Wednesday, 12 December 2012
This critique of Tale of Tales’ Bientôt L'été contains a few minor spoilers.
I stand on the edge of the sea, lost in silent reverie as the sound of waves gently lapping against my feet is punctuated by the frantic cries of seagulls, startled by my presence. Memories sweep over me with the tide, things said, things unsaid, seem to wash up on the sand like driftwood. This is the beach where we met, fell in love, fell apart. Or is it? Is it merely a dream of the past, or perhaps a reconstruction of what has gone before – a desperate attempt to cling onto something that slips away with the sunset?
Bientôt L'été (French for ‘It’s Nearly Summer’ or ‘Almost Summer’) is the latest art/game from Belgian creatives Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey, better known by their nom de jeux, Tale of Tales. It has become impossible for Tale of Tales to do anything that could position them closer to the forefront of the artistic exploration of digital games, since they are already cursed by their success. Not financial success, I should qualify, since it is clear they do not have any greater access to funds now than they did when they began – but critical plaudits, showers of praise from their unique niche audience, and endless recognition of their inventive contributions to the medium. Can there be anybody left who is interested in the relationship between art and videogames who hasn’t heard of Tale of Tales?
If you are one of those people who were satisfied with the big videogame releases this year and are perhaps crying out that 2012 was the best year for games ever, Bientôt L'été is probably a title you should scrupulously avoid, since it will likely lie far outside of your tastes. If, like me, 2012 was the ‘best year for games’ thanks solely to titles such as Dear Esther, Journey and Proteus, then Bientôt L'été is the capstone for a year of art/games that has pushed the thin play concept into remarkable new directions. With this new title, Tale of Tales riff off the idea of online encounter they brilliantly reinvented with The Endless Forest, and which went on to influence Journey. However, whereas Journey offers a powerful pre-designed emotional experience on the back of its one-on-one encounters with other players, the experiment in Bientôt L'été walks purposefully in the opposite direction, asking how much ambiguity can be introduced into a fictional world before it ceases to offer a coherent story. Indeed, the final Beta version began by warning you that there is nothing to do, and there is no story. Respectfully, I must disagree.
The experience begins on the shore of a sandy beach, the kind that stretches as far as the eye can see in all directions. Other than the waves, the horizon, and the seagulls, the only other feature that can be discerned is a single building – the café – which can be entered to switch to the game’s second experience, what I like to call the encounter. But for me personally, Bientôt L'été is at it’s greatest on the shoreline. Using technology radically far behind what the upper market for games is able to muster, this art/game creates an impression of the seashore that is incredibly evocative. As someone who grew up on the coast (albeit a rocky coastline, not the flat and sandy plains of this world) the sense of the ocean is overwhelming present here. It is impressionistic in the way that the paintings associated with that word are, despite its graphical flaws, perhaps because of them. It is not that it looks like the sea – the waves, when far from shore, seem to lack conviction – it is rather that it feels like the sea, and does so more than any other game has achieved before. Layered above this is an incredible score by Walter Hus, which serves throughout to intensify the tone of the emotions being conveyed.
Alas, your enjoyment of the beach is interrupted by the constant appearance of lines of dialogue that overlay the entire field of view. I say ‘unfortunately’, although in fact these sentences are key to what Bientôt L'été achieves as a work of artistry, but it is nonetheless the case that they detract from the depiction of the edge of the ocean in a way that initially feels disappointing. It is only later, when the player is afforded the opportunity to speak the lines that have literally washed ashore, that their incongruous insertion into the world of the game becomes meaningful. That the disjointed, nonsensical, apparently (and actually) random lines of speech only appear at the water’s edge is part of the core sense of what the beach is about, and the fact that all the lines are taken from the novels of Marguerite Duras underlines the game’s theme. It is clear that you – as either Homme or Femme, the two nameless protagonists you may choose between – have been through a life changing experience of love. The lines that wash ashore are returning to you as if from memory as you silently mull what has happened. And although this is very much a love story, it is not a romance, and there is no happily ever after.
When you enter the café, you are match-made with a partner who appears as a shimmering ghost image across the table from you. Armed only with a chess piece, a pack of Gauloises, a wine glass and the radio in the background, you encounter the ghost of your lover. Alas, other players are not very numerous at this time, and almost all of my experiences have been with the AI simulation, although it is abundantly clear that the café encounter is superior when it is with a human, as my one live hook-up confirmed. The players take turns contributing to the scene by moving their chess piece (or pieces, as you eventually acquire a full set) on a board where squares correspond to the lines of dialogue that washed ashore, all spoken – surely it had to be! - en Français, although subtitles for non-French speakers are provided. Thus you get to take a random collection of lines and stitch them together into a dramatic scene, using smoking or drinking to change-up the pacing when speaking nothing will say more than you need. The result is extremely imperfect, yet it is possible to have quite a range of scenes, albeit all in the key of bittersweet, with occasional overtones of abject despair. (Indeed, the ‘end’ of the game, if I may call it that, makes this hint of desperation quite explicit).
Returning to the beach from the encounter, there is always an apparition to be found – a magnolia tree in bloom, an old radio, a boardwalk – and when triggered, a short sequence of quiet reverie occurs, making it clear that you are reminiscing about the past. The music that plays suggest fondness, although some of the apparitions are frankly disturbing (I cannot reconcile the apparition of a dead dog with the theme that plays no matter how hard I try). After each apparition, you receive a new chess piece for use on the board in the encounter. It’s a simple advancement mechanic, one that gives a sense of progress without rising to the overtly desirable level of rewards in most digital games, and the collection of apparitions serves as the closest to exposition the game has to offer. They are not taken from the Duras materials that serve as inspiration, as far as I can tell, certainly not from Moderato Cantabile, which seems to be the stepping point for the near-story of Bientôt L'été, so presumably all the apparitions spring solely from the imagination of the art/game’s creators.
A word about the interface is in order, as an incredibly inventive aspect of the design of Bientôt L'été is the use of closing your eyes. With your eyes closed you not only gain access to the game menus but you also have other capacities. With your eyes open, you can only walk; with them closed, you can rush across the beach and cover great distances (as well as accruing a change in time) without any disconcerting departure from the logic of the fictional world. You can also locate the apparitions effortlessly with your eyes closed, which is just as well as searching for them by walking could take forever. The net result is that closing your eyes becomes a decision to step out of the fictional world and to return to the game as a game, thus both drawing attention to, and suturing the rift between, the game as an artefact and the fictional world it wants you to experience. I will be extremely disappointed if the ideas explored here via the metaphor of closed eyes don’t open the eyes of other game designers to new ways of dealing with the usual problems of the disconnect between a game’s rules and its fiction.
I am a little frustrated by one aspect of the presentation. On the one hand, I want this fictional world to be a dream, as the experience is strongest for me when I approach it in those terms, but alas there is just enough overt science fiction to subvert the oneiric interpretation. The choice of your avatar-doll at the start is given in the form of two cryostasis tubes, and the surreal world of the beach is periodically overwhelmed with visions of other worlds, creating a Proteus-like departure from expectation that is one of the most memorable aspects of the experience of playing. The world is bounded by a barely visible wall that seems unavoidably to offer the idea of this being a holographic projection. The dream interpretation is not impossible to maintain, but the weight of the content seems to draw against it in a manner that I find faintly disappointing, but perhaps only because if there is one thing I am bored of in games it is the same old fantasy and science fiction tropes. Still, even the slightly passé inclusion of science fiction elements could not hope to reduce Bientôt L'été to anything less than pure originality.
Ultimately, the two halves of Tale of Tales latest art/game do not fit together perfectly. I adore my time on the beach, and admire the creativity of the café encounter, but the latter’s imperfections mar it slightly… all too often the line I want is not there, and silence is too gauche a reply. Perhaps I can chalk this up to wabi-sabi, the Japanese aesthetic of transience and imperfection, which Bientôt L'été dances alongside but never entirely with (there is too much symmetry, too much European panache). Perhaps I should see this as the inevitable cost of reaching – almost literally – for the stars. Indeed, the problem with the encounter is not that it doesn’t work, it’s that you cannot help but sense as you are playing it that there is so much more in this direction to be uncovered. This is a pioneering art/game brimming over with inventiveness and originality, but sometimes trailblazers have to walk the most rough-hewn paths.
Bethesda like to say that they are always trying to put more of the uniqueness of tabletop role-playing into their computer RPGs, but there is more of the authentic experience of role-play in Bientôt L'été’s flaws than in all of Bethesda’s perfections. It seems harsh to chastise any art/game for reaching too far, especially when the impressionistic successes of the beach are a masterclass in why representation is more than mere accuracy of depiction, yet, there is surely something further to be found in this vein, something that the café encounter can only gesture towards. I have loved my time in this world, and will continue to do so. Yet I shall also be hoping that it inspires others to take the path less travelled, to walk along the shoreline of possibilities and wonder at what might wash ashore.
You can learn more about Bientôt L'été, released today, at Tale of Tales’ website.
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