Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn make up the developer duo, Tale of Tales. They’re the duo behind not only Luxuria Superbia, a game exploring sexual play, but also games like The Path, The Graveyard, Fatale, and Bientôt l’été. Their games tend to defy expectations, forcing players out of their comfort zone and into a mindset that confronts difficult issues in surprising ways. One consistent theme that arises again and again in their games is the idea of faith or religion.
When I spoke to them, I found that they were not merely interested in religion, but considered themselves religious, almost by default. Their appreciation for those religious roots results in their prolonged interest in religious subject matter and themes. In fact, toward the end of the interview, they expressed their interest in creating a “big Christian project” that would be “almost a tribute to all this Christian iconography.” According to Auria, “something like that, available for believers and nonbelievers would be kind of an interesting moment of connection.”
“I think there’s too little of that in contemporary art,” adds Michaël. He’s right. I talked to them about the foundations of that artistic conviction, and their own personal spiritual beliefs.
What core beliefs would you say most motivate you?
Michaël Samyn (MS): I think one of the core beliefs that I think Auriea and I share is that everything exists; nothing is impossible. There’s a certain group of people that thinks there is an ultimate explanation for everything. We actually prefer not to because mystery is so much more interesting.
Auriea Harvey (AH): Or the impossibility of knowing everything is what intrigues us. It’s not so much that we deny truth, it’s that we don’t want to pin down the world to a single truth. All things can be possible.
MS: It’s sort of arrogant, in a way, for humans to think that they, puny little humans, will ultimately know everything.
Would you distinguish between a person who says “You can know everything,” and a person who says “You can know some things”?
AH: That would depend on what they say they know. (laughs)
MS: Well I would call a person who says you could know some things a realist. Whereas someone who says you can know everything is just arrogant.
Prove it! (laughs) That’s the thing!
Can you give examples of a person who would be that second thing?
MS: No. (laughs)
AH: I really think we sort of end up verging on pataphysics in a way. Beyond metaphysics, you know?
It’s not about making sense of the world, because I guess we think the world makes no sense, and that’s as it should be.
AH: So in connection to believing in everything, we end up seeing the god in all things. In the motion of the gesture in a sculpture, in the color of a painting, in a sunrise itself, one can start to see the god in things without having to explain it, without having to feel like, “Oh this is religion.” It sort of goes beyond that and becomes more primal emotion, which makes you feel connected to all things, I suppose.
MS: I’m a little bit jealous of people who can name that feeling. Like, if you’re really Catholic or really Buddhist or something, then you can really pin that down more. We were just brought up as these modernist atheists or something so for us, this is very difficult.
AH: Whereas we can still feel it, I guess is the thing. And where we come in contact with that is in art, in music, in nature, and in these things that are in and of themselves unknowable I guess, to a certain extent, when looked at in a certain way; when not looked at through a scientific lens. You look at the moon as something poetic and not as a big rock in the sky that’s a certain weight and a certain distance from us…
MS: Although that sounds poetic in a way, a big rock in the sky. (laughs)
AH: Yeah, it’s a ball of fire, it’s in the sky, you know? That’s pretty amazing!
MS: And I find it very encouraging to realize that science cannot explain everything, because that leaves an opening for things that science can’t explain. Because when science explains things, they become so dull. (laughs)
AH: So boring! I mean, do I love you because of chemicals in my brain and pheromones that you emit, or is it something else…
So you wouldn’t call yourselves religious in any way?
AH: Oh we absolutely would call ourselves religious.
MS: Yeah, in a way. We have a fondness for religion, more specifically for Catholic Christianity, which we see a lot of here in Northern Europe. We even go to church once in a while, but not regularly. We don’t do any religious rituals or anything.
AH: It’s hard to put into words, but it’s like… the things that make us feel the closest to the rest of humanity are things like religion and art.
But because we’re not practicing any particular faith, we can find worth in other faiths. But not like “Oh, I’m going to try out Buddhism now,” you know. It’s not like that.
MS: This thing with Christianity specificially is that it’s such a big part of our culture, of the society that we live in, that we grew up in, that we’re comfortable with. We might be interested in Hinduism or Islam, and fascinated by certain aspects of it, but it’s not our own culture. It’s not our own society. And the values of western civilization are fundamentally Christian, even if it’s not religion.
AH: Yeah, but then we find that we have all these conflicts even within that, between Michael and I, because I was raised Protestant and he was raised Catholic. I mean we were both raised like, godless sinners, but he was raised Catholic and I was raised Protestant. I guess what I’m trying to say is, underneath it all, I am Protestant and he is Catholic.
Since I’ve been surrounded by Catholicism in culture so much, I realized what a Protestant I am, and how these two different forms of Christianity are affecting each other. I became so much more aware of history and the whole story of what happened in culture, revolutions, how the United States began. I became interested in all of these things because of this. Realizing how inseparable religion is from culture has been very enlightening. I think being in America, I didn’t really realize that at all.
How do all of these beliefs influence your work?
AH: We made our early work before we were making videogames, our website work, when we were making net-art. We fell in love, and we couldn’t describe the love that we had for one another. So it became “god-love.” We had found the god in everything: the god in us, I find the god in him, he finds the god in me.
We started making these interactive works that were based on the books of the Bible, and we were going to do the entire Bible. We only ended up doing the first five (laughs). We stopped at Deuteronomy, but we really, literally thought we were going to go through the whole thing. We read, and then we created it.
It was sort of like a way of understanding what we had been through. In order for us to be together, it involved a lot of like… drama, in a way. We had to make breaks with our previous lives and come together. It felt like being cast out and thrown into the desert and having to travel. We saw all these parallels, and it was sort of comforting to draw from a grand myth…
MS: Yeah, I mean we started in Exodus, is what you’re saying. You left your home country. And then there’s like Numbers and Leviticus with all the cultural conflict in the way. All the laws that you’re confronted with, and the history…
AH: And then a time of war, and the war in Afghanistan started.
MS: Yeah, exactly! It’s so weird how like, Bush was saying things on TV that sounded very similar to what God was saying in the Bible in Numbers.
AH: It was so ironic.
So anyway, we made interactive works based on these feelings we were having, things that were basically autobiographical. They’re still online although some of them don’t work anymore.
This is a very literal answer to your question: we just immediately were drawn to the Bible as a source of making sense of our own situation.
It seems like you have very specific high-concept ideas that flow directly from your spiritual or general beliefs. Is there an underlying mission or goal that you’re trying to pull off with these, or are these sort of just meditations on various things?
AH: I think the point is to be unafraid, which is very hard to do, even for us these days. But I think if we had a goal in the last ten years it’s that we were unafraid to try things, to go forward with things.
MS: There’s a very general artistic goal: we want to show beauty. We want to give the experience of real, deep beauty to people, sometimes in unexpected places.
We did The Graveyard and we want people to think about how beautiful it is that people get this old and die, but the world still continues. It’s not necessarily a sad thing. There’s beauty in that.
Actually we sort of started playing with another biblical story, the story of Solome, who actually gets John the Baptist beheaded. Then we started thinking, “Well, what if this John the Baptist character feels liberated after his death, and maybe could start looking at Solome in a more generous way.” Whereas before he was always kind of insulting her. Well, maybe afterwards he could say, “Oh, she’s actually kind of pretty.” (laughs) So we started exploring that idea: “Well what would John the Baptist think of Solome after his death?”
AH: But we don’t say what he thinks. We just leave the interpretation open and it creates the possibility for this moment. A lot of people don’t get that, but we don’t feel we need to tell people what to think.
MS: That’s important, I think. You have to do it yourself. That’s the interesting thing about videogames, where it very much is an active way of appreciating the arts.
I’m curious how intentional it is that every game I’ve ever played by you has made me feel uneasy. I’ve played The Path, The Graveyard, Fatale, Vanitas, and Luxuria Suberbia, and every one of them has made me feel uneasy in a totally different way.
AH: Well, we’re trying to make you feel something. Definitely with The Path, we wanted uneasiness. I don’t know how much of that is intentional, actually.
Even in The Path, which is a relatively dark and deep story, it’s still about sort of feeling, “Yes, okay. As a girl growing up you have these weird things go on, and these strange tensions,” but there’s value in that as well. There’s certain beauty in that as well.
Uneasiness is actually good, because it means that you relate the game to your own life, which is very important to us. It’s not about escapism. It’s about the player’s own experiences. We hope that at some point that people do see what we see in it, find that beauty in it, and maybe a sort of comfort, almost, in the discomfort.
Maybe that’s part of our mission: to broaden the spectrum of what humans can accept in their lives, to be open to things that they’re not use to.
When you go to church, what do you get out of it?
AH: For me, I’m going to church in a big cathedral. Its foundations are romanesque. I go there during Easter, Christmas, or randomly. I go there to draw. I go there to sit when there’s no service.
But I talk to Maria. I mean it’s weird, because I just started talking to her. Sometimes I’ll light a candle. I know nothing about Catholicism, hardly. I go to observe. I’m there way more often than Michael probably. And if I go to a service I’m there to observe, to learn, and to understand.
But when we go to other countries, we always go to church together. If there’s a service we’ll sit there in the back and we’ll wait. It’s the atmosphere in these places.
I mean, we’ve always said that games are more like cathedrals than they are like movies. It’s a narrative environment, an environment that immerses you in a story, in a time. It’s a time machine. It’s made over hundreds of years. I mean, I have a lot of respect for this process that it’s been through.
I guess I don’t think about it so much as what I’m in now, but more as a connection to people throughout time. I look at paintings that way too. I just imagine everyone who has stood in front of this before and been inspired by it. I’m connected with them.
The people that are a part of that community, what do they think of your work?
AH: Sometimes people ask us if we are religious at all because they believe we must be. That’s when we sort of roll out with “Yeah, well we are. We believe in everything.” I’m happy that some people can read a lot of spirituality into what we make.
MS: Our work is not massively popular, so I think it’s only going to appeal to certain Christians, and not to all of them.
Yeah, I remember when I first discovered [your work], I think it was around the time of The Path. I started looking into it, and just because of the name of your company, I was like “Are they Christian?” I thought it was a good example of how Christians could do art well.
AH: For a long time, when we were doing the stuff that had the names of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, all this stuff, people would just be like, “What the heck are you doing?” because it was so untrendy, so-to-speak.
MS: Many of our friends are militant atheists.
AH: Yeah, and we were just like “Let’s not be afraid of this. This is our culture too. We can’t deny that part of ourselves.”
MS: I think it’s very important and helpful for Westerners to realize how much of this culture is Christian, and not deny that. You don’t have to be a formal believer to understand that there’s a lot of value in this Christian ideology.
I mean, most of it has been translated into atheist ideology anyway. I mean, humanism is mostly Christian. I find it kind of nice to be able to embrace that, and I’m disgusted by people who are so aggressively atheistic that they have to reject everything, even if it’s only loosely related to the church. I find that disgusting, and I find that to be a kind of denial actually.
AH: I mean, you don’t choose your religion. You’re born into it actually. It’s a part of you because of the environment that you’re in, the world that you’re in, and the people you’re around.
MS: Yeah, and if you grow up in the West at all, you’re a Christian, whether you believe in God or not.
AH: It’s so funny when you stop and think about it, that people would deny that is just wild. So we were just like “Well, we’re not afraid of it.” I mean we may not be practicing Christians, but we’re not afraid to be called Christians or something. That’s not a problem.