The Fall of France

France went to war in 1939 in the wake of a demographic annihilation that no American born since the Civil War can really imagine or understand. A crushing defeat in 1870 followed by the bloodletting of World War I had badly eroded the confidence of French soldiers and, perhaps more importantly, the leaders who bore the literal and figurative scars of those experiences. For the third time in a century, the same enemy was poised on the border and whipped into a hate-filled nationalist fervor. France had every reason to dread what Germany was about to unleash, and little cause for confidence now that the Soviet Union and the United States were sitting out the conflict. And after the collapse, French soldiers faced the choice between abandoning France in the name of resistance, or collaborating with the Nazis in the name of service.

French developer Eugen Systems never explore that country of dread in their new RTS, RUSE. Instead, they take an American perspective on the war and offer yet another retelling of the American-led liberation of Europe. This is an uninspiring creative choice, but a familiar one from French developers who seem more interested in channeling American stories than telling their own.

Heavy Rain's approach to its ostensibly American setting was so inept it routinely broke the game's carefully developed tension. My friend Lange and I went speechless, followed quickly by fits of laughter, when the game's only significant black character introduced himself with a basso, "Hey, crackuh!" and then promptly tried to murder FBI Agent "Nommin" Jayden, who talks with a Boston speech impediment. We both wondered what French developer Quantic Dream were thinking. "Is this really," we asked, "how they imagine America?"

Eugen use RUSE's single-player campaign to tell the story of Joe Sheridan, an unconvincingly portrayed American officer whose character bears a passing resemblance to George Patton. Vain and aggressive, Sheridan is more effective than his better-connected and insecure superior (a transparent weasel named Wetherby, who alternately stands in for Montgomery, Mark Clark, and Bradley).

But where Patton is a fascinatingly inconsistent and gifted character, Sheridan seems like an angry child playing at command. He sulks like a frustrated teen, leads like someone who learned command on the backlot of Paramount Studios in 1942, and reads lines like he's worried a bartender might check his ID. The campaign itself is a nice tour of less-visited theaters like Africa and Italy, but how dearly I would have loved to see RUSE focus on the French and Italian armies that pop up throughout this game. It's so unusual to see them in a World War II game that their appearance alone is enticing. It's a shame they are primarily reserved for multiplayer, while the campaign involves pushing Shermans around a map.

This is what people mean when they make the over-used faux-criticism that WWII is "played out" as a setting. We have endured so many versions of the Stephen Ambrose - Steven Spielberg story that most of us blanch at our first glimpse of a landing craft or a hedgerow. What has been exhausted is not the Second World War, but the soil of the triumphalist narrative. And even though RUSE is hardly the worst offender with regard to this setting, Eugen made it all too easy to dismiss their game as yet another savage beating of a dead horse.

The French film industry has always walked a tightrope of embracing and celebrating American influence while maintaining a distinct cinematic identity, and it's worth wondering what French developers might do if they were less tied to familiar American stories. Eastern Europe's pointedly foreign game industry offers a glimpse of what's possible when developers do more than mimic the work of their American counterparts. The allure of games like STALKER, Metro 2033 and The Witcher is not simply based on gameplay, but the way they take us on a tour of other people's experiences, beliefs, and anxieties. Eastern European developers have embraced games as fiction, rather than as interactive versions of films we've all seen.

I am most disappointed by the campaign in RUSE because I know that one of the best chances to tell the story of the fall of France, Vichy, and the Free French Forces has just passed us by. A French developer without an Anglocentric point of view (the care taken with the French and Italian armies proves this) had a large budget for an innovative RTS. With the novel "ruse" mechanic and the way the factions were balanced to place an emphasis on tactics and doctrine, RUSE would have been a superb platform for exploring France's odyssey through the war. And that is a story with fascinating dramatic potential. Instead, we get a brash young American and his clever British sidekick.

Perhaps working through an international publisher makes it impossible to explore those themes, or perhaps French developers have less interest in re-creating that story than people like me have in hearing it. Those are frustrating explanations, but understandable.

What worries me is the possibility that Eugen told this story because it's the only story they know. That most western developers, even ones capable of creating a game as interesting and innovative as RUSE, have no vision to offer beyond something they saw in a movie once.

Comments

What a well written and interesting article. Thanks for your perspective.

SallyNasty wrote:
What a well written and interesting article. Thanks for your perspective.

I agree.

Also, something is going on with the tags in this article that's breaking the page formatting.

There was some junky HTML in there. Fixed now, I hope?

Rob Zacny wrote:
There was some junky HTML in there. Fixed now, I hope?

Looks good on my end.

I quite enjoyed it too and completely agree. I find it so grating when people say that it's boring for a game to be set in WWII when, as you point out, there are so many interesting aspects of it that have hardly been touched.

I think this is one of the best articles I've read on GWJ. I can understand someone dismissing your disappointed that RUSE failed to tackle some deeper issue, but it's the same thing that Tom Bissell seems to grapple with: he can argue why video games matter, but at the same time lament that they don't matter more. That disappointment doesn't undercut his love of video games, but is borne out of it.

Great article, Rob. Not having played RUSE, I agree completely with your sentiment, both the specific (the played-out American perspective of WWII (says the proud Canadian)) and general.

Looks fine to me. FWIW, I'm using Firefox 3.6.9. Maybe the people having problems are using another browser?

Really nice work, Rob.

I never made it through the RUSE demo, though I thought it had promise. As you note, the French perspective is notably lacking in WWII games, and it would be very nice to see any variety.

You note the demographic challenges that France faced after a few disastrous wars. Add to that some truly interesting geography (both a northern and southern European power), the numerous river valleys, as well as the vitally important Beauce region and you have a really interesting environment to tactically explore.

I think you're right that lots of devs reach for the American perspective because it's evolved into a cartoon that has little resemblance with reality. Empty, jingoistic triumph trumps nuanced geopolitical brinksmanship. Damn, isn't it supposed to be a strategy game? It couldn't be more fitting to choose the latter.

Anyway, I can't say more without (ya know) playing the game. Thanks for the well written piece, Rob. Keep 'em coming.

Well written article, Rob, just as I've come to expect.

[Deleted arguments about how the French film industry doesn't really sell over here except aberrations such as Amelie and about how you're possibly making too big of an assumption that Eugen games didn't want to tell a different story than the milquetoast one we're use to.]

I deleted a lot of text because I found the more I argued the more I realized you were closer to my view than I originally thought. It's sad that we don't get more diverse stories about WWII, but I suppose we should be thankful RUSE does actually focus on Africa and Italy and not just D-Day and Market Garden.

I don't think a game based around the French resistance would've been picked up by a large international publisher such as Ubisoft, so the game's story ended up being, well, for the masses. Here's hoping Eugen finds success and get to tell some other stories from WWII, perhaps even stories they want to tell, but I think it's the cold reality that they first needed to show they can make a game people will buy.

Let's not forget: a French developer AND a French publisher. If they don't think France's WW2 point of view is interesting, who will?.

Insert UbiDRM sucks and Ubi is full of dicks here (even if this game uses Steam instead of UbiDRM).

I think Army of Shadows would make a great story for a game (says the person who liked Alpha Protocol), but I don't think it'd make a good strategy game. Well, it wouldn't be easy to make a good strategy game around it.

It looks like it's time for me to dig out my copy of Panzer General.

garion333 wrote:
Well written article, Rob, just as I've come to expect.

[Deleted arguments about how the French film industry doesn't really sell over here except aberrations such as Amelie and about how you're possibly making too big of an assumption that Eugen games didn't want to tell a different story than the milquetoast one we're use to.]

I deleted a lot of text because I found the more I argued the more I realized you were closer to my view than I originally thought. It's sad that we don't get more diverse stories about WWII, but I suppose we should be thankful RUSE does actually focus on Africa and Italy and not just D-Day and Market Garden.

I don't think a game based around the French resistance would've been picked up by a large international publisher such as Ubisoft, so the game's story ended up being, well, for the masses. Here's hoping Eugen finds success and get to tell some other stories from WWII, perhaps even stories they want to tell, but I think it's the cold reality that they first needed to show they can make a game people will buy.

I agree that it's probably down to publisher pressures, but what's sad here is how unnecessary it is. I don't really pay attention to how games are marketed, but it strikes me that RUSE was never selling itself on the basis of its campaign. The central mechanic is a tool built for multiplayer, and I'll bet you that's just about the only thing most people knew about the game. The campaign was one of the least important aspects of this project. But they still went paint-by-numbers.

And I like to think that gaming is friendlier to foreign games than the movie industry is to foreign films. Foreign film has been completely consigned to the art-house, so most people never even have the option of seeing these films in theaters even if they do hear about them. But I don't think the hurdle is as high for a foreign game.

Rob - terrific stuff. Although, instead of grounding your articles in illustrative historical and cultural context, don't you think you should just give us a top ten list? With lots of screenshots?

Would love to see you dive into some of those games from Eastern Europe and give us your take. That area is fast becoming an intriguing new hotbed of development, delivering some great games that, unlike their American counterparts, aren't afraid to take a lot of risks.

Rob Zacny wrote:
...I like to think that gaming is friendlier to foreign games than the movie industry is to foreign films. Foreign film has been completely consigned to the art-house, so most people never even have the option of seeing these films in theaters even if they do hear about them. But I don't think the hurdle is as high for a foreign game.

It probably helps that console gaming has such strong Japanese roots. The idea of a foreign game being awesome isn't nearly so, well, FOREIGN to a gaming audience as to a movie-going one. And because many types of games aren't nearly so reliant on the spoken word to get the story across, language barriers become much less of an issue.

Three moves ahead is invading the front page. And I am totally cool with it.
I personally would love to see an RTS centering around WW2 Eastern Europe. Think of the AI capabilities of an inept Italy!

The thing is, about 10 years ago, I remember hearing a lot here about the "French touch" in video games. I think it was a self-proclaimed idea and the English-speaking press never used the term. Developers from France differentiated themselves from Americans, perhaps in the process of trying to give video games an artistic legitimacy in the eyes of the French public. There was maybe some nationalistic and artistic pride behind it.
In any case, I think Beyond Good & Evil was probably the last game of that era. Few of the more ambitious studios have survived.
With today's average game budget, you have to cast a wide net.

Then again it's a RTS we're discussing. I don't think I've played one with a decent story since Homeworld.

django wrote:
The thing is, about 10 years ago, I remember hearing a lot here about the "French touch" in video games. I think it was a self-proclaimed idea and the English-speaking press never used the term. Developers from France differentiated themselves from Americans, perhaps in the process of trying to give video games an artistic legitimacy in the eyes of the French public. There was maybe some nationalistic pride behind it.
In any case, I think Beyond Good & Evil was probably the last game of that era. Few of the more ambitious studios have survived.
With today's average game budget, you have to cast a wide net.

Then again it's a RTS we're discussing. I don't think I've played one with a decent story since Homeworld.

That's quite sad to read.

I think that part of the problem is that games went from bedroom projects to block busters without a sustained period of creative growth and experimentation. Big media is risk averse, the same applies in the movie business.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

That's quite sad to read.

I think that part of the problem is that games went from bedroom projects to block busters without a sustained period of creative growth and experimentation. Big media is risk averse, the same applies in the movie business.


I agree.
I did a quick search about the fall of the "french touch", and an article from 2 weeks ago turned up. Here's a roughly translated excerpt from the article, where Eric Chahi is interviewed and, I think, is echoing the auteur theory :

"The problem is that the notion of author has almost disappeared in video games. Instead, we have businesses. The current logic would be to gather abilities : graphic artists, programmers, etc. However those abilities put together on a macroscopic scale are not sufficient. There needs to be a global artistic vision. I have the feeling that most projects lack someone who instils his true personality, a strong inner feeling, guiding everyone's work in order to create a truly coherent whole. It is this author work, which used to be underlying and implicit thanks to the small size of development teams, that is sorely lacking today. We have transited from a traditional creation process in the eighties and nineties, to an industrial process."

Here's what Paul Cuisset says:
"Nowadays, the suits are the ones imagining the game, and you do your best to develop it. The downside is that innovation has almost become a hindrance to the release of a project. That's the paradox developers are faced with. The more original a concept, the greater the editor's worry, as it cannot accurately evaluate the risks. You have to know where to draw the line. But it's hard : how to accept changes without betraying one's own vision?"

So, the creative types say they don't really have the freedom to do what they want. And it's understandable that the business types (who make the decisions at the end of the day) want to reach the widest audience possible. I'm sure that the globalization of culture is part of the problem, but right now I think the economic pressures have a more immediate effect.

If the wishful french campaign had the same cliché characters and story arc like the existing campaign, I don't know what the point would be. I don't think Eugen systems can talk intelligently about WW2... great game, but boring narrative. Nothing new for games...

MrDeVil909 wrote:
django wrote:
The thing is, about 10 years ago, I remember hearing a lot here about the "French touch" in video games. I think it was a self-proclaimed idea and the English-speaking press never used the term. Developers from France differentiated themselves from Americans, perhaps in the process of trying to give video games an artistic legitimacy in the eyes of the French public. There was maybe some nationalistic pride behind it.
In any case, I think Beyond Good & Evil was probably the last game of that era. Few of the more ambitious studios have survived.
With today's average game budget, you have to cast a wide net.

Then again it's a RTS we're discussing. I don't think I've played one with a decent story since Homeworld.

That's quite sad to read.

I think that part of the problem is that games went from bedroom projects to block busters without a sustained period of creative growth and experimentation. Big media is risk averse, the same applies in the movie business.

I think this is the actual problem. Once budgets rise above a certain point, the American market becomes an ever increasing factor. Where as Europeans will happily consume Americans and each others media the same isn't true often enough of Americans to take that risk. There are a lot of reasons for this and they are really quite benign (Not least the uniformity and size of the US market) and there is nothing the European developers can do to change it.

The example of The Witcher is interesting because the developers were willing to use an awful English audio track over using the better Polish audio with English subtitles (I'll be playing the sequel that way). They didn't even provide it as an option until the Extended Edition after the fans modded the games themselves to give themselves that functionality. The point being that the developers were willing to harm the package as a whole just to sell it in the US even censoring it to get an M and not AO rating.

That said your other point about better stories to be told, I couldn't agree more. A triple A title following a member of the Wehrmacht's 6th Army, perhaps conscript with no love for the army or the war, and its compelling journey through the conflict would be a great backdrop to any game.

Great article, Rob, and I would love to see more like it.

What a really nice article. Thanks for giving me interesting stuff to think about during my day

I guess I've already got my return from this year's donation drive.

django wrote:

So, the creative types say they don't really have the freedom to do what they want. And it's understandable that the business types (who make the decisions at the end of the day) want to reach the widest audience possible. I'm sure that the globalization of culture is part of the problem, but right now I think the economic pressures have a more immediate effect.

I wasn't aware that this was a topic of conversation in the French gaming scene. Interesting that there's discontent there.

But then I wonder, is Eastern Europe ultimately on the same trajectory? As their games find a wider international audience, will publishers and developers start to tailor their games to it? Because games like the ones I cited in this piece were far from garage projects, yet they managed to emerge with their character intact.

A publisher like Ubisoft always had its eye on the international market, so to some extent I'm not surprised that it ultimately made its bet in North America rather than Europe. But 1C or CD Projekt seem to be thinking of home audiences first.

They (does Germany count as Eastern Europe too?) often produce games in non-English languages first too, so yes, they're making their games for their home markets and then localisation afterwards. The sad thing is that they're often so slow at bringing their games to English.

You know, the Czech and Polish people absolutely hate to be called "Eastern European". At least, that was what I was told when I went there to visit. They consider that Central Europe (kind of makes sense, with the CET denomination and all), and countries like Ukraine, Lithuania, Russia and others the actual Eastern Europe.

So, I'm guessing, that the German people do not consider themselves Eastern, being at the heart of mainland Europe and all.

Rob Zacny wrote:
I wasn't aware that this was a topic of conversation in the French gaming scene. Interesting that there's discontent there.

But then I wonder, is Eastern Europe ultimately on the same trajectory? As their games find a wider international audience, will publishers and developers start to tailor their games to it? Because games like the ones I cited in this piece were far from garage projects, yet they managed to emerge with their character intact.

A publisher like Ubisoft always had its eye on the international market, so to some extent I'm not surprised that it ultimately made its bet in North America rather than Europe. But 1C or CD Projekt seem to be thinking of home audiences first.

Chilling thought, and you may be right. I do think there are factors that may work against this though, one being the source materials available to Eastern European developers.

As long as there are popular Russian and Polish authors producing works like Roadside Picnic, Last Wish and Metro 2033, and these remain popular in their domestic markets, there should be a resistance to the homogenisation of games out of Easter Europe.

At least I hope so.

Wow -well done, great article.

Excellent article.

MrDeVil909 wrote:

As long as there are popular Russian and Polish authors producing works like Roadside Picnic, Last Wish and Metro 2033, and these remain popular in their domestic markets, there should be a resistance to the homogenisation of games out of Easter Europe.

At least I hope so.

Interesting to note the literary sources. I think when companies are working on their new "Medal of Honor game," they are more likely to hit the video store than the library for initial inspiration. Rather than using their own imaginations, just go shot for shot on Spielberg's.

gains wrote:
Interesting to note the literary sources. I think when companies are working on their new "Medal of Honor game," they are more likely to hit the video store than the library for initial inspiration. Rather than using their own imaginations, just go shot for shot on Spielberg's.

I think that's part of/cause/effect of the block buster mentality. To help guarantee success developers and publishers tie movies closely to movies in order to share as many cultural touchstones as possible.

They use an existing visual language rather than taking the risk of developing their own.