This is the second review in our three-part series of reviews of We. the Revolution.
By Zachary M. Stoltzfus
Paris, the early 1790s. Various competing factions (royalists, the common people, revolutionaries), having overgrown the crumbling edifice of the Old Regime, yield to no one in their attempts to best one another. Fathoming the depth of their power and intentions remains elusive. Acting as the ironically-named Fidèle, a judge of the Revolutionary Tribunal, the player must decide who should be pruned from the overgrowth and who deserves to be spared. It is impossible to exercise this judgement from a vantage point free of political prejudice, and as the game progresses the politics of revolutionary Paris constrict the application of justice. Cases grow more complex while The idealized sterility of justice is rapidly contaminated by public opinion, as is Fidèle’s liver from excessive drinking. There is a weariness underlying this revolution.
The basic premise of We. The Revolution —playing judge, jury, and executioner of the French Revolution as Fidèle—is, pardon the pun, well-executed. The story of the French Revolution is told through the daily unfolding drama of court cases that cross Fidèle’s bench. As the player rules on these cases, the various ideological sects of Paris react, and these reactions in turn solidify or detract from Fidèle’s reputation as a judge. If Fidèle’s reputation falls below a certain threshold, you risk losing the game. The cases ring with a degree of historical accuracy, though most are undoubtedly made up. To the historian who has read actual case files from the Revolutionary Tribunal the desperation and political opportunism that color them feels real. But the game does not begin and end in the courtroom. If you sentence a defendant to execution it is not enough to sign and seal the paperwork. You also harangue the crowd gathered to watch the blade fall. One oratorical slip-up and it is you who might be next.
Nor does the game stop at the public square. Fidèle’s private life is just as important, and one must be careful to balance nights out discussing politics with time spent around the family dinner table. Your rulings in the courtroom intrude into your relationship with your family. Fidèle is a man pulled in different directions—between justice and careerism; the truth and what different factions want to hear; his family and amplifying his reputation among the sections of Paris. Every decision, both public and private, compounds to direct your fate towards either power or ignominy. Aided by the sangfroid that pervades the narration, We. The Revolution carries a certain poetic power in its rendering of the French Revolution’s capacity for violence. By stressing both moral ambiguity and ideological purity, it succeeds in emphasizing the real-life tensions that underlay revolutionary Paris. Fidèle’s actions may be circumscribed by ideological factions, but they are defined by an instinct to first survive then to thrive politically.
To this last observation, the creators of We. The Revolution missed an ideal opportunity to better map the social dimensions of revolutionary Paris. Yes, there were impersonal ideologies at work, as abstract perhaps as the graphics used by the game’s developers to depict the faces of angry Parisians. While the game does feature informal networks of patronage, partisan intrigue, and a highly-detailed family life, these are ultimately treated as afterthoughts to the demands of inscrutable political sects who control your true fate (and those of your rivals and patrons). By trying to be all things to these vast political forces, you (Fidèle) may succeed in escaping with your head but not your conscience–the game asks you to knowingly condemn defendants to death based on flimsy evidence and intone hypocritically about peace and security before bloodthirsty crowds. Although this approach lends some authentic discomfort to notions of revolutionary justice, it is hardly satisfying. It is best not to scrutinize the particularities of each case too closely, lest the jury return a politically inconvenient verdict (disregarding the jury’s verdict in favor of the factions will also damage your reputation). Due in part to a dearth of nuance at the social level, the game lacks the historical detail needed to better understand the motivations of different actors. The factions of Paris who influence your fate want various things, but as to why you are left to guess. A large, unoccupied space exists between your private reflections and the factions of Paris; between justice and the revolution. Fidèle is meant to operate in this space, but the unpredictability of the factions creates an atmosphere of constant danger and changing norms. The social and economic dynamics of these factions are left largely unexplored. This leads to the broader question: What were the creators of We. The Revolution hoping to accomplish? Given the fictional storyline and lack of historical background, it was obviously not created solely for educational purposes. Perhaps they found in the pathos of the French Revolution a grand setting for a choose-your-own-adventure game of political brinkmanship devoid of any notion of authentic justice. My guess is that the creators set out to make a game that merged the ruthlessness of revolutionary politics with the romance of the past in an attempt to provide players with a “House of Cards” kind of experience.
If that was indeed their intention, the creators of We. The Revolution succeeded. Instructors of History or Law may find the game useful for explaining to students how the contingencies of court cases affect broader politics and vice-versa, but the game might ultimately be more useful as a tool for anthropologists studying how people navigate political disasters in which previous benchmarks of authority have been obliterated and no clear replacement has yet materialized. The game is an amusing exercise in political survival; actual historical events are only hinted at obliquely. For example, the fact that Citizen Louis Capet was put on trial and executed by the National Convention is disregarded in favor of the player performing that same role as Fidèle. In order to win, the game forces you to yield to the whims of the factions, which, while entertaining for a time, ultimately feels like losing. As the game progresses, it becomes clear: the only way to survive is to blend in with the verdure of violence.
Zachary M Stoltzfus is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Florida State University. His dissertation focuses on laws governing credit and the French Revolution.