Romanticism Now: We. The Revolution (Polyslash, 2019) between Shelley and Burke: Gamifying the Romantic debate on the French Revolution, Part 2

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PART TWO – ‘You are supposed to suffer to make others laugh or grieve’

This is a continuation of We. The Revolution (Polyslash, 2019) between Shelley and Burke: Gamifying the Romantic debate on the French Revolution, Part 1, available here

The gameplay loop of We. The Revolution is based on the player’s balancing of their reputation between four factions in Paris – the ‘common folk’ (an agglomerate category which includes the sans culottes, the enragé, and associated journalists like Jean Paul Marat), the ‘revolutionaries’ (shorthand for reformist intellectuals, including the Jacobins and the Girondins), the ‘aristocracy’ (who only emerge after the execution of Louis XVI, and who encompass ideas associated with the émigré nobles who fled the Terror, as well as providing a framework for considering attitudes lingering from the ancien regime) and, finally, Fidele’s own family, consisting of his father, Aldric, adult son, Bernard, younger son Frederic, and wife Mathilde. The game takes place primarily in the courtroom, with Fidele presiding over cases which combine famous historical trials (Louis XVI & Marie Antoinette, Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday) with fictional examples chosen either to exemplify in-game themes such as fratricide, or to explore the social fallout of the Terror and the revolutionary war (returning soldiers with PTSD, rival merchants accusing one another of counter-revolutionary activity). The player must read witness statements and trial reports for each case, question the witness, and deliver a verdict of (initially) execution, acquittal, or prison – until the Reign of Terror begins in earnest at the start of Act II and Robespierre, in a speech inspired by his famous declaration of 5 February 1794 that ‘Terror is nothing other than justice, prompt, severe, inflexible; it is therefore an emanation of virtue’ (Robespierre, ‘On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy’) reduces the player’s agency to either execution or acquittal. The game then also introduces some new mechanics, a board-game inspired movement of pieces around a map of Paris, as Fidele attempts to seize control of its districts from other revolutionary leaders, quash local riots, and evade gangs of Muscadin reactionaries.

Figure 5: A Combat Sequence

Readers familiar with the chronology of the French Revolution will already be noticing some gaps in We. The Revolution’s structure as a historical narrative – Louis XIV’s trial was not presided over by a mere Parisian district court judge, the conservative militia group known as the Muscadins did not rise to prominence until 1794, after the Thermidorian coup against Robespierre, making their presence from the early game paradoxically anachronistic. Other anachronisms and historical liberties trouble the game’s narrative – the murder of Jean Paul Marat (1743-93) does not take place on 13 June 1793, it is delayed until after the death of Robespierre, and its association with the latter’s ‘Purge of the Girondins’ in June of that year is erased. Marat’s assassin, Charlotte Corday (1768-93), does not appear as a sympathiser with the conservative Girondin Revolutionary faction, taking revenge on their behalf against a rival polemicist out of a Plutarch-inspired sense of civic virtue. In place of this we have a very abstracted sense that Corday’s motivations had something to do with feminism and women’s political liberation. The game places the death of Marat right in the middle of its version of the Thermidorian reaction. This time the progress of the Revolution is halted to allow the brother of the protagonist, who was believed dead until this point, to enter the story at the head of an army of disaffected criminals, soldiers, and emigres who fled the terror, until his army is ultimately routed by Napoleon, who only appears extremely briefly at the end of the game, but not in time to save our protagonist, who is murdered by his brother in a rigged game of dice which ends the narrative.

Figure 6: The Arrest of Robespierre

The sequence which is central to the game’s narrative, and articulates most clearly itsessentially Burkean argument that the French Revolution merely represented one more cycle in an unbroken series of episodes of human violence and corruption, is the encounter with The Puppeteer. In the final act, after Fidele is near-fatally stabbed by his wife, he wakes up in a puppeteer’s shop filled with marionettes of the various characters who have populated the game, with his wounds being healed by a mysterious figure called the Puppeteer, who gives the following cryptic metatextual monologue about the player’s actions in the game:

I am the Truth about your unhappiness and the Lie about your greatness. They are both the reasons for your presence in this place. Are you ready to admit that it is my performance, my show? I am the Truth overcoming the Lie that you keep telling yourself. The Lie that you are here for power. For the numerous choices and endings. I have not designed you for that. You are supposed to suffer to make others laugh or grieve.

(‘The Puppeteer’, We. The Revolution, Act III)

The player is then given the option to die, ending the game a few hours early, or keep persisting in the romantic role of heroic defender of Paris at Napoleon’s side, but the effective ending of the game’s narrative with this fourth-wall break constitutes its strongest point of critique. By drawing the player’s attention to the playful nature of the narrative they have just experienced. The game emphasises its own ‘ludic’ qualities, to use the term favoured by game scholars to define games as distinct from other forms of narrative experience. We. The Revolution explicitly alludes to itself as  performance’, highlighting the provisionalness and mediation behind the story it is telling, and the ‘choices and endings’, as a shorthand for player interaction, in which player input effects the outcome of the narrative, an experience which  most people play video games with branching storylines in order to explore, We. The Revolution converts the player into an avatar of historical causation. The ideologies at play in the game’s cast of characters are revealed to be empty and performative, and the player’s own emotional engagement with each trial is hollowed out and rendered simply another stage in movement towards an inevitable conclusion. The historical and fictional elements of the game emerge as parallel case studies in the ultimate futility of interpersonal relationships in the face of historical necessity.

Figure 7: The Puppeteer

As game scholars such as Katherine Isbister have argued, the presence of choice and agency allow the medium a far greater degree of emotional intensity than forms such as film or text with traditionally fixed narratives. As she puts it ‘because each choice results in feedback from the game world…[players are presented with] interesting options that have emotionally resonant outcomes, including feelings such as pride and affection.’ (Isbister, How to Play Video Games, p. 136; How Games Move Us, p. 2) We. The Revolution, with its profoundly nihilistic gameplay loop and shallow characters, does not succeed at creating pride or affection, its emotional tenor is far bleaker, trading on compromise, revulsion, and guilt, but the importance of choice in creating these emotions is just as significant. By the moment of the Puppeteer’s revelation, it is a relief to learn that your actions are essentially meaningless, because they have drawn out only the cruelty the game necessarily caused Fidele to perpetuate.  Digital games have been recognised as having an ‘inherently metaphorical relationship [to] past action by communicating about it through the often-vast abstractions of contemporary gameplay’ (Chapman, ‘Privileging Form over Content’, n.p). What this metaphorical abstraction is conventionally used for in historical games like the Age of Empires or Civilisation series is a privileged perspective, giving the player power and agency over sweeping historical events. In We. The Revolution, the abstraction forces you to consume the meaningless cruelty of the French Revolution as a spectacle, then be chastised for doing so.

Returning to Shelley and Burke, and the question of what the French Revolution reveals about the self, we can see that the promise of the Romantic moment lies, ultimately, in the resonances between a heroic, virtuous, interior self, and the ‘spirit of the age’, mediated by the creative imagination of a poet-legislator. The failure of the French Revolution is tragic because it signifies the over-reaching of the utopian self, not because it evinces any corruption in those ideals themselves. What Burke, and the conservative lineage which followed have always argued is that this was false optimism, and the failure of the Revolution speaks to an essential weakness in human nature. What We. The Revolution does is use procedural rhetoric, the term coined by game studies theorist Ian Bogost to describe the way in which a games system creates an argument, to force the player into a Burkean reading. (Bogost, Persuasive Games, 2008, p. 3) We approach the game with excitement, idealism and, depending on our level of immersion, a sense of empathy, only to have it pared down and ultimately rendered meaningless by the game’s final twist. We do not only have the fragility and cruelty of human nature explained to us by means of historical examples, we experience the deterioration of our own sensibility throughout the game, until we are unable to take refuge in our own feelings of empathy or human warmth as an argument against the games case for counter-revolutionary despair.

Bibliography

Bogost, Ian, Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames, (MIT Press, Cambridge: MA, 2008)

Brown, Marshall, ‘Romanticism and Enlightenment’, in The Cambridge Companion to British Romanticism, ed. Curran, Stuart (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), pp. 25-47

Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France, ed. Mitchell, L.G, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009)

Chapman, Adam, ‘Privileging Form Over Content: Analysing Historical Videogames’, in Play the Past, (2012).

Elshtain, Jean Bethke, ‘Hannah Arendt’s French Revolution’, Salmigondi, 84 (1989)

Isbister, Katherine, ‘Parappa the Rapper: Emotion’ in Payne, Matthew Thomas and Huntemann, Nina B, How to Play Video Games, (New York University Press: New York, 2019), pp.134-140.

How Games Move Us: Emotion by Design, (MIT Press, Cambridge: MA, 2017).

Robespierre, Maximilien, ‘On the Moral and Political Principles of Domestic Policy’, Speech delivered 5 February 1794, in Hassall, Paul, ed. The Internet History Sourcebooks Project, (Fordham NY, 1993-2021)

Shelley, Percy Bysshe, The Major Works, eds. Leader, Zachary, and O’Neill, Michael, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2003)

‘Percy Bysshe Shelley to [a publisher], 13 October [1817]’ in Jones, F. L ed. The letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley,  Volume 1 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1964). [accessed via Oxford Scholarly Editions Online (2015).

We. The Revolution, (Polyslash, 2019)

Wordsworth, William, The Major Works, ed. Gill, Stephen, (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000)