Bientôt l’Été, a new title from the independent studio Tale of Tales, is as slight at it is sublime. The "notgame" is indeterminate by design--there are a few things you can accomplish as you walk around the desolate alien beach that makes up the vast bulk of the game’s playable world, but you wouldn’t be doing it wrong if you just walked around and watched the colors of the sky change, either (something they do brilliantly, and often).
At the same time, however, that purposefully vague world is rendered in an incredibly cohesive way, and spending time in it is truly affecting. Bientôt l’Été resonates like an accomplished painting or a good piece of music. And the development blog that Michaël Samyn kept when he was making it--a detailed chronicle of his ambitions for the game and the challenges he encountered while putting it together--is a fascinating, intimate look at a question that lies at the heart of experimental game development: essentially, how to strike the balance between art and fun.
The game, as I mention above, is at once straightforward and elusive. The only instruction you get at the outset is a screen that reads: "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." After that zen-like bit of wisdom and a brief interstellar fly-through, you select your avatar--man or woman--from some sort of futuristic sleep pod. Then you’re transported to a remote beach, populated only by some seagulls, a few benches, a stoic chalet, and some floating fragments of French text. Premonitions occasionally appear, which leave objects for you to collect, and eventually the chalet transforms into other, larger structures. Inside, you can drink wine and play a game of chess.
It’s dreamlike and beautiful, mysterious and melancholic. And those hazy, imprecise things are precisely what Samyn was trying to evoke with the game. Inspired by the enigmatic works of French writer and filmmaker Marguerite Duras, the guiding principle in the game’s development, which took three years, was creating something that was about feeling, not action or interaction. "The focus should be on the emotional experience, on the content of the words and on the atmosphere of the environment," Samyn told me, "not on the tedious activity of collecting items and interacting with an inventory."
The creator subscribes to the "notgames" philosophy, one that encourages developers to think beyond conventional structures and mechanics. But as he was developing Bientôt l’été, he admits, he discovered that was easier said than done. "It’s very easy for me to slide into a game-like mindset as a designer," he said. "To think of systems, of interfaces, of activities. I felt I really needed to force myself to stay focused on the story, on the themes, the emotions."
Even with the game finished, that’s still something he’s grappling with. Samyn says he’s proud that he eventually flushed out the standard item-inventory mechanic that was in place at one point in development, but he still wonders if he was "too conservative" by including item collection at all, something that may not "stand the test of time," he says, as games mature as a medium.
That tension between convention and artistic ambition--one that’s playing out across the industry, from experimental big-budget titles like Heavy Rain to those being released by scores of ambitious indie outfits--fueled the creation of Bientôt l’Été until the end. As Samyn wrote in a blog post from September, "I’m always torn between the desire to do the work I know I should be doing and to make things that are easier to enjoy for the existing audience of said medium."
It’s hard to say how that audience will respond to Bientôt l’Été. For some, it will offer a captivating world ripe for exploration. For others, it will be a curiosity. For others still, it will be as pointless as it is gorgeous. But the finished product gives us something else to consider: Maybe some developers are better off avoiding compromise altogether. The most compelling thing about Bientôt l’Été is undeniably the atmosphere it creates and how thoroughly it immerses you in it. Adding an item inventory--much less any more conventional elements, like explicit objectives or points--would only detract from that experience.
Samyn knows this much is true: The game, as it exists now, is far more enjoyable than it would be had it included "some half baked game structure," as he puts it. "And I think it has made the piece more accessible too," he points out, especially to "an audience unfamiliar with many video game conventions." That last point seems like an important one--that there might be a subset of people out there who don’t consider themselves gamers but who would gladly spend some time on this game’s strange sands. People who find it gorgeous and affecting and for whom that, by itself, is enough.
Perhaps the lesson here for avant-garde game developers is that, sometimes, compromise is futile--and maybe even beside the point. That the audiences for games and "notgames" are fundamentally different, and the latter is just waiting to be established. And that sometimes a walk on a weird alien beach is worthwhile on its own.
You can read more about Bientôt l’Été here, and grab a copy for PC or Mac for $10.
[Hat tip: Creative Applications]