France plays a disproportionate role in the global game industry. It is the second largest producer of video games in the world, and the road is paved with strange little adventure games. Before the industry went global, even before AAA games really existed, French developers were creating quirky, sexy political games that reflected their own reality.
These include games like The Woman Who Couldn’t Support Computers, from China Lanzmann. La Femma is a text-based game whose interface is designed to resemble the first French Calvados network.
There you play as a woman in an online chat room meeting various characters who all want to have sex with you, one of them being your own sensitive computer. The writing is excellent. It’s nasty and uncomfortable to play, but it’s also quite funny. The thirsty and exaggerated reactions of the characters made me laugh constantly. Early on, if you tell the computer you’re blonde, it reacts with the text equivalent of Pepé le Pew seeing that dang cat.
Wife is a branching story that leads to six endings, all of which are void. The game was based on Lanzmann’s own experience in moderating discussions in Calvados discussion boards. And if you say to yourself: “Wow, it’s crazy that one of the first French video games is a woman harassed online, this seems oddly topical ”, well, that was not at all out of place for the French games of the 80s and early 90s!
Of course you had your racing games, your fake Donkey Kongs, and your chess sims. But there were also a surprising number of developers who used games to explore their issues with the world around them.
Some of the main culprits here were Froggy Software, a company founded by Jean-Louis Le Breton and Fabrice Gille. In the same way Wife, they released a game called Blues Spiel, which satirized the attempts of the Parisian mayor of the right Jacques Chirac to privatize the Parisian water system. At the other end of the political spectrum, they published The Berlin Wall will blow up – the berlin wall will explode – a game where you try to stop a gay leftist terrorist from blowing up the berlin wall, which seems to be the plot of the next far cry game.
Le Breton and Gille were both “sixty-eighters” – participants in the protests of May 1968 that nearly tore the country apart. May 68 was to protest against capitalism, consumerism and US imperialism. According to Filip Jankowski, specialist in video games, Le Breton and Gille have brought this rebellious energy to Froggy Software, developing and publishing games that have given the middle finger the status quo.
Arcade and action games have always taken center stage in the United States, but France has built a reputation for creating… “weird games”. Or at least they were weird to non-French people the same way those sexy Orangina ads were. Instead of fantastic, action-oriented titles, the developers explored France’s difficult history and its depressing present.
Perhaps the most revolutionary of these games is that of Muriel Tramis. Tramis was a programmer working on military drones for Aerospatiale, but in 1986 she decided to give up and make games. Tramis landed at Coktel Vision, where she was given carte blanche. She made educational games, like The math boss. She did a classic puzzle-adventure series called Gobelins. She did erotica, like Emmanuelle and Fascination, and in the 90s she experimented with GMFs as Urban Runner.
But the two games she’s perhaps best known for are Méwilo and Freedom. Méwilo is an adventure game set in the homeland of Tramis, Martinique, and co-written with the author of Créolité Patrick Chamoiseau. The game stars a paranormal psychologist in 1902, investigating a city literally haunted by French imperialism. But this is only a pretext for living “economic, political and religious life” in Saint-Pierre. The game won Tramis a silver medal from the Ministry of Culture in 1988.
His follow-up project was Liberty: Rebels in the Dark, a strategy game in which you play as a slave in Martinique organizing a rebellion against the slave owners. It’s bloody and violent, but also complex: Much of the strategy is just trying to get people to join you, despite the risks to their lives and the lives of their families.
This counter-cultural moment of the French gaming industry has still not been able to survive the growth of the industry and the black hole of capitalism. As the industry matured in the 90s, consoles and action games pushed PCs and adventure games to the fringes.
Coktel Vision, where Muriel Tramis did much of her work, merged with Vivendi in 2003, and Tramis discovered that she just didn’t like the new corporate culture – she had less creative freedom. Today, she runs her own company, Avantilles, where she creates 3D software.
This little story is quite revealing of how game editing as a whole has gone. Businesses get bigger, make games for a bigger audience – and when you appeal to a larger audience, everything gets watered down. In the case of French developers (and all developers, let’s face it), “large” has come to mean a base of English-speaking players. Many games from European developers will have a large English-speaking majority, and above all, a majority American public. The games are made to satisfy us.
Massive publishers like Ubisoft may be dominating the industry these days, but there are still independent French developers making their own quirky, sexy political games that reflect their own reality, just like the writers of the ’80s. ‘have done in the past. Games like Havre and Dordogne now carry the torch.
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