Michaël Samyn, Auriea Harvey

Tale of Tales

Posted by Mark Newheiser.
First posted on 07 April 2009. Last updated on 07 September 2010.
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Michaël Samyn, Auriea Harvey
Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn (left to right) are the cofounders of Tale and Tales, the developer of The Path.
Michaël Samyn, Auriea Harvey

All images are courtesy of Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey © 2009.

For more information, visit The Path.

Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey are the cofounders of Tale of Tales, a Belgian independent game development studio with the stated goal of catering to an audience outside of mainstream gamers. Their projects so far have included The Endless Forest, a massively multiplayer online game that allows for no violence or direct communication between players. Rather, players control the actions of a deer, triggering magic or interacting with other deer, in a world which seems to be aiming more for an artistic experience than a challenge of gameplay. The avant-garde game developer's latest project is The Path, a horror interpretation of the classic fairy tale Little Red Riding Hood which similarly seems to have been constructed in order to defy genre.

We are privileged to have the opportunity to discuss The Path with Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey. In the interview, they speak on their goals for the game, some of the design choices they have made, and their concept of what makes for a meaningful gameplay experience.

The Path takes its inspiration from the classic fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, which itself has undergone numerous adaptations that do not always have a happy ending. Like a lot of old stories, it has been sanitized over the years, glossing over themes ranging from cannibalism to making the wolf's advances more creepy and sexual. What facets of the Little Red Riding Hood mythos will The Path be exploring? Where does it fit in among the many revisions and adaptations of the classic story?

We are fascinated by how fairy tales continuously change and mutate over the centuries and how there is not a single original story but instead many roots in many different cultures and times. We like to see The Path as part of this tradition: another retelling of the ancient tale, focusing on contemporary issues. Sexuality is not so much a theme in The Path as are the concepts of seduction, temptation, attraction and curiosity. Those are all aspects of the main traditional theme in Little Red Riding Hood: growing up. But we like to expand on that and perhaps consider the confusion of adolescence as a metaphor for the uncertainty of life.

We connect mostly to the versions of the tale from before the Grimm brothers’ clean-up, which most contemporary versions of the fairy tale are based on. Hopefully people will notice the difference and realize that the fairy tale does not always have a happy ending and that there is not always a man at the end of the story to come to the rescue of the damsels in distress.

Perhaps The Path tells the story of what happens before many videogames start: the story of how the princess got lost. But in our story, she cannot be saved. And there is no hero.

Developing an adventure game in the horror genre is challenging. Although there are classic adventure games such as the Gabriel Knight series that play to the horror theme, by far the more popular take on the theme has been survival horror games which prefer to create their scares through shock rather than suspense. What kind of horror experience is The Path trying to recreate in relation to this subgenre?

It's always difficult for us to figure out which genre our games belong to. We just don't work like that. We make what feels right and then afterwards we're sort of forced to stick a label onto it because without a category, the games industry is likely to ignore your work. This is how we ended up calling The Path a horror game. This is not even an established genre, but at least it refers to one. Though, strictly speaking, The Path is the exact opposite of a survival horror game in the sense that the goal of the game is the opposite of survival.

That being said, The Path does have a focus on atmosphere and characters in common with games like Silent Hill and Fatal Frame. But overall, The Path is neither about shocks or suspense. Maybe it's not a horror game after all. It's gloomy, it's melancholic, it may be unsettling or even depressing. But there's no blood or ghosts or monsters. The design plays with your imagination and counts on the fact that the things in your mind are infinitely more frightening than anything we could depict.

The Path features 6 playable protagonists, an ambitious undertaking for an adventure game. What are the major challenges in creating 6 distinct characters through which the players will experience the game, particularly since the players will be exploring the same locales playing as each of the sisters in turn?

The six characters in The Path posed a challenge in terms of asset creation and programming. But they were a solution in terms of design. We are not story-tellers in the traditional sense of the word. In the sense that we know a story and we want to share it with you. Our work is more about exploring the narrative potential of a situation. We create only the situation. And the actual story emerges from playing, partially in the game, partially in the player's mind. The six protagonists offer the player different ways of exploring the same themes, different aspects of the narrative. In theory, a player could probably do the same thing with a single avatar, given sufficient self-discipline and creativity. Much like you could probably tell the same story with low resolution 2D pixelated characters, or even simply words on paper. But the experience becomes a lot more visceral and moving when the game helps you on your way. When your senses and emotions are being stimulated as much as your ratio.

How do you expect the players, especially male players, to relate to the main characters at their different stages of womanhood and with their different personalities? Which character do you expect most players will gravitate towards as the game progresses? Why?

The choice of character will be very personal. We can already see that in the responses to the screenshots and other materials we release before the launch of the game. Many people express a an explicit preference for one of the girls. But it's different girls for different people. From what we've seen, in general women tend to identify with a particular character and men are looking to fall in love with one.

Some male players may have difficulty relating to young women. Especially if they're used to playing with strong heroic males. We hope they do an effort to try and see the world through the eyes of a young girl for once. Or at least to take a look at the world of such a person. We think it can be a very enriching experience.

But we don't worry about it. We think of The Path as an "emancipatory" game for the many people who have largely been left out in the cold by the games industry for decades. We, and many people with us, find it difficult to relate to muscular soldiers packed with tons of guns or scantily dressed vixens wielding impossibly long swords -or even to the dorky intellectuals of adventure games. The Path offers a different kind of story. For a different kind of people, perhaps.

The focus of the game seems to be exploring the infinite expanse of forest that changes its time of day and general mood, depending upon what is taking place in it. What are the techniques you use to craft a dynamic world that constantly changes but still makes a kind of sense in whole?

Many things in the game respond to the activity of the player. The time of day is no exception. There is no automatic day-night cycle in The Path. The time of day is bound to the position of the protagonist on the path: at the start of the path it is day time and at grandmother's house it is night. So as you walk down the path, it slowly gets darker. In the forest, however, time stands still. So depending on where you would leave the path, you get a different mood in the forest.

The autonomous behaviour of the characters and the continuous shifts in the music are similar: both respond to both the player's activity and autonomous or random elements in the game. So the player is always in control, but always only partially.

Whether or not this world of ours makes sense, seems to be a highly personal issue. Some players don't get it at all, it doesn't do anything for them, they find it boring or absurd. And for others, the game acts as a revelation, a deeply felt emotional experience that gives them surprising insights. This is a direct result of our design style. And we like it that way. It's one of the reasons why we're so fond of the interactive medium: more than any other artistic medium, the computer allows us to make art about the spectator.

The Path uses a number of interesting cinematic effects typically seen in horror films, such as inserting brief uncomfortable flashes of imagery or moving images layered into the foreground. What horror films, if any, have inspired these choices? What are some of the visual techniques you employ to create the mood for the game?

There's not a lot of flashing in the game. But there is lots and lots of layering. And even though we watched many horror films in preparation for this project, not much of the visual style of the game was inspired by cinema. The inclusion of overlays was initially mostly motivated by a desire to make the image dirty. Default 3D rendering is so smooth and clean. It's what the computer does best. But humans are not so perfect. And we want to make art for humans, not for computers. So we just added layer upon layer to mess up the image. Gradually, parts of this messiness received a function in the design. Because, since the computer is the medium, it needs numbers to do anything. So we fed it numbers that came from the gameplay and game state, instead of random ones. This is how some of the graphics in the overlays can be used as a tool for navigation for instance, or how other elements serve as a warning for something in your vicinity.

Other than this mostly flat layer on top of the image, we also carefully constructed the three dimensional world to feel real, but not necessarily look real. When you look closely, the leaves on our trees are gothic ornaments and their trunks are pure, untextured black. Yet you get a strong sense of being in a thick forest despite of the "unnaturalism" of the individual elements. A similar thing happens with the characters, who are neither realistic nor cartoony and who will sometimes feel like real people and other times more like dolls. We simply like this kind of ambiguity, but it probably also adds to the general uneasiness of the horror mood in the game.

The music used in The Path is designed to be adaptive, intended to interact with what is taking place and never be the same twice. What are some of the inspirations for the game's music? How do you keep the music both interesting and appropriate to whatever is taking place on screen?

The most important choice for us in terms of the music in The Path was to not have any sound effects, or hardly. To have a music-only soundscape. This was inspired by silent films that are accompanied by (live) music. We wanted to capture some of the eeriness that is caused by the distance between image and sound.

The music system in the game is created to allow the music to respond and correspond to the situation. But not too tightly, because we wanted to retain the distance, the awkward disconnection. And one of the primary elements to playing The Path is using your imagination. So making the music hard to predict helps your interpretation to be unique. What keeps this interesting (as opposed to a cacophonic mess) is undoubtedly the quality of the source material composed by Jarboe and Kris Force. So much so that the music was an important inspiration for the game design. More so than the other way around.

The Path is described as a game in which the only way to win is to break the rules and die. This almost stretches the definition of what a game is. Which game genres does The Path best fit into? To what extent does The Path fit within the definition of an adventure game that is based around solving puzzles and exploration? Alternatively, to what extent is The Path better described as a more freeform work of interactive fiction?

It's always been difficult to put our work in a category. We call it a horror game because our focus on atmosphere and characters is similar to that in survival horror games.

Our work is often put in the adventure category because, shockingly sadly, that is the only category for games that are not explicitly violent and/or action-based. But in our experience, adventure gamers can be very protective about their genre. So we don't feel comfortable invading it with a game that does not contain puzzles or clear narrative progression.

The Path could be interactive fiction if interactive fiction can be poetry without words. But we have a feeling that that would stretch the definition a bit much.

For us our work is such an obvious and logical way to deal with the interactive medium that we have trouble imagining a future in which not many different developers will be working in similar ways. That's of course hopelessly naive, but if it would happen, a new genre would be born. Or perhaps even a new medium, depending on how tight you see the definition of a game.

It can be argued that a good game often entices players to strategize to find the best way to beat the game, by unlocking all the available content, completing every possible objective, and moving events towards an ideal ending. Is The Path a game in which the goal is to game the system in order to win somehow? If not, what is the goal?

We're afraid we don't share your definition of a good game. For us, a game is good when it allows us to play, when it makes us think and feel something, when it makes us discover something about life, when we feel the pure joy of immersion, etc. We often feel that the things that you mention (the goals, the challenges, the pressure) stand in the way of the pleasure we could have with a game. So when we design our own games, we take that into account.

As a result, by your definition, The Path would probably be a bad game. There is a fairly traditional gameplay layer of collecting things but it is entirely voluntary. And the main goal of the game, as you have pointed out, is to lose. Playing The Path as if it were a normal game, is not going to produce much fun. One needs a different attitude to get something out of it.

The goal of The Path is clear from the beginning of the game: "Go the grandmother's house". This comes straight from the fairy tale and is accompanied by the single rule in game: "Stay on the path". If you are a good girl and you do exactly as you were told, the game will tell you that you have failed. You have failed because you did not tell the fairy tale. In the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood, the protagonist does not obey her mother. She leaves the path and meets the wolf which leads to the death of her grandmother and to her own.

So if you need to think of The Path in traditional game terms, the goal of the game is to tell the story. There's plenty of opportunities of adding some spice to your story and making variations. Your story can be longer or shorter. You can make failure part of the story. It's your choice. But to make progress in the game, your story ultimately needs to end with the death of the protagonist. Because that's how the fairy tale goes.

This design is not without irony, of course. We like frustrating the expectations of gamers and hope to make them think twice. You could even read it as a critique of how videogames are more like work than play these days: they demand that you obey the rules and that you do exactly what the designers tells you to do. The Path is not a giant machine that allows you to play the part of a little cog. It is a little cog by itself that hopes to find a place in the giant machine that is you.

Is there any single correct interpretation to all the ambiguous imagery and themes in The Path? In the end, will the game give a clear and concise explanation for everything that takes place, or will it be left ultimately open for interpretation?

Everything in The Path is open for interpretation. To tell you the truth, we don't even know what it all means ourselves. And we find this wonderful! Being an artist sometimes feels like being a medium: we receive signals from "somewhere" and we express these in a language that feels appropriate, that feels right. But this language works on a more emotional, perhaps even subconscious, level than normal spoken or written language. And sometimes, it is hard for humans to connect to that level and figure out what it all means.

That's the esoteric explanation. The more relativist, sober explanation is that we just juxtapose random elements in the hope of triggering some association in the mind that leads to some kind of meaning. Though our choice of elements is far from random. So this is not correct either.

We just find it fascinating to be able to play our own game and discover new things all the time, or realize new narrative potential or figure out a new interpretation. That's quite a unique experience with a work that we made ourselves.

Obviously, The Path is meant to deliver an atypical interactive experience in contrast to most video games. What other games or stories have played a significant role in influencing the game's design or the kind of experience the game is intended to deliver?

Actually, a great many games! The thing is, we feel that a lot of games are already offering what we are offering with The Path: an immersive experience in a virtual world with interesting characters. But they always ruin it for us by adding obligatory gameplay or sticking to a linear narrative structure. Both really feel like ancient remnants from the past to us that are not very relevant to the new medium. But more than that, they spoil the fun we could find in a game.

That being said, we are obviously also authors. And it appears that, as far as those go, we are a bit weird. We don't choose to be, but we have to admit that, even if it all feels very natural to us, what we do and think is considered strange and eccentric by many. So while the form may be familiar, the content will probably be not so.

If we have to name names, I'd say that Tomb Raider, Ico, Silent Hill and Fatal Frame were probably the most significant influences in terms of games. But the major element is the fairy tale of Little Red Riding Hood itself. We read all the versions we could find and studied a lot of interpretations by writers, illustrators and film makers. And all the complexity of this rich story is the real source of our inspiration. We wanted to explore the themes that we feel are important in the folk tale, while simultaneously connecting back to old tradition of telling stories around the camp fire.

How do you think gamers will choose to react to The Path initially? What do you want gamers to take away from playing The Path ultimately?

We've been wrong about this in the past. We always think gamers are really going to hate what we do because we're not giving them the challenges and goals and payoffs that they're used to. We used to think that there was no audience at all for us in the games industry. But as it turns out, there's plenty of people who are interested in new kinds of games, different kinds of interactive experiences.

That being said, we think the reactions will be either completely negative or embracing and positive, all depending on whether The Path was compatible with the player's sensitivity and life. Not that the game is so perfect that there can be no middle ground. We're just not aiming for perfection. If you find something in it that speaks to you, it's good enough for us.

Ultimately, we hope that The Path becomes a fond memory that comes back to you often, with new interpretations and insights. We hope it will help people deal a little bit with some issues they might experience in their lives. The Path is not a game that you will want to play over and over. But it offers an experience that can stick for a long time.

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