The Reprover is a piece of digital art; or a lightly interactive comic book; or a French film whose pacing you control yourself; or a story written on the surface of a polyhedron. Or perhaps it is most accurate to call it a hypertext, but, if so, it is considerably more coherent and satisfying than most literary hypertexts I have encountered before.
The story concerns several characters: an aging writer, his unhappy wife, the wife’s niece, the niece’s husband. This last is the Reprover of the title, a man who can be hired to wear a uniform and stand at the elbow of his clients, expressing with the eloquence of his eyebrows alone that the client ought to refrain from some contemplated self-indulgence (a rum baba, human blood, a new pair of shoes). There is more to it than this — an entire alternate world by turns funny and disturbing — but a lot of the pleasure of the work for me was in exploring and trying to pursue leads into the parts of the story that intrigued me, so I will not spoil the rest by revealing it here.
As with many hypertexts, it would be difficult to say where the story ends. One can see all the pieces exhaustively, but none of them really seems necessarily to be the last. Nonetheless, there is a sensible progression of events, even if one encounters them out of order; in the end one comes away with a narrative after all.
So there is a story here. The other obvious question is, what does this gain by being interactive? What is the player/reader supposed to do?
The interface may seem, at the beginning, quite complicated. There is a screen with four panels, always three drawings and a video clip. Each of the drawing panels is associated with a small amount of text. One can click from panel to panel, reading the adjoining text that appears; pass one’s mouse over the text to make it vary in small ways; pass one’s mouse over the art panels to make them, also, slightly change; and view the video. In addition to all this, there is control over the musical soundtrack: one can leave it off, or one can turn on one or several layers of looping music. Thus a single click creates a simple melody, a second click adds a second line to the loop, and so on.
When one has experienced all this adequately, one moves on to another screen by double-clicking one of the drawings. Each drawing is reciprocally connected to another drawing in another screen, so that it is always possible to go back; quite often there are visual similarities between the two drawings, characters dressed alike or in like poses, which hint at comparisons and contrasts.
To visualize the relationships between all the possible screens, one can also turn to a 3D mode, which presents the whole thing as a polyhedron with triangular facets. If this seems a bit much to imagine, see Trailer #3 on the website: it demonstrates clearly what is difficult to describe.
I found, personally, that this potentially fussy interface worked naturally after a little practice, and that it is all directed towards a specific type of reader/user experience. This is a form of art that works by accretion and elaboration: first you see the essential meaning (the unadulterated text that accompanies a panel, or a single line of the soundtrack) and then, as you are ready, you add the other layers, by increasing the number of musical elements, by mousing over the text to make it show its variations, by viewing the video clip which comments on it all. One of the trailers says something like, “if you like art and you like sandwiches, you will like The Reprover.” There is a point in this. The meaning of the work comes from juxtapositions and contrasts, from new details that give new implications to something already known.
Of course, you could say that most hypertext is about juxtapositions: what links do, after all, is put one thing next to another. But it takes discipline and craft to make the results coherent, rather than a vague jumble of suggestion. In The Reprover, the discipline is evident in the subtle visual echoes between linked images, and in the care that has gone into selecting scenes for the story. I did not feel, in the end, as though any of the pieces were arbitrary or irrelevant.
It does not hurt that The Reprover has superb production values. The images are colorful and stylized as though from a children’s book, lending a curious innocence even to the more adult moments in the story. The video portions are well shot and well acted, full of dry humor, with odd little props supporting the idea that the tale takes place in an alternative version of the 1980s. The text is available in both French and English, and while the English text inevitably preserves that slightly foreign tang of having been translated — something to do with the ordering of phrases and even the content of some of the thoughts — it is lucid, error-free English all the same.
I am not sure whether The Reprover will appeal to the whole audience of this blog as much as it did to me. I found it charming, funny, strange, at times disquieting, sometimes beautiful, and quite distinctly itself. But it helps to have a bit of a taste for French films or literature, I think. I was also at times reminded of Borges or Calvino — Borges because of its formal complexity, Calvino for the gentle, mannered exploration of an implausible premise.
In any case, this is not a game; it does not have a text parser or anything close to it; it does not offer any control over the direction of the narrative. I felt that I was instead in charge of pacing and direction — of triggering new elements when I was ready for them, and deciding which themes to pursue. The Reprover was more amenable to that kind of control — exploration by theme — than any text-based IF game I’ve encountered. I found that a satisfying kind of agency to exercise. When I could no longer find links that led to new scenes, I went to the 3D view and inspected the whole story carefully to make sure there were no parts of it I had left unexplored (there is a strangely tactile pleasure in turning a story around in your hands and seeing all its faces). When I was satisfied that I had read everything, I returned to the screen that I thought the most fitting coda and viewed it again. And then I was done.
In sum: this is a work that knows what it’s trying to accomplish as a piece of interactive art/film/literature, and it succeeds.
(I received a review copy of this work. It is available for sale for 16 euros.)