The Tragic Tale of Tales: Calling It Art Doesn’t Make It Art

If you didn’t know Tale of Tales when Sunset was released, you likely know about them now, but for very different reasons. The Belgian duo’s latest and last release was self-described as a commercial failure after selling some 4,000 copies in just one month. To blame: the video game audience and the evil capitalist system that curbed interest away from artful games in favor of conventional shooter installments and rehashed fantasy narratives. Innocent until proven guilty: the gaming websites that advertised Sunset till release and the digital marketing consultancy Agency for Games. Left out of the equation: the game’s content, which was beholden by critics as a “meditative and unnerving experience” (IGN), a “wonderfully atmospheric slow burner” (Rock, Paper, Shotgun), and “a loving attempt to turn the idea of private interiors into shareable spaces.” (Washington Post)

While I watched Sunset Let’s Plays (courtesy of Fixxxer) and sent e-mails to both Agency and Tale of Tales in futility, I would stumble across a two-part column for Continue-Play about the conception of Sunset. In it, Michaël Samyn talks about redefining a decade-old idea: “A first-person game in which you play some sort of invisible ghost, changing things in an apartment by night that influenced the lives of the inhabitants during the day.” He admits in the column that neither he nor Auriea Harvey considered themselves great writers, going against their 10th anniversary list of resolutions and applying Jeffrey Alan Schechter’s Contour approach/program to the idea in a near-formulaic fashion — the advised 44 plot points laid onto 44 game sessions, with a character progression based on Carol S. Pearson’s work The Hero Within.

Sunset Press Photo #4

On coffee table: a miniature sculpture of Hercules and the Centaur Nesses (Giambologna, 1599)

Samyn and Harvey would later flesh the story (communicated via voice-overs, environment, and music) to include transformative interior design, sprawling art references, modernist criticism, and neo-colonialism. Somewhere along the way, they decided to add romance, too. As Samyn wrote more and more about the research required for Sunset, I began to wonder whether the compromise to provide a game for wider audiences was tongue-in-cheek. While the game embodied conventional narrative structure and game mechanics, the content was extravagantly steeped in references obscure to anyone who had neither interest nor requirement for art history or modernist philosophy.

“Somehow, along the way the story of Sunset and the world we’ve built up around it have become a vehicle for many themes and concerns that are dear to us. The whole thing has quickly become an elaborate metaphor for how we see the world.” — Michaël Samyn

On release, critic reviews provide a great synopsis of the game, but actual close-playing analyses of Sunset are seldom found even as Samyn and Harvey leave traces of politics everywhere in the apartment, from the work of Swiss analyst Aniéla Jaffé to that of English critic Herbert Read and Welsh Marxist Chandler Williams. There is no love for the cubist and impressionist paintings and no shout-outs to the Alexander Calder-inspired mobile and life-size calaca. No one even bothered to mention Trey Duplantis (Delta Gardner) or point to the anachronistic Los Ojas del dragon by Stephen King lying around the apartment. Once you notice the painstaking detail that Samyn and Harvey put into these in-game objects, it becomes abundantly clear the audience Sunset was made for.

Sunset Press Photo #5

Miniature replica of Psych Revived by Cupid’s Kiss (Antonio Canova, 1787)

Tale of Tales’ self-exile made greater ripples in the gaming community than the drop of Sunset. When it became clear that gamers by and large did not even know of Sunset’s release, Tale of Tales jokingly criticized would-be fans and followers on Twitter (Samyn argues that the tweets were taken out of context). For this, they received the unbridled attention of the active gaming community — sympathy is almost always disproportionate to vitriol. Sargon of Akkad (as Vae Victis) gave a scathing review that mocked the story with about 10 minutes of gameplay before getting a refund. Adrian Chmielarz noted several points on why Sunset under-performed, but did acknowledge that the developers inspired many others to think about games in a different light. Worth A Buy gave an impassioned review complete with expletives and an art game rant. In spite of the ire, the game received a 3.5/5-star average from 83 Steam reviews, positive reviews outweighing the negatives.

Sunset was also honored as the catalyst of discussion on artistic games’ continued existence. Austin Walker of GiantBomb and GamesRadar’s Susan Arendt used Sunset’s failure as a premise to argue for public and subsidized funding of non-commercial video games — Sunset became an avatar, a catch-all for auteur games like Year Walk, Cloud, Ether One, 9.03m, Elegy for a Dead World, etc., and the ever-growing list of lesser-known and forgotten ones. Nicholas O’Brien (Rhizome) used Sunset to eloquently state “…the fact that Sunset didn’t financially live up to expectations is something of a testament to the immaturity of the videogame ecosystem.” I wonder what he thinks about Samyn’s essay “The Politics of Beauty“.

“Ortega’s aesthetic sensibility is plagued by civil unrest and war. Mine by pop culture and consumerism. Our museums and libraries are stuffed with glorious art but we’d rather go see some dinosaur space movie or stare at “meme” pictures on the internet all day long. We’d even rather do so ironically than consider a tiny effort to explore some art. Belgian psychiatrist Paul Verhaeghe has basically diagnosed us all with depression. This society is making us sick and we don’t even know it.

In the game industry, to call a videogame “a work of art” is generally intended as an insult. Or at the very least a legitimate excuse for the player to ignore the piece. To aspire to beauty and greatness is considered pretentious. We are constantly being dragged down for trying to enjoy life.” — Michaël Samyn

I find solace in this exchange, though. I think Tale of Tales finds solace in this too, albeit for different reasons. Edward Smith personally reviewed Sunset (ShutUpVideogames): “Insubstantial, heartless, dull, confused – Sunset is the worst of videogames masquerading as the best.”

He later writes on International Business Times: “I would like to believe that we are hungry for the right things, and that it is only corporate bogeymen who stand in the way, but in reality the audience for games, in a mass, general sense, just does not care about art.”

But he’s no hypocrite. In a recent entry, Smith elaborates: “There are games and movements within gaming worth discussing and being excited about above others, but to champion experimentation uniformly is to relinquish criticism and take up PR. It is neither the critic’s job nor her moral imperative.”

Sunset‘s fractured reception combines many hard truths that devs, press, and gamers are loath to acknowledge. It has become increasingly difficult to capture audience attention now that video games have been turned to the mainstream market, and major publishers are paying top-dollar for placement on print, digital, and mass media. The introduction of crowdfunding platforms and the decentralization of gaming news means more work for developers: while they don’t have to present concepts to a small body of investors who speculate on profitability, they accept scrutiny and rejection from the greater public, and strive to market their ideas effectively in a sea of would-be works. Western indie politics have shaken the faith of longtime gamers who were already disillusioned with franchise sell-outs and industry collusion, who are slowly growing out of gaming despite holding onto feelings of adolescent nostalgia.

And yet, few games deserve praise simply because their creators tout them as art. And fewer gamers care about art simply because they play artistic games. Perhaps it is true that gamers have largely become apathetic to art. But perhaps it is true that gamers are more critical of artistic games. Perhaps gamers do not accept the bourgeois value that comes with a self-proclaimed artistic game. Perhaps they are only concerned with the immersive experience that a game has to offer.

And perhaps that is the only thing that should matter.

What are Tale of Tales doing now? Auriea Harvey is resuming her drawing, and will discuss the intersectionality of video games and art history via podcasts, blogs, vlogs, and Periscope broadcasting with Patreon support. Michaël will be bridging the video game and outrage cultures, publishing a series of articles on his new WordPress dedicated to bringing down the video game industry as we know it — his first article seeks to shame game developers of violent video games for catering to violent gamers. It was published on Gamasutra as well, with a delightful number of articulate responses.

“A game developer who claims to be a peaceful tolerant person while producing murder simulators is a hypocrite. I will not accuse them of being directly responsible for mass shootings and online harassment. But they are beyond a doubt guilty of neglecting to prevent such things.” — Michaël Samyn

For $5,000 a month, he’ll leave the video games industry forever. As if he hasn’t already left.

Games journalists felt compelled to eulogize Sunset as art after everything its developers have said and done.

And now, we forever hold our peace.

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Ryan Mo
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Ryan Mo refers to himself in the third-person perspective because he is uncomfortable with directly writing to readers. His writing voice takes after that of John Barth, one of his influences while studying English Literature in college (but he’ll also settle for Christopher Walken). Growing up, he took an interest in Magic: The Gathering for its card artwork and names, the latter of which expanded his vocabulary and contributed to nearly every horrible deck he’s ever made. Ryan has never played a Zelda game, and the only Pokemon installment he’s touched is Sapphire Version. He’s not sorry for that. He believes Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has the best OST of all time, and hopes for Baldur’s Gate III to be completed and released. If he could have any pet Ryan would choose an Ultralisk, but recently settled for a Mackerel tabby who he affectionately named Milktea.Ryan is simultaneously amused and perplexed by the micro-aggressive tendencies of the Tumblr community, and is constantly warned to never go on Reddit. When he is not dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s, he might be writing about music, making (little) headway through his queue of books, or stripping Tyria to craft that piece of Ascended Gear on Guild Wars 2. He is Honey Boy’s #1 fan and always insists on adding more lens flare.

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