On the End of Tale of Tales, and What We Can Take Away From It

So, for those who have been out of the loop as it relates to indie gaming developments, artistic developer Tale of Tales has shuttered their production after about seven years, and there are many different discussions surrounding their demise, largely because of the vocal reaction to it. The developers themselves have been fairly vocal in the wake of their dissolution as a game development studio; aside from promising that they will continue to do something outside of gaming, most of their interactions have amounted to semi-farcical comments about being free from gaming, blocking trolls, ruminations on the state of internet fandom, and of course, retweeting messages praising them in their wake. The internet response has been about as fractured as you’d expect as well; many gamers feel like that the loss of Tale of Tales is a huge one on the industry, while others have been calling them every shitty name they can think of. I’ve honestly been ruminating on the announcement for a couple of weeks now, because I haven’t been entirely sure how to feel about it, and after a few weeks of consideration, I think I’d rather talk about the lessons that can be taken away from the closure more than anything else. There are a few reasons for this, but perhaps the single most important one is this: regardless of what Tale of Tales, its fans and its detractors might have to say, there are a couple of important contributors to the developer’s demise, and none of them are as cut and dry as any of them would like to think.

Let’s start off with the first observation, which is one that a few people have made in the wake of this announcement: the reality is, gaming as an art form, regardless of how you might feel about it*, doesn’t really have any frameworks in place to protect those who try to “art” with gaming. These days, more and more developers are trying to play with the concept of ludology and narratology in their work, because development tools are cheaper than ever and the PC offers an amazing and free world to develop in, and projects we’d never even consider possible in an economically driven landscape are not only possible, they’re happening, and they’re almost certainly helpful. However, there’s no real room to “fail” in that landscape; if you make a game, it either needs to be profitable or satisfying enough to you that you’re okay if it isn’t, and while something like Katawa Shoujo or Depression Quest can be fine for their developers to release for free, most developers would like to recoup their losses in some way. As you learn more as a developer and become better at using the tools provided to you, you as a developer might also want to expand your vision, which often costs money, and while the idea of spending money to make money is a trite one, it’s correct in this case, so many developers either rely on outdated framework or just… stop developing when the losses pile up.

The reality is, some kind of artistic grant toward developers who are attempting to express and expand the artistic nature of gaming is probably something that should at least be discussed, because in reality, even if you don’t like those games, they do matter as it relates to developing what we can do with gaming. Games like That Dragon, Cancer or Depression Quest or Sunset expose a specific sort of expression that gives developers who have money available to them more of an idea of what they could be doing with games, and it enriches the medium, regardless of your personal opinion of it. When we exist in a world where there is no artistic expression to speak of and everything is about the money that can be made with the best and brightest, you get games like The Evil Within; when artistic expression is allowed to be the focal point, you’ll see games like Five Nights at Freddy’s. You don’t need me to tell you which game was “better,” because even if that wasn’t a subjective point from my own perspective, it doesn’t matter; the world, collectively, decided that the latter was the superior experience, and Scott Cawthon ended up making a mint, while the former set sales records, and then… disappeared from the public narrative almost immediately afterward.

To be fair, we do have frameworks in place that (to a point) allow an artist to be supplemented in their work; services like Patreon and Kickstarter allow gamers to contribute to their favorite developers and people, which in turn allows those people to make content the fans want to see. However, that only really works for established developers, and even then it’s not perfect; a recent Patreon glitch screwed a whole lot of developers, for example, and Tale of Tales did run a Kickstarter, which was funded, for Sunset, and they still fell short of what they really needed sales-wise to make the game a success. We almost certainly don’t need to be donating millions of dollars to developers just because they “have an idea,” of course, but anything would be better for the artistic minded developer with a plan and something to show for it than the current nothing we do have in place. Even if you hate all of the games I’ve mentioned here, the point isn’t in enjoying those games, it’s in the inspiration other developers take from those games and apply to something you might enjoy, and that’s important. Having that option available, even if it’s only minor, to assist developers who are under-funded and tiny in developing things that might inspire larger developers in meaningful ways is probably an important thing, and even if it’s not easy, it’s certainly a discussion we should be having, if nothing else.

That said, another thing that I’ve noticed in the wake of this situation is that, for all of the bluster that exists in the world at present about promoting games that are more experimental and focused on involved themes and concepts, none of that really helped Tale of Tales in this case, and that’s… frustrating, to a point. I mean, let’s be honest: no human being on Earth can play every game that exists, and it’s clearly difficult to even try to keep up with what’s out there in this day and age. Fine. That said, Sunset was billed as being the exact sort of game many people advocate for: it features a female protagonist, mechanics that aren’t combat-focused, and a message that is more involved than most. It’s exactly the sort of game someone like, for example, Anita Sarkeesian advocates for consistently. The developers themselves even Tweeted at Sarkeesian that they were making this game and that it was basically what she’s been advocating for, and as of today, she’s had nothing to say on it.** I mean, don’t get me wrong; I appreciate that, for example, Her Story WAS highlighted for being that exact thing, because it really is that exact thing and it deserves the eyes on it, but that’s one game out of the tends and hundreds that are left to the wayside. It’s just very disheartening that, for as much as people talk about these sorts of games being IMPORTANT and NECESSARY, no one’s actually playing them or saying anything about them.

Now, to qualify, I reviewed Her Story and I thought it was great, but I’m one person, and even then, I’m a person who has a weight in the industry that’s rapidly approaching zero. I don’t expect my words to carry any weight, but I’ll absolutely play whatever’s put in my reach if I think it’ll mean something, because this is kind of an important topic that needs to be discussed, and I’m willing to do my part. What’s interesting, though, is that, in the case of Sunset, no one who carries any weight has had anything to say about the game; looking through the curator lists for people like Jim Sterling, Anita Sarkeesian or even Brianna Wu shows zero mentions of Sunset, and worse, while Anita took the time out to curate Her Story, Sterling didn’t, even though he reviewed the game and liked it quite a bit.*** It’s very saddening, in its own way, because there was a decent amount of buzz surrounding the game, and I’m honestly certain Tale of Tales would have supplied any of them a review copy had they asked. It’s not specifically saddening because of who it happened to, mind you, as much as it’s saddening because of what it means: we’re not putting nearly enough effort into helping our own, whether it be in reviewing their games, saying good things about them, criticizing them to help them grow or anything, and it’s not helping anyone. It’s true that the average gamer cares more about the AAA games, and pointing out their failings is important, but honestly, we should be celebrating the successes and correcting the missteps of the indie crowd just as much. When we deify a select few and leave the rest to languish in the sun until they die, that helps no one and evolves nothing, and the world is poorer for the loss.

Which brings us to the final lesson to be learned here, which is probably the most disheartening of the lot, and it begins with an answer to the question you might be wondering on right now: no, I have not played Sunset, and I absolutely never will. The reason why I feel that way is because Tale of Tales neglected to provide us with a review copy, either through their own decision or because Alex Lucard neglected to reach out to them, and I’m not interested, personally, in paying for the game. For those who are asking, “Well, why won’t you support them?” well, that’s actually both a simpler and more complicated question to answer. The more complicated part is, I’ve been following their Twitter account in the wake of the failure of Sunset, and I find that, philosophically, we have very different views of the world as a whole. That’s not a bad thing by any means, because different views make the world a richer place, but it became readily apparent to me as I read through how they explained their views on the world, violence in video games,**** and Tekken 3 as a romance simulator, I realized, while I can appreciate that they make games for someone, that someone isn’t me. I have no idea what I could add to the world by reviewing a game created by people who are so fundamentally different from me in their beliefs and concepts, short of perhaps an agreement to disagree, and I don’t feel like it’d be a very helpful experience for either of us.

The simpler part is, I’ve played The Path, and while I didn’t think it was the worst game ever made, I found it… heavily unpalatable, so much so that I actively avoid Tale of Tales games because of it.

The reality is, Tale of Tales is an experimental developer, and while their first game, The Graveyard, was a simple concept that showed at least something approaching experimental leanings, most people got their first exposure to the developer from The Path, and that was a polarizing experience, to put it politely. I personally don’t know a single person who thought it was an experience that was worthwhile, and I know a decent amount of people, which is an important thing to understand in context. That’s not to say that Tale of Tales shouldn’t have released the game; their art is their own, and if they wanted to release The Path because it said something they wanted to say, they should have. They should have, however, realized that because art is polarizing, there might be blowback because of The Path and what it represents (both implicitly and explicitly), and been prepared for this, which, based on how disheartened they were in the failure of Sunset, they absolutely were not. I mean, while I’m absolutely certain that Andres Serrano might have been mildly surprised about the controversy his art generated, the reality is, Piss Christ was presented nearly three decades ago, and the fallout from it was massive and extensive. Tale of Tales in particular should have been cognizant of this thing, as they are themselves knowledgeable in the world of art (or present themselves as such), and at the bare minimum been prepared for reputation damage The Path might create, and if they weren’t, honestly, that’s not a problem with artistry or capitalism, that’s a problem with their capacity to process information.

To digress a little, for those who don’t deal with this concept regularly, within the world of risk management, the concept of reputation damage can be summed up as any event that causes damage to the reputation of the company; while this is commonly associated with mitigating risk factors to minimize such damage, really, anything that damages the name of the organization could count in this way. While academic studies on the subject frequently point out that this is a super important topic, I’ve spoken to several coworkers who hold the belief that it’s basically a non-existent concept, and that no damage can really be done to reputation that can’t be smoothed over in some way. I tend to hold a more middle-of-the-road mentality on this subject: I believe that reputation damage scales to the size of the entity in question, so when we see larger entities like Sony and Microsoft continue to make money hand over fist despite hacking breaches, horrid customer and developer treatment, and the Move and Kinect, it’s not that they can’t damage their reputation, it’s that the events themselves simply don’t do enough to make a difference. We’ve recently seen that you can do enough damage to your reputation to make a significant impact with Donald Trump, who, despite his high polling numbers, has lost an extensive number of business contracts due to his behavior, and, oh yeah, also been threatened by a Mexican drug lord, so clearly, there is a point where the damage is too great to overcome, no matter how big you become, it’s just that most reputation damage can be cast off with the right PR.

The point of that digression is, because reputation damage scales, smaller companies can suffer much less damage before it negatively impacts their bottom line to a point where they’re financially hampered, and that is something Tale of Tales not only should have realized, but has also seen first-hand. Look at the user review count for each of their games on Steam, from The Path to Fatale to Bientôt l’été to Luxuria Superbia to Sunset, and you’ll notice one thing: not only have absolutely none of their games generated half the reviews of The Path, but in many cases they didn’t even come close. To put it another way, let’s go back to the above point about how so many larger names in the discussion space of video gaming didn’t talk up Sunset, and let’s then apply a simple question to those names: how many of them, prior to the release of Sunset, played The Path, said “hell to the no,” and actively avoided Tale of Tales afterward? Well, while I can’t say for certain if either Anita or Brianna did this thing, it’s certainly possible, and I can confirm Sterling had something approaching this reaction, because he’s talked about hating The Path extensively and Google remembers that. Logic dictates that, if critics have specifically come out and said, “This company does not make games that I’m interested in experiencing, so I won’t do that anymore,” that players have likely said the same thing, and if your sales continue to showcase a downward trend, this is almost certainly an observable reality that you can quantitatively observe.

So, then, why would you try to make a heavily expensive game to try and bring in the masses when the masses already played The Path and rejected your company outright?

If your reputation as a developer is disagreeable to some of the audience of your game, it’s absolutely right to believe that you’re going to have to do something to correct that, but the smart choice isn’t to spend more money than you have to develop a game that’s more friendly to the masses, because you have never, ever shown that you develop those kinds of games, and no one’s going to assume you’re doing so now. I know it’s nice to blame capitalism, the awful people that celebrated your demise and the poor acceptance of “new art” for the failure of your game, but the truth is, you were never going to succeed, because you flew too close to the sun to be successful in your quest. If we’re being honest, your three most notable releases that were directed toward the US marketplace were a game where you walked through a graveyard and sometimes died, a game about loss of innocence by way of implied sexual assault, and a simplified, erotic re-imagining of Child of Eden. You knew that your games weren’t drawing large profit, and you knew that the audience was not flocking to your work, as outside of The Path, your games mostly went unacknowledged.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is the ultimate takeaway from the situation. Taking some risk is reasonable, but taking the kind of risk that might completely flush your development studio isn’t on capitalism, or gamers, or any of the various and sundry targets you’re pointing at. It’s not about people not appreciating art, it’s not about gamers hating you as a developer, and it’s absolutely not about all of the targets you point your finger at in a vain attempt to blame the system for your failings. It’s about you. Tale of Tales, in the end, was presented the evidence, and said, “Let us go forth and make something well beyond our means,” and their wings burned off and they crashed into the ocean, cursing the gods all the way to the bottom for their hubris, because they could not accept that they were the instrument of their own destruction.

In the end, though, while the above points are worth consideration and review, the single most interesting point I’ve taken away from the situation is not the need for artistic game funding, the lack of support from the community, or even the divisive reputation of Tale of Tales making an expensive game unwise to create, but rather, the behavior of the developers in the aftermath. To be certain, much of it is inundated with snark directed at the assholes who are condemning them for daring to make games they didn’t understand, declarations that they’re blocking everyone who attacks them (not without merit), and general declarations of disapproval of the gaming community in general. Other parts are retweets of artistic productions that the developers love or find interesting, which is a completely reasonable thing for an artistically minded person to do. What’s most interesting, though, are the other tweets and retweets coming from them, not exclusively because of their content, but because of exactly how much they remind me of someone else.

Specifically, Phil Fish.

The tweets that come from Tale of Tales in the days and weeks beyond their demise are exactly the sort of insulating, “we didn’t do anything wrong, it’s all their fault” sort of production one would expect of someone who tried something and failed at it. Tweets about how blissfully happy they are to be out of gaming, how much they love the people who bought Sunset (and them alone, because fuck you for only buying one of their games I guess), and more piling on about how the community is at fault fill their Twitter, alongside the pleasant comments of people telling them how awesome they were and how it’ll be alright someday, and it’s… kind of sad, in its own way.***** It’s essentially someone having a breakdown at the loss of what they dedicated their life to, saying, “Oh good, I’m finally free,” with tears in their eyes as they watch it burn to the ground. It’s the sort of misery a monster would laugh at, and it’s like watching a person grieve the death of their spouse in real time; horribly morose, but too intensely powerful to look away from.

Honestly, I don’t like Tale of Tales as a developer, I had no use for their games, and I completely understand exactly why they failed, but I still consider the world poorer for their loss, as even if it’s a good lesson for others to learn, it’s still a loss of… something that people appreciated, and that’s not an improvement in the world. On one side of the coin, honestly, I couldn’t stand The Path, I wasn’t a fan of their work in general, and it’s fairly apparent that they made some less than ideal decisions and they suffered for it, and while more’s the pity, that’s how things go. On the other, however, just because something wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it wasn’t for someone, and I take no joy in the loss of people who just wanted to make video games because they had some artistic ideas in their head and wanted to share them with the world, regardless of whether they resonated with me or not. I suspect, were they to see this piece, they’d ultimately come away with the impression that I just “didn’t get it,” and that’s fine, but the more plain truth is that even though I got it and didn’t want it, that doesn’t mean I wanted to burn them to the ground to keep someone else from enjoying it. Whether or not their games were for me, they deserved to exist, and all I can hope, in the end, is that someone will take their place who, if nothing else, understands what went wrong and seeks to avoid the traps they fell into.

Just a thought.

* My general opinion on “games as art,” for reference, is that I’m perfectly fine with the concept so long as there’s something there to support the concept, be it an excellent artistic concept, a strong framework, or anything else in between. In simpler terms, I’m not a fan of abstract games as art for the same reason I’m not a fan of abstract art in general: while some of it is very, very good, the vast majority of it is “artistic interpretation” and nothing else, and while that’s fine for some, I’m more of a logical person, so I don’t appreciate something that’s just colors on a canvas or whatever. I understand that’s as much of a failing of my ability to appreciate the concept as anything else, so I don’t actively seek to tear it down, but from a gaming perspective, I prefer games that are artistic in a fashion that still allows for a framework and something more meaningful. To put it bluntly, I’m cool with things like Her Story, most visual novels, Plug and Play and anything that does something special, but things like Prometheus or Dinner Date don’t really resonate with me, not because I don’t understand the concept, but because they don’t do anything with that concept. Just because your game is a thing doesn’t mean it has anything to say about that thing, essentially, and if you don’t have something meaningful to leave me with, as an artist, I can’t appreciate your art just because it’s art.

** Though I will note that there are probably thousands of people tweeting at Anita daily, and if we’re being honest, that’s kind of a desperate tactic, sort of a “LOOK AT ME, I’M DOING A THING YOU’LL LIKE” sort of deal.

*** Though when you go to the curator home page and realize the most popular curator out there is Total Biscuit, you begin to understand that maybe curating as a whole isn’t all it’s cracked up to be in the first place.

**** Which, while a quote from the linked article, is at least partially a view they hold. I don’t particularly agree with that viewpoint, but as Tale of Tales developed The Path, I have to say they don’t either, and that’s also kind of problematic, if I’m being honest.

***** Though, while I’m here, I’d also like to note that, if you’re one of the many people piling onto their corpse and calling them SJW’s or whatever the fuck the pejorative of the day is, you should go and play “Drink What I Can Find Under The Sink,” because you’re helping absolutely nothing.

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