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

Rob Zacny wrote:
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.

Has this happened to Japanese developers, or will it happen to them? I know that for a long time Japanese developers had something of a stranglehold on Western console markets (mainly because they simply made the better games), but the rise of the Xbox and the migration of Western PC developers to consoles has popularized a distinctly Western style of game design that has threatened that dominance. I can't help but wonder if Japanese developers will begin to feel pressure to mold their products into something more palatable to the Western market, particularly so far as action games are concerned.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Has this happened to Japanese developers, or will it happen to them? I know that for a long time Japanese developers had something of a stranglehold on Western console markets (mainly because they simply made the better games), but the rise of the Xbox and the migration of Western PC developers to consoles has popularized a distinctly Western style of game design that has threatened that dominance. I can't help but wonder if Japanese developers will begin to feel pressure to mold their products into something more palatable to the Western market, particularly so far as action games are concerned.

Funny this should come up with the news of the Westernised Devil May Cry reboot by Ninja Theory coming up today.

Oh hey auteur theory, been a few weeks since I've seen someone championing you. Nice to see you here in the comments.

boogle wrote:

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!

Or the Zerglike possibilities of Russia?

wordsmythe wrote:

Oh hey auteur theory, been a few weeks since I've seen someone championing you. Nice to see you here in the comments.

Can I take a drink when someone mentions Bioshock?

Hey, don't shoot the messenger!

ClockworkHouse wrote:

Has this happened to Japanese developers, or will it happen to them? I know that for a long time Japanese developers had something of a stranglehold on Western console markets (mainly because they simply made the better games), but the rise of the Xbox and the migration of Western PC developers to consoles has popularized a distinctly Western style of game design that has threatened that dominance. I can't help but wonder if Japanese developers will begin to feel pressure to mold their products into something more palatable to the Western market, particularly so far as action games are concerned.

Japan is an odd case, and while we can all point to examples of Japanese devs and publishers trying to become more western, I don't think Japanese games will ever become as indistinct as French and many other Western European games. At least in terms of thematic and narrative elements. Game design might be another matter entirely.

Japan has also had the benefit of a devoted western audience, although I suspect that audience's loyalty has been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, this is an audience that has completely embraced foreign entertainment and rejects efforts to pander to western tastes. On the other hand, it's always seemed to me like this audience frequently makes a fetish of Japanese entertainment, with the result that it receives pandering of another sort. What disappoints me about Japanese games is not that they are not Japanese enough, but that so many of them adopt such a narrow definition of what comprises Japanese gaming and style. One that is also America-friendly, just in a different way from what we see in France.

Good article. Strangely enough I was thinking about WW II games the whole time I was in Europe and, more specifically, why nobody ever made a WW I game (that I've heard of).

I think attrition would be an interesting topic to explore in a video game, from the perspective of a country trying to defend itself by emptying out its genetic stock onto the battlefield. I'm also interested in fights that are rather lopsided, technologically speaking (Civ games sometimes have this), and WW I had this in spades -- machine guns beat infantry rush, tanks beat trenches, etc etc.

wordsmythe wrote:

Oh hey auteur theory, been a few weeks since I've seen someone championing you. Nice to see you here in the comments.

Rob, great article.
We can only hope that they do a more esoteric campaign as a DLC for RUSE.

WW2 has plenty of battles that don't get enough attention- the Finns' defense against the USSR, for one example.

Clemenstation wrote:

I think attrition would be an interesting topic to explore in a video game, from the perspective of a country trying to defend itself by emptying out its genetic stock onto the battlefield. I'm also interested in fights that are rather lopsided, technologically speaking (Civ games sometimes have this), and WW I had this in spades -- machine guns beat infantry rush, tanks beat trenches, etc etc.

Hard to do much of this from the first-person perspective without getting pretty artsy. Dwindling homefront support and dried-up pools of military-aged men certainly show up in most "grand campaign" strategy games, though.

What worries me is the possibility that Eugen told this story because it's the only story they know.

I would have to agree with this. I actually was in Paris a couple of weeks ago and by chance they are doing a showing of photo's tracing the history of the Free French Forces at the French Military Museum. Unfortunately the tourists far out numbered the French at the showing and definately showed more interest. I think I heard as much German being spoken than French over the course of an hour or so. (Side note is it refreshing or disturbing that I always run into excited Germans at any sort of historical site dedicated to any of the Allied forces?)

I am no expert on French culture but my impression is they have collectively buried the details of the Vichy era. It is unfortunate because while there are many shameful actions to feel remorse for the heroics of the Free French forces are being lost as well.

I am really worried the new Steel Battalion will fall into this trap.

ClockworkHouse wrote:

What disappoints me about Japanese games is not that they are not Japanese enough, but that so many of them adopt such a narrow definition of what comprises Japanese gaming and style. One that is also America-friendly, just in a different way from what we see in France.

Recently a lot of Japanese developers have been trying to be more self-consciously "western" in their productions, but it tends to come across as kinda weird and desperate, trying to ape the forms without really understanding the underlying design logic; they just don't feel right. In many ways it reminds me of when FFVII came out and a number of western devs tried their hand at making JRPG style games that didn't really work out either for much the same reasons (Septerra Core anyone?) My view of the matter is that I really would prefer if the Japanese devs didn't try so hard to make their games more "western", they'll never be as good at it as the real westerners, and instead concentrated on developing their own unique strengths.

Signed up to say what a great article and I agree completely. That said, it's hardly surprising that a major dev/publisher is narratively risk-averse.

I love your handle, Grouchy. Not often we get a marquis in these parts.

I don't think anyone expects that sort of game to sell in the US, much less that it would get picked up by a major publisher, but I would like to see it show up in one of a few scenarios or campaign options. Acknowledging the complexities and nuances of an oft-caricatured story would be a good start.

That's true enough.
As a French myself I could only agree with this article, but to play the devil's advocate, could we really imagine a French-made game on a French-minded view of WW2 (Leclerc's column, the stand at Bir Hakeim, the campaign of Italy, ...) being just even noticed in the US, the most tantalizing videogame market? Not even mentionning being signed by a publisher, be it French itself or not ...

I would love to see such a game, but I don't think I'll see that happening any time soon ...

I love your handle, Grouchy. Not often we get a marquis in these parts. ;)

Marquis indeed, monsieur, but also a marshal of the Empire! Even if a scorned one ...

but I would like to see it show up in one of a few scenarios or campaign options

Agreed, but I also remember, when RUSE was announced and all through the betas I've played, how many hate-like posts there has been on the forums, mainly from Americans, about the fact that Japan was not part of the game while Free France and Italy were. With all the unfriendly references you can imagine on the "surrendering professionals" such latter armies were ...

Grouchy wrote:
I love your handle, Grouchy. Not often we get a marquis in these parts. ;)

Marquis indeed, monsieur, but also a marshal of the Empire! Even if a scorned one ...

but I would like to see it show up in one of a few scenarios or campaign options

Agreed, but I also remember, when RUSE was announced and all through the betas I've played, how many hate-like posts there has been on the forums, mainly from Americans, about the fact that Japan was not part of the game while Free France and Italy were. With all the unfriendly references you can imagine on the "surrendering professionals" such latter armies were ...

The internet is a terrible place to look for a reasonable and content majority. All you'll find, especially before launch, is unqualified praise and meaningless detractions. I wouldn't be surprised if there were comments about how RUSE would be better if it had spaceships and elves.

This is an interesting read. I certainly agree with the tack being taken with eastern European game developers and how they are establishing their own identity... it makes me hope they are globally successful enough to rub off on everyone else a bit...

However, criticizing a game for what it isn't, as opposed to what it is, is a slippery slope. This piece in particular takes gigantic presumptions about what the developer and publishers' goals were in designing Ruse.

Ubisoft, still lost in acronym land like it's 1999, is in the business of competing with EA and Activision, and nobody argues that the United States is one of the biggest gaming markets in the world. It's also the one where WWII provides an appealing setting for the game.

Japanese people? Not so much.

Europeans, the French included, still live with the aftermath of the war in a much more immediate and personal way than Americans do, even 65 years later. The fact that those battlegrounds are in people's veritable backyards, that the streets of Paris are still strikingly similar to how they looked under Nazi occupation, doesn't really motivate people to relive the experience the same way it does an American.

With our foreign policy in shambles, two ongoing wars we should have never started, and a stymied national identity, WWII works for Americans because it reminds us of the days where we were unquestioningly the good guys, and seeing as we really haven't been in a justifiable war since... it's an era that has obvious appeal. Might have something to do with the design decision, but I'm of course just guessing.

On top of that, French people don't really buy many videogames, so why endeavor to sell a concept to a global marketplace that has no real connection to the experience when there is no 'homegrown' market to support the game either?

The sad reality is that games are still consumer products first, and works of art second. The other reality is that, and this is a HUGE one: but if you remember the actual history of World War II, France fell in 1940. After less than a year of the war, there was no organized French military. That kind of shoots down the whole design concept for the gameplay, does it not?

To experience a RTS about WWII from the perspective of the French military would make players miss out on 80% of the European theater of operations, wouldn't it?

Unless you played a French general who went to work for the Nazi's, no? But then you are just playing WWII from the perspective of the most appealing villains in modern history, so that doesn't really work either. Doesn't that simple fact that France was under foreign occupation for most of the war completely destroy the author's argument?

I have not played Ruse so perhaps I am being falsely presumptuous. I can't imagine an RTS where all you do is play as the Resistance and spend the whole game cutting telephone lines, blowing up train tracks, and listening for coded messages on the radio, personally... as stealth action game perhaps it would work. But Eugen Systems didn't decide to make a stealth action game. They were trying to take a new approach to the RTS genre by applying the mechanics natural to so many board games- namely for the player to practice intentional deceit as a core play mechanic.

So why criticize a French developer for not being French enough, when that had absolutely nothing to do with the goals of the game they set out to make?

The one thing the author does get right here is that if France wants it's cultural perspective to be represented in games and how they are designed, they do need to start looking inwards as opposed to looking outward for influence.

Personally, bad accents aside, I think Quantic Dream is moving in the right direction, particularly when one views it through the lens of French cinematic history- though don't kid yourself, the New Wave movement was deeply influenced by American cinema. The artists working at the time eventually figured out that they were responding to the influence, not merely copying it, but that's simply part of the artistic evolution of a new medium, is it not. These things take time. I'd can't wait to see what the long term impact of Heavy Rain's design has on how games handle dramatic narrative.

Personally, I can only play so many game's whose sole focus is shooting at things. It's getting a little old.

That was an awesome first post, docstrange, welcome to GWJ!

Nothing, you're just new here. Sit for a while, everything will be okay in a couple of weeks.

That's enough about France. I want Polish developers focusing on Gene HackmanMaj. Gen. Sosabowski.

Won't happened, for as Sosabowski himself put it:
"I am a Pole, considered by many to be intelligent ; if that were true, then I belong to a minority. Minority groups are more comfortable in silence".

Which is a lie. The truth is that Poles are more comfortable in silence.

docstrange wrote:

The sad reality is that games are still consumer products first, and works of art second. The other reality is that, and this is a HUGE one: but if you remember the actual history of World War II, France fell in 1940. After less than a year of the war, there was no organized French military. That kind of shoots down the whole design concept for the gameplay, does it not?

To experience a RTS about WWII from the perspective of the French military would make players miss out on 80% of the European theater of operations, wouldn't it?

Unless you played a French general who went to work for the Nazi's, no? But then you are just playing WWII from the perspective of the most appealing villains in modern history, so that doesn't really work either. Doesn't that simple fact that France was under foreign occupation for most of the war completely destroy the author's argument?

Well ... there was still an organized French military forces even after 1940. France could not pretend to field huge armies, but the Free French fought in Lybia, Lebanon, Tunisia, Italy, France, ... From only two Free French brigades in 1941, the French army expanded to several army corps in 1944-45 with the merging of the Free French and all the troops organized in the newly reconquered North African colonies (and contrary to the the legend all were not "colonial" troops, French from Algeria/Tunisia/Morocco were very numerous among them ... including one of my grand-father into the "Armée française de la Libération".

1940 saw the fall of metropolitan France, and 1941 was the bottom of French military might while De Gaulle and the Free French were struggling to be recognized by the Allies, but from 1942 to 1945, the French army was in an ever-expanding course.
The symbol of this come-back on the military scene was the battle of Bir Hakeim, Lybia, in May-June 1942: for the first time since 1940, the French were fighting independantly, under their own flag, against the German. There, 3.000 Free French faced 45.000 veterans of Rommel's Afrika Korps, led by the "Desert Fox". They held their ground for 16 days, inflicting even losses, preventing the destruction of the routed British army and allowing it to fall back on El Alamein to prepare a line of defense there. And when they had given enough time to the British, they were able to slip out of their "fortress" and escape from the surrounding Afrika Korps.

Free France also had a Navy (FNFL) with 40 ships in 1942 and many more after the reconquest of French North Africa, an Air Force (FAFL) which fielded more than 500 men in the mere weeks after the capitulation, and grew to several squadrons later. A squadron (Normandie-Niemen)even fought the Germans in Russia, alongside the Soviet Air Force.
And in the end, France even faced the Japanese, for in March 1945, French Indochina was attacked by the Imperial Army: 3.000 men, mostly from the Foreign Legion, were killed in the first 48 hours, most of the prisonners being beheaded with sword.

Don't be mistaken: I don't pretend France won the war by itself or anything like that.
I'm just saying that pretending that France was out of the war from 1940 to 1945 is a mistake too offen seen, and untrue. If the other Allies gave us, relunctantly for some, a seat among the WW2 victors and in the UNO, it was not for pity only. France had fallen from a major nation to a second-rank one, but by the end of the war, it had recovered "some" of its military might.

As for RUSE, doing a game on the French army only, beside being a marketing suicide, wouldn't have fit with the game scale: in RUSE you move big armies on a strategical level, while from late 1940 to late 1942, Free France only had two infantry brigades.
Only in Italy and in Southern France to the Vosges did France fielded corps then armies that would have fitted in such a game ...

[Edit: What am I doing wrong witht the quotes? :(]