I came into We. The Revolution (We. hereafter) reflective of the ways Reacting to the Past (see Meghan Robert’s post here on Rousseau, Burke, and Revolution in France, 1791 – written as “RTTP” from this point forward) is used in classes on the French Revolution, including my own. I am also decidedly not an expert on video games – Mario Kart Wii, the Civilization series, and Sim City are my typical wheelhouse. But We’s interface was intuitive, and the narrative of the game is generally gripping. What I found is that while RTTP emphasizes enshrining ideology into law, We is about contingency and survival; this difference between the two games manifests itself in the game structure in various ways.
If there’s one critique I have of RTTP, it’s that a participant who has advantages at the beginning of the game—i.e. knowledge of the historical time period, familiarity with the RTTP format—can tilt the game in their direction in a “rich get richer” manner that the game mechanisms do not self-correct. There is nothing built into the game to launch those at the bottom to the top or vice versa. Those familiar with Mario Kart will note that those well ahead of the pack will likely be blown up by a blue shell while someone can transform into a speeding bullet. I had the pleasure of being the overpowering player during a beta test of the Haitian Revolution game at last year’s French Colonial Historical Society meeting. Emancipation and radical land distribution for Jean-François Papillon!
In We. The Revolution, however, the player character Alexis Fidèle, a revolutionary tribunal judge, is decidedly not in control of events. Actions that appear rational and aimed at overall victory will, inevitably, result in unintended consequences, much like actual revolutionary politics. And every choice has opportunity costs—even when you choose to spend an evening with your family, there is no choice of family activity that makes everyone happy. What’s more, the game begins with you having to judge a court case that involves your young son as a defendant just as you’re learning who your family members are, how to ask questions, how to decide verdicts—the basic mechanics of playing the game. While there is an initial tutorial, and the possibility of purchasing more guidance during the early part of the game, it feels like you’re awakening from a multi-year coma in which you’ve managed to offend just about everyone and get promoted into a job that is above your head.
In RTTP, most players are part of factions or have other clear objectives they must achieve. In We. The Revolution, Fidèle is both part of a faction (pro-Revolution, with politics that are somewhere to the left of the Girondists) and an indeterminate, who must balance the demands of the “people,” “the revolutionaries” (a different group!), his family members and, in time, the aristocracy. During my first time through, Fidèle was assassinated by the aristocrats early in Act III.
While We and RTTP are both set in Paris and cover similar beats (the trial of Louis Capet, the rise of the Terror), We places a much greater emphasis on the judicial system, which provides an inlet into Parisian society than students don’t experience from RTTP. Many cases involve drunken brawls, domestic violence, and sexual assault, but there are also cases such as one where a cutler was (mistakenly?) using human bones to create handles for silverware. Aristocrat-servant relations are often central, with implications for your character’s standing with the aristocracy or the people. Clandestine engagements, medical students exhuming graves, bakers gouging customers, archbishops with secret children—We does a good job of introducing players to the everyday concerns of revolutionary Paris, even as legislative manners such as the financial system, reforming laws, thinking about active and passive citizenship, take a backseat.
I was curious to see where questions of race and slavery show up, as the Haitian Revolution not only occurred concurrently but was critical to the unfolding of the French Revolution. It’s not until Act III, when Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, born into slavery in Saint-Domingue and quickly rising in the ranks of the French National Guard, counterfactually allies with Fidèle to defend Paris that the topic is broached, and even then, with very little detail. Before Act III, Paris is uniformly white, even though it historically was not. It is also notable that Dumas is the only major character Fidèle does not have to persuade via an intrigue or the conversation matrix, rather just signing his commission as a general officer.
The game works well for mature players (or at least those desensitized to the macabre violence embedded in the game’s aesthetic) who only have a passing familiarity with the French Revolution, introducing them to key figures and concepts and plenty of executions by guillotine, even if it is a white-washed, Paris-centric revolution. The game does have adult themes, and if using in the classroom I recommend that it be used with only upper-level undergraduate students or graduate students, with some time spent familiarizing students with the interface and discussing the difficult themes, questions, and ideas the game brings to the fore. Students wholly or largely unfamiliar with video games will likely be surprised, and perhaps sickened, by the realistic sound of the guillotine blade, the blood dripping off the blade, and Fidèle’s responsibility for the deaths. It is a more visceral counterpart to RTTP: how important are Rousseau and Burke’s ideas when you need to keep your player and his family alive?
Robert D. Taber, Ph.D. is assistant professor of government and history at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina. A historian of Haiti, he is currently working on a book project examining the intersection of slavery and family life in Saint-Domingue and the early Haitian Revolution. Follow him on Twitter @RobTaber.