April 18, 2011 9:00 AM | Cassandra Khaw
Ideas often have a life of their own.
I first came up with this notion of writing about couples within the industry when I met up with Dave Gilbert and his wife in New York. After listening to the story of how they met, I decided I wanted to see if there were similar heart-warming tales out there. More importantly, I wanted to know how much of a factor a relationship could be in the development of a game.
Unsurprisingly, one of the first couples I turned to for an interview was Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn, the creative minds behind Tale of Tales. I asked them about how they met, about what it was like to learn of a similar love in video games, of development, of perspectives and the role their mutual affection might have played in their work. Now, initially, I had expected to write a one-piece about couples in love. After seeing their eloquent response, I think this might end up a monthly column sort of thing.
What follows after the cut is the answer, raw and unedited, that I received.
We met in hell. On an internet domain called hell.com to be precise. This domain was the playground for a group of artists who used the internet and the web as their medium. During an group experiment with video conferencing software, we started chatting in private. The next day we started our collaboration through an exchange of love letters in the form of web pages. We called this exchange Skinonskinonskin and made it public (http://entropy8zuper.org/skinonskinonskin).
That was in 1999. We were both designing websites and creating net.art at the time. Certain games had influenced our ideas about interaction, and here and there a game-like element was introduced in some of are work. But we didn't even consider making games ourselves, ever. That happened when the hordes invaded the Internet around 2002. Web 2.0 destroyed the beautiful romantic utopia that we and our colleagues had built in cyberspace. And we didn't feel our artistic work still worked within this new shopping mall-like environment. So we switched to a new medium: video games.
Our web-based work was extremely personal and even a bit exhibitionist. Especially The Godlove Museum (http://entropy8zuper.org/godlove) where we combined stories from the Bible with our personal love stories, cultural conflicts and political issues. Our weekly online performances in Wirefire (http://entropy8zuper.org/wirefire) were also very intimate. We used it as a tool to talk about things that were hard to discuss in words. This project is actually the great-grandmother of the first game we released, The Endless Forest (http://Tale-of-Tales.com/TheEndlessForest).
We didn't really start working together because we had things in common, but more because we felt we complemented each other. We both felt that the other could do things that they could not do and really wanted to be part of their work. We did share an interest in creating computer-based art that was about people, about warm and sensual things, about real things (unlike most of our colleagues at the time, who were far more interested in systems and pixels). We used to have a slogan on our home page that said "Technology is not the future. We are." We have many slogans.
When we developed an interest in the creation of video games, we quickly learned how important it was to be a couple. Because video games -certainly back then, in 2002- were mostly these rather childish things that were squarely aimed at teenage boys. We figured that, as a multi-gender design team, we could bring something new to the table. From the beginning, we wanted to make video games for people who don't play them yet (if only to show our friends what we found so interesting about games). We wanted our games to be gender-inclusive. And being a hetero couple made that very easy. We never had to think about "how can we make games for girls" or worry about offending women.
Another advantage of being a couple working together is that we basically function like a single person with a double-sized brain. It's not that we never have arguments about our work, but we do aim in the same direction, artistically, and there's a lot of underlying stuff we know we agree about. We also have different skill sets and even cultural backgrounds, which adds to the feeling of being a multi-armed giant capable of much more than any individual.
We work together from the beginning to the end. On some tasks one of us does most of the work, and often gets the final say (Michael does the programming, Auriea does the modeling, Michael does the sound, Auriea does the graphics). But that's all busy-work. It's not important. We just need to get it done. And we often do it for each other, to help each other. What's more important is the continuous thinking and evaluation that goes on, and the continuous soaking up of other art and philosophy. And this is very much a shared thing, and it greatly defines our work. We talk a lot. About all sorts of things.
Oddly, Michael is probably both more grounded in reality and romantically ambitious. While Auriea is far more lyrical and experimental, yet very practical. So while Michael often has these strange far-fetched ideas about The Future Of The Medium, Auriea comes up with the strangest ideas for projects that Michael then needs to drag down to the reality present-day technology and audience. Auriea is the native English speaker but Michael writes most of the text that accompanies projects. Michael has had a graphic design education but Auriea takes care of typography and web design. It's like we're constantly trying to do each other's job and then need to correct the other. This can be frustrating, but it's probably also a strength. If the both of us can agree on the value of a project, there may be a better chance that more people in the audience will too.
We recently came out of an experiment that was based on being a couple. We developed a prototype of a game whose design was in fact the combination of two ideas (one of Auriea, and one of Michael). We often combine multiple ideas in a single game in a vain attempt to reach the end of our to do list before we die. But in this case, we separated the production as well: Auriea worked on her part of the game, and Michael on his. It was a very exciting idea. But in the end, we feel the process has failed. We did not manage to realize the potential we saw in the design. And one of the reasons was probably that we worked separately as little individuals, instead of combining our strengths and continuously confronting our thoughts with the other.
Being a couple has greatly influenced all of our games. Even the ones that originate mostly form an idea that one of us had. Because then, our love for each other motivates us to simply help the other person realize their idea. Since we have very similar preferences most of the time, this isn't very hard. But we have learned in the mean time, that our best ideas are the ones we agree on. Being a couple is not simply influential, it's essential.