Digital Media & VideogamesSocial Interaction & Networks

Tale of Tales - The Endless Forest (2005 - present)

Concept art by Lina Kusaite
Concept art by Lina Kusaite

This art­icle is part one of an ongo­ing fea­ture on the digital media art of Bel­gian stu­dio Tale of Tales, run by Aur­iea Har­vey and Michaël Samyn. The dis­cus­sion of these works, apart from show­cas­ing their intrinsic mer­its, will serve as a spring­board for brief thoughts on the rela­tion­ship between digital media, games, art, and nar­rat­ive.

First released in 2005, The End­less Forest is a “mul­ti­player online game” and “social screensaver” developed by Flem­ish stu­dio Tale of Tales. It was ori­gin­ally com­mis­sioned by the Musee d’Art Mod­erne Grand-Duc Jean in Lux­em­burg in 2003, and has passed through vari­ous stages of devel­op­ment since its ori­ginal incep­tion. Ver­sion 3.3 was released in Novem­ber 2009 and presents only the latest of these devel­op­ments: the addi­tion of a new loc­a­tion in the forest.

A ‘fawn’ in The End­less Forest

The premise of the pro­gram is rel­at­ively simple: you ‘play’ or are rep­res­en­ted by a deer avatar in a vast forest that is inhab­ited by other deer, which in the online ver­sion are all con­trolled by other people. There is noth­ing to achieve or win as such, but there are vari­ous land­marks and nat­ural phe­nom­ena to inter­act with, and there are numer­ous pos­sib­il­it­ies to inter­act with other deer. Since the 2006 ver­sion, new play­ers start out as a ‘fawn’ or young deer in which form they will remain for a month of play­ing. There­after, the deer avatar will have grown up into a stag.

The ability to ROFL in The Endless Forest is quite convenient
The abil­ity to ROFL in The End­less Forest is quite con­veni­ent

The basic options of com­mu­nic­a­tion are con­strained to using ges­tures, move­ments and calls as a sort of non­verbal lan­guage. The fact that the play­ers are forced to inter­pret these com­mu­nic­a­tion acts without being able to resort to writ­ing - there is no chat func­tion in the game - poses an inter­est­ing chal­lenge. Among adult deer, lan­guage con­ven­tions have arisen, prompt­ing some play­ers to write rudi­ment­ary dic­tion­ar­ies of the mean­ings they con­vey in-game with the vari­ous deer ges­tures (see this blog post, for example). Fawns or new play­ers how­ever, unless they search the TEF com­munity for guidelines ‘how to do it prop­erly’, are forced to learn the lan­guage by obser­va­tion and mim­ick­ing the lan­guage acts of other deer. In this way, The End­less Forest provides a fas­cin­at­ing scope on how lan­guage might be learned by anim­als (includ­ing humans) in the real world.

These purely com­mu­nic­at­ory acts are sup­ple­men­ted by what is known as forest magic. By inter­act­ing with dif­fer­ent loc­a­tions or objects in the forest, a deer can trans­form its own appear­ance tem­por­ar­ily, or more import­antly, trans­fer the cos­metic change to another deer per­man­ently. In this way, by gift­ing each other dif­fer­ent appear­ance options (dec­or­ated antlers, masks, skin pat­terns, etc.), deer can cus­tom­ise their appear­ance as they see fit, con­struct­ing a unique iden­tity within the forest com­munity, apart from that already cre­ated by name and beha­viour.

The forest itself is not only end­less, in the sense that it is a looped in two dimen­sions, much like the earth, but it is also ever­chan­ging. Since the ori­ginal ver­sion of the pro­gram, new inter­act­ive loc­a­tions and types of ter­rain have been added to the forest in stages, each coin­cid­ing with the present­a­tion of the game on art exhib­i­tions and the like. The net res­ult is that there are now seven dif­fer­ent loc­a­tions in the forest to inter­act with, includ­ing a grave­yard based on the Ename ruin, a huge hol­low tree to rest in, and a magical pond which allows deer to shed their forest magics and start afresh.

Alto­gether, this cre­ates a small world in which there is no goal, no viol­ence, or even com­pet­i­tion, which sets The End­less Forest apart from the major­ity of massively mul­ti­player online games. Like a num­ber of later Tale of Tales pro­grams, it can be debated whether it is a game at all, since there are no hard and fast rules apart from those imposed by the pro­gram envir­on­ment, and no ways to fail or suc­ceed. Instead, enjoy­ment of the forest is purely depend­ent on dis­cov­ery and, most import­antly, inter­ac­tion with other deer. Per­haps it would be bet­ter to say that The End­less Forest’s game-like aspects lie in the fluid social con­ven­tions that are cre­ated by its play­ers, apart from the fact that all play­ers enter a game-like realm by trans­port­ing them­selves into this par­tic­u­lar vir­tual world, with its own bound­ar­ies and phys­ical laws.

Two deer playing on the set of boulders that has become known as The Playground
Two deer play­ing on the set of boulders that has become known as ‘The Play­ground’

The social aspect becomes clear gradu­ally as one notices deer run­ning around together, shar­ing forest magic, play­ing on big boulders, and simply hav­ing fun. It is the essence of The End­less Forest, and it lives most strongly in the hard­core TEF com­munity. The reg­u­lar play­ers - a rel­at­ively large pro­por­tion of which are young women and girls - gather there to post blogs, deer descrip­tions, screen­shots, fan art, diar­ies, and just gen­eral chitchat. As in many MMO games, the lines between in-game and real life social activ­ity are blurred as play­ers role­play their deer out­side the con­fines of the pro­gram as well, on the afore­men­tioned com­munity web­site. At the same time, there are lively dis­cus­sions on the devel­op­ment forum about game design ideas, the nature of the forest, and future devel­op­ment of the pro­gram.

A TEF ‘plushie’, a hand­made rendi­tion in tex­tile of one of the play­ers’ deer

Another area where the social net­work in and around The End­less Forest shines is that of fun­drais­ing. The game has always been free to play, its devel­op­ment being fun­ded by art grants and par­ti­cip­a­tion in vari­ous exhib­i­tions and fest­ivals. The host­ing and con­tin­ued devel­op­ment of the forest cost money, of course, and enthu­si­astic play­ers have devised ways of rais­ing money that show a high level of engage­ment. Many play­ers make forest-inspired art­work and crafts, and the earn­ings of many of these items go towards the devel­op­ment of the game. Recent times have seen many nice ini­ti­at­ives such as little deer pup­pets, jew­ellery and crafts, and most prom­in­ently the 2009 and 2010 fan art cal­en­dars that have sprung from the TEF fan­club on devi­antart. Apart from this, Tale of Tales have facil­it­ated a PayPal dona­tion pro­gram the allows play­ers to vol­un­tar­ily donate on a one-time or monthly basis.

In all, The End­less Forest is a suc­cess­ful endeav­our which provides a lot of fun for its play­ers, and also serves as a back­drop for a much lar­ger circle of social activ­ity that sur­rounds its basic game struc­ture. It has been cri­ti­cised by some people in the online games press pre­cisely because it lacks the com­pet­it­ive­ness, clear-cut goals, and even viol­ence that is part and par­cel of most digital (and other) games. How­ever, this view fails to take into account the charm the game holds for its cur­rent audi­ence, not to men­tion the more benign social inter­ac­tion that is becom­ing more and more import­ant today as digital media expand its audi­ence to include a lar­ger spec­trum of the pop­u­la­tion. It is a niche game, to be sure, if we may call it a game at all - a point that we will return to in dis­cuss­ing the later Tale of Tales titles and other top­ics - but it provides a calm and magical altern­at­ive, albeit just as escap­ist, to many MMO shoot­ing and ‘role­play­ing’ games out there.

Images cour­tesy of Tale of Tales and the respect­ive artists.

[1st ver­sion pub­lished 14/dec/2009 on Even­ing of Light] [2nd ver­sion slightly adap­ted for Sub Specie on 19/mar/2010]


If you ever see a deer with this pictonym around, its me! Though he may not have quite the same coat by that time...
If you ever see a deer with this pic­tonym around, it’s me! Though he may not have quite the same coat by that time…