Affecting Revolutionary Justice: A Review of We. The Revolution

This review is the first of a three-part review series of We. the Revolution.

By Daniel Arenas

The “Reign of Terror” in France (1793-1794), too often conflated with the French Revolution itself, has a long history in the popular consciousness that shares little with historical fact. From Dickens to Assassin’s Creed: Unity, literature and entertainment media have consistently depicted the Terror with images of a bloody guillotine, fed victims by a Kafka-esque logic of revolutionary paranoia and bloodlust. The video game We. The Revolution does nothing to change or correct this depiction, but it succeeds in conveying the experience of living in a state of constant mortal fear. It may struggle with historical accuracy and a compelling narrative, but interesting gameplay mechanics still make it a worthwhile experience.

We. The Revolution, is a courtroom-set puzzle/adventure game in which you play as the judge of a revolutionary tribunal. It was published by Klabater in March, 2019, and is available now on Steam for $19.99. What is immediately eye-catching is the game’s unique art-style, its emphasis on sharp, triangular lines subtly reinforces the theme of living on a blade’s edge, and the moral imperative behind exercising what Foucault called the droit de glaive. Literally the “right of the blade,” that is the perceived right of the state to kill to preserve order. Here the player is given that power, forcing the player to make difficult moral choices. But the lack of a sound track or spoken audio mean that outside of cutscenes, the game is almost completely silent, and this is a sorely missed opportunity. The silence breaks the immersion.The gameplay loop of hearing testimonies, asking questions, and passing verdicts is fun but forgettable. The mechanics boil down to a rock-paper-scissors style balancing act. Essentially, don’t make too many choices that anger one of three factions; the “People” (by which the creators signify their imagining of a familiar, bloodthirsty sans-culotterie) the “Revolutionaries” (meaning the bourgeois Convention members and lawyers) and the “Aristocracy.” Finally, in the late-game there are rudimentary battle mechanics, turning the player into a general as violence boils over in Paris. But this is not the game’s strong point, others do a better job of it. In all, it is an interesting game in its own right, but hardly groundbreaking on a technical level.

Screen Shot 2019-05-31 at 9.27.31 AMWe. The Revolution is instead more focused on conveying a deeply affective storytelling experience rather than re-tooling the gameplay landscape. Playing as the judge of a Revolutionary Tribunal, the gameplay mechanics underline the uneasy experience the creators aim to convey. There is little to stop you the player from rubber-stamping verdicts quickly, without even asking all the relevant questions, or you can spend as much time as you like poring over conflicting evidence and testimonies. Defendants and witnesses speak, you can ask from a list of leading questions designed to influence the jury’s expectations, and ruling against this expectation is dangerous to the player. As the judge, this means you really do wield the power of life and death with a mouse click. It’s a startling moment when you realize that the game will not stop you from being an unjust or uncaring judge. Even the tiny mechanic of creating your own wax stamp makes each decision carry a personal weight. With each case, the game seeks to depict a society on the brink, vacillating wildly from existential fear, to irrational paranoia, to grotesque violence, and back again, all at a moment’s notice. The creators succeed in making the player feel the threat of death looming over every decision, as your character is inextricably linked to these changes. You can be disbarred or even executed, if you become too fervent a supporter of one side or another. This is where We. The Revolution is at its best, in the courtroom. It truly succeeds in conveying the omnipresent fear in a violent and volatile society in upheaval.

However, the game developers do still fall back on old tropes about the Terror that propagate a specific popular imagining of the French Revolution. It is not so much that the game presents objectively false events, but the underlying historical narrative it promotes is one that zeroes in on state and mob violence while disregarding real threats of foreign invasion, economic collapse, and the genuine attempts to institute radically direct democracy. Take for example the ending. The player, a judge mind you, is tasked with leading the defenses of the city against counter-revolutionaries, and is nearly overwhelmed until the threat is ended by Napoleon’s arrival with professional forces, resulting in victory. In doing so, one of the characters describes the moment as the introduction of “your new dictator.” The game makes this moment as some kind of clear foreshadowing of the future degradation of the Republic and Napoleon’s proclamation of empire, but Napoleon was a relatively unknown, unimportant military commander until the later Italian campaign in 1796-7, and he would not be installed as France’s dictatorial First Consul until 1799. The game winks at the player who knows the future, but this deeds into a long-held narrative that dictatorship was an inevitable product of the Revolution. That the hubris of the Convention made Napoleon specifically a certainty, but this is far from the truth. The entire idea of the Republic is portrayed as little more than a sound-bite justifying horrific, radical violence. We never get a sense of what the Ancien Régime was like, and what the revolutionaries wanted the Republic to be. Beyond its portrayal of the revolution as a whole, the gameplay is almost exclusively in the courtroom, and thus there is no space to develop the personalities of anyone not on the docket. Worse, the relationships with the protagonist’s family (his wife, two sons, and father) are stilted and uninteresting because each member is written seemingly to fill a specific role; an acidic father, an idealistic young man, a cute kid, and a “constantly worrying” wife. No one, aside from the protagonist, through the player’s choices, really has room for interesting character development.

One of the biggest failures in this regard comes from what should be one of the high points of the game. The trial and execution of the King, Louis Capet (XVI). In life, he was tried by the National Convention, the legislative body itself, and not in the courts. This is to say, in life he stood before the equivalent of Congress, making the entire in-game proceeding ahistorical. Debate raged for weeks ranging from what should be the indictment, should there be an appeal, and what should be the punishment. Hundreds in the Convention virulently disagreed on these issues, and while Louis was found guilty by an overwhelming degree (almost 700 votes for), his death sentence passed by a majority of only one vote.[1] Execution was by no means a foregone conclusion in life. In-game, however, he is tried by you, a judge, with only a vague understanding of what his crimes were, with no meaningful defense, over a period of supposedly two days. We are told, for example, that letters have been found in the Tuileries that confirm Louis was in talks with the Austrians to let them take Paris, but we do not ever get to see these documents. Through the limited dialogue of both Louis and the Prosecutor (Fouquier-Tinville), it is taken as a given that Louis conspired against the Revolution, but did not wish to harm the people of Paris, yet there is no possibility for any real clarification or debate. Though it is possible to condemn Louis to prison or even set him free, the clearly-desired outcome is his execution, as seen by the “jury sentiment bar,” the majority of questions you the Judge can pose make this bar tip towards “pro-execution.” Once the sentence of execution is decided, it is you the player (the judge who condemned him) who operates the guillotine itself. The player quite literally serves as judge, jury, and executioner. Logically, this allows the game to have the player directly involved in this historically profound moment from beginning to end. But in practice, this cheapens the experience of witnessing the final demise of an entire social order. Dozens of people, guards and functionaries, were directly involved in his killing, and hundreds more sought for and brought about his execution, but the game presents it as the machination of small shadowy cabal executed (literally) by only one person. And as the game progresses, the death of Louis only happens mid-way through the first act, more and more nuance is lost as the developers stray further from a more grounded portrayal of the Terror.

That said, we should not expect popular media to have pitch-perfect portrayals of history, and for all its faults, We. The Revolution is still a fascinating game experience that explores the themes of power, justice, and corruption, through the lens of a truly-disorienting emotional experience. It unfortunately reinforces a worn, mostly ahistoric perspective on the Terror, but as a game it is well worth your time with plenty of content.


Daniel Arenas is currently a second-year Master’s student at FSU’s Institute on Napoleon and the French Revolution, and I am particularly interested in the Atlantic World in the Revolutionary-era. Tweet him at @arenasfsu.

Endnote:

[1] You can even see the parliamentary minutes of the proceedings online, Stanford University and the Bibliothèque nationale de France have cooperated to digitize hundreds of tomes of these parliamentary records. The minutes for the session in which Louis XVI was found guilty and his sentence passed (16 January, 1793) can be found here: https://frda.stanford.edu/en/catalog/by423fb7614_00_0333

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