We. The Revolution
The second game from Polish newcomers Polyslash, We. The Revolution offers players the experience of being a rising star in the judiciary of the newly Republican Paris as it slides fast into The Terror. Playing as the fictional Alexis Fidèle, you must successfully navigate the demands of party, family and the mob in order to deliver justice and avoid being ground to dust under the wheels of history.
We. the Revolution begins well. Despite the static and highly mannered visual style the player is quickly drawn in by a very fast learning curve and the complexity of struggling to keep afloat. You quickly abandon any pretence at fairness in the courtroom and simply vie to remain alive while learning to manipulate the jury into giving the most politically expedient verdicts for your current situation. Apart from a crushingly familiar gambling mini-game and a completely impenetrable battle system, the constant need to decant support between one faction and another combined with a multiple choice story and turn-based strategy keep you engaged and enjoying it. The voice acting is American and jarring (every actor pronounces Robespierre differently) but luckily only happens in the judiciously spaced cut-scenes.
The problem comes in the third act where, without spoiling the in-world plot, the protagonist suffers an involuntary sabbatical. This launches the game into a protracted, unskippable cutscene in which a shadowy ‘Puppeteer’ comes on like minor villain from Angel, warbling in menacing Wisconsin accents about the nature of fate and free will. Why on earth do this? Is it the writers panicking that they have run out of ways to raise the emotional stakes? Perhaps to the writers it really is a wild perspective-flipping moment to reveal that it’s “all just a game” but it hardly comes over like that to the player. Imagine if every book you read or film you watched ended with a reverse-flip “none of this is real” climax? Stop it! We know!
Why can’t new art try out highly stylised forms and structures without succumbing to the temptation to burst through the fourth wall? Tortuous, knowing meta-critiques offer obvious ego-boosts for the writers but do little for the audience which is forced to sit through them. Every modern Hollywood silent movie is about the silent movie industry and every modern musical about the music industry; Bandersnatch couldn't resist having the characters point out to the audience that was controlling their fates; even Fleabag has indulged, having the priest love-interest aware of the protagonist's looks-to-camera. Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen's Union and Philip K. Dick’s Man in the High Castle gratuitously imploded both suspension of disbelief and their created universes by suggesting that (what a twist!) these events never really happened. In video games, part of the blame has to fall on Bioshock for its violent twist ending which snatched apparent free-will from the player and critiqued the predestined nature of the game itself. But while Bioshock has been endlessly and deservedly praised, it is important to emphasize that this twist came very, very late, once the player was deeply emotionally enmeshed. Secondly, that the twist was unexpected in what was essentially a first-person shooter in a way that is unobtainable to a choice-driven RPG.
Ultimately, a game that had stuck closer to actual historical events, that drew its energy and tension from the player’s compromise between their desire not to betray the protagonist’s politics and the will to survive, would have proved more fascinating and had huge replay potential. As it,sadly We. The Revolution is simply another warning not to break the fourth wall if you have no idea what to do next.
Brecht, what have you done?