo Award for Luxuria Superbia at the IGF Awards a few weeks ago, Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn explained in their acceptance speech that they did a lot of 'research' together for their award-winning game. Because Luxuria Superbia is about touch, pleasure, and joy, and can make you blush when you play it, you can imagine the sort of research they were referring to.
Well, the erotic undertones are because Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn are married and have confessed they are good at two things: making art, and f**king.
Michaël, Auriea and I are sitting in a hostel bar in Berlin at the beginning of the month, where we're hanging out before speaking at independent games festival AMAZEfest. I want to know about how their relationship, and to a certain extent, how sex, influences the games they make. Terrible German techno accompanies us in the background whilst they regale me with tales of the early indie scene, and an internet that sounds like the wild west, at least in the corner they were inhabiting.
"I'm going to open with saying you are the king and queen of 'art and fucking' in videogames," I say.
"I can live with that," Auriea says, whilst Michaël grins.
Before they formed their game company Tale of Tales, Auriea Harvey & Michaël Samyn began talking to each other in the early days of the net where everyone wrote to Livejournals and websites had those sparkles that follow your cursor around. They met and conducted their early relationship across forums and made digital art for each other; in many ways it was a digital romance, and still is for both of them.
"It was a way of dealing with things," Auriea says of their online relationship in the early days. "It was kind of dramatic when we got together." She describes a difficult personal situation for both Michaël and her, where they had other responsibilities and were in two different countries, Auriea in the US and Michaël in Belgium. But they knew they wanted to be together. "We fell in love," Auriea said. "It was instant."
"The first sex chat we had is online, you just have to know where to find it," Michaël says. "...It started online as very poetic sex chat. It was in the context of art. We were artists on hell.com and we were trying to use this video chatting software for some performance..."
"There were a lot of people there, chatting," Auriea explains, "but we just did a private thread on the side. ...It wasn't smutty at all. It was really beautiful."
"It was very sexy," Michaël says.
They describe falling in love over a matter of months. They moved in together. Then, when they stopped making digital art about themselves, they began making art commissions and websites with Entropy8Zuper (between 1999 and 2003), and graduated to making games. The internet had started to become boring to them - just CSS and databases, Auriea says.
"We were playing all these games just for kicks... After our wedding, what did we do? We took the big bottle of champagne back to the house and played Tekken 3. Tekken Tag Tournament."
"That was like a sex game to me," Michaël says. Loser takes off clothing? I ask. "No no," Michaël says, "It's in the game. The characters touch each other."
"I use moves really well," says Auriea, with a sparkle in her eye.
"The throwing each other on the floor," Michaël says. "Jumping on top of each other."
"But we were playing all these games for kicks... Eventually we just got really bored with films, and we started renting games instead. ...We'd always be reading the back of the game and realising the description of the game was never the game inside. ...We had all these opinions... One day we were like, why don't we just make a game? This is sort of like what we are already doing only it's on a disk."
"...Our first real game was about an eight year old girl, she was like our daughter," Michaël says.
"We started to think that there were other aspects to be explored other than sex and longing," Auriea says.
I guess that period of longing was over by the time you had formed the company? I say.
"But even aspects of us were in the Endless Forest," Michaël says of their earliest game, an MMO where you play as a deer who can only communicate through sounds and body language. "Both of us have special forces in that game that the players don't have, we can do things together. There are statues of twin gods, and we can make them fly around and make rainbows and explosions of flowers."
"The Endless Forest was a really magical thing. It's a really beautiful thing if I do say so myself. I still love going there," Auriea says.
Michaël describes the origins of the Endless Forest as being an extension of his and Auriea's personal relationship. "One of the things that we wanted when we made the Endless Forest was to create something that people could enjoy all the time without us being there," he says. "It was grounded in something that we did together which was called Wirefire, a Flash based, web-based VJing tool. I had a folder with all sorts of animations, sounds, images, she had one, but we didn't know of each others' folders.
"Every Thursday evening we would do a one hour performance, where we started mixing - it was like a visual communication through time, and people could come and watch the show. But we also used it as a very intimate way of communicating. Of talking about things that were difficult to talk about. But we were a little bit annoyed by it because it only existed when we were physically doing it. That's one of the reasons we were attracted to the MMO aspect."
They get to telling their favourite stories about the Endless Forest.
"There was a group of people surrounding Jeff Minter -"
What? I say. Jeff Minter?!
"Yeah, Jeff Minter played the game," Auriea says.
Michaël explains, "Him and his little gang would just sleep on a certain hill in the forest, so the next build we put a mushroom circle where they were sleeping, around these sleeping deer, and it became a magical power, if you were to lie next to a sleeping deer you got a special spell."
Minter Hill, I say, somewhat enchanted by the idea.
Let's talk about Luxuria Superbia, I say. It's very explicitly sexy: it's about 'pleasuring' an environment that responds to your touch, and it rewards the player with provocative messages. Michaël tells me that the ...flavour text... for the red flower is literally quotations from pornography, in a way that reminds both him and Auriea of their early sex chats online, of the way they still talk to each other. I suspect that this content is something games journalists, and the gaming public, have not often been confronted with in a game.
"A lot of people did start thinking about their relationship to these devices," Michaël says of how people responded to Luxuria Superbia. "And sex in general, sex in games. A bit more than we expected. But that was kind of pleasant, even when we're not being heavy, people can be with our games. But the best reaction was just seeing people playing. It was very interesting, because it's very recognisable as an experience - people totally get what it's about very quickly. And you can share this with a complete stranger... I found that very charming and warm. You have this connection with this other human being about this thing that is very intimate. You're not really going to go into details about it, but... we've both done this, we've both felt this. You can feel a bond with a total stranger over this thing you can't really talk about. That was really beautiful."
"We had a great experience at GDC where we had the four controller version," Auriea says, "and there were three other people who were all playing together on the last circular level. Everybody was working really hard, and I joined to help, and they were like 'we can't get the thing to finish, we've been doing this for ten minutes and our fingers are getting tired!' And I was like okay everybody, just pick a direction, and go there, and don't move. All four of us were there not moving, and all of a sudden the thing went [hand gesture] and started like, coming, and we were just like 'HOLD IT HOLD IT HOLD IT YEAH DON'T MOVE DON'T MOVE OKAY' and we were all just standing there like... 'Yes yes yes yes yes...'
"And that evening we get thank you mail from all their girlfriends," Michaël deadpans.
But what's the aspect that most people don't notice about Tale of Tales games? The humour, Michaël says.
"There's always a layer of humour," he says. "Usually when sex is in a game, it's about a challenge, winning - a reward. That's not what sex is, you know? Things go wrong when you have sex -"
"It's often quite embarrassing, awkward," Auriea says, laughing.
"But you love each other, so it's really not a problem," Michaël says rather optimistically. "In fact, it's really kind of funny that it happened, that you came too soon. That you farted. It's all part of the experience. And everybody knows that... Games are so much about getting a 10/10 score or something, but sex is very playful, but it's not about perfection. ...A game doesn't even have to be about sex, but the way people play, the way people play with each other in bed or wherever, is very interesting in terms of design, and it really makes you think why are all these games so rigid? So non playful?"
Is Michaël calling today's games structurally frigid? I feel like he might be. Loosen up, games.
Both Auriea and Michaël are working on new games for your delectation, one of them the upcoming 'Sunset', but you can catch RPS's review of Luxuria Superbia here. Did you also know that Auriea was voted Riot Grrl's sexiest person on the internet in 1997? Well now you do.
See you next fortnight, S.EXE lovers. If you're into it, you can check out my previous columns here.