Follow the Path
“A fan of odd little arthouse indie games, I decided to take a quick look at Bientôt l’été… it wasn’t long before I massively regretted that decision.”
I’m not sure what we should learn from the closing of Tale of Tales, a studio that divided opinion like few others. It’s just one data point in the sea of indie but… an extremely atypical data point. That’s the reason a lot of people are upset on Twitter about this, because no one else was quite as Tale of Tales as Tale of Tales were.
Their fearlessness in speaking their mind about the state of videogames was both a boon and hindrance to their reach. Some found in them a kindred spirit, others saw a stream of pretentious artsbabble. The latter found them elitist and snobbish and, if there’s one thing social media has taught me, no one buys into “hate the sinner, love the sin” when it comes to games; players find it difficult to approve your work as it seems to validate everything that comes out of your blasted mouth. But of course it’s more than that, the work itself was just as divisive. Players could find their games frustrating or too inscrutable for their own good as the linked Let’s Play demonstrates.
For my part, I think the ideas of “notgames” that ToT championed were prescient and eventually absorbed into a larger movement that believed “anything can be a game”. But could ToT turn their prescience into something that could pay the bills? With Belgian arts funding drying up and noting “several games with similarities to our own [had] been greatly successful”, they looked to their peers to see what they could do to become more accessible. I was sad at this admission, that they were now following others along the path instead of making The Path.
ToT were definitely an inspiration to studios like Frictional (Penumbra, Amnesia), The Astronauts (The Vanishing of Ethan Carter) and many more. Certainly, developers will mourn their passing if, indeed, it is permanent, but not just because of the loss of talent you respect – it’s yet another reminder of indie mortality.
Already, opinions are everywhere about what ToT should have done, shouldn’t have done, what this means about the industry. Maybe you think good riddance. Maybe you think this is terrible, the end is nigh. But I’m not sure if this story has a moral. Aside from making money in videogames is hard, The End.
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7 thoughts on “Follow the Path”
A sentence I struggled with and eventually decided not to put in was this because TIME: as ToT’s design ideas were becoming more mainstream, appearing in other games like Gone Home, maybe they were now behind the curve.
Adrian Chmielarz has put this point more clearly in his own post-mortem.
I’m sorry to hear that ToT is semi-closing, but I’m also not surprised. What the studio failed to understand — that others, which emulated it, did — is that going out of one’s way to make games un-fun in the name of artistry can defeat the purpose. Great cultural objects, whether they’re games or novels or opera or whatever, can also entertain. They don’t have to, but it’s naive to think that great art cannot mix with mainstream acceptance. ToT always seemed to believe that the best way to make great art was to make games that most people wouldn’t want to play.
I haven’t tried Sunset yet due to backlog, and it sounds like with this one (as with The Path) they tried to be a little more game-like while retaining their other sensibilities. So I’m sorry to see Sunset do poorly, and I wish the studio good luck. But stuff like Bientôt l’été turned people off for all the wrong reasons. It felt intentionally pretentious, intentionally pointless, and intentionally exclusionary. What’s the value?
Games like Gone Home and The Vanishing of Ethan Carter did better for quantifiable reasons — they were more enjoyable, more accessible, there was more pre-release buildup, and (importantly) they didn’t come from developers with a long reputation of making games that treated players as subliterate morons. Tale of Tales could be accused of doing that.
Hey Steerpike! I remember watching this video on Tap-Repeatedly of course. If this was a longer article I might have pointed out that Zeke was a fan of The Path.
I’ve never played much of ToT’s work. I started Fatale once, late at night, and got tired and didn’t go back. It’s not that I didn’t want go back: I just… didn’t? I played plenty of Luxuria Superbia on my old S3 – and it didn’t play very well on there at all. I’ve meant to do more but I know why I didn’t.
See I went through my own “god, they’re a bit pretentious” phase, but after that I appreciated some of the things they were saying. I invited them for comment for some articles and they were added to the Marginalia “board” for the last edition. But I still didn’t push myself to play because – deep down, I was concerned I wouldn’t like their work, and I was happier listening to their thoughts than having to weigh them against their actual work. I only figured this out after they made their announcement this week.
I’m of the opinion that where ToT went, others were better at commercializing. But they did gain some support and they’re far from being unknown. Even if you didn’t like their games, I think it’s sad that we won’t necessarily have their input going forward.
And I don’t think Sunset is responsible for killing them. Well, not that much. It was the drying up of the Belgian arts funding. Sunset was a need to be on-their-own-two-feet financially successful and they pushed the boat out trying to appeal to the many – and it seems to have failed. But I don’t think they would have moved out of their “more affordable” comfort zone and taken on financial risk had it not been for the funding problems.
Of course there are so many indies who have made “deserving” games with seemingly appealing game mechanics who have also found themselves ignored by the consumer horde. Making money in videogames is hard, The End.
On arts funding drying up: Yeah, I remember reading a post-mortem they wrote on the Path. They’d hoped to be able to use arts funding to get it up and running but then hoped that the game would make enough so that they wouldn’t have needed arts funding. (So, they hoped that they would make enough money from The Path to be able to say “Yes, there is enough commercial interest in this sort of thing for it to financially justify itself!”)
Turns out they *did* make a profit, but not as much as they’d hoped. So The Path would not have been possible without grants. I suppose you could see Sunset, financially, as “The Path, but without grants” – ie. it just couldn’t have worked.
James, that’s one of the questions that I’ve been mulling over for the book. For indie studios, are arts grants a lifeline… or more like startup capital?
Joel, I recently went to a talk here in Vienna about grants for indies. The government gives them out to projects that need a bit of a financial boost, but (and I find this really interesting) which also have some kind of commercial potential. The idea seems to be that you obviously don’t have to pay the grant back, and if your game flops then no big deal, but that the government’s goal is ultimately to stimulate growth in the arts sector. They want commercially successful game projects – they’re just willing to throw some money at the problem and realise that not every funded game will get there.
Another interesting aspect is that grants can fill a hole here but they can’t be your sole source of investment. They seem to be able to fund up to about half of a budget. In the past you could also put down your own already-invested indie-hobbyist work hours as an investment of sorts, which was how the devs behind “And Yet it Moves” got their funding – otherwise they wouldn’t have been able to. Lately, though, the rules have changed and that’s no longer allowed. Which makes me wonder: how are people meant to get that other 50%? Savings? Capital investment? I have no savings and no experience with investors so I’m not really sure what someone like me is expected to do if they want to get their game up and running.
James, I’ve heard similar with other grant models – we’ll give you 50% you fill the rest – and you can fulfil that with a technicality. But that’s first I’ve heard of them seeking proof of that personal investment.
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