What is the meaning of this Gauloises-smoking, red-wine drinking Belgian art game?

Here are the things you can do in Bientôt l’été (Soon, the Summer), the new art game from Belgian developer Tale of Tales:

-Walk on a beach

-Close your eyes

-Run with your eyes closed

-Find objects on the beach

-Watch your house change sizes and shapes

-Read and listen to cryptic conversations in French

-Listen to distant French music

-Play chess

-Smoke Gauloises

-Drink red wine

That’s it. When I first played the game earlier this fall at IndieCade, I was not impressed, and I dismissed it, glibly, as the first game based on Nights in Rodanthe, leading a friend to joke that I was being unfair to Nights in Rodanthe. Having played an almost-finished version of the game away from the play-happy context of IndieCade, I wish to amend myself, and put this fascinating little game in context. 

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Bientôt l’été belongs to a new class of games such as Dear Esther and The Snowfield that fall under the clumsy but useful tag “experiential”, which is a way of saying they are not particularly goal-directed, feature deliberately sluggish or alienating controls, and do not concern themselves much with goal-directed fun. They use the >

Michael Samyn and Auriea Harvey, the Tale of Tales duo, describe their game as

Not a deep message that we shout from the mountain. We really have no clue. It is a sort of philosophical drill to burrows in your heart helping you to discover what’s underneath your deepest feelings. And underneath that.

All the sincerity is a little much, and there are times during Bientôt l’été when the heavy-handed artiness of the experience becomes so ridiculous as to prevent the player from feeling anything except a snickering irony. If you can engage the game on a purely aesthetic level, though, it is clearly a sophisticated piece of work. The ghostly look of the game combines with a swirling score to produce an unusually intense melancholy. I don’t think there are any great truths hiding behind the aggressive symbology of the game, but as a way of getting pleasantly sad, it certainly does the trick.

I look forward to a time when games are in a real conversation with the older forms and do not need to use red wine and chess as a shorthand for sophistication. 

This is the level on which Bientôt l’été excites me. Games have been for the most part fun-delivery devices – sometimes ingenious ones – that even at their very best produce just that, fun (and occasionally fear). Rare is the game that communicates a deeper or more shaded emotion. I think Bientôt l’été, though over-the-top, is symptomatic of a healthy move for gaming, towards using the tools of the medium to express a wider spectrum of feelings. That’s what art, ultimately, is for.

I’m a bit conflicted, though, because if I saw Bientôt l’été in a museum I would think it was a joke in the vein of Barney Gumble’s Pukahontas (“Don’t cry for me, I’m already dead”). Because I’m playing it on a computer, though, in a medium that has never even attempted to tickle the intellect, I have different standards for it. I’m not sure if this is fair, but I do look forward to a time when games are in a real conversation with the older forms and do not need to use red wine and chess as a shorthand for sophistication. 

A friend joked that Bientôt l’été is actually a “being French” simulation, what with the Gallic tobacco puffing, Cabernet Sauvignon swilling, longing for a golden past, and profusion of profundities. It’s funny, and it’s sort of true. It’s also a sign that games are becoming more than just a way to have fun, even if they are in the very, very early stages.