After three years of anticipation, Belgian game studio Tale of Tales has released their latest game: Bientôt l'été. ToT's Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey are known for their ground-breaking net art and, more recently, for making games that take us far beyond our stereotypical expectations of the medium: the gory first-person shooter, the colourful puzzle, the Tolkienesque quest. Purveyors of what they call "notgames", the interactive experiences that Tale of Tales creates are mostly devoid of goals or the distinct levelling-up that characterizes most conventional videogames. As soon as Bientôt l'été was fully released, I purchased it without hesitation, but didn't know what to expect – I had avoided their development blog and Tumblr, wanting to keep myself in the dark until I actually got to play it.
I launched the game, and started taking my chosen avatar (a woman) for a walk along the beach. As I walked, lines of text rose from the sand. The first line that confronted me was, "I desire you a lot." That left me a little breathless. This element of being taken by surprise by the immediacy and poignancy of the texts (which are taken from novels by French writer Marguerite Duras) was very gratifying. If you are interested in having a similar experience – something like a series of tiny emotional earthquakes – stop reading, just take my word for it and go buy the game here. If you don't mind a few spoilers, read on.
There are two main scenes to the game: the beach and the café. The beach is a solitary experience wherein you perform normal seaside activities such as walking, running, sitting on a bench, and observing the gulls. All the while, lines on love, desire, and loss from Duras' novels appear before you, which you will remember and use later. Stated this simply, it sounds as though it would be a bit boring, but the combination of the beautiful visuals, elegiac soundtrack, and the emotionally devastating texts make walking the beach in this world as meditative and enjoyable as it is at the actual seaside. As if to highlight the strangeness and difference between the game-world beach and a real one, it becomes clear through visual clues that the entire scene is being generated on a holodeck of sorts. On this literally unreal but realistic-looking beach, where there is not much to do but stroll, Duras' texts, taken from their original narrative context and parcelled out to the player over time, also magnify how unreal the experience of love can be. Each line sends a shiver of recognition, a chance to project a memory of your own, a moment to consider how terrifyingly affecting and incredibly fragile love is.
While wandering the beach, apparitions appear when you close your eyes. By activating an apparition, a chess piece (or perhaps one other surprising object – I won't spoil this) is given to you for use in the game's other setting. The café experience is quite ingenious. You can interact with a simulation, or if you are lucky, someone else is online, also waiting for a partner in the café, and you can play with them. Since there is no free chat in the game, unless you have arranged to meet someone in advance, the most likely situation is that you have no idea who you are connected to. In the café you can drink, smoke, play music on the jukebox, and use your collected chess pieces on the board. You may choose not to play any chess pieces, or to just pick up a piece and knock over one of your partner's pieces. There is no actual game of chess happening, but the pieces and their placement on the board correspond to lines of text that you found on the beach. Placing a piece in a particular square causes your character to speak that line (in French) to your partner. The simulation is really quite good, but playing with a human on the other end is a far superior experience. The interaction with a human player is a lot slower, as people take time to make up their minds what to do, and stranger things can happen: once I interacted with someone who never played a single piece (no matter how dramatic I became in the lines I chose); he only smoked. I have yet to arrange to meet someone I know in the café, but I can readily imagine how charged the situation would become.
This is the basic cycle of the game: walk the beach to see different apparitions, collect more chess pieces and more lines to use in the café; and go to the café to apply the lines in an exchange that might reflect the emotions being evoked by the game. There is no way to win or lose, and no end since the cycle can repeat endlessly. There are only shifts in mood. I was at times elated by the beauty of the sentiments expressed (and even now, after having played through dozens of cycles, I sometimes start it up just for a mood-altering walk on the beach) and, at other times, surprised by how dark it could feel. When meeting that person who refused to interact with me but held me hostage at the table as I hoped for a reaction, I thought of the game as a kind of cyclical hell: a game with no end, but where I might see the end of love. A more auspicious encounter had me marvelling at how much could be said or not said with the few lines I was armed with; how important it is to say something, anything, even if it is just that you would like another glass of wine.
In conjunction with playing this game, I began reading Alain Badiou's latest book, In Praise of Love. In one chapter, the philosopher bemoans the fact that contemporary society seeks to eliminate chance and risk, and uses the example of increasingly sophisticated matching on internet dating sites to make his point. My experience of Bientôt l'été resonated strongly with Badiou's vigorous defence of love and the need to take risks in order for it to happen at all. Risk combined with chance allows for a continuum of sensations from despair to joy: a range deeply felt in any real love affair, and also encountered on Bientôt l'été's virtual beach.
Michelle Kasprzak is a Canadian curator and writer based in Amsterdam. She is a Curator at V2_ Institute for the Unstable Media and the Dutch Electronic Art Festival (DEAF). In 2006 she founded Curating.info, the web's leading resource for curators. She has written critical essays for C Magazine, Volume, Spacing, Mute, and many other media outlets. She is a member of IKT (International Association of Curators of Contemporary Art). She is also Akimblog's European Art + Tech correspondent and can be followed @mkasprzak on Twitter.
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