“Life on an orbital station does not need to be lonely or boring anymore.”
Are you a soul in frozen cryostasis aboard a distant starcraft, or just a citizen of the 21st Century Western World? Bientôt l’été, or “It’s Nearly Summer,” investigates the differences between the two, and ultimately finds very little. It’s the distant future- or maybe right now- and you are a man or woman deprived of human contact, deprived of communication, and alone with only your thoughts, and you get to try desperately to contact others. But only just this once, and only through the Intergalactic Holocom Transmitter II.
The simulation begins. Be sure to thoroughly study the instructions, though, because interacting with others via the IHTII isn’t easy. This isn’t Uncharted or Mass Effect, not a simulation that facilitates seamless conversation or landscape transversal. Of course, those simulators only allow you to take the place of an action hero, embodying someone else and experiencing the world through their well-equipped shoes. In Bientôt l’été, you dig into your own psyche, delving into the deeper parts of your consciousness to find your own horrifying desperation for intimacy. So please thoroughly investigate the instructions, as they will guide you by hand through each sequence in the IHTII experience. There are no surprises in the simulation structure; there is only surprise at your own infuriating psyche.
First, you will be uncomfortable. You will try to run. You will try to swim. You will try to do all the things you are used to doing in third-person action games. It is okay. You must be unsettled before you can fully experience the IHTII simulation. Now walk along the ocean. Settle down. The music is painstakingly constructed and wholly dynamic. You are plunging into the depths of your own mind, and the music will enhance the slow unravelling. Stray far from the single cafe structure in the games landscape? The music becomes more despondent. Pause to investigate the glowing ocean? The music cools, perhaps inspiring awe, perhaps triggering horror. Then shiver as you seat yourself on a lone seaside bench, the sky whirling with planets, moons, suns and day-night transitions. Vague impressions of lost love, lost connection, and denial scroll across the screen, imprinting themselves on your mind. You will need them when you contact another human being.
Perhaps in another life, you contacted human beings via electronic signals and series of letters, social networks, text packages transmitted from cellular telephones. You’ll recall them when you enter the cafe. In the cafe, you will experience a conversation, composed of chunks of communication acquired by your lonely walk along the oceanside, and compounded with equally vague impressions of responses relayed by your interstellar partner, that will seem eerily similar to those you once had. This is the centerpiece of Bientôt l’été, a bewildering game of chess with a second player- yes, this is a multiplayer game. In the first game of chess, you have only two chess pieces. Make a move in the game, and a corresponding phrase, acquired during your oceanside walk, is triggered. The second player can then respond in kind. Vague impressions of lost love, lost connection, and denial scroll are transmitted across space and time to an equally lonely partner. You will eventually run out of phrases and pieces- this is only a fraction of a real interaction, after all. So go back outside.
You’ll play game after game after game of bewildering chess during your Bientôt l’été experience, and after each one, you’ll walk outside, encounter a brief, graphic impression of a lost memory, and then gain another chess piece. You can also take another walk along the ocean, gaining more phrases as you stroll along. Each time you return to the cafe, your chess game will begin to more fully resemble an actual chess game, though your conversation with your partner will never achieve actual lucid communication. You finally find a pattern, a concrete gameplay mechanic. After an extended period of bewilderment and confusion, the game congeals into somewhat of an actual game, though one painstakingly manufactured not to evoke a fantasy experience, but rather a self-psycho-evaluation.
Graphically, Bientôt l’été is, admittedly, a bit of a mixed bag. Screenshots effectively translate the game’s striking simplicity of composition, with a bold white beach that meets an achingly beautiful ocean as it laps at the shore. The horizon cuts the screen in half in just about the perfect proportions, making every seaside stroll feel like a painstakingly composed painting rather than a serendipitous alignment brought about by an arbitrary camera angle chosen by the gamer. The gamer’s avatar itself evokes a space-age, retro styling, either a hooded male or slickly bespectacled female. Both are clothed in immaculate white garb, meant to evoke a future where life is clinical, synthetic and devoid of messy things like human interaction. Their animations are disappointingly stiff and disjointed at times, although extended strolls along the ocean side are anything but robbed of value by the plain animations. The interior of the cafe, however, is disappointingly dull, and much of the internal environment design resembles the faux-3D styling of Donkey Kong Country and Myst. It’s definitely in the oceanside walks that Bientôt l’été shines visually.
Note please that the quote at the beginning of the article never appears at any point in the actual gameplay experience. There is no background exposition preceding your appearance on the seashore- only a brief impression of a man and woman sealed in cryostasis tanning beds, and a choice between the two avatars. Bientôt l’été exists on its own mysterious terms, leaving the player with nothing but vague impressions of meaning, bringing to mind the reclusive, enigmatic French films the game evokes. It begs the player to investigate, and the development blog, authored by game designer Michaël Samyn, more than satisfies. You should also check out the game’s offical webpage, where more than enough information regarding the Intergalactic Holocom Transmitter II and a satirical data-dump of sci-fi lore can be readily consumed. It’s also highly notable that the game’s control scheme was designed to be intentionally obtuse, with everything but directional-key navigation requiring highly specific control input that adds a whole new layer of meaning to “context sensitive.” You can’t play the game at all without thoroughly studying its somewhat lengthy and difficult to internalize instruction manual. It’s like the game wants you to dig deeper, to read between the lines, and thus discover the highly unique and effective potential of the experience.
I called Bientôt l’été a “game” six times in the preceding paragraph, and I’ve never before felt so uncomfortable calling a game a game. This isn’t a competition or challenge designed to gauge a player’s reflexes or satisfy his or her need for immersion, cognitive relay or escape. It’s a profound subversion of interactive tropes that takes the vaguest impressions of gaming, from the basic two-player online chess game to the third-person adventure scenario, and uses these subconscious bits to fashion an experience that is deeply unsettling and profound. It’s challenging, but not like Demon’s Souls, Ninja Gaiden or Battletoads. It truly challenges what virtual interactive experiences can invoke, taking an avant-guarde approach that simultaneously eschews and assimilates just about everything we know about gaming.
In that sense, of course, you could also argue that it’s a bland and pointless game with boring controls and outdated polygons.