(Tale of Tales; US: 12 Dec 2012)
The start screen of Bientôt l’été explains, “This is not a game to be won. Play for Experience. Walk and look. There is no goal. There is no story. Do not think. Do not want. Just be.”
If this sounds pretentious, well, this is another title from Michaël Samyn and Auriea Harvey (best known, perhaps, for their work on the indie darling of a few years past, The Path), which is grounded on Samyn and Harvey’s conception of the digital experience of a “notgame”.
Much like The Path or Fatale, this is a “game” that is about walking and looking, one about experiencing an environment and coming to understand it by observing it and learning its rules. Indeed, while Bientôt l’été might accurately be described as a “notgame”, since it does seem to lack a goal in the conventional sense, it still is a system, a world that is bound by rules that the player discovers as they go—even if what those rules suggest is an undermining of what gamers normally think of as the appropriate definition of games, rules, and challenge.
Bientôt l’été‘s challenge is derived not from the execution of good play but from playing around with its world to see what things do, how they relate, and ultimately what meaning can be made from them.
Bientôt l’été means “it is nearly summer”, and its world contains a man and a woman who will meet and play a game of chess and explore and discuss their relationship with one another over wine and cigarettes. The game is inspired by the films of Marguerite Duras, and indeed its slow pacing and dialogue, which merely alludes to a story underlying the relationship being enacted, but is never explicit in its exposition of it, does give the game the moody feel of French New Wave cinema.
While a game exists as the central core of the experience—the game of chess—interestingly that most traditional of games is used in Bientôt l’été to reconsider what games are really all about and, perhaps, what their goals really are, which may have more to do with what goes on around them than with the pieces themselves, which merely represent an abstract conflict. Instead, even in its most obtuse moments, Bientôt l’été wants to explore less abstract, more emotionally palpable conflict -– a conflict that may be at the heart of all “togetherness”.
Bientôt l’été is “played” by taking on the role of either the man or the woman and exploring the beach where words and phrases emerge to be stored for later use in “the game”. Additionally, apparitions can be located by closing one’s eyes while on the beach, which also provide a chess piece to, again, be used later in the game that will take place in the cafe.
The conflict that then ensues can be shared with a second player, who will sit across from the player and will take on the role of the player’s gender opposite. The two will “play” chess, but the movement of the pieces on the board determine the nature of the conversation between the two rather than allow for the typical advance and retreat of a “real” chess game. In essence, the players participate in the construction of a conversation, using the pieces, which represent the collected phrases that “came to mind” while walking the sand, as props in this conflicted creation of meaningful dialogue.
Much as an actual game of chess draws players of like minds and interests together to ironically battle and attempt to destroy one another, the conversations that emerge from this play are clearly both an effort to bond with another person and to destroy an opponent. The game becomes about the meta-game of conflict, communion, and relationships, as chess dissolves into a game with conceivably much higher stakes.
The game’s tone, mood, and imagery are as interesting as Samyn and Harvey’s other efforts. However, its pacing makes the game difficult to spend an extended period of time with. Because there is constant repetition, seeking a new chess piece on the barren beach along with words to later say in the cafe, then returning over and over again to play and replay this conversational chess can be exhausting. Of course, a kind of exhaustion may be exactly the effect that the game intends, as it fits well with the game’s themes and moods. It can also feel relatively meaningless, as that promise of “no goal” makes it unclear why the player should persist in slow walks across the same landscape and slowly developed conversations across a chess board. That being said, the nature of the final “piece” in the game when it is finally reached is surprising (or at least it was to me), and while still never explicitly explained, changes one’s perspective on the nature of what Bientôt l’été is attempting to convey about our relationships in a provocative way.
This “notgame” is definitely not for everyone, but fans of the studio and anyone else who is up for a challenge more defined by the material explored and its implications than by the strategy and tactics of a “mere” video game may find Bientôt l’été‘s tone and handling of its themes rather mesmerizing (which it certainly is at times) and worthy of its extended and sometimes exhausting explorations.