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.
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 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.
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.
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]