FrenchComp is a yearly competition for French-language games, usually with just a handful of entrants: the French IF community is not large. For someone with rusty French skills, playing through the games can be a bit of a challenge — I read French a lot better than I speak it, and coming up with commands can be a stretch, especially if the game wants a non-standard verb that isn’t covered in this French IF manual. This year, though, I had the good fortune of playing with ClubFloyd, where we could share verb guesses and reinforce one another’s understanding.
IF in languages other than English doesn’t get nearly as much coverage as I’d like within the English-speaking community, so I’d like to talk about the games here, but I should also say that I’m not really equipped to judge them in quite the same way I might review English IF. I can’t really judge French prose style; I suspect I struggled in a few places that were down to the quality of my linguistic skills rather than the quality of the design; and then there may be different conventions in French IF. (One of them definitely seems to be a love affair with “press any key to continue”. I think there were more “key to continue” pauses in these three games than in the whole of the English IF Comp last year.)
So consider this more of an experience report than a review per se.
It is also spoilerific, since I want to talk about the story endings of a couple of the games. If you are planning to play these works and just haven’t gotten to them yet, you should probably read no further.
This year there were three entries, all parser games: Comédie by Edgar Havre; L’Envol by Anonymous; and Sourire de bois by A One-Legged Tin Soldier.
Comédie is a puzzle-y farce set in a theater. You’ve been brought in at the last minute to help resolve the play’s problems and get it staged this very evening, and the production suffers from assorted issues, such as a drunken actor, a costume collection in severe disarray, and a set of NPCs who can’t really stand one another. NPC dialogue is a big part of the experience here; it uses Photopia-style menus, so you can’t really get too lost, and all the NPCs have entertainingly outrageous opinions of one another. The setting and off-the-wall character interactions were a lot of fun.
The pacing was a little off, at least for me. My experience of Comédie was dominated by one particular puzzle: the protagonist is asked to fetch a costume from a 10×10 area in which the spots are labeled in Roman numerals and then also disordered according to a second principle you have to work out. While this is not exactly a maze — you’re always in a labeled room, so you always know where you are — it shares one of the annoying aspects of a maze: busywork. Each time you have a hypothesis about which costume number you’re meant to fetch, you have to go wander around the grid until you find the right spot; take the relevant costume; and then carry it off to show to an NPC several rooms away. As we went through a bunch of wrong guesses before realizing which was the right costume, this meant that a disproportionate amount of our playtime was expended on this one thing.
It is of course possible that we screwed up some hints that would have been clearer to native speakers. And aside from this, the puzzles were fairly doable and entertaining.
But what really took us by surprise was the ending. We’d completed the three puzzles initially laid out for us and were working on another when suddenly we were kicked out of the theater, informed that we hadn’t passed the test we were undergoing. This seemed to come from left field, and we couldn’t quite figure out what was meant; it seemed like a losing ending, and an arbitrary one at that. It took the input of one of the French IF folk to set us straight. This was, in fact, the winning ending, or at any rate the only one available; the premise was that we weren’t really at a theater, but at an elaborate simulation of a theater, playacting the role of befuddled assistant director, and cast out when our improvisation proved too weak.
So I don’t know what to do with that. It has a certain sad everything-is-futile, life-is-a-pointless-stageplay grandeur if considered properly, but it really wasn’t at all what I was expecting from the game. Maybe there were clues earlier on in the story about what was happening, but if so, I wasn’t reading well enough to perceive them.
L’Envol starts out in a fairly ordinary bedroom, though there are hints — a distant klaxon, a photo of your missing sibling — that all is not well. The bedside copy of a book by Anne McCaffrey becomes a bit more explicable when a dragon shows up on your roof. You must then overcome some obstacles in order to fly away with the dragon and have some adventures.
Though this was the winner of the comp, for me it posed the most problems. During the first part of the game, we found ourselves at something of a loose end. It’s not clear what the goal is initially, and the story moves forwards in response to triggers that we weren’t always hitting.
And some of the more overt puzzles were both tricky for me and tonally surprising. In order to climb on the dragon’s back, you must first disable an alarmed(!) air-conditioning unit so that you can safely step on that and use it as a mounting block. For this puzzle, you have an assortment of tools, several of which seem like they might be useful but of which only one actually has an application. I struggled with accomplishing this and also felt like it was a bit odd, in the presence of something so mythical and inspiring as a dragon, to be fussing around with electric wires.
That said, there was some lovely descriptive writing (insofar as I’m able to judge) of the dragon-back flight, once we get there, and the environments are somewhat more richly implemented than in some of the other games.
Sourire de bois was my favorite of the three. The protagonist is a marionette who dreams of being able to smile, to form some expression other than the one that has been painted on.
The puzzles all reflect this constricted and miniaturized world, requiring you to interact with your own strings, with the stage props of your marionette show, and with other toys. Because of the non-standard situations, we struggled a fair amount to find the right words, and at one point I had to Google some French synonyms for a verb I was looking for. However, I appreciated the imagination that had gone into picturing the protagonist’s miniature world and inventing a series of puzzles that would properly illustrate it, and many of which turned on exploring different kinds of constraints.
I also felt that the story’s innate melancholy elevated the material a bit: though the premise sounds like Toy Story, the emotional range is a bit sadder and more contemplative.
Ultimately the protagonist doesn’t manage to learn to smile — another thwarted goal, and one that again came as a surprise when I did not realize that the game was about to be over. In this case, though, I felt that the outcome was a little more in tune with the rest of the story than it had been in Comédie (or at least I understood it better). In Comédie, the thwarting is almost entirely extrinsic: someone else makes decisions about you that you may not even understand. In Sourire de bois, the protagonist realizes that the ability to smile is not only unattainable but unnecessary, an internal development that felt more coherent and meaningful. It is also foreshadowed somewhat, in that partway through the story we learn that one of the NPCs, a rat, has spent its life in the futile pursuit of a plastic gem it believes to be real.
It is just possible that in English this would have seemed over-sentimental to me, too much like an IF version of The Velveteen Rabbit. In French, however, I found it effective.