The video game 'outsiders' creating VR art that makes you think

When Tale of Tales announced its departure from the gaming industry after 12 years of creating eccentric, cult-hit experiences, Twitter lit up with messages extolling the studio's impact on the industry. However, for Tale of Tales co-founders Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, it was a hollow farewell. Their latest (and last) game, Sunset, had debuted just a month before to poor sales and lagging interest, despite a successful Kickstarter campaign and positive critical reception. Harvey and Samyn were already contemplating an exit from the world of video games and Sunset's situation pushed them to make it official. "It often didn't feel like games were worth the sacrifice," Samyn says.

Now, Harvey and Samyn have returned to their pure, artistic roots -- and to Kickstarter -- with Cathedral-in-the-Clouds, a virtual reality exhibition of Christian art in the Gothic and Renaissance periods. We spoke with Samyn about following his passion and Tale of Tales' lofty goals, and came away with a clear message: If you're going to leave games behind for a project that resides firmly in the art realm, you might as well shoot for the clouds.

In June, you announced Tale of Tales would not make commercial video games in the near future (or ever again). Looking back, does that still feel like the correct move?

So many things have happened since that decision. So many things have become much clearer to us. You know, we started our involvement in the industry as a sort of game. When we switched from net art to video games more than a decade ago, we more-or-less infiltrated games. As artists, we felt like outsiders and figured we would just pretend to be a commercial company in order to find funding and distribute our work. Then the indie thing happened and suddenly a small studio could actually make a living selling games. That opportunity seems to have evaporated in the meantime.

"We more-or-less infiltrated games. As artists, we felt like outsiders."

All this time, while still acutely aware of our otherness, we got sucked deeper into the industry without realizing it. In hindsight it seems foolish of us to care about marketing and sales and profits so much and to dream that we could make a living this way. We are artists. We should be focusing on our work. We're not merchants.

To be fair, even before Sunset under-performed commercially, we had hopes of moving away from games. Not so much for business or even creative reasons but because it was devastating emotionally. The narrow confines of working within the game format and for the game audience had caused a lot of stress to build up over the years. And since it's just the two of us here, that tended to lead to personal conflicts, too. It often didn't feel like games were worth the sacrifice.

We are still recovering from the shock and recuperating from the exhaustion, but overall we feel much happier. And above all, we're not afraid of our passions and inspirations anymore. We feel we can really follow our muse now.

A composite of cathedral cross-sections

Twitter lit up with support and praise for Tale of Tales when you announced you were leaving the industry. Did any of the responses surprise you?

Yes. We had already decided to quit creating commercial games. But to announce that publicly at the time when we did it was sort of a desperate move to draw some attention to Sunset in the hope of making some more sales so we could pay our wonderfully patient collaborators. That happened, plenty. But we had not anticipated the amount of sympathy the message would solicit. It was really wonderful to feel so loved as we were walking out the door -- although also a little bittersweet. We couldn't help but think, "Where were you people five years ago? Or one month ago, even?" Of course that's a little unfair. We are tremendously pleased with the, to our norms, large group of people that appreciates our work. We just have no business being involved with a mass market.

I was happy that some of the discussion that followed addressed the very important issue of how the industry could support vital non-commercial creation and experimentation, without which the form is destined to repeat itself until nobody cares anymore.

A "kitsch cathedral" Tale of Tales made just for fun

Your new project is a virtual-reality, religious-art experience. What is this project's draw for a gadget-loving, VR-savvy audience?

Cathedral-in-the-Clouds is a twofold project. The core is a series of virtual dioramas for multiple platforms. Around these we want to build a sort of cyber-cathedral in VR. The cathedral will be an extravagant spectacle but it's the dioramas where the real experience lies.

These dioramas are virtually still scenes, each containing a figure inspired by characters from the Bible and Christian art. The main draw of the dioramas is that they expect absolutely nothing from you. There is nothing to do, but sit and watch a more-or-less still image. We want to create opportunities for contemplation. Each of these dioramas will address a certain set of themes and emotions. And we hope contemplating the scenes will help people to understand and appreciate those themes and emotions in real life as well.

This is how we enjoy art ourselves and it is so meaningful to us that we want to share the experience with others. But we do understand that not everyone is an art geek like we are, or even has such easy access to museums and cathedrals like we do here in Belgium. So we try to compensate for that through technology, by distributing the work digitally and for free through many channels, and by designing the pieces so that they help people enjoy them. In some of the dioramas a dramatic event will take place to help the spectator focus. This is how we hope to use the computer's processing power to enhance the artistic experience.

Arma Christi, as presented by Tale of Tales

Are you concerned about spending a lot of time and energy creating a non-commercial project, or is that aspect liberating?

If monasteries didn't require celibacy, we'd probably become monks! There is nothing we would rather do than to silently, diligently, painstakingly work on the same project for years, in quiet and solitude. That would be true liberation! But we'll settle for a compromise.

Sunset found success on Kickstarter, but that didn't translate into final sales of the game -- why did you choose Kickstarter again?

I never thought about this, but actually for a different reason. We don't really like to expose ourselves as one does on Kickstarter. But one has to make sacrifices for art. We did the Sunset Kickstarter mainly because we hoped to reach more and different people. Cathedral-in-the-Clouds is more straightforward: It's just to collect the funding to start the project. Since we're not working for a mass market anymore, Kickstarter offers us a means to gather the small group of enthusiasts that we will be working for and through. Between us and them, we don't need anybody else. And since there is no expectation of sales, we hope to be able to work without pressure and make the most beautiful thing we are capable of.

Image credits: Tale of Tales