Dean Cleans Off His Steam List - Bientôt l'été
Most of this blog's pageviews still come from my Facebook friends, so I'll admit taking some modest pride in seeing "Recommended by 10 of 11 users" where I reposted my review of Proteus to another gaming site. Other people's opinions of that artsy game usually fall into two camps - either they think it was really beautiful and deep and meaningful and advanced the artform of gaming, or they were all-caps screaming about how it wasn't really a game and how could you charge ten bucks for this not-a-game on a game store. The gist of my review was that it was a game, but it wasn't an interesting one. And now I get to justify that same sentiment for another artsy game.
When Bientôt l'été opens, I'm asked to unfreeze a male or female avatar from a cryogenic pod. I choose the male, and I'm now facing a man fully clothed in baggy white fabric, the pants of which are riding up all the way into his stomach. He stands on a shoreline watching the waves roll in, and words roll up the screen. "I have come." "I saw you that morning on the beach." "I desire you a lot." "Did you know I would come?" "Don't look, look at me." I stand here for several minutes before figuring out that I'm not watching an opening cutscene and that I'm free to go somewhere.
I turn The Sheik of Wedgies to walk down the shore as more romantic one-liners appear. I reach a park bench and sit down, causing time to pass quickly while I watch planets and clouds race overhead. I stand up and continue walking, and I hit a wall of static. A ghost of a woman watches me from the other side of the wall, but I can't touch her or greet her. I walk up the beach looking for a way around and reach a dead end.
Finding no way around the wall, I trudge slowly back to where I began and come to a white two-story manor. I close my eyes and open the door. Inside I find a chess table with a pack of cigarettes, glass of wine, and a text block reading, "Looking for partner…" I find no online partner, so I leave and switch to the female avatar. She doesn't find one, either. I press the "simulation" button instead, and a ghost of the opposite sex sits across from me.
I take a chesspiece from a drawer and place it on the table, causing one of the shoreline love phrases to appear. The ghost does the same. Using the pieces, we start a conversation.
Me: (Puffs a cigarette.)
Me: "I know."
Me: (Takes her chesspiece off the table, knocking his over.)
Him: "I am screaming with you."
Me: (Opens the menu and changes the music, which is distant and static.)
Him: "I think about you a lot seeing you again."
Me: "I do not love you when I am silent in a certain fashion."
Me: (Leaves the room.)
I walk back outside and find a pile of coal. I stare at the pile for a moment. It vanishes, leaving a chesspiece behind. I walk along the shore again, and new phrases appear. When I go back to the chess table, I now have two pieces I can place on the table, and my new shoreline phrases appear as conversation options. And I hope that you do not mind spoilers, dear reader, because I have just given you the entire game.
I don't want to write the same discontented review that I gave for Proteus. I don't want to act like there's no room for experimentation in the gaming art form, and I know some people enjoy meditating on these empty worlds. But the game is asking me to draw an experience from the way I set chess pieces down next to other pieces, or the speed that I walk along a seashore, or the depths of staring at a virtual cherry tree in bloom. It's meaningful because it's slow and thoughtful, right? You could also search for videos of pretty sunsets on YouTube, and you could press the pause/play button every time you wanted to slow the video down and appreciate the scenery. Click on any videos you want! Mute the volume sometimes! That would be entirely interactive!
The opening screen of Bientôt l'été tells you that, "There is no goal. There is no story." Well, no, holstein manure. A construction pad and a pack of Crayola markers has no goal and story. When your game only gives me a few things to interact with and they all involve distantly stewing over a platonic love that no one can have, then there's a pretty clear goal and story. The goal is to ponder the elements of life and love and create your own French existentialist piece from it. Don't act like I could reach into this toybox of angst and pull out joy and happiness if that's just what I really, really wanted from it.
I imagine there's some argument to be made that I just don't get it, that I'm just not touched by these things in the same way that the designers were, and how am I to judge someone else's emotions? Even in that case, I want to set up a few rules for what makes a good art game. Number one, there needs to be content. Making a game with all of seven objects in it doesn't feel wistful and pondering - it feels lazy and underdeveloped. Number two, make it interesting. "Queen to knight's pawn, check," doesn't tell you anything about love that you didn't learn in a high school creative writing class. And number three, admit there's a goal. It's great if I get to choose my own path or sandbox my own elements, but you wouldn't hand someone a book and say, "This book has no ending and no plot, and you can read the chapters in any order you want! Make your own meaning!"
...Somebody's probably already written that book, haven't they? And it was probably a deep, spiritual experience.
I'll say that I could probably sit in one spot with this game's distorted sky and creepy music longer than I could with Proteus's flat graphics, but Proteus gave me a few places to explore, while Bientôt l'été is two spots with a tenuous connection. Again, there are probably better places to meditate.