by dieubussy ( 20 / 12 / 09 )

It has been an exceptional year for the Tale of Tales ensemble. Upon the release of The Path , one of the most successful independent games ever designed, creators of real-time art Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey have signed for another release albeit the tight schedule.

Branded by its designers as an interactive vignette FATALE is a reworking of Oscar Wilde’s Salomé, a play banished from the stages for over 50 years until its actual premiere in England on the year of 1931. Contrary to the early descriptions of the Holy Scriptures, the Irish author’s version unveils Salomé’s true feeling towards John the Baptist, for whom she eventually falls in love as shown in a climax of death and passion. Alluding to the theme of the femme-fatale, the deadly woman luring men to their demise by means of their sensuality, this Tale of Tale's carefully crafted experience provides a unique new insight which could not have been possible outside the realm of interactive arts.

A depiction of Herodias, the mother of Salome whose role in the play is essential to the climatic beheading of John The Baptist. The final polygonal model (in the center) derives from the inspiration provided by the exquisite composition (created by Takayoshi Sato, on he left), with Auriea Harvey's body serving as a model for the posture.

FATALE was undoubtedly one of the most controversial titles to battle on the independent front this year due to its irreverent detachment from the dogmas that are still adopted and, in effect, cherished today by a majority of videogame players and designers. The origin of the bipolar reactions to this Belgium-based studio's creations seems to reside on two principles that are deeply rooted in their approach: first, a refusal to agree to videogame industry standards, including the decrees of game design; secondly, their appreciation for other areas of expression far beyond videogames, as can be seen from the original themes that have been supporting each of their works so far. In spite of their appreciation and respect for videogames, Michaël and Auriea make no point in denying that their field of work is an alternative even among the alternative.

The spatial structure of Wilde's play was translated into two different locations, the cistern and the terrace. A round aperture unites the two spaces, bringing light from above as well as the intermittent image of the momentous dance performed by Salome.

FATALE's slow-paced rhythm, characteristic of ToT games, provides the player a singular opportunity for reflection. And while its symbology and meaning are open to different interpretations, it also stands as a technical achievement of rare audiovisual quality - bearing in mind the limited time and resources available for its completion. Such accomplishment resulted, undoubtedly, from the convergence of distinguished authors invited to be a part of the project as is the case of Takayoshi Sato, assuming the role of Character Designer; Jarboe as the voice talent whispering Wilde's words; Gerry de Mol as the composer of the exotic and evocative music theme; or Kris Force, creating the music score and sound effects. Additionally, one of the most admirable efforts was left to Laura Raines Smith in the animation department, who was entrusted with the difficult task of translating the amatory dance , as improvised by the contemporary dancer Eléonore Valere Lachky, into a digital format.

CoreGamers went out in search for edifying production details, from the earliest inspirations to the technical challenges faced by Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, in an attempt to deepen the reader's perception of this experimental and innovative format that supports FATALE.

An overview of the loose reproduction of old Tiberias whose buildings can be seen from afar during the terrace exploration. The yellow icons represent the light sources that need be extinguished during the second act of FATALE.

COREGAMERS : One of the first thoughts that come to my mind about FATALE relates to the pre-production of the game. Like in THE PATH, you've collected a great deal of inspirations and information sources as shown in the several blog posts you published the last months. There is a very strong folkloric background to it, a theme that has been used repeatedly in the production of art - namely by Wilde. What was the origin of this interest for Salome and her tale?

TALE OF TALES : While we are obviously interested in old stories - for multiple reasons - our inspirations seldom actually come from the past. It usually works the other way around: we get interested in something contemporary and then we start investigating its history. We do tend to be drawn to things that have a long history, but more for their relevance to the present than for their historic value.

Though we find it very important to point out the strong links between past and present, especially when many contemporary political and economic voices insist on stressing what separates "us" from "them": the difference between contemporary life and life in the past, the separation between Eastern and Western civilizations, etcetera. We are trying to restore these connections. This is especially important in an age where media and transport have decreased the physical and mental distance between different parts of the world and even sources of information.

Inspirations: a detail of the painting Salomé, as portrayed by the french artist Gaston Bussière in 1914.

The initial desire to make FATALE was triggered by an exhibition of 19th century paintings with the theme of the femme fatale. You must know that we are very fond of 19th century art. It's one of those things we want to reconnect to. So it wasn't hard to become enamoured with the work in this exhibitions. But there was something else too. We got fascinated by the still quality of the paintings. They all displayed this immensely dangerous creature (even if she looked beautiful and sensual most of the time) in a very static and quiet way that allowed us to investigate her.

This investigation felt dangerous, to some extent, but we knew it was safe. Obviously because the painting couldn't respond, but also, because most of the paintings depicted the woman after the act, when her thirst for destruction had be satiated. So she had no interest in us. We wanted to recreate this emotional experience in a more tangible way. The idea of using the dynamic game technology to create something static was very exciting to us, somehow. We had no idea if it would work. But the investigation seemed worthwhile.

(Above) Detail of the figure of John the Baptist from the altar piece of Saint-Bavo's cathedral in Gent (the city where Tale of Tales is founded). Painted by the flemish master Jan van Eyck in the 15th century, the mystical rays of light emerging from John's head were of particular influence in the creation of FATALE's unique interactive system (Below).

As always, we had dreams of making a series of works based on this idea. And we chose Salome to start with. It was a relatively obvious choice for us because we have an interest in biblical mythology, and the place of religion in our society in general, and because we are fascinated with the 19th century Orientalist style of painting, which had already influenced us when we were working on 8 (in fact we were able to re-use some furniture models from that time for FATALE ;) ).

Both the Bible and Orientalism are under a great deal of scrutiny nowadays, but we like to investigate the often denied importance of these things to our society, and find some good in them. The conflict between the Middle East and the West is at the heart of many political problems in today's world. This conflict is very much coloured by religious differences and prejudices that could be called Orientalist. The story of Salome brings together all these things: it takes place in a Middle Eastern country (Judea) occupied by a Western military force (the Roman Empire) in the middle of a religious conflict (the birth of Christianity).

But what's most fascinating to us is that, in the midst of all this immense historical significance, a young woman falls in love with the wrong man and gets him killed out of passion. At least that's how Wilde presents the story of Salome. A sad tale about unrequited love as much as a dark tale about the madness caused by lust. To us, the relationship between John the Baptist and Salome does not feel so fatal. It almost feels like the decapitation is worthwhile. Because it finally brings the two together, allows them to see each other and kiss. And nothing is more important than that. Even if it requires death. Because, as Wilde has Salome say: "The mystery of love is greater than the mystery of death."

Bringers of death: two examples of the exotic artwork authored by Takayoshi Sato (SatoWorks), the ex-Konami artist notable for his work in the first two episodes of the Silent Hill series.

COREGAMERS : The presence of Takayoshi Sato was surely one of the greatest features of FATALE. Can you tell me a little more about how you persuaded Sato to join the project and how he responded?

TALE OF TALES : There wasn't a lot of persuasion involved. Thanks to the interview we had done with him before, we had developed a kind of understanding and mutual respect. To us, it had become clear that Mr. Sato is a lot more ambitious - and visionary - concerning games than he was given room for. So we wanted to create a little bit of room for that. Obviously the platform we offered him is far too modest, but at least it's something. And I think he appreciated that. We're all very happy and proud of what we've made, considering the context and very short production time.

Early studies performed by Sato regarding the different outfits and accesories adorning the body of Salome.

COREGAMERS : Regarding a purely technical side of the development stage, what software did you use for the creation of FATALE?

TALE OF TALES : Modelling was done in Blender and Maya, animation in Max, textures in Photoshop and Z-Brush and programming in Unity. What was new for us was the use of contemporary technical features like normal maps and specular maps. Even physics simulation, lighting and realtime shadows were used more intensively than in any other project of ours before. So, you could say that FATALE was our first "Next Gen" project. ;) Usually we are much more hands-on and painterly (read: "amateurish"). This time we used a lot of "industry-standard" techniques and technologies. It was definitely an interesting experience.

A flat, shaded polygon model of the terrace where the second act of FATALE takes place.

COREGAMERS : Considering the tight deadline for the development, what were the greatest difficulties and the greatest joys you had these last few months?

TALE OF TALES : The short production time (4 months of which 2 regularly interrupted by Summer holiday activities) was both a blessing and a curse. It was very frustrating to not be able to expand on certain ideas or develop certain techniques, or even add all the content we wanted to. But it was very nice to know exactly when we were going to stop working and to be able to deliver a piece of work as FATALE after such a short time. There's something exhilarating about realizing the enormous speed at which we've made this. In the time it takes for commercial developers to get from Gold Master to store display, we created an entire title from start to finish, with similar technology.

We often fantasize about having a lot of time to create. We've never experienced that because there simply isn't a lot of funding available for our kind of work. We've always had to think in absolutely minimal terms. Which is kind of odd for people like us, who tend to be maximalists in almost everything. Perhaps it's a good thing that we are forced by time to keep things succinct. But one can't help but wonder what a Tale of Tales project would look like if we had a "normal" game budget at our disposal.

All animation of polygonal models was created by Laura Raines Smith who has assumed the role of animating all characters from the studio's projects so far.

COREGAMERS : It is still very early to determine the extent of the impact caused by this latest release of yours. However, one can already verify how opinions are remarkably divided between players who were deeply fascinated and those who question the existence of the game in light of its almost inexistent ludic value.

TALE OF TALES : That's not the only reason why some people don't appreciate FATALE. It is indeed quite common (and commonplace) for people to dislike our titles because they don't qualify as games in their eyes. But in the case of FATALE, some people who were perfectly willing to have a non-game interactive experience, didn't connect to it at all. It didn't touch them and they weren't stimulated by it. In part, this is caused simply because of who they are and what they are into. But in part, it is also because we didn't put a lot of effort in the design to lure people in. FATALE was very much made as a painting. A picture that is what it is and that doesn't seduce you. To some extent, this was even part of its theme. We wanted to show Salome, who is traditionally depicted as a seductress, as just a young troubled woman who is not interested in your attention.

The process of animating Salome's Dance of the Seven Veils: while the dance was performed by Eléonore Valere Lachky (above) the animation was later translated by Laura Raines Smith using a technique called rotoscoping.

COREGAMERS : What thoughts come to mind when you read opinions coming from both sides of the table and how important is this sort of user feedback to you?

TALE OF TALES : Even if it shouldn't come as a surprise, given our disregard for making things easy for the user in FATALE, honestly, we are a bit disappointed by the lukewarm reception FATALE gets from some people of whom we thought they would be open to this sort of thing by now. With THE PATH, we were pleasantly surprised by how receptive people were. This lead us to believe that we could take things one step further. But, in general terms, this was probably a mistake. Many people are not ready or not willing to go that far, to do that much effort, to take that much responsibility.

Of course this is just one part of the response. As you point out, other people are extremely excited by the game and were deeply moved by it and got some real sense of understanding out of it. People who hadn't publicly expressed any interest in our work before, now stepped forward describing the wonderful experience they had with FATALE.

Anachronisms: a match box with Salome's signature presented in a sensual, modern handwriting.

Which puts us in a difficult spot and forces us to ask the question whether we should be working on projects that make a small amount of people extremely happy or whether we should do a bit more effort and try to reach a larger audience with an experience that is perhaps less extreme for some, but at least a little bit interesting to many. It's a discussion among ourselves. On the one hand, we're perfectly happy with working for a small circle. But on the other, we feel a kind of responsibility to the medium and to the public at large. Not many people are even attempting to do what we do, and perhaps we should try to take it as far as we can in terms of public appeal. Perhaps we should spread our ideas as wide as we can and prove that they are a valid course for interactive media.

COREGAMERS : There is a rather interesting contrast between different phases of the game. At first, the perspective and controls resemble a first person game; although the second part of the game is played using a unique and free navigational system. Lastly, the player is invited to simply watch the fatal dance of Salome, given the control of the camera. What are the reasons supporting this three part structure, each of them with a unique interactive mode?

TALE OF TALES : The core idea of FATALE is the second phase. The rest is just context to frame the experience. All we wanted to do was to make a still tableau that you could explore. Because we are fascinated by paintings and wanted to check if some of the things we imagine when looking at them, would work if you make them real. We wanted to know what it would feel like if the characters in the painting were breathing and blinking and felt alive, if the wind was blowing and you could hear the ambient sounds. If time kept going and the light changed. But we didn't just want to make a painting, an artwork to hang in a gallery. We wanted to make something that we felt we could distribute as software, as if it were a game. And this, we thought, required a bit of context, something to make it more like a linear experience than a purely non-linear "thing".

A wireframe view of Salome being prepared to assume all the mannerisms of the provocative dance for King Herod.

Somehow we came up with the idea that the player would be playing John the Baptist. And then everything just fell in place. We could start things by putting the player in John's shoes when he was still alive. In a prison scene which is awfully familiar to seasoned gamers. Many games start in a prison. And then you have to find a way to escape. So we wanted this phase to feel as typical as possible. That's why you bounce when you walk and why you can jump and why there's crates that tumble over when you push them. But the twist is, of course, that everything that you do is pointless. That there is no escape. At least not as expected. Because ultimately you do escape. But it requires your death and the only thing you need to do to receive it is wait.

It is of course a bit of a tongue in cheek gesture, to play with the player's expectations. But it is also pertinent to our story. Because what we're saying with that is "this is what you know, this is what you're used to" and now all of that is going to change. Which is indeed what happens to John the Baptist for whom, we imagine, death almost comes as a relief, and certainly as a release. But it's also, perhaps, a rather arrogant, perhaps, reference to how we think of our own work: "here's the kind of game that you're used to and here's the kind of game that we want you to play instead." Ironically, and of course appropriately, many people enjoyed the first phase much more than the second. We don't blame them. We love our audience to be adventurous and inquisitive, but we don't want this to be a requirement. And we also don't want to make games "against" gamers. Because many of them are open to what we are trying to do. So perhaps this whole thing was a mistake after all.

King Herod's throne, from which the final scene of FATALE is observed.

In the third part, John has left this planet and you are put in Herod's throne. To look at a woman who's doing her morning exercises or something. This is where some extrapolation starts and where the content of FATALE clearly becomes more general. In a way, this part functions as a sort of key. To a large extent, FATALE is about looking. We follow Wilde's version of the story in this. You start as John the Baptist in a situation where you're being looked at - by Salome - against your will. Then because of the looking of another person - King Herod at Salome - you are put to death. And finally you meet Salome who claims that if you would have looked at her, you would have loved her. And, presumably, none of this would have happened. And you can indeed look at everything as much as you want, but it's futile because you're too late. But maybe it's never too late. And maybe John, in death, makes peace with this world of looking and being looked at.

Audio trailer for FATALE: music theme by Gerry de Mol; voices by Jarboe and Tale of Tales.

COREGAMERS : The sound department, as far as I can hear, was one of your main concerns while creating FATALE...

TALE OF TALES : Not just FATALE. Sound is always very important to us. But when almost half of the team that worked on FATALE was dedicated to sound, it's probably fair to say this, yes.

COREGAMERS : What sort of materials and directions did you provide the music composers and voice talent to work with and how involved were they in the actual development of your work?

TALE OF TALES : We don't give them any materials and as directions we simply explain the concept. When asked, we provide a list of sound effects that we need (mundane things like "bare footsteps in water"). But our collaborators have a lot of freedom.

The trick that makes this work is that we choose the people we work with very purposefully. We even design parts of our projects with certain people in mind. We wanted Jarboe to whisper Wilde's text. Nobody else would do. If she had refused, we would have removed that idea from the design. We invited Gerry because we know he is familiar with Middle Eastern music and capable and interested in experimenting with it. And we asked Kris because we know how subtle her work is and how well she understands what we - and Jarboe - are going for.

It's a real collaboration in the sense that each member of the team contributes a vital part of the project. And that part would simply not be included in the project if the team member who provides it would not be involved. But it's not a collaboration in the sense that it's Auriea and Michael who ultimately decide what goes in and what does not. Everybody on the team contributes ideas, but the final design is ours. Tale of Tales is not a democracy.

Rough outline of the spaces in FATALE from an earlier build. The model for Herodias, on the right, is textured with the original Takayoshi Sato artwork.

COREGAMERS : Some months ago I was exchanging some thoughts with Takayoshi Sato, regarding his natural tendency to express deeper concepts using female characters. In spite of the male protagonists seen in both SILENT HILL titles where he worked, the narratives revolve mostly around powerful women. A similar tendency can be seen in the majority of ToT titles such as the unreleased 8, THE GRAVEYARD and now with FATALE. Is this a rational decision from your part, or simply something that comes naturally during the planning stage?

TALE OF TALES : We never realized this about SILENT HILL. But you're definitely right. The stories revolve around women. Apart from Pyramid head, but he's sort of a background character, really.

You're right of course, that female characters are dominant in our work. There's only one exception. THE ENDLESS FOREST features only male characters (but it is, ironically, played by a majority of women). We probably should do something about that. And we do have a game lined up that deals, in part, with male sexuality. But perhaps that will also be mostly interesting for a female audience. ;)

Takayoshi Sato's experimental sketches for the character Herodias.

Anyway, the reason for this can probably be reduced to the fact that half of us is female and the other half very interested in the feminine. Well, actually, we're both interested in the feminine. Possibly because -especially in video games but even in art and the world at large- the typically male style of reasoning and feeling is dominant. While we feel that the female style might help us resolve many issues that we're confronted with. Specifically concerning game design, we're interested what a feminine game would look like. Traditional games, with their focus on conquest, discipline, rules and goals, winning and losing, express very typically masculine concerns. But what would a game look like that that favours harmony over conflict, care over aggression, exploration over attack, experience over resolution? This is very interesting to us as designers, and probably explains to some extent our preference for female characters. They are simply more narratively credible as creatures that would be involved with more feminine styles of reasoning.

Perhaps this is all a little bit sexist. Because we know there are masculine and feminine traits in each of us. But we're just telling stories. And our character design simply serves the purpose of communication. In the end, you could replace each character by a male one. But that would require a lot more investment and suspension of disbelief from the player. So offering them female character is a way to make it easier to accept our stories.

According to some scholars, the association between Salome and the moon might derive to a reference to a pagan godess named Cybele as they both share an obsession with preserving their virginity, taking pleasure in the destruction of male sexuality.

COREGAMERS : With the release of each new project, Tale of Tales creates a clearer image of its non conformist attitude towards the traditional industry of games and entertainment. The label of indie games seems no longer appropriate to define the area of your work, as the field has been broadening constantly for the last years and expanding into multiple different paths. Yours seems to be one of the less travelled roads.

From personal experience, how do other creators address your different titles? Do you keep any close contact with any fellow designers or industry people who are interested in your projects?

TALE OF TALES : We are in touch with several game developers, mostly independent ones. We're all very friendly with each other. Some of them seem to appreciate our work, others don't but most of them do feel that it is a good thing that we're around, doing what we do. It's a difficult relationship at times because we make no secret of our opinions about traditional games and most of them do create games that are, largely, traditional, or refer strongly to the tradition of video games. So real sympathy and deep respect often comes from people who work in other artistic fields.

We've always had a kind of love hate relationship with the context within which we work. In our first career together, we didn't feel comfortable with all the gallery and museum people who showed an interest in our internet-based work. And now, we don't really feel like we're part of the games industry at all. We're not nearly business-minded enough for that. And if there's any reason why we operate within it, it's to demand a place for non-business things, a place for the artistic, for the creative. We feel that this is a positive contribution, even in business terms. Because if the games industry does not create a place for the artistic, it will never become an entertainment medium on par with music or cinema and it will remain in the comic strip-like ghetto forever.

Due to the use of a subjective perspective, never before attempted in a Tale of Tales' project, the visual engine required a a greater amount of detail both in texture mapping definition and in the recreation of different objects that enhance the dreamy landscape of the ancient Judea.

We would like a bit more colleagues to work in fields closer to our own. So far, it's only been thatgamecompany and Icepick Lodge that we really feel some affinity with. So we're very pleased to hear that both Jonathan Blow and Infinite Ammo seem to be working on 3D projects at the moment. Because we can't really count on the commercial industry to do anything relevant in that field. There's only one Fumito Ueda and only one David Cage...

We're thankful for the technology that the industry is developing. But it will be the indies who really explore its potential. So we get a bit impatient when they make yet another top down shooter or yet another side scrolling platform game. Ironically, we get the most positive response from people who work within the commercial industry. But usually these are people who work in places in the hierarchy where they have no real power over the design of the game. Though we have received compliments from people from marketing departments too. ;)

Salome's bare body, covered by the darkness of the night and the waving veil over her head, can be exposed using the light of a flame in a rare moment of sheer eroticism.

COREGAMERS : This was a decisive year in the life of Tale of Tales. Apart from the release of the THE PATH, your greatest project so far, you also embarked on the creation of FATALE. What can the public expect from you in the next year: are there new projects on the horizon? Or the rebirth of older ones?

TALE OF TALES : Next year is going to be quiet, probably. At least towards the public. We will be working on prototypes for two new games. One of them, if all goes well, is, indeed based on our first, unfinished design 8.

But before going "underground", we are experimenting with the iPhone a bit. Possibly leading to the release of two small games. One of which is commissioned for The Art History of Games symposium in Atlanta and the other a collaboration with British designer Alex Mayhew (of CEREMONY OF INNOCENCE fame).

Futher Reading:

Tale of Tales Website
FATALE Official Web Page
Transcription of Oscar Wilde's Salomé
Homer in Silicon: "Mole's Eyes" by Emily Short
CoreGamers Interview with Tale of Tales


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