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Tale of Tales have done it again: The Observational Immersionist Style

fataleTale of Tales just released a new game or rather “experimental play experience” (a phrase surely concocted to appease those who don’t accept their repurposing of the word game).  Anyhow, it’s called Fatale and it is awesome.

Starting with The Endless Forest, Tale of Tale’s have consistently created environments that exist for the purpose of being looked at and explored.  This may not sound all that unique as most 3D games have environments that are explored, but the difference is that these games exist solely for this purpose.  To them, game environments are not containers for gameplay, but rather are the reason for gameplay.  By only affording the player navigation controls, the player’s mind is free to embark on a journey of induction and introspection.  In their own words, Fatale “offers an experimental play experience that stimulates the imagination and encourages multiple interpretations and personal associations.”

Tale of Tales are not alone in creating games for this purpose.  Games that encourage observation and consideration of their environments can be said to form an art movement that I am referring to as the observational immersionist style.

In the second and main act of Fatale, the player controls an entity that can look upon a courtyard inspired by John Wilde’s 1891 interpretation of the biblical story of Salome.  The story goes like this: a girl, Salome, falls in love with John the Baptist and he rejects her.  She then performs a dance and demands and receives his head as a reward.  The game takes place after these events.  It is night and there is a girl, Salome, devoid of any strong emotion staring out into space with the head on a plate next to her.  Around the scene are a number of objects, candles and two other unmoving characters.  The game does an amazing job of telling the story through what Jenkins calls embedded narrative.  The player then explores the world looking for lit candles and extinguishing their flame.  Mechanically, you could label the game as a mere collect-a-thon as much of the game involves scouring the world for these candles.  But the formal rule system doesn’t account for the strong sense of place created by what the player sees and hears while locating these candles.  The surreal juxtaposition of objects and characters, along with the somewhat unsettling soundscape, is the real take away from this game.

For example, at one point, the character Salome (next to the head…) is revealed to be wearing an iPod Nano and earbuds.  Without being an expert on the history and uses of the story of Salome, I cannot offer any particularly sophisticated interpretation of implications of this, but it did inspire identification with this character from another time and was definitely a reflexive moment.

Salome with an iPod?

Salome with an iPod?

However, this is not to say that the mechanics are of no significance and Fatale doesn’t heavily rely on its formal rule system.  Despite Tale of Tales’ consistent and explicit rejection of the notion that designers should focus on rule systems to encode personal expression (they even go so far as to claim that rules are destructive to art), in practice they seems to champion a particular set of rules – those that serve to emphasize the environment.  By providing novel and slow moving navigation controls, the player’s mind is freed up to notice the somewhat surreal and temporally inconsistent objects that fill the world of Fatale.  Also, once a candle is found, an “ideal” composition is assumed by the camera that gives a clear and aesthetically pleasing perspective on the objects surrounding the candle.  Given this perspective, the player can then extinguish the candle by holding the cursor, represented as smoke, steady over the flame.  Once extinguished, the scene becomes darker and the candle’s flame replaces the smoke and serves as a small “flashlight” to more carefully examine the scene.  Often, this transition point, where the scene gets darker and the player starts to control the flame, is used as an opportunity to highlight certain elements of the scene (e.g. the iPod).  In this way, Tale of Tales uses rules to encourage the observation and consideration of Fatale’s environments.

Judith

Judith

Tale of Tales are certainly not alone is creating games that seek to encourage the observation and reflection about their virtual worlds.  My game Reflect was created with this goal in mind, though attempted keep the player’s attention by adding mechanics about looking and navigation.  Terry Cavanagh’s game Judith, while having a more narrative focus, has gameplay that involves navigating and observing a low fidelity 3D house.  Tracy Fullerton’s The Night Journey seeks to inspire introspection through observation and exploration with a defamiliarized world and control

Osmose

Osmose

scheme.  Char Davies’ virtual reality projects, Osmose and Ephémère, can be said to be created at least partially for this purpose as well.  As a fringe example, Bioshock is praised far more often for how it created such a strong sense of place/space than its FPS gameplay.

The experiences these games provide are constructed through focused observation of the land and sound scapes.  Game rules, rather than being metaphorical, or simulations of real world phenomena are used to emphasize the environment.  Through means of sensory observation these games succeed in creating a strong sense of immersion and here I label them as part of an observational immersionist movement.  I’ve been noticing, designing and trying to speak with people about games like Fatale for a few years now and I’ve struggled with a label to this approach by.  Labeling movements helps for discussion and education but I by no means want to imply that these designers are collaborating or are even intentionally adhering or limited to this particular style.

The observational immersionist approach, as discussed above, seems to be important to what Tale of Tales have been trying to accomplish with their games.  I’m not certain if this phrase will resonate with anyone else, but if nothing else, coming up with it helped me describe what I loved about Fatale.  So, if you haven’t already, support these great artists and buy Fatale now!

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About the author:  Mike Treanor is a game designer and PhD student studying at UC Santa Cruz. His work focuses on how to interpret and express ideas with playable media.

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5 Comments

  1. Posted October 10, 2009 at 6:54 PM | Permalink

    A question I’ve been kicking around a bit is what distinguishes the observational immersionist art games (which you’ve now given us a useable name for) from, say, just really nice-looking, immersive games that also, or even primarily, have some traditional gameplay mechanic? Is it their lack of traditional gameplay mechanics? Or the fact that the immersive environment is there “for” some purpose, rather than just being an immersive environment?

    I like your comment that what’s going on is something like “champion[ing] a particular set of rules – those that serve to emphasize the environment”, which seems like a plausible explanation. From that perspective, Flower might also go in the observational immersionist category, because while it clearly has game mechanics (picking up items, health levels, etc.), they mostly serve just to encourage the player to move around in the immersive and interesting world, which forms the main reason the game’s interesting. (Actually, would you put Flower in the category? Or is it lacking some key element?)

    I’m tentatively thinking it may be more of an aspect of games, and as a category consists of games that have only, or primarily, that aspect. But other games might also have it in significant part. To make what might be a more controversial attribution than Flower, how about Myst? Sure, it’s a puzzle game, but it’s mainly interesting as an immersive exploration of and reflection on a particular imagined environment.

  2. Posted October 11, 2009 at 10:09 AM | Permalink

    Flower’s definitely in there.

    Mark, the distinction you want to cover over is actually quite important: when you strip everything else away *except* environment, you get an experience very different from a rich environment designed specifically to do things in.

  3. Posted October 11, 2009 at 12:43 PM | Permalink

    Yeah, I’d put Flower’s in there. Though, I didn’t seem to maintain an overwhelming memory of that environment and instead remember the physical sensation of “Soaring Over California” (from Disneyland) more than anything.

    As for if this is a attribute rather than category, I want to say category, but I think I am talking about it both ways in the post.

  4. Posted October 11, 2009 at 3:47 PM | Permalink

    I agree an experience primarily about the environment is different from one merely in an environment. What I was getting at was that it seems like more of a continuum to me, to what extent a game focuses the player’s attention on the environment versus whatever gameplay might be embedded in it. I personally experienced Myst as being mostly about the environment, with the puzzles, like the mechanics in Flower and Reflect, mostly there just to provide some prodding for you to interact with / experience the environment. But maybe that was an atypical experience?

  5. Posted October 20, 2009 at 8:03 PM | Permalink

    I’ve never played Flower, and I’ve only played part of Myst, but I agree with the continuum argument here. If course, even with a continuum, you can draw a line and make a category, or even make an explicitly fuzzy category. As someone who only solved a small fraction of the puzzles in Myst, my memories of the game are much more environment- than puzzle-oriented, and I’d say that I enjoyed the game more as an interesting and beautiful environment than as a series of interesting puzzles. But that doesn’t mean that I’d label my experience as “primarily environment-oriented”. The puzzles, which were often frustrating to me, wound up being an important (if not necessarily positive) part of the experience. I guess if I wanted to construct a category of “experiential games”, I wouldn’t put Myst in it, because the experience of the game world can’t really stand on its own as representative of the game. However, I would put it into a wider category of “experience-intensive” games, because the experience of the world does make up a significant part of the experience of the game (as opposed to, say, Pacman). Of course, where to draw the line for this wider category would be another good question. But I think that both the continuum view and the categorical view are somewhat valid and useful for different purposes.