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We. The Revolution

I should begin by noting that, despite its length, this is far from a complete review of all aspects of Polyslash’s French-Revolution-themed game, We. The Revolution. It is difficult to describe and review concisely as a historical game, and I have only played through the first act, the first 20 days, perhaps some 25 hours with restarts. New systems and mechanics continue to appear.

Not a criticism. Far from it. Ultimately, I am sincerely impressed with WTR. Opinions will vary about the enjoyability of the game (and I encourage readers to read a mainstream games media review when considering playing purely for enjoyment: Anthony Marzano at Destructoid and Robert Purchese at Eurogamer both offer good reviews): is it too linear? are some of the mechanics insufficiently clear and in need of more development? does the quality of voice acting detract too much from the game? What kind of game is it anyway?

Mature Content Warning: The game, in which you play as a revolutionary judge, deals with a number of adult situations, DESCRIBED in the TEXT of the court documents (NOT VISUALLY DEPICTED): rape, murder, sex, and abuse (in terms of language, one court document quotes a witness saying “we  f**ked” to refer to a sexual relationship in a text deposition, and the jury occasionally uses slanders, in text bubbles, like “Austrian b**ch” to refer to Marie Antoinette and others). The game designers clearly intend the player to be uncomfortable with the moral dilemmas of being a judge and handle all these topics seriously, I would argue, seriously and appropriately for the material: the French Revolution unsanitized, like life, had many adult situations, a great deal of rough language, and many moral ambiguitiesWTR Guillotine.PNG. Whether that makes the game appropriate for your intended audience, I will leave to you to decide. One final note: the art style is not realistic, but it does depict a bloody guillotine blade each time a person is sentenced to death. Again, I submit that the designers have handled all this subject matter appropriately; again, I leave it up to readers to decide.

Though not without flaws and certainly taking liberties with the historical record, WTR is an impressive artistic effort to create something new and different in the world of historical games and a game I hope to use in an Interactive History course. Anyone interested in the French Revolution, or games that delve into politics and strategy beyond the battlefield, will find a lot of food for thought here. So will those who want to follow a game-based story of politics, blood, betrayal, and justice. Used as a foil for analysis during a history unit on the French Revolution, the game could be a very powerful addition to the course.

A comprehensive historical review, which I have certainly not achieved here, is difficult for several reasons. First, there is a lot going on with We. The Revolution. Just when I thought I had learned the core gameplay, a new system emerged, and then another … all of it involving a detailed tale of revolutionary intrigue. Second, there was a lot going on in the French Revolution making it a fascinating but challenging topic to study, to teach, and to encapsulate when critiquing a game in the setting. I happen to be very interested in the French Revolution and that knowledge enriched the game considerably. With these caveats in mind, let’s dig in.

(George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media has a fantastic site on the French Revolution, Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite, full of documents, images, and scholarly analysis. Its timeline of the Revolution is thorough but a bit unwieldy. There are a variety of more condensed ones available with a quick search for “French Revolution Timeline”)

The setting of the game is Revolutionary Paris in the period from the initial declaration of a new French National Assembly on June 20th, 1789 to the fall of Maximilien Robespierre, chief architect of the Reign of Terror, in July  1794. The player takes on the fictional persona of Alexis Fidele who has been posted as a judge for the Revolutionary Tribunal in France. At first glance, it would seem designer Polyslash has opted for an every-person player agent (i.e. a fictional character in an actual historical role) in the loosely constructed problem space of a revolutionary judge in the French Revolution. But the chronology in the game and the player’s role are too fluid for that simple categorization. The storming of the Bastille in July of 1789 is referred to in the past tense when the game starts. The earliest identifiable historical event that occurs while playing as Judge Fidele is King Louis and the Royal Family’s attempt to flee France, the so-called Flight to Varennes. That means that the player Fidele begins as a Revolutionary Tribunal judge in 1791. Historically, the Revolutionary Tribunal (note: I am no expert in the French Revolution and went back to check my class lecture notes and the excellent timeline from http://chnm.gmu.edu/revolution/; Please correct me if I am mistaken) was not established until August of 1792. It was then disbanded in November of 1792 only to be reinstated in March 1793, a month and a half after the public execution of King Louis XVI. This second manifestation of the Revolutionary Tribunal is really the one Polyslash wants associated with Fidele, for it is the institution that plays an important role in the Terror, that relatively short, brutal period when Maximilien Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety exercised dictatorial control over the fledgling French Republic. In the span of less than a year, the Revolutionary Tribunal sentenced over 1000 people to death by guillotine execution. So, essentially Fidele is cast as a judge for the Revolutionary Tribunal for a period beginning more than a year before the actual tribunal was established (Prior to June 1791), during the period when there was no Revolutionary Tribunal (November – March 1792-1793; the player Fidele tries and sentences King Louis) and continuing on in this position when a new Revolutionary Tribunal is established. This manifestation of the Tribunal historically had five judges and Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville as prosecutor, who, as it happens, appears as a character in the game. Essentially the game blends together different technical institutions and periods and essentially says to the player, “pretend you are a revolutionary judge during the general period when there were revolutionary judges and courts.” It is an effective setting for the tale of a deeply flawed judge who will hear cases and struggle with political rivals as the Revolution moves toward the Terror, the period when the government, under the leadership of Robespierre, cruelly repressed its citizens in the name of protecting them and their Revolutionary rights. It is not, strictly speaking, a specific historical role throughout, though at times, the periods and trials in the game matches the historical Tribunals activities of 1793 – 1795, 

20190615164601_1.jpgIt is the player’s ultimate job to successfully navigate the politics of the Revolution manifested in the courtroom and elsewhere, and outmaneuver an ascending ladder of rivals, ultimately facing Maximilien Robespierre.

Fig1 WTR Court.jpgOne of the most intriguing things about WTR is its effort to model historical agents engaged in something different from the usual game fare of military strategy, tactics, government, management, and trade. In WTR gameplay centers on trials. The courtroom mechanic is noteworthy because WTR attempts to model things that are much more qualitative than combat generally is: speech and investigation. At the start of each case, the player Fidele, sitting in the judge’s position, faces the accused. In the game Judge Fidele acts as prosecutor, despite the appearance of the historical prosecutor, Fouquier-Tinville, and jury. On the right side of the judge’s desk is a verdict booklet, where Fidele issues his verdict: acquittal, imprisonment, or execution. Next to the verdict booklet is a revolutionary tribunal report where Fidele must correctly answer a series of questions about the case. Ostensibly this document is meant to prove Fidele’s attention to detail and Prosecutor Fouquier-Tinville decides whether the report is sufficiently accurate. In practice this part plays as a check to encourage the player to investigate and read thoroughly: the game is text heavy appropriately by design, and without mechanics such as the Revolutionary Reports, it might be too tempting for some players to rush through the trials without poring over the details, an important part of the game. While this may feel heavy-handed to some players, it is a useful feature for a game that will be discussed and analyzed in a history class.


WTR 2 Coutr Docs.png

To the player’s left are the court documents for the trial: the prosecutor report and any relevant evidence (texts such as incriminating letters). Reading these provide the player with the necessary core facts and allegations of the case. At any point, clicking on the “Unlock Questions” button at the bottom of the report begins the court’s inquiry. The player is then faced with a screen like the one below.

WTR 3 Unlock Questions.pngThere are two circles, on the “Unlock Questions” screen, the inner holding the different types of case information for the current case: evidence, accusation, extenuating circumstances, witnesses, defense, course of events and so on. The outer circle has a series of salient snippets from the court documents. It is up to the player to select one of the salient snippets in the outer circle and match it to one of the information categories in the inner circle. Successfully pairing a case detail to a category of information unlocks one available question that the player judge can ask the defendant; only a limited number of mistakes are allowed (roughly from 2 to 5), before the player is no longer able to unlock questions. So, for example, in the trial of National Guard commander Burel, charged with shooting innocent crowd members, “The crowd’s fervor” belongs to the “Extenuating Circumstances” category and “Order to Load Muskets” does NOT belong to the “Offender’s Personality” category. It’s a matching game based on reading comprehension, which at times can be more difficult than it sounds, and the player will often need to think carefully to unlock all available questions.

Unlocking sufficient questions is important because it is only through these questions that WTR 4 Interrogate.pngjudge Fidele can gather the testimony that will persuade the jury to recommend a verdict. Each question has one of three icons next to it, a guillotine, a free-flying bird, or scales, to indicate whether the question will move the jury closer to condemnation (imprisonment or execution) or to acquittal. Based on the line of questioning the player pursues, the jury will decide which of the three verdicts is appropriate. Accordingly, if the player fares poorly at the mini-game of categorizing case information, they may not have sufficient questions of the kind needed to move the jury one way or another. Ultimately, it is player Fidele’s verdict that decides the fate of the accused. The player Fidele is reminded, however, that going against the jury too frequently will be problematic. Not much of a problem, since the player can often lead the jury quite effectively by pursuing lines of questioning that are more exculpatory or damning in nature.

Since, in practice it is often not too difficult to steer the jury to the verdict the player Fidele desires to give, the real problem lies with the moral murkiness of the cases and verdicts. This is clearly a focus of Polyslash’s treatment, the muck of revolutionary politics. The often-absent-from-home excessively-drinking-and-gambling Fidele is faced not only with moral quandaries but with the political ramifications of his cases.   There are three, and later four, constituencies interested in the verdict in each case: revolutionaries (by which the game seems to mean the liberals of the assembly in the early years of the Revolution), the common people (by which the game seems to mean the radicals and sans-culottes), sometimes Fidele’s family, and eventually aristocrats (somewhat oddly since the aristocratic “party” such as it was consisted of emigres who waited outside of France for a chance to return to power) . Rarely do these constituents agree on an appropriate verdict. Somewhat stereotypically, but not without evidence from the period, the revolutionaries want a moderate punishment and the common people a harsher one. Fidele’s family sometimes has personal loyalties that coincide with revolutionaries or common people. Aristocrats complicate the mix. Hence the dilemma. While Fidele can, assuming the player was successful in unlocking questions, often assign the verdict they want, the more pressing problem is that some constituencies will be upset depending on what the judge decides.

And the opinions of those constituencies matter as I found out by alienating the aristocracy sufficiently and triggering the murder of Fidele and the end of the game. Alienate some constituencies and be removed from office (presumably ending the game). Alienate others … and be murdered. This hints at the volatile rivalries of revolutionary groups in this period. In 1792 – 1974 while Jacobin liberals and Girondin moderates in the assembly struggled through speeches and laws, the sans-culottes (the artisan and laborer class) and the Parisian sections did their own maneuvering at times resulting to violent popular actions to achieve their political agendas. Different groups were dominant different moments, and the rankings could change swiftly, all contributing to a politically dangerous and sensitive position for a judge and politician who hopes to survive.

An early trial in the first act (Day 3 which happens to be the day that the King is reported to have fled, so June 21th 1791, a time when France had no revolutionary tribunal) illustrates the moral dilemma present in many of the trials. Jean Ibert (a fictional character to the best of my knowledge) is on trial. He is a hero of the Bastille, a so-called street urchin who cut the (historical) Governor of the Bastille, De Launay’s head off and put it on a pike. He is accused, with good evidence it must be noted, of raping a 16-year-old. Both the revolutionaries and common people wish the young alleged felon to be acquitted, however, a nod to his status as a hero of the Revolution. Ibert himself speaks freely of having had relations with the victim but denies it was rape. He is arrogant, to say the least, and misogynist, and it is easy to conclude that he is nothing but a bully and a criminal who deserves punishment. The common people want him freed, however, and if Fidele’s reputation with the people is too low based on past court decisions, the player will not be able to deliver a guilty verdict without risking personal disaster. Scenarios like this–where legality, morality, and political practicality often conflict–happen all the time in the game.

WTR 5 Ibert Case.jpg

Indeed the morally murky trials are a great strength of the game insofar as they beg to be discussed and would serve well to provoke discussion about the tensions between different groups during the Revolution (“Would the common people have wanted this kind of verdict?”, “Were the aristocracy and the Revolutionaries on different sides?” “Did this kind of anti-noble rhetoric get passed around by everyday people?”)

Once the game is underway, other components appear, other mini-games in a sense. One is the political intrigue and rivalries game. Essentially, player Fidele is at the bottom of a hierarchy of powerful rival historical figures like the Girondin moderates Marie-Jeanne Roland and her husband Jean-Louis Roland, the Jacobin revolutionaries Jean-Paul Marat & Georges Danton, and at the top, architect of the Terror, Maximilien Robespierre. The political intrigue components consist of making some decisions, interactive-fiction style, and attempting to win over political allies.

WTR Intrigue.png

Allies are gained and rivals persuaded through a persuasion mini-game in two parts. First, the player chooses an approach toward the person they hope to persuade for three separate questions. The questions change with the conversant, but the approaches remain the same: carelessness, humility, aggression, or manipulation. In a preparation phase, the player tries an approach to each line of questioning and the game indicates how successful the approach was.

WTR Persuasion Prep.jpg

Then the player actually selects their approaches, modifying some approaches from the feedback in the preparation stage (e.g. “hmm, aggression was not effective in the first line of questioning so I’ll try a manipulative approach during the actual conversation”)

WTR persuasion.jpg

It is an interesting way to model persuasion, something arguably far less difficult to model than the more-standard game fare of battle, trade, or administration, and while it would not serve as interesting enough fare (indeed the player can opt not to persuade in many cases) to serve as the main game mechanic, as an addition to the main game of trial mechanics it serves as an interesting break and adds to the narrative depth of the game.

Though We. The Revolution is genre bending and blending, the game really can be understood as an elaborate interactive fiction, though with, it should be noted, an engaging and beautiful art-style. Most player activities involve trying to obtain more options for decisions, but like interactive fiction, the decisions are the most important part of the game. The last gameplay component to be considered here is, accordingly, a seemingly misfit, strategic layer where the player competes with rivals to seize control of the Parisian sections, the 48 basic municipal district governments administratively created in 1790. Essentially this part of the game is strategic area control. Using units such as diplomats, bruisers, and Muscadins, the player attempts to win over the revolutionary sections of Paris. It is difficult to determine how to play this effectively (the instructions seemed insufficient to this reviewer to really understand the mechanics). More important,  from a historical perspective, though the feelings and actions of the sections were instrumental in deposing King Louis and purging the assembly of less revolutionary Girondins, in the game the control of the sections is conflated.  As a result the player’s role as Revolutionary judge and the player’s role as street gang commander never quite fit together well.

WTR Paris and Sections.jpg

I’ve left some elements of gameplay out and, not having finished the game yet (I’ve logged about 25 hours on replaying the first act of the WTR), it would not surprise me to learn that I have missed others. (Note: Sure enough, at the end of the First Act there is a tactical military mini-game that I have not had a chance to parse). This is already a lengthy consideration of a lengthy game, however, so let’s draw some conclusions from the First Act.

Is We. The Revolution historically accurate? No … not really, not in the sense of following the solid-evidence-supported narratives of this phase of the Revolution.

  • The chronology is loose,
  • the Revolutionary Tribunal exists at times in the game when it did not historically,
  • player Fidele acts as a prosecutor, judge, politician, street-fighter manager and more in the game conflating functions and tasks into an agent

However, it makes many sound (i.e. supportable by good evidence) and substantial references to the historical French Revolution. Historical figures like Danton, Marat, Mme Roland, historical events like the King’s flight to Varennes, and the trial of the King.

And this is important, because it means that We. The Revolution could be an engaging and useful means of exploring the French Revolution. One of the points that I have tried to stress in my writings is that students, certainly secondary and college students, are served best when they are taught how to reason like historians, how to use evidence to form supportable arguments. Such teaching de-emphasizes that fundamentally authoritarian type of history that, unfortunately, far too many of us learned: the teacher presents  “the facts” established by “the experts” and students are supposed to simply accept and retain a narrative. In a class that emphasizes critical thinking and has a careful guide in the form of a teacher, We. The Revolution engages players in what might be a much drier experience of a decidedly dramatic affair: The Revolution! In doing so it offers much material for rich discussions. A game that had no accurate elements whatsoever would not be ideal for the exercise of play, analysis, and critique. A game that was completely accurate, whatever that hypothical means, would not give student players the ability to draw on evidence and critique. Ideally a useful historical game for class would be somewhere in the middle. And that is exactly where WTR lies. WTR constructs an historical problem space, with roles, goals, elements and strategies that do not conform strictly to any single historical agent. Still is not a wholly unreasonable look at political agents, their motives and actions in the Republic and Terror. To leverage such a game, picture class discussions with questions like these (based on historical evidence studied in class):

  • Which parts of the game fit the evidence best?
  • Where does the game take the most artistic license? Why do you think the designers did that?
  • Did any of the Revolutionary Tribunal judges have this kind of a historical problem space?
  • How well does the game portray the political struggles between figures like Robespierre, Danton, and Marat?
  • How well does the games problem space match any historical agent?
  • Are the game’s depictions of revolutionary, common people, and aristocratic constituencies accurate? To what extent?
  • What are the designers of WTR trying to say about the Revolution? Do they have a valid point?

These sorts of questions require a detailed knowledge of the Revolution: detailed useful knowledge. One has to know what the evidence can and cannot support and be able to use that evidence to deem elements of a game accurate and other elements fanciful. It is that very act of informed, evidence-based criticism that makes the game a useful tool for studying the past, not its high degree of accuracy (see “The Unexamined Game Is Not Worth Playing?” for a little more on this line of thought).

So, I can readily see We. The Revolution, assuming the class has sufficient time to study the French Revolution and play the game, serving as a gripping, provocative foil, that subjected to critique will deepen students’ engagement with the Revolution. Like all historical games used in the class, it should be handled with care, but it offers a strong vision and many discussion points to deepen any class’s understanding of the violent struggle, moral complexity, and political turmoil that was the Revolution.

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