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.