Iris Ophelia's ongoing review of gaming and virtual world style
If you have an open-mind and an appreciation for sci-fi love stories, terse conversations, and smokey cafés, have I got the game for you this week. In case the world of Proteus wasn't quite interactive (or visually realistic) enough for your tastes, you may want to take a look at Bientôt l'été from Tales of Tales, another artistic game experience for both Windows and OS X (with a free browser-based demo) that's received a lot of buzz since its release a few weeks ago. If you're unfamiliar, Bientôt l'été (Bee-ehn-toe lay-tay) is French for "it's nearly summer", and while the game features lots of atmospheric French voice acting, the text is all available in multiple languages.
In some ways it reminds me a bit of the multiplayer aspect of Journey, another incredibly evocative and abstract game. Even though the games themselves are quite different, both present you with deceptively simple exploration and blinding visuals at first, but it becomes more about how it makes you feel and how it makes you interact indirectly with your partner on the other end--who is a real person, somewhere, playing the game just like you.
For now, let's start at the beginning:
The introduction makes it rather clear that this game is not just about a surreal French seashore as most of the screenshots might imply. There's something else going on. You can read the full premise on the game's website, but in brief you are either a man or a woman living an apparently lonely life on an orbital station and using a sort of holodeck-like device that simulates a beach and a café inspired by the work of French (sorry, Earth) novelist Marguerite Duras. The device is able to pair you up with other users through an intergalactic network (space internet, get it?) or, if no other user is found, a "virtual antagonist"... All of which should tell you that this isn't going to be a running-on-the-beach-hand-in-hand kind of love story.
Male or female, the beach is not a shared space. The beach (or at least this segment of it) is yours alone to explore. You're there to collect phrases (taken from Duras' writing) that wash up in the waves as well as examine apparitions that appear one at a time and give you fresh chess pieces (which I'll explain shortly.) There are two buttons to close your eyes and one button to run (which also closes your eyes), revealing a dark world of traditional cyber-effects around you. When you open your eyes again you'll see the sky darken, and massive planets and moons begin to pass around you.
Closing your eyes to reveal the virtual underpinnings of the world is how you interact with most objects, including the door to the ever-changing cafe.
Bear with me on this for a moment (as if you haven't already been doing that): Once you have enough words picked up from the surf you enter the café and sit down to wait for a partner to join you. Sometimes this is immediate and sometimes it can take awhile, depending on who else is playing the game, but at any point you can opt for a virtual partner instead.
Regardless of who you're paired with, they appear almost ghost-like, with ghost chess pieces and a ghost wine glass alongside yours. You're meeting there to play chess. Sort of.
This is, in my opinion, where the game gets very interesting. You and your partner take turns having a conversation through your chess pieces, using the phrases and the pawns you've picked up on the beach so far. You can be as random or as logical, and as loving or as threatening as you want to be, and there are as many heartbreaking phrases as there are romantic ones.
However hesitation, uncertainty, and distraction play as much of a role in these conversational chess games as they do in reality. You can't make eye contact, so you're forever focused down towards the table like all the most awkward dates. You can spend a turn by drinking your wine, dropping your chess piece to the side, changing the music, or smoking (which will fill the café up with opaque white smoke quickly if you're both puffing anxiously.) And of course, if you take too long to respond your partner may get bored and leave you there. The resulting experience is unique; at times it's tense and you can feel they're mad at you, or perhaps you become mad at them, or maybe it's just the weight of an awkward silence filled by constant drinking when you run out of things to say. There is even a gun in the game that, when found, can be placed on the table to send a very direct message to your partner.
There's a kind of pressure to respond to the person on the other end, even when you run out of incongruous dialogue and the only way to do continue interacting is to change the song or light a fresh cigarette. Then there's the idea of conversation between lovers as a game of chess (where your number of pieces is determined by your own external experiences), which places you in a competition that has no obvious rules or strategy, and no win condition. It all contributes to a very interesting, unsettling, and extremely evocative mood that seems faithful to the games inspiration.
When you feel that you've finished, you can return to the beach where you'll find the exterior of the cafe has changed. More words and apparitions/chess pieces wait for you in the sand, as though your character is out there to clear their head for a moment before rejoining the conversation.
Ifyou're patient with it, Bientôt l'été manages to make your feel a lot of things that I don't think many other games could. That kind of awkward conversation, the fear of disappointing someone in a very specific way, a pressure to put forward your most interesting face all for someone you're not even really in the room with... It does everything it can to push you out of the comfort zone of communicating with someone online and while it's definitely not an experience that everyone will be into, I'm glad that it's out there for those who are.
If I've managed to pique your curiosity at all, you can test out the café section of the game in your browser for free here or buy the game on Tales of Tales' website (or on Steam.) If you want more, I also highly recommend Tales of Tales' The Graveyard, a much more solitary but no less atmospheric experience.
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Iris Ophelia (@bleatingheart, Janine Hawkins IRL) has been featured in the New York Times and has spoken about SL-based design at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan and with pop culture/fashion maven Johanna Blakley.