The Online Interactive Fiction Review Site
Game: The Reprover
By: François Coulon
The Reprover is, frankly, a bewildering creature. The author's promotion videos manage to be highly entertaining without conveying a very strong sense of what the piece actually is, and I honestly can't blame him; it's a hard piece to briefly characterise. It's not IF. It is not a game. It is, perhaps, best described as a multimedia hypertext novel composed of free verse, illustration and movie clips that in some ways feels like a game. It employs interaction in the weak sense, an unusual way to navigate a text rather than something that allows the player to have any impact on it. The author uses the terms 'conceptual entertainment' and 'graphic novel' rather than 'game'.
The narrative is, well, shaped like an icosahedron. Every side of the icosahedron displays three painted images and a video clip, all corresponding to the same section of plot or an aspect of the reprover's work. Clicking on an image highlights it and brings up two short free verses, elaborating upon the scene. Mouseover or clicks on those free verses temporarily adds text to them; these text additions cycle through a list irrespective of where you click. Each of the three images is linked to a corresponding image on an adjacent side; they typically share themes, colour schemes, or are match cuts. You navigate through the work through these connections; the starting-point is random.
A reprover is, apparently, a little like a life coach, except that you pay them to stand silently in the background and look condemning when you are weak-willed or wicked (though they may never actually interfere). There are also approvers, over-the-top yes-men whose main job is to make people feel better about doing highly questionable things. The story's narrator and protagonist is the reprover Gildas Noblet, a doleful-looking fellow with a moustache; stretching professional ethics, he marries his client Magalie Beaurédon and ultimately loses his job for it. We get almost as much about the relationship of Magalie's aunt Geneviève Chavaux and uncle Joël Fricoteau, and about Joël's depression and mid-life crisis after Geneviève leaves him. Joël is, insofar as there is one, the villain of the piece; shallow and curmudgeonly, he ends up writing a polemical (but almost entirely meaningless) book, The Truth About Problems, which wracks France with political convulsions.
How is this game interesting from an IF perspective? Strictly speaking, it's less interactive than a CYOA - a CYOA produces supervening linear narratives selected and distinguished from a set of possibilities, whereas in The Reprover everything is 'true' and the audience's role is just to determine the order in which the story is encountered. In a CYOA, the player's choices are what gaming-theorists would think of 'meaningful': that is, they have some kind of intentional effect on the facts of a fictional world. Choices made by the audience of The Reprover don't influence the facts of the story, but change the arrangement of the facts being presented. In an important sense, I'm not sure that you even choose that arrangement, per se; although the links aren't arbitrary, there is no real way that a player could predict anything very much about where those links might lead.
But the illusion of involvement, of participation, is not to be sniffed at. You know those interpretive displays in museums where there's a lid with a question on it, and your job is to lift the lid to reveal the answer? Weakest form of interaction imaginable. Cheap and uncool and meaningless. Not, by anybody's standards, a game. But - here's the thing - people still lift the lid. We think about things more attentively when we can poke at them. And in game-like formats, there are further expectations going on under the surface - the plot might be something that you're going to have to use later, so you'd better retain it. IF routinely employs illusory interactivity - for that matter, so does standard literature, where evoking a strong sense of potential narratives can vastly enrich a text even if most are never explored. The same sort of thing is going on in, say, a match-3 game with a tacked-on, linear plot: there's a certain willing suspension of disbelief that gives the player the feeling of participating in the story.
One of the obvious disadvantages of the icosahedron-plot is that after a while you start revisiting sides, and towards the end there are usually a couple of parts that you missed and need to track down. The former is not entirely bad - re-encountering things in the light of more context contributes significantly to understanding the piece - but the latter is a real if minor problem. (Searching with the 3D view is kind of awkward, not least because large square images are being crowded into small triangular spaces.)
The sense of engagement can't sustain itself without the sense of exploration; once one has encountered all the content, and perhaps gone back to a few of the earlier content which now makes more sense, it is not particularly entertaining to find new paths through the story, or to fiddle with the poems again. Or rather, doing so is no different to leafing through a conventional novel. The Reprover does not conceal its content; its sense of mystery is finite.
You might be able to consider the plot of The Reprover a puzzle of sorts, in the sense that Memento or a Milan Kundera novel is a puzzle. Or, rather, it has a puzzle-like texture; the solution is never in doubt, but in the meantime the piecing-together occupies your mind in a puzzle-like way. The plot has earlier and later stages, and chronologically-last parts for both the Joël and Gildas threads; but you might encounter these early on or halfway through and not realise that they're conclusions. (Both leave major issues unresolved.) This is not a linear plot stretched to fit a non-linear form; it's consciously fragmentary, a series of snapshots linked by theme or colour or composition as much as causality. There's causality in there, but one has to work for it; how things came to any given point is left obscure, and what matters is the now. The illustrations have a lot to do with this; these aren't scenes, but observed moments.
The aesthetic style of writing, video and paintings overlap - it's not note-perfect aesthetic unity, by any means, but I don't think that's quite the aim. (The range of tone is in any case quite broad, so there's plenty of room for overlap.) Colour is particularly distinct - the paintings have very powerful, over-the-top colours, and inhabit this fantastically full world, while the video sets are very sombre-toned and minimalist. The live-action Gildas and his painted counterpart look similar, but their range of expressions is quite different; although a lot of attention has been paid to costume, video-Gildas never appears in the reprover's uniform of the paintings. The painting has a little more trouble hitting the melancholy notes; the comedy in the video is less over-the-top.
I am never quite sure, with translated works, whether an unusual and poetic turn of phrase is an artefact of imperfect translation or not, and The Reprover is packed with this kind of ambiguity. Breakdancers are described, from the ageing Fricoteau's perspective, as 'A concretion of young dandies, fussy and vaguely threatening'. Compounding this, it's translated very much into British English, so you get things like
Instead, the team buggered their eyes with the cathode ray tube
which is, um, a startling image, and I'm not positive that the double meaning is intentional. The style of humour is, again, very much French-translated-into-British. It's wry and archly disapproving, occasionally melancholic, with a touch of ironic high-melodrama; the sort of thing I associate with the Kai Lung books, but with a very French approach to discursive wackiness.
(The video clips are in French with subtitles, and there are a few obvious changes: 'le danse du Smurf' is rendered as 'Boogying Electric.' Francophones? We know you have Smurfs. We are aware of the existence of the Smurf dance. You can stop trying to hide your guilty little secret.)
The music is an interesting gimmick, not - I think - very strongly related to anything else in the game. No music plays by default, but there's a button which adds successive layers of music. There's a different track for each face of the plot. The idea, I think, is that you can have music that's mood-setting but inobtrusive, or that swells up overwhelmingly as you see fit; but it's a little jarring, to be honest. When you play a video clip or jump to another section, the music abruptly cuts off; when you've layered the music all the way up to four, clicking again shuts it off immediately rather than taking it back down to three. This means that if you want the music, it becomes inherently obtrusive; you have to turn it on again regularly. At times it's quite effective at reinforcing mood, or at suggesting the work's 1980s setting, but it's rather erratic. Even at the lowest complexity setting it tends to be quite busy - not exactly stuff to read poetry to. It reminds me mainly of videogame music back when videogame music was a distinct category; it's DROD music. It feels as if this is intended to emphasize the work's links to graphic adventure (there are also a fair number of visual references to 80s console games).
All this makes The Reprover sound like a sort of chaotic melange, and it's a little hard to talk about it in any way that doesn't give this impression. But as Emily Short has pointed out, it's actually a highly disciplined piece of design, and - once you've got your bearings - it feels very tightly constructed. The entire work has a poem-like quality; it manages to cram a novel's worth of content into a piece that's more the size of a short story. IF has a constant problem with this; even the longest works are only novellas as far as plot goes, and many quite substantial games nonetheless feel very much like a single chapter of a much larger work.
The way it structures the player's approach to the story is suggestive, although it only allows for a single plot; I certainly think that this particular approach of telling a story in a way that's both fragmentary and coherent, discursive and compact could be fairly fruitful in an IF context. It's an excellent example of complementary form and content. It's also an excellent demonstration of how much multimedia can add to a piece without necessarily undermining the primacy of text, and how important it is for multimedia to be employed in a consistent and coherent manner.