Indie Spotlight is a weekly series at Gaming Nexus that explore the origin and development of unique and innovative games designed and produced by independent developers. Each article includes a developer interview that focuses on examining the concept and design processes involved with each project. Indie Spotlight strives to showcase new and upcoming games that range from a variety of genres and development studios across the world.
Belgium-based game studio Tale of Tales, headed by its creators Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, just released their latest game project, Bientôt l'été, which has players walking alongside a virtual beach collecting French words for use later in chess. Similar to recent releases by the studio such as The Path and The Graveyard, Bientôt l'été offers an unique gameplay experience that both questions and advances the notion of what can be accomplished through the medium of video games.
In one of the more interesting feature summaries, Bientôt l'été is described as allowing players to smoke, drink, play music, speak French, walk alongside a seashore, and play chess with others anonymously online. With an obscure game premise and mysterious gameplay experience, the game's creators Auriea and Michaël provided insight into the many concepts and inspirations behind the design and development of Bientôt l'été.
Interview with Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn
Could you introduce yourselves and talk about your various roles with the development of Bientôt l'été?
Bientôt l'été was directed by Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey. Auriea designed and modeled the characters. And Michaël designed and programmed the game. We worked with several freelancers to compose the music (Walter Hus), animate the characters (Laura Raines Smith), model the architecture (Theresa Schlag), and model the objects (Daniel Hellweg). The voices were done by Fabienne Mésenge and Christophe Poulain.
This is how we usually work. We, Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, started Tale of Tales 10 years ago, coming from net.art and web design. We were trained sculptor and graphic designer originally. We tend to work very closely together as we create our games with a changing group of freelancers. Bientôt l'été was a little bit different since it was designed mostly by Michaël while Auriea concentrated on our other projects.
What is the history behind Tale of Tales in regards to how the studio was formed and its philosophy toward video game development?
We got interested in interactive art when the first graphical web browsers appeared in the mid-nineties. At the time, Auriea was living in New York and Michaël in Belgium. I think we both thought we could create something like the CD-ROMS we admired, on the web. While the web was quite primitive in comparison, its great advantage was a direct connection to an audience. This was very attractive to us since at that point we had no inclination, or talent, to join the contemporary art world. We met in 1999, in cyberspace, in a Seaside Motel in Hell. We immediately started working together and fell in love.
When web 2.0 started we lost interest in the web as an environment for our creations and switched to video games. Our only intention was simply to continue our artistic work. Contrary to the virgin medium of the web in the nineties, video games had already developed many conventions. Many of these did not inspire us, so we tried to make video games without them. We just wanted to make art: something beautiful, meaningful, and enjoyable. And, thanks to the digital medium, art that can be shared with many very easily and directly.
Can you discuss some of the primary elements that define the premise and setting of Bientôt l'été?
The settings of the game are very much inspired by memories. I grew up in the Western part of Belgium and so we visited the seaside often. My grandfather lived in the dunes. I have fond memories of long walks along the shore. Especially out of season when it's windy and rainy and all the tourist shops are closed. The beach in Bientôt l'été looks very much like the beach in Belgium: long, wide, sandy, flat with a slanted dike that provides for a wide boardwalk bordered by a solid row of apartment blocks that replaced the dunes in many places. I decided to put only a single building on the boardwalk after seeing old postcards from the early days of seaside tourism.
The café is inspired by memories of cafés in Belgium that I visited when I was a student. There's a café in Gent called "Damberd" (Checkerboard). And one in Brussels that I visited because it was very quiet. It was quiet because people played chess there. Somehow chess and cafés got firmly connected in my mind.
I was never much of a gamer. When I played chess with my brother he always beat me. I couldn't take the game seriously. I was far more interested in what the pieces represented. And I liked role-playing with them.
And the final setting, cyberspace, was very much inspired by the dream that Auriea and I shared in the mid-nineties. The dream of leaving our bodies behind and becoming one with the machines in a virtual environment. Where there would be no distinction between network protocols and human emotions. Where processors would be like beating hearts and data streams like blood in veins or waves on an ocean.
What concepts or sources of inspiration in particular led to the inclusion of science fiction elements into the game's creation, such as the virtual reality simulation setting?
Originally the science fiction was part joke, part solution for a problem. Since we make art in an environment mostly accustomed to casual entertainment, we are always looking for ways to make our work more accessible. One of those ways is the use of popular genres. We have fantasized about setting several of our game ideas in space or in a future earth. Simply because we figured that would make it easier for people to connect to. This turned into a sort of joke where we would add "in space" to every idea for a game we came up with.
And with "Bientôt l'été" we finally did it. In part because we felt that it would probably be seen as our most esoteric piece yet. But also because it somehow felt right. The seaside is the place where the connection between our planet and the rest of the universe becomes very tangible and very close. The waves move because of the gravity of the moon. If you start thinking about this, you realize that space is not "out there" but that we are in it. We are part of space, not separate from it. In fact, all life in this planet has adapted to the movement and position of the planet in our solar system. So it made sense to connect space with the sea more explicitly in the game.
The other reason was that space travel and dwelling seemed like a perfect metaphor for playing video games. In Bientôt l'été, the characters are very explicitly avatars. They are empty vessels that you use to navigate the virtual world. This was the first time we created characters like this. In a way, Bientôt l'été is a video game in which you play a (future) video game: in the fiction of the game, the beach is a virtual environment and outer space is the real environment.
Space has also served a metaphor for cyberspace. We did not invent this, it's a convention illustrated by the very fact that we call it "space" and people who travel through it "cybernauts" or "internauts." With our romantic background in cyberspace, what matters most to us in this concept is the connections people make with each other. In the nineties, there was a lot of discussion about whether the relationships you had with other people on the internet could be considered real. People used terms like "In Real Life" (IRL) to point to the distinction between their lives in and out of cyberspace.
Can you tell us about the process of incorporating and combining the game's diverse elements that range from Marguerite Duras' writings and playing chess to shore side walks and speaking French? Were any additional concepts or elements ultimately dropped during the game's development?
We have so many ideas that we often try to combine some in a single game. Because we're worried that we won't be done before we die. But even though the design of Bientôt l'été brings together several ideas, it remains mostly driven by Marguerite Duras. Or at least by my experience of Marguerite Duras. Duras writes in French. That explains the language. She lived at the seaside and the sea often recurs in her films and novels. And her work often features couples meeting at a table in a café, most notably in Moderato Cantabile that served as the basic premise for the setting.
The things we have added are the science fiction/space element and chess. But these are not completely alien to how I experience Duras, even if I cannot recall a single instance of space or chess in her work. It still feels right. Initially, we wanted to create a much more detailed environment. But we abandoned that idea because it seemed futile to model all these buildings when they only serve as backdrop. So we decided to only create the things we needed for our story.
We also removed some interactions. Earlier versions had a much more explicit way of collecting the phrases on the beach, and even a conventional inventory. But such elements stimulated a certain behavior in the player, even in myself, that wasn't compatible with the mood we wanted to create. I ended up chasing items and filling my pockets instead of paying attention to the words and the environment. It was very much a "notgames" moment when I realized that I had to remove conventional game interactions if I wanted to achieve my artistic goals.
Anonymous multiplayer has been a thrilling feature in recent games, in particular with Journey and DayZ. What were some of the thoughts behind including the aspect of anonymous chess in Bientôt l'été?
When we released our first multiplayer game The Endless Forest 8 years ago in 2005, players were anonymous. They were only identified by an abstract glyph that they chose when registering for the game. The initial motivation for this choice was a desire to avoid text in our games. We felt text came with too much cultural baggage that gets in the way of the atmosphere we wanted to create. Since we wanted to create a peaceful and friendly environment with The Endless Forest we decided not to give players any opportunity to chat and even removed readable user names. Because we had seen players in other games use that to insult or provoke. We also designed all the interactions so that they can be interpreted as friendly at all times. And since there was no chat, it became impossible to fight in The Endless Forest.
It didn't matter to us if players knew each other. The idea was to engage in a fiction together and to experience the company of other people, disregarding who they were or where they came from. That way The Endless Forest facilitated joyful interactions between people of different ages, nationalities, genders, appearances, etcetera. We learned that underneath all those things, there is something we all share, even when we pretend to be deer in a virtual forest. And that it wasn't necessary for people to understand each other to get along. That is the big message of peace of The Endless Forest.
Bientôt l'été is about love more so than about people who love. Here too, we wanted to deal with a shared feeling, a feeling that transcends the individuals who experience it. It's about togetherness without the need to know who the other person is. Just knowing that the other person is human is quite sufficient, if not exhilarating.
Bientôt l'été is less "safe" than The Endless Forest. It is possible to perform badly. There's many negative things that you can choose to say. And you can knock the other player's chess pieces over, for instance. There's a certain pressure on both players to play their role, to build something together. They will not enjoy the experience if they don't do their best. It can feel a little bit like improvisational theater or playing music together: performer and audience become one.
The notion to some players that a game isn't meant to be finished in a certain way, but simply experienced is rather a major contrast from the industry's current trend. What would you say to potential gamers that are unsure with the relevance of playing a game solely for its experience rather than some sort of ending accomplishment?
I'm not sure if I agree with that statement. While it is true that most games still contain a sort of game backbone that ends in triumph (never defeat, by the way: defeat has become an unacceptable outcome for most video games). But most of the attention, especially in mainstream games, seems to go to the experience along the way now.
I assume that some people cannot motivate themselves to play without that backbone of challenge and reward. And I admit that our own games go quite far in the opposite direction. But I think it is habit more than anything that prevents some people from enjoying less goal oriented content. And as such, it is simply something we have to get used to. It's not difficult. It just takes a certain attitude when approaching the game.
I think there is a great opportunity here for video games to expand as a medium. To really embrace the inherent entertaining potential of video games, rather than piggy-backing the experience on a backbone borrowed from conventional (non-video) games. It takes a bit of work to develop this, of course. But it's not obscure, weird, or unachievable.
How do you view both Kickstarter and Steam Greenlit in shaping the development of current and future independent game projects?
We haven't been involved in either so far. We like the idea of crowdsourcing. We referred to something like this as a "punk economy" in our 2006 Realtime Art Manifesto: we make the work, players pay for it, and nothing else is needed. I'm not sure if Kickstarter creates the right context for every sort of crowdsourcing, though. It seems to favor certain types of projects. But that probably won't stop us from trying it at some point.
Greenlight is another matter. I think it is deeply problematic. It fits perfectly within the neo-liberal mindset of our time that has made a lousy interpretation of Darwin's "Survival of the Fittest" to its credo. As the major distributor of PC games, virtually a monopoly, Valve has a great responsibility. Before Greenlight, they took up this responsibility by curating the selection of games they presented to the audience. As such, as everyone knows, they have been a major contributor to the positive influence that independent games have had.
Now however, they abstain from this task under the populist guise of letting the community decide. It sounds democratic but it isn't. In fact, it is mob rule. Our civilizations are already suffering from the strain caused by the power and influence of everything popular. We often joke about cats on the internet. But when you think about it, it's really sad. A waste of an opportunity. Valve is basically helping the popular become more popular, obviously at the expense of things that might actually contribute something new, something that affects people in a different way. Or different people.
Because that's another problem of Greenlight. It's not like everyone goes to Greenlight to vote on games. Instead it's people who vote on games that vote on games. A subset of our population. And not necessarily our most upstanding or informed citizens. Through Greenlight, Valve, being a virtual monopoly, leaves the future of video games at the mercy of a bunch of angry children. I assume that this increases their profits tremendously. But as long as we have not been able to replace capitalism, corporations like Valve, especially if they monopolize the market, carry a responsibility far greater than their own financial gain. They need to care about society. They need to play their role in civilization and take up their responsibility.
Have there been any upcoming or recently-released independent game projects that have caught your attention?
I'm very much looking forward to Jeroen Stout's Cheongsam and to The Chinese Room's Everybody's Gone to the Rapture. I'm also curious for Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs. But even more so for Frictional's next project, which will probably take a while before release.
I remember being charmed by Swordtales' Toren a while ago. So I'm looking forward to that as well. I also remember fondly an early prototype of Nicolai Troshinsky's Landscape. I hope he gets around to working on it some more. It looked very promising. And I'm very intrigued by the aesthetics of xra.
At least equally intriguing are the recent small pieces by Rorschach/Larshe. I'm looking forward to seeing what else is brewing there. On the lighter side, I try to play Vesper5 every day. And I do enjoy a bit of Llamasoft on the iPad once in a while.
What does the future hold for Tale of Tales? Will we see more of Bientôt l'été in another project or are there any other particular concepts you wish to focus on in the development of future games?
Bientôt l'été was an emotionally difficult piece to make. So we will be doing a few things that are a little bit different now. The next game we will be making is a small tablet game based on our Cncntrc prototyping project. During that we will start up a new bigger project and continue work on the new version of our first design "8." All of these projects are a lot more light-hearted than our previous work. So it's very exciting. It feels like a change in course.
Bientôt l'été's obscure combination of ideas and atmospheric presentation result in a memorable journey of wonder and mystery that must be experienced firsthand to truly grasp the game's many emotions and imagery. Those individuals that are both daring and curious enough to embark on the journey can visit the Bientôt l'été website for further gameplay details, a web-based demo, and purchase options for both Windows and Mac.
We'd like to thank Auriea and Michaël for taking the time to answer our questions.
I've been writing for Gaming Nexus since 2011 and focus primarily on PC games and hardware. I'm a strong advocate of independent developers and am always seeking the next genre-breaking and unique game releases. My favorite game genres are strategy, role-playing, and simulation, or any games that feature open worlds and survival elements.