The Game: Bientôt l’été (2012)
Developer: Tale of Tales (Official Site)
Publisher: Tale of Tales
The Premise: Ah, ze depths of space, zey are so lonely, no? Hope in zis pod, so you may communicate with…your lover. Or more likely, a stranger on ze internet.
Is It Any Good?: Bientôt l’été was made with videogame technology but without much concern for the traditions and conventions of videogames. So if that is what you are looking for, know yourself, and look elsewhere.
But I assure you that Bientôt l’été was created with the best intentions and in all honesty…This honesty has lead us away from caring much about our audience and towards a further thematic and formal exploration. That was a choice that seemed appropriate for this project. In future projects, we may navigate in the other direction. Both have their merits.
That’s an excerpt from a statement made by Michael Samyn, designer of the “video game” Bientôt l’été on the Steam Community forums. That, paired with the unusual title (“Soon the Summer” if Google Translate is to be trusted) is what initially drew me to a title whose synopsis reads like the back of a Harlequin novel:
Bientôt l’été is a videogame for two players. Two players who pretend to be lovers. They pretend to be lovers separated from each other by lightyears of deep space. They have lonely walks along the shore of a simulated ocean, thinking wistful thoughts of each other. Thoughts from ancient Earth literature by Marguerite Duras.
The empty beach, the strong wind, the gentle music and a small colony of electric seagulls are their only companions. Yet their heart is full and their mind confused. Walk along the shore, until they meet the emptiness.
Having actually played the game I can say that thankfully it avoids the sort of calculated saccharine approach you might expect from an intergalactic yearning simulator, and Mr. Samyn does seem to approach the game with an honest and forthright artistic vision. Nor is the execution so overwrought and ridiculous as to fall into the same well-meaning but ultimately comical category as something like The Room. Still, even though the intent is genuine and the results competent, as an artistic statement Bientôt l’été is limited at best, trite at worst.
The game (I’ll refer to it as such for convenience’s sake) is broken into two distinct components. The first is the aforementioned beach walking. After choosing a male or female avatar, you appear on a vast expanse of white beach. Efforts to immediately drown yourself prove futile, so instead you wander up and down the shore. Bits of text will appear in front of you as you walk. There’s a group of badly animated seagulls hanging around, that will sometimes fly off, clipping through the water and your character. There’s the occasional whiff of plaintive music to accompany the sounds of the ocean, and if you walk far enough the sky will give way to a grid revealing planets and stars. You’ll come to a bench, where you can sit and have the day/night cycle rotate by in seconds. It’s like the Holodeck got stuck on the ennui setting, and all of it is rendered in a realistic but minimalist fashion.
At first blush the aesthetic is impressive, but the mediocre animations on the birds and water detract from the realistic look. I suppose you could argue that’s an intentional affectation to highlight the fact that this is all some sort of meta-fictional construct the avatar, and by extension, the player are inhabiting, but even for a shoddy simulacrum it’s a shoddy simulacrum. If the point is to engender feelings of loneliness and isolation, and thus encourage self-reflection and a desire for human contact, reminding the player every few seconds that things don’t quite look right would seem counter-productive and distracting.
Also, while there are moments of beauty, the game’s interactivity adds nothing to the experience. The aesthetic is so minimalist as to render the player redundant, as everything this game has to offer can be experienced by watching a gameplay video on Youtube. A game like Dear Esther, which offers similarly minimalist gameplay, succeeds because it creates a world filled with detail and nuance that you want to explore at your own pace, in your own fashion. It’s a subtle distinction, but the nature of Esther’s visual design makes the walking and looking engaging, while in Bientôt l’été its simply mechanical, like cranking the handle on a projector. It’s not a matter of play, as neither game has any sort of traditional game structure, but rather of the mechanics engaging the player as part of the experience rather than simply a detached observer who happens to be pressing some keys.
Of course beachcombing is only half of the Bientôt l’été experience. The other part involves your distant lover, and is both the more interesting and the more infuriating of the two mechanics. By entering a building on the beach (which takes various forms at different times) you become engaged in a one on one conversation with another player, or in my case, the game’s AI. Part of the reason this didn’t get a standard review is that despite multiple attempts, I was never able to connect with another human player. I’ve seen similar complaints on the Steam forums, but whether the problem is technical or simply a lack of active players is unclear. Regardless, the actual mechanics of the conversation are identical either way.
You’re presented with a top down view of a chessboard, a pack of cigarettes, and a glass. Players take turns interacting, either by placing a chess piece on the board to generate a pre-set phrase, clicking the cigarettes to emit a plume of smoke, or clicking on the glass to “drink” wine. Walking on the beach you’ll occasionally find objects that you can click on for additional chess pieces and the dialogue is limited to what you’ve encountered while walking along the shore, so in theory conversations can grow longer and more complex as you play more of the game. In practice I’m not sure how much sustained interaction you’ll get from such gems as “I wish you were dead,” “We hear nothing,” “Maybe I will not manage” and “A glass of wine.” It’s like Les Deux Magots mad-libs, and again I can’t help but wonder if this is supposed to be some sort of statement on the nature of indirect communication. If so, bravo I suppose for creating a system as devoid of meaning, substance and context as any 3 AM drunken text.
As a video game or as an experimental interactive art object, I can’t help but feel that Bientôt l’été is ultimately lacking. I simply had no desire to interact with the game for more than an hour or so, and even that was mainly out of a sense of semi-professional obligation rather than any sort of deep hooks on its part. Maybe it’s all building to some grand revelatory moment, but if so that point is beyond the game’s ability to sustain my interest. There’s a degree of merit to Bientôt l’été as a thoughtful novelty, but the moment to moment experience is so slight and underwhelming that it’s hard to justify it as a commercial product.
Bonus Points: Apparently the film work of Marguerite Duras was the major inspiration for this game. I have no idea if that’s a good or a bad thing.
M0AR LIKE THIS PLZ: Dear Esther, The Graveyard, Uru: Ages Beyond Myst, Walking on an Actual Beach, AIM
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