Belgian developer Tale of Tales is back once again to bewilder and mystify. Known for their previous efforts The Path and Endless Forest, they are the Kings of the Art-Game genre. With Bientôt l’été, they are reaching into strange and ever more obtuse territory.
In Bientôt l’été, you will assume the role of either a male or female. Due to unfortunate circumstances you and your lover are light years apart. The only way to interact with one another is using a virtual reality simulator. The simulator allows you to explore a small expanse of empty beach – with a cafe. As you stroll along the beach, phrases of adulation, love, loss and despair will appear on screen. These are stored for use in conversation with your partner.
The cafe is the main hub of the game. Players can connect with one another to drink, smoke, emotionally abuse each other and square off in games of chess.
These are no bog-standard games of chess however. You see, there are no rules to follow and no restrictions to the moves you can make. Moving a chess piece prompts a phrase you have collected to be spoken aloud in French. “Pawn to E4″ may make your character say “I do not love you any more” or any of the other phrases you have come across on your lonely travels along the beach.
From time to time, exploring the beach will reveal mirages. These range from a pier on the beach to a gun lying on the ground. Mirages leave behind extra chess pieces that can be used against your partner – should you decide to actually play a real game of chess.
I have no doubt that playing with others could lead to very interesting and emotionally charged conversations. Sadly though, not once during my time with Bientôt l’été did I encounter another human in the cafe. It is clear that the game has not yet found its market.
A lack of human opponents wouldn’t be so bad if the computer controlled NPC was capable of offering decent rebuttals to user moves. It is completely hopeless, with absolutely no redeeming features. Tale of Tales would have done well to either spend more time on the AI or remove the feature altogether. As it stands, the NPC will give nonsensical replies that go off on tangents and detract from the atmosphere.
Speaking of atmosphere, Tale of Tales has managed to create a wonderfully moody and desolate tone. The minimalist appearance of the beach is in stark contrast to the star and planet filled skies above you. Both are a constant reminder of loneliness and the insurmountable distance between the player and their lover. The bitter-sweet words of Marguerite Duras that litter the beach only serve to antagonise, evoking mostly negative emotions.
In light of outrage from angry customers whom felt they had been misled about the nature of Bientôt l’été; Tale of Tales described it as more of a “toy” than a game. I find this an agreeable sentiment. There are aspects of Bientôt l’été that are undoubtedly game-like. It is hard to pinpoint where the art ends and game begins though. I am in no way implying that games and art are mutually exclusive. I am a firm believer that games are a great medium for expressing artistic vision – my fellow writers here at CDT would agree with me. Yet there is no clear artistic statement to be found. Neither is there much of a game to play.
Despite all of its shortcomings, I still find myself intrigued by Bientôt l’été. Many of the collectible quotes are emotionally evocative. On more than one occasion I found myself reminded of previous failed, romantic endeavours. It is not often that a game can pull so vigorously at the heart strings. Tale of Tales has crafted an emotionally charged experience that can be both joyous and unrelentingly dark.
Is Bientôt l’été a game, though? By its own developer’s admission it is not. I review games, not art. When there is so little game on offer to review, it makes my job difficult. On the one hand Bientôt l’été is extremely atmospheric, often beautiful and memorable. On the other hand it is tedious, shallow, slow, boring and fundamentally flawed. That is not to say you should avoid it at all costs. There are interesting ideas at play here, just don’t expect much in the way of interaction.