- Continuing sister site Gamasutra’s ‘Road to the IGF’ feature, Patrick Murphy talked to Tale of Tales' Auriea Harvey and Michael Samyn about their Independent Games Festival 2008 Excellent in Visual Art finalist The Path.

The Path presents a dark take on the Little Red Riding Hood fairy tale. On the way to Grandmother's house, there is only one rule, and you must not follow it. There is only one goal, but if you attain it, you lose.

What kind of background do you have in the game industry or in making games?

Michael Samyn: Not too much. Our background is in fine art, internet art and web design. We always had playful elements in our work, but never made an actual game. And I’m not sure if we’re even doing that now. When we started with games, made a prototype for a game called 8 and then an online multiplayer environment called The Endless Forest, which has been going since 2005.

Auriea Harvey: We taught ourselves how to use 3D and programming because we loved interacting with PlayStation games, and we were really curious to see if we could do something with game technology. We were shocked that there were game genres, and quickly found we didn’t have much use for those classifications. We’ve just been making it up as we go along. Luckily this is a time when people are very open to new play experiences, unlike when we started in 2002.

What motivated Tale of Tales to create a game like The Path?

AH: The Path grew from wanting to tell stories about ephemeral things, like footsteps on dry leaves on a moonless night, being in the dark and wondering what you are afraid of, is there anything to be afraid of? What scares you most is in your own mind. I was most interested in that aspect.

Telling stories about growing from a girl to a woman and different ways of dealing with men and dealing with darkness outside, darkness inside. Relationships between generations (girl, grandmother). But we are not trying to be writers -- we use the tools we are best at. So we tell these stories through image, sound and interaction. Most of the interaction is quite simple. We hope that people can get to the content by becoming these girl characters.

MS: The Path is a game where the design is driven by narrative factors. Not in the sense of a linear story, but in the sense of dealing with certain themes and creating a certain atmosphere. Rather than designing a game around certain interaction mechanics and play structures and then slapping a story on top of things to justify it all, we’ve designed the interaction and the structure to serve the story we want to tell.

Where did you draw inspiration from in its design and implementation?

AH: Javanese shadow plays. Line drawings. Walking in the woods. Old houses. Jarboe’s music. Saturation, saturation, saturation. Pasolini, Wong Kar Wai.

MS: We learned a lot about playing from watching people play our multiplayer screensaver The Endless Forest. We learned that it wasn’t necessary to construct elaborate challenge and reward structures for people to enjoy a game or understand its theme. On the contrary, people like being creative in the games they play and expand upon the stories in their imagination.

This has inspired a kind of minimalist approach to interaction design where we remove all elements that could distract the player or destroy the immersion.
For this purpose we tend to make (“implement”) the game first and only design it afterwards. We need to see the game world and get a feel for it before we decide on what kind of activity would support and enhance the experience.

The music made for the game by Jarboe has helped a lot in this: it gave us an atmosphere that we then needed to match with our game design.

What sort of development tools are used by the team?

MS: We built the engine using Quest3D, precisely because it allows the kind of design outlined above. Quest3D is a realtime visual programming interface. It gives us instant feedback, and allows us to mess with the numbers in a very intuitive way. It’s like painting with algorithms.

AH: Blender for the models and Zbrush in concert with Photoshop/Painter for painting textures.

What do you think the most interesting element of The Path is?

MS: I think the open-ended nature of the main part of the game is interesting. There is no obligation to do anything. This is in line with our narrative because we want the player to take full responsibility for his or her actions (which may lead to the death of their avatar).

Another thing that I like is the fact that you need to replay the game six times, each time with a different avatar and a different antagonist. I think that that is going to be a very moving experience, as you see them die one by one.

AH: That we are using music only, no texts, no words, no sound effects. It feels like a silent movie with a reactive soundtrack. But for me, the most interesting part is what each character’s life represents and by extension what their ultimate death means to the player.

Roughly how many people have been working on the game, and what has its development process been like?

MS: The Path is developed by a core team of four women and one man. Two people work on the game full time: Auriea and I, assisted by three freelancers (Laura Raines Smith for the animations and Jarboe and Kris Force for the music) and an outsourcing company (Dragonfly Studios for some of the 3D assets). We’re also going to need some help from an experienced programmer to clean up our “artistic code”.

We’ve been working on The Path for a long time. It’s been difficult to get the funding together. And also figuring out what exactly we wanted to do with the story of Little Red Riding Hood took a while. Over the past year, we have developed the technology and a playable demo that we’re happy with. The hard part is over-touch wood.

If Tale of Tales had to rewind to the very start of the project, is there anything that you’d do differently?

MS: Yes. While it has been useful to some extent, I wouldn’t have put so much effort in concept art or finding the perfect character modeler. It’s much more efficient to just work with what you have and then improve the parts that aren’t good enough later.

AH: I totally agree. I think I had a bit of difficulty understanding that even though I am not the best painter, modeler or whatever, I am still the only one who knows who these characters are. I should have had more faith in that vision from the start instead of thinking there were people out there who could translate my thoughts into 3d better than me, wasting time trying to direct other people and then in the end making it all myself anyway.

Sometimes, deferring to expert technicians just makes things worse and you can lose what makes the artwork special. I think that if one is inspired to make something, one should go ahead and do that.

MS: I think this applies to programming as well. It’s about being creative, not about solving problems. For designing interaction and breathing life into a virtual world, you need a playful attitude and trust your artistic instinct. It’s not easy to tell somebody what you want, if you can’t express it in any other way than through your game.

What are your thoughts on the state of independent game development, and are any other independent games out now that you admire?

AH: While I am very serious about making games, I really cannot play most of them. I think my motivation for making them is that I am not liking what I’m playing. I think that most people make games because they love them, I make them because I desire to love them. So I’m making things the way I think they ought to be instead of the way they are.

For me this is why it is important that independent development can happen. I'm sure I am not the only person who feels this way.

MS: I’m very happy that the industry at large is paying attention to independent games now and that there is more opportunity for independent developers. Indie games are popping up everywhere. The quality of the products is increasing. While at the same time leaving plenty of room for a strong hobbyist culture.

We do feel a bit lonely with Tale of Tales. It’s amazing how far independent developers have taken traditional game design concepts, and how they were able to refine genres like the side-scrolling platformer and the top-down shooter. But we hope that, in the future, more independent developers will embrace new technologies and explore the new possibilities that they offer.

We shouldn’t act like the underdogs all the time and settle for old-school. We should be out there, showing the BioShocks and the Assassin's Creeds how it should be done. As the technology becomes more accessible, I think a true avant-garde will rise from the independent scene.

I hope the selection of The Path will encourage other independent designers to explore a bit further. And that excellent indie projects like The Night Journey, Penumbra, Fatal Hearts and Masq get selected in the next IGF.

You have 30 seconds left to live and you must tell the game business something very important. What is it?

MS: If I had 30 seconds left to live, I don’t think the game business would be on my mind. But if I have a single message for the games industry, I think it would be “Grow up!” It’s time to leave the primordial slime of games in the toy store and proudly develop this medium as the new entertainment medium that it is destined to become. Leave the puzzles behind. Stop shooting at things all the time. We have the technology. Let’s develop the know-how. And take the next step.

AH: ...Hmmm, it’s a secret.