Tale of Tales has always seemed to have different goals than the majority of videogame developers. Its titles—which include, most notably, Sunset, The Path, and The Graveyard—are less interested in providing players with accessible narratives and engaging gameplay mechanics than in presenting virtual spaces (and real concepts) to explore. This makes their work stand apart from the vast majority of their peers and, of course, leads to polarized reactions from game critics and players, who seem to either appreciate or dislike the team’s willingness to experiment with conventional videogame form.
It’s because of their unorthodox output that the recent news of Tale of Tales plan to move on from game development is sad, but also not incredibly surprising. Anyone who follows the fringe of any form of art or entertainment knows that the further a creator ranges from the mainstream, the more difficult it becomes to achieve long-term commercial success. The mixed reception that accompanies Tale of Tales’ releases has always made it clear that the team was unlikely to break out from the niche they’ve been placed in. This is unfortunate because, regardless of individual players’ tastes, the developer occupied a vital position in the modern videogame industry.
There are plenty of players who, not having enjoyed the developer’s work, won’t care much about Tale of Tales’ exit from videogames. Knowing that there won’t be further releases from the team causes them little concern because their departure from the industry means little to them in the short term. This sort of perspective ignores the fact that games, like all media, need to nurture both mainstream and avant-garde developers. When one is lost, the ecosystem is disturbed, slanting too far in either a purely commercial or experimental direction, and all games, no matter what shape they take, are poorer for it.
Tale of Tales’ work is markedly different from traditional titles. In The Graveyard, for example, the player controls an elderly woman as she hobbles through a cemetery and eventually sits down on a bench to reminisce on life and death. There’s nothing “to do” in the game in the usual sense. The player listens to a song as the woman sits. At the end, she either slowly returns to the graveyard’s entrance or, if left alone, closes her eyes and passes away. Another Tale of Tales’ title, the recent Sunset, was apparently designed to appeal to a wider audience by offering visible goals—clean a wealthy man’s apartment and leave either approving or disapproving messages from the protagonist—and branching paths affected by player choice. Still, as outlined in the developer’s farewell post, even these systems haven’t been enough to attract new fans to their work. This isn’t surprising—Sunset offers a great experience, but the “game-y” elements of its design are still centred entirely around furthering a central theme, mood, and (fairly opaque) narrative. There is very little in it to win over those not already interested in the studio’s unique approach to game development.
These games, simply enough, aren’t what most players expect from the medium. We’re far more accustomed to experiences that present clear-cut objectives and immediately fulfilling mechanical interactions. What Tale of Tales does (or did, as the case may be) is offer audiences something akin to interactive versions of art installations. Within their games, digital worlds exist not to entertain with gratifying forms of play, but rather to present an audiovisual reflection on various themes. The audience isn’t given a goal so much as a prompt to begin contemplation on the material presented to them.
This is valuable work—even if a given player doesn’t care to experience it for her/himself—because Tale of Tales has always looked at videogames differently. Their tendency to experiment so completely with form can be seen as a detriment to immediate enjoyment, but it’s this same unwillingness to follow convention that gives birth to the kind of new ideas that inspire others. Even though something like The Graveyard may feel worlds apart from a new Assassin’s Creed, it’s important to remember that many of the ideas introduced in even the most unorthodox games have a way of bleeding into mainstream titles. A strange game premise may indirectly find its way into a commercial release, having been thought about and altered by a mainstream developer interested in the avant-garde of their medium.
Absorbing and reinterpreting formal experimentation is what leads to new ideas in all types of media. When those who push at the boundaries of a creative space choose to leave, they take with them the possibility of seeing innovative concepts introduced and refined. Losing Tale of Tales doesn’t just mean that we won’t be able to play new games from the studio—it also means that we won’t be able to play new games benefitting from their influence.