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There’s a certain almost indescribable feeling of awe that can strike a visitor to a cathedral. To the devout, that feeling might be attributed to standing within the presence of the divine. To the non-believer, it could be the heady mixture of history and artistic beauty that cathedrals represent. In either case, it’s a unique sensation—an overwhelming appreciation that only arises within the context of a magnificently constructed, nominally holy place.
Tale of Tales, a studio best known for games like Sunset, The Graveyard, and The Path, has always been ambitious in its attempts to craft interactive art every bit as meaningful as traditional media. With its current project, Cathedral-in-the-Clouds (which is now seeking funding through Kickstarter, the team is aiming higher than ever: they’re trying to capture that awe, in digital form.
Tale of Tales’ Auriea Harvey and Michaël Samyn bill Cathedral as “an ever expanding collection of virtual dioramas depicting scenes created for contemplation.” Set within a “digital cathedral” available through downloadable software, browsers, or virtual reality, these scenes are inspired by the religious art found in real-world Gothic and Renaissance Era cathedrals. Each piece of digital art found in the cathedral, whether it depicts a Christian saint or literary or Biblical figure, is meant to be carefully studied, just like the sculptures and stained glass of real churches. The main difference, though, is that Cathedral’s 3D dioramas are more responsive. Changing sound effects, lighting, and model movement lend a sense of life to images we’re accustomed to seeing remain perfectly still.
Tales of Tales is based in Ghent, Belgium, a city filled with the work of “Old Master” artists whose centuries-old stature provides, as Samyn puts it, “a humility that is highly appropriate in the religious and spiritual context of this project.” The obvious difficulty in creating a digital cathedral meant to evoke feelings as powerful as those that come from visiting real places isn’t lost on Tale of Tales. During this interview, Harvey and Samyn were researching the Gothic cathedrals of France, noting the effects produced by physical space, light, ornamentation, and the building’s geographic location. Samyn points out the emotional resonance of all of these elements of design, but doesn’t identify any one choice as “better” than another. “Each cathedral is different,” he says. “And they can be impressive for different reasons.”
It makes sense, then, that Cathedral has to be made up of a wide array of different 3D dioramas, their subject matter drawn from a variety of Biblical stories, Christian hagiography, and ancient folk tales. In order to bring viewers into the meditative mindset Tale of Tales hopes to provide, the events depicted in the virtual dioramas have to be developed with special attention paid to the interplay between audience and software.
A CONVERSATION WITH ART
“Art is an experience that happens between the work and the spectator,” says Samyn. He points out that, just as every painting in a gallery can’t speak to every person, the dioramas that fill Cathedral-in-the-Clouds can only hope to inspire awe in certain people, at certain times. Citing Dr. Wendy Steiner’s writing on beauty, he describes the concept of artistic appreciation as a two-way exchange between the work and its audience. “We are creating [the dioramas] with [this] in mind. The work will acknowledge, accept, and embrace the emotional response of the spectator, and hopefully intensify it even.”
Rather than simply reproduce real life cathedral art, Samyn says that he and Harvey only “want to create something that feels real. But it doesn’t need to look real.” Tale of Tales’ goal is “to create objects that produce emotional effects” by taking advantage of digital art’s interactivity. The idea is to recognize the potential opportunities made available through the audience’s ability to manipulate a virtual space or object. “Deviating [from] reality actually forms an invitation to the spectator to play along. A picture that ‘leaves nothing to the imagination’ cannot produce the effects we desire.”
In a real cathedral, the visitor’s mood is influenced by many tiny, nearly imperceptible details that seem impossible for an artist to fully capture. The smell of wood and candle smoke, the squeak of an old floorboard. The feeling of magnitude that high, vaulted ceilings impress on a single person. Even the most impressive cathedral, alone, is only a building. It’s the relationship between person and structure that makes exploring one such a memorable—even powerful—experience.
HEART OVER MIND
Tale of Tales’ previous games—titles like Fatale, a shifting tableau telling the story of the Biblical and historical figure of Salome, or The Path, a re-imagining of the Red Riding Hood fable that takes place in a sprawling forest—often felt like virtual museum exhibitions. Each game focuses on a central theme and, through interactivity, allows the player to shift between “browsing” digital points of action and spending periods of time contemplating the work as they explore. The studio’s recent Sunset is one of the most clear examples of this type of design. In it, the player is tasked with cleaning a wealthy man’s apartment—literally performing busywork—while a civil war rages in the streets below. The point of the game is to provide a space in which the player thinks about the story’s themes. The act of cleaning and reorganizing a home creates a structure that facilitates this.
Cathedral, though, is aimed entirely at emphasizing moments of contemplation. “A cathedral is built [to provide a place] for intimate thoughts and feelings,” says Samyn—something that allows the visitor “to feel connected with all the other people who feel the same and have felt the same over the course of many centuries.”
Though they may feature similarly powerful works of art, the explicitly spiritual focus of cathedrals means that they’re quieter spaces than the museums or art galleries whose beauty and history could inspire the same type of contemplation. Or, as Samyn sees the distinction: “Cathedrals [and] churches, mosques, and temples [are generally] different because their primary function is not the collection and display of artwork, but communication with the divine.”
Tale of Tales’ prior games aren’t markedly different from Cathedral in their surface appearance. But, while their purpose is museum-like in their emphasis on intellectual prompting and consideration, the team’s new work is aimed at engaging its audience on a rawer, emotional level—more the heart than the mind.
21st CENTURY SANCTUARY
We often think of technology as alienating. A single person sitting in the glow of a computer monitor is a lonely image. But Tale of Tales’ project refutes this idea. Digital art is a new frontier, and projects like Cathedral-in-the-Clouds are valuable recognitions of the potential inherent to the form. In its merging of the solid physicality of the cathedral and the transience of the digital—the cold utility of technology and the essential humanity of spiritual awe—it shows that computer software can offer experiences as profound as any artistic medium.
Samyn talks about Cathedral working, in part, as a continuation of the lost spirit of the early World Wide Web, when “meeting strangers online felt very similar to meeting your fellow villagers in a dark church.” He hopes that the project will be imbued with some of that same sense of community—something aided by plans to release the software for free—and allow people who have been touched by the work to understand that they’re sharing in the same experience as others. All of it comes back to the same idea: finding ways for the digital world to serve the same, essential purpose as traditional, physical art.
“We think we can use technology to help the spectator achieve the focus and concentration required for contemplation,” says Samyn. “Maybe our sculptures won’t be as well crafted as those by the Old Masters, but they will respond to your presence. They will know that you are looking at them and they will incorporate your reality in theirs and hopefully transport you, for a little while, to a place that will nurture your soul.”
Reid McCarter is a writer and editor based in Toronto. His work has appeared in Kill Screen, Pixels or Death, Paste, VICE, and The Escapist. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER, runs Digital Love Child, and tweets @reidmccarter.
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