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Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (Part 1)

cover of the IF Theory Reader
Val Grimm, Editors’ note: As part of our coverage of this year’s Second Annual Interactive Fiction Mini-Convention, we are publishing two articles from Interactive Fiction Theory Reader, a newly released collection of essays including work by Nick Montfort, Andrew Plotkin, Emily Short, and many more. This is the second article, the first being Francesco Cordella’s History of Italian IF. We are publishing it in two parts (read the second part here) due to the constraints of this WordPress installation.

 

Hugo Labrande is an IF author and reviewer. His game Gossip was first runner-up in IntroComp 2009. He is presently studying at the University of Calgary.

From the beginning to the present day, it seems that the language of interactive fiction is for the most part English. The first interactive fiction, Adventure, developed by Will Crowther, was written in English, modeled after a cave in Kentucky, and spread via the ARPANET, which was a strictly American network. Later, Infocom wrote games that are considered the canon of interactive fiction, again in English. In the early 90s, TADS and Inform were developed by English speakers, and the majority of the games that were subsequently developed with those two authoring systems were in English. As a matter of fact, at the date of the writing of this article, there are 3732 games in the IFDB, of which 388 are not written in English[1]: 90% of all interactive fiction is written in English. The majority of authors, reviewers, and IF critics are thus English speakers, and interactive fiction is mainly an English-speaking genre.

But interactive fiction in other languages exists, though in smaller numbers. As a matter of fact, Inform and TADS have been translated for other languages; translations of Inform libraries are publicly available for eight other languages,[2] which means one can create a game in each of these languages. The biggest non-English speaking community is the Spanish IF community, mainly centered around the CAAD (Club de Aventuras AD); as for the second biggest, it is unclear: the German community appears to have a lot of games but was thought dead a few years ago[3] (although it was apparently reborn last year); the Italian community was very active at the beginning of the 2000s, but their activity has declined since then; the French community enjoys steady activity but possibly fewer games.

As pointed out by a few critics, among them Jeremy Douglass,[4] the dominance of English in interactive fiction means that most of the histories of the genre are centered around works written in English and thus mention Infocom games as the canon of interactive fiction, from which everything else was derived, and acknowledge them as a major influence, if not the biggest. But as noted by some, while Infocom games were a huge success in North America, their success in other countries where they were also available varies greatly. Therefore, how can we talk of a history of interactive fiction that mentions Infocom as a major influence when every other community grew up without Infocom games? As a matter of fact, each other language community has its own history—one could say parallel histories—of the development of interactive fiction. Those histories are certainly interesting, as they might, for example, provide other perspectives about the market of interactive fiction (did IF die with the fall of Infocom, or was that a more general trend of the video game market?) and also give the opportunity to those communities to establish themselves as independent communities with their own interactive fiction culture.

Unfortunately, as of today, such histories are sometimes incomplete, and few are available, if very detailed. A few of them have been written by various members of the communities and published in SPAG: a timeline of French IF was written by Grégoire Schneller (“Eriorg”) and is featured in SPAG#47, Russian IF was covered by Sergey Minin in SPAG#48, the history of Spanish IF written by Pablo Martinez Merino (“Depresiv”) was published in SPAG#49, and a special feature about Italian IF (and its history, written by “torredifuoco”) was published in SPAG#51. Those histories are in general fairly long and well-crafted and provide a timeline of interactive fiction in those different communities and languages; however, they remain the only ones of their kind and thus are incomplete: there is much more to say, to study, to look for. Those histories need to be examined more, for they can teach us much more; I hope that in the future, we will see more studies of the genre in other languages, tackling some aspects of interactive fiction with another, different perspective.

As a member of the French-speaking interactive fiction community, I can only speak about this community and its history, for I don’t know any other community—the language barrier, as always, makes it hard to communicate with other communities. In the following, I will try to push further the study of the history of interactive fiction written in French, by talking in more detail about the 80s, a period that hasn’t really been covered yet. This history of the 80s (as well as, briefly, the modern era) will also allow me to talk in a more in-depth fashion about various technical aspects of French interactive fiction and compare them to those of English interactive fiction (and, more precisely, Infocom games).

The Video Game Market in France in the 80s

Let’s talk briefly about the video game market in France in the 80s—and of particular interest to us, the microcomputer market. First of all, we have to say a couple of things about France in the 80s: the country had about 55 million inhabitants, and the currency was the “franc français” (French franc, abbreviated FF). Due to inflation, it is quite hard to give an equivalent in euros (which was worth 6.55957 francs at the time it was introduced in 2002) or any other currency. The rule of thumb is that computers generally cost a few thousand francs, while games cost a few hundred francs.

First of all, it seems that the video game market was not really developed before 1980; a few microcomputers were available, but they were quite expensive. Then came the Sinclair ZX series of microcomputers: the ZX-80 came out in France in February 1980 and was the first microcomputer to be sold at less than 1000FF. The next year, the ZX-81 came out and was the most successful microcomputer at the time in France. It is hard to give exact sales figures for it, but a 1981 ad for this computer states that “tens of thousands of people in France already bought this computer,”[5] offers a retail price of 790FF (only 500FF for the unmounted version), and states that games on tape are sold at a price “between 50FF and 150FF” (which was really cheap). The computer was sold from 1981 to 1987, at which date its production was stopped in favor of the ZX Spectrum (released in 1984 in France), which didn’t sell as well as the ZX-81 (even though its retail price was seemingly as low as the ZX-81’s).

The Commodore C64 was released the next year, in 1982, and was extremely successful. Despite of its price (4800FF) and its weight, it was a great success in France: about 1.5 million were sold throughout the 80s, not only for gaming purposes but also as a desktop computer.[6] The C64 was very successful around the world, which means that a lot of games were available at the time (including classics such as Arkanoid and Pong). Commodore tried to improve the console with the release of the Commodore Plus/4, which was cheaper (1990FF) but which wasn’t as successful as the C64 (partly because it wasn’t compatible with C64 applications). In 1985, as machines with better capabilities were sold on the market, the price of the C64 dropped significantly to make it a more affordable machine. Games for the C64 were sold until 1994.

The following years saw the start of a boom in microcomputer sales in France, around the end of 1983 and the beginning of 1984.[7] Several very successful microcomputers were released during this period, as well as a lot of games: this was truly the start of video gaming in France.

The first microcomputer to initiate this boom is the Oric-1. Oric was a British company (later bought by Eurêka, a French company, in 1985) that sold its microcomputers mainly in Europe; even though the computers had some bugs and issues (for instance with their HyperBasic language), they were affordable and extremely successful in the UK and France. The Oric-1 had 48kb of memory and a processor running at 1MHz. At first it cost 2000FF but was later sold at 1000FF, and it could be connected to the television, making it attractive for every family. In France, in 1983 alone, 50,000 Oric-1 computers were sold;[8] it was later chosen as “Computer of the Year 1983.”[9] The following year, the Oric Atmos was released (first at 2490FF, then the next year at 990FF[10]) and was equally successful, if not more: 27,000 sold in the three months following its release in February 1984, and 120,000 in its first two years.[11] The success of those two Oric computers lead to the development of a good number of French games, particularly interactive fiction games. The first Oric conceived by Eurêka, the Telestrat, came out in 1986 but sold badly (around 2,000 units).

The next computer that was highly successful in France was the Amstrad CPC. The Amstrad CPC464 came out in September 1984 and was an instant success; the business model was to build a computer that would be cheap, ready-to-use, and sold in supermarkets to attract families. It came out at the price of 2990FF (4990FF with a color screen[12]) and sold extremely well: 2 million units were sold in France in the 80s![13] Following this huge success, a great number of magazines about CPC464 gaming were started: the boom of the video game industry was definitely there. Its successor, the CPC6128, came out in 1985 and sold very well too. Those two computers reigned over the video game market in France for years, before the Japanese consoles took over at the end of the 80s, with the Nintendo NES and the Sega Master System.

Apple computers were starting to be successful too. The first Apple microcomputer that was sold in France was the Apple // Europlus (which is basically the same as the Apple //+ but for the European market) in 1980; it did not sell very well, because of some conception mistakes as well as a very high price (12000FF with the disk drive,[14] which was expensive even for a color-displaying computer), but this computer, as we will see, had a very important role in the creation of interactive fiction. The next version of the Apple //, the Apple //e, sold pretty well, but it is the Apple //c that was the most successful: released in 1984, it had a mouse and a color screen and sold really well, though not as well as the previously mentioned computers.

Finally, the Atari ST microcomputers were pretty successful too. The first of them was released in 1985, and a couple of others were released a bit later; the sales of this microcomputer were 6 million worldwide. This microcomputer was attractive for its capabilities as well as its relatively low price (3000FF, a third the price of other comparable microcomputers with color capabilities at the time). Most of the success of the Atari ST happened in Europe rather than in the U.S.; in Germany, 2 million of units were sold, and in France it was 600,000 units.[15] As a matter of fact, in France, a few magazines were exclusively dedicated to this computer, and we will see that there were quite a few interactive fiction games released for the Atari ST.[16]

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To sum up, the Amstrad CPC, Oric, and Atari ST computers were the most successful of this period and initiated a boom in the gaming industry in France starting in 1984. Other microcomputers that did well were the ZX, Commodore, and Apple microcomputers. We will see that most of the interactive fiction games developed in the 80s were either for the Atari ST, CPC, Oric, Apple, or even Commodore computers—it seems that the ZX was already too old when the first interactive fiction games were developed.

How about the sales of video games in that period? The July 1984 issue of the magazine Tilt featured an article titled “La puce aux œufs d’or” (“The chip that lays golden eggs”) about the rising market of video gaming in France, that it could bring wealth and fame to any good game programmer, as was happening in the U.S. at the time. The article states that since “the number of computers in France is thirty times less than the number of computers in the U.S,”[17] then “while a game can sell between 100,000 and 1 million units there, a French game can only hope for figures 50 to 100 times less.”[18] Later in the article, it is stated that “3,000 units is considered as a good figure for a game.”[19] The creators of a game could ask at the time for royalties between 10% and 25%—that seems high, but considering the sales figures, this doesn’t make the game developers very rich. Still, this article talks about a huge ambition from French publishers to make the most of the boom that was starting at the time; it features comments from Laurent Weill, one of the creators of Loriciels, which we will talk about in a bit.

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Now that we have laid out the landscape for video gaming in France in the 80s, let’s focus on interactive fiction per se. If we consider the history of interactive fiction as it is in general written, interactive fiction was spawned by the mainframe games Adventure and Zork, and a bit later by the Infocom games for microcomputers. Does this version of the story still hold for the development of interactive fiction in France?

Where are Adventure and Infocom?: English Interactive Fiction in the 80s

It is widely acknowledged that the first interactive fiction ever was Adventure, written in 1975 by Will Crowther in Fortran on a PDP-10 mainframe. This game was widely spread on the American network ARPANET and was a huge success. Following this, a few other games were developed—on mainframes as well; there were clones of Adventure but also more and more original games, quite often in the cave-crawling genre as well: Zork, developed inside MIT in 1979, as well as Phoenix adventures across the pond in Cambridge, U.K., and a game in Swedish, Stuga, released around 1978. The creation of adventures in Cambridge wasn’t spontaneous; in fact, it was one of the very few places in the world to have a connection to ARPANET, which means a copy of Adventure, and later Zork, transited there, spawning interest in interactive fiction.[20] Adventure was thus incredibly influential, creating a new genre of video game and generating a great interest for the genre—an interest so great that it prompted some players of the games to create their own Adventure-like games.

Is the story the same in France? We don’t know for sure, but the answer is most probably no. It is very difficult to find information about mainframes in France at the end of the 70s and the beginning of the 80s, and unlike the English-speaking community, no ex-mainframe user is part of the French community to provide useful information about them. However, a few things makes us think that Adventure could very well have never reached France. First of all, no text adventure in French playable on a mainframe has been found or mentioned anywhere (and if Adventure was so interesting and even a bit widespread in France, it is likely that someone would have attempted to create an Adventure-like game). Also, it is unlikely that at some point a computer in France ever had a connection to ARPANET: first of all, ARPANET was an American network, and (for all I know) the only international connections of ARPANET were to Norway and the United Kingdom; also, after a French delegation was sent to BBN in 1970, France became increasingly interested in computer networks, and from 1972 was involved in the creation of its own network, CYCLADES. Another network, Transpac, was also developed by the French Ministry of Communications, and in the end CYCLADES was dropped in 1978 in favor of Transpac (which was used a few years later for the French network Minitel, which became very commonly used in the 1980s). Thus, it is unlikely that France ever requested a connection to the ARPANET, since it was involved in the creation of its own network; thus it would seem that we can safely assume that neither Adventure nor Zork ever crossed the English Channel. But even if those games were not known in France, one could imagine that someone would have had the idea of such a game and independently created the French equivalent of Adventure; however, as far as I know, this is not the case.

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How about Infocom games—and, more generally, English interactive fiction games? This is a bit difficult to answer, as well: information about it is quite sparse. However, we can say with quasi-certainty that Infocom games were not (or very little) influential; the average gamer of the 80s will most likely quote French games rather than Infocom games. There are several points to consider here: were they influential for developers and game designers, were they well-received by critics, and were they successful in terms of sales figures?

The thing is, the information about the release of Infocom (or English) games in France is very sparse and is certainly a field that would be worth exploring. I thought for a while—maybe as a preconceived opinion, but more likely because nostalgic gamers weren’t talking about Infocom games when they were talking about games they played in the 80s, or didn’t know those games—that Infocom games simply had never been released in France, or if they had, it was as “import games” that were thus sold at a pretty expensive price,[21] explaining a small audience. It turns out that this is incorrect: Infocom games, along with some other English or American interactive fiction games, were indeed sold in France, sometimes at an affordable price, and were even reviewed in video game magazines. It is worth noting that those games weren’t translated and were sold in English, which could have contributed to their lack of influence or success. However, according to a nostalgic CPC gamer, English games became less popular with the boom of the French video game industry around the end of 1984.

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Let’s start with Infocom games: by reading old issues of video game magazines of the 80s, I could gather[22] quite a lot of information about the release of Infocom games. The earliest reference to any Infocom game is in the December 1983 issue of Micro 7; the test of Le Manoir du Docteur Génius[23] mentions that “of course, the parser doesn’t have the capabilities of Infocom games”;[24] this would mean that some Infocom games were available in France around this time.

The most significant trace of Infocom games that can be found is in the April 1984 issue of SVM: Infidel is the “Game of the Month”! The magazine reviews it on two pages:[25] it talks about the story of the game and the feelies, praises the parser that can recognize a lot of words and sentences, and mentions the presence of verbose and superbrief modes. Several things are worth noting in this article that give clues about Infocom games in France at the time. First of all, Infocom is introduced as “the creators of the famous Zork,” which (associated with the previous reference) makes us think that Zork had been published in France at the time.[26] Then, there is information about the release of the game: the publisher of the game in France is SIDEG,[27] the game was first released for Apple //e (the article says that versions for IBM-PC and Commodore 64 “should be released soon”), and it cost 695FF.[28]

However, even if some magazines occasionally wrote about Infocom games, sometimes even reviewing those games, they were not famous enough to be considered by French gamers as classics games to which you compare other adventure games. This can be correlated with the remark mentioned above: after the boom of microcomputers and video games in France in 1984, a lot of French games were released, and games in English became less common. There are a few references to Infocom games in magazines, though. For instance, in its January 1985 issue, Tilt mentions the “good detective game” Witness.[29] In April 1985, SVM, in an article about text adventures,[30] mentions Infocom and its “good stories” as well as its “incredible parser [that] has an answer for every sentence in natural language”;[31] the article mentions the games available in France at the time:[32] Zork, Infidel, Deadline, and Sorcerer, available on Apple //, IBM-PC, and Commodore 64.[33]

The release of the Atari ST and its relative success apparently gave a new platform for Infocom to release its games on. The first issue (September 1985) of ST Magazine mentions the software available on this computer; the category “text adventure” (implied: without graphics) is almost entirely made of Infocom games: Zork (all three episodes), Wishbringer, and The Hitchiker’s Guide to Galaxy are listed as available, while every other Infocom game[34] is listed as “available in October.”[35] Another reference in the December 1985 issue of ST Magazine mentions the exact same thing: “Every Infocom game is available for the ST. Very high in the U.S. sales charts for years, they require a good knowledge of English to be played.”[36] A few years later, in December 1987, the magazine Atari 1st lists again some Infocom games[37] that are available on the Atari; we note that in this list, a few games are missing, for instance Hollywood Hijinx, Trinity, and Bureaucracy[38]: it is likely that those games were not released in France, for an unknown reason.[39] Unfortunately, no information about the retail price was included in those references. In other magazines, there were occasionally reviews of Infocom games; however, we have to note that the majority of those reviews were written after 1987, and as we will see later, adventure games with parsers were declining at that time.

In a nutshell, that is all we could gather in old magazines about Infocom games. It appears that the games were first released on Apple //, IBM-PC, and Commodore 64; then the games were released in a more systematic way for the Atari ST. It seems that Infocom games didn’t enjoy a great success in France;[40] we could cite as reasons the high retail price (for the first years, at least—Infocom games for the Atari weren’t as expensive, probably around 200FF) and the suboptimal choice of platforms,[41] but the main reason is certainly that those games were text-only and in English.

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A word about other games in English. It seems that other games in English were released in France in the 80s, and some of them were more successful than Infocom games.[42]

It appears that some Scott Adams games were released in France and were pretty successful. The versions that were released were the games with graphics published by Adventure International. We can find a quick review of Saga 1: Adventureland in the April 1984 issue of Micro 7, stating “Scott Adams games are reference games,” and “the next three are now available”; the game was released for ZX Spectrum and Commodore 64, and the retail price was somewhere around 200FF (which is pretty cheap).[43] The January 1985 issue of Tilt (which featured a lot of tests of adventure games) mentions The Hulk (for Commodore 64 and Atari 800; an ad on the next page advertised a retail price of 185FF[44]) and Voodoo Castle (for Apple //).[45] The last reference we could locate is in ST Magazine in December 1987, where the games Questprobe 2: Spiderman and Questprobe 3: The Fantastic Four part I were listed.[46]

A couple of games in English got very good reviews in French magazines and were seemingly quite successful. First, The Hobbit, for Spectrum 48K and Commodore 64 (and later, interestingly, for Oric Atmos), had a very good review in the March 1984 issue of Micro 7,[47] as well as in Tilt in January 1985.[48] Then, The Pawn, which got very good reviews in Atari ST magazines[49][50]; as a matter of fact, Magnetic Scrolls games enjoyed quite a good critical success, winning two Tilts d’Or[51] in the 80s.

Mystery House was also available in France before 1982 for Apple // and may be the first text adventure in English released in France—we know it was released in France before 1982 for Apple // because it inspired the first French interactive fiction game, as we will see in the next part. We can also quote Masquerade on Apple // (a couple of French adventures for Apple // were compared to it by critics), games by Legend Entertainment such as Frederik Pohl’s Gateway and Eric the Unready, as well as games by Interceptor Micro such as Forest at World’s End and Jewels of Babylon[52]—the latter was actually translated into French a bit later, which is rare enough to be noticed.[53]

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So why exactly were some extremely successful and influential games in English not successful at all in France in the 80s? The answer is very simple, and it is as always the language barrier. Those influential and originally English-speaking games were never translated into French, and since France is not traditionally a country where English is widespread,[54] games in English had a more limited audience and thus were not very successful or influential. We note that games in English were imported mostly before 1984: English games were played because there were not a lot of games in French at the time, but as soon as there were more games created by French video games companies (after the boom of the video game industry in France in 1984), it seems that not a lot of people played games in English anymore.

But can we say that, had Infocom games been translated into French, they would have been more successful? It is very hard to say. We could imagine that with such a translation, and considering the quality of Infocom games, more people would have played them in the early years,[55] leading potentially to a cementation of the genre that could compete with text adventures with graphics. But as a matter of fact, French gamers at the time seemed very attached to adventures with graphics (to put it mildly) and very patronizing toward text-only adventures. For instance, in the January 1985 issue of Tilt, a short paragraph titled “One dimension less” talks about some text-only adventures and notes that adventures with graphics are better because they spare the player the trouble of imagining things, and the memory excuse doesn’t hold for the most recent computers.[56] The April 1985 edition of SVM is harsher, writing in an article about adventure games,[57] “We have to mention the sinister incarnation, fortunately on its way towards extinction, of games that ignore graphics. For instance the Infocom series [sic] (such as Infidel), who think they are even by compensating with a (very good) parser and a broad vocabulary. C’est un peu court, jeune homme![58]” In Generation 4’s first issue at the end of 1987, we can read, “The scenarios and the quality of those adventures are why they are among best-sellers in the U.S. In France, it is very different, since we seem to consider that a game in English without any graphics is not a proper game.” But were French gamers attached to graphics just because they had the habit of them, or is it deeper than that?[59] An interesting question, for sure.

And in fact, we may be able to argue that Infocom was in fact quite influential, in a way. Because Infocom games were text-only, you had to be able to read English very well to be able to enjoy the game; whereas with an adventure with graphics, you understood the setting with much less effort and could still advance in the adventure with only rudiments of English (the classic verbs in adventure games, for instance) or a dictionary next to you. Thus, French people were more able to understand graphic adventures; before French adventures were developed, all that a French gamer could play, and thus would play, were graphic adventures. It is then quite logical that the first adventure games in French that were developed featured graphics, since the genre was pretty much the reference for a majority of gamers (and perhaps authors as well); the trend carried on throughout the 80s, and soon enough French gamers couldn’t see why they would play adventure games without graphics, seeing text-only adventures as lacking something in comparison. Thus, this (unverified) theory would explain the market of adventure games in France in the 80s: the fact that Infocom games were never translated to French can very well have been somewhat influential in the 80s by bringing gamers to graphic adventures, shaping the landscape of French adventure games for the whole decade.

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Now that we have talked about games in English in France, and have seen how even the most influential games (that are part of the canonical, English-biased history of interactive fiction) were unsuccessful in France in the 80s, we can focus on text adventures in French during this period. It all began in the summer of 1982, with a summer holiday in the south of France.

The Birth of Interactive Fiction:
Froggy Software

In 1982, Jean-Louis Le Breton was 30 and was living in Paris; he had a band, called “Los Gonococcos”, with Yves Frémion[60] and Jean Bonnefoy. The band split up, and he sold his keyboards in a Parisian store; in the store next to it, someone was selling back his Apple //+, so Le Breton bought it because, in his own words, “it was the first good microcomputer in France and I wanted to know how all that worked.”[61] Along with the computer, he only bought one game: Mystery House, by Ken and Roberta Williams.

As summer was approaching, he went on holiday in the Gers,[62] with the Apple // in the trunk of his car. He played Mystery House and liked it—he states that he didn’t like video games before: the fact that you could move your character around was interesting, but there were too many fights for his liking.[63] However, he thought that judging by the quality of the graphics and the scenario, he could easily do as well in a French game.[64] He thus learned BASIC in a month and programmed what would be the first text adventure game in French: Le Vampire Fou (Mad Vampire). It was a pretty simple adventure, where the goal was to enter the Vampire’s castle to kill him before he killed you. Le Breton rewrote the game shortly after he completed it and published it in 1983. But its publisher, Ciel Bleu (whose previous activities were mainly importing software from Canada to France), went bankrupt shortly after the release of the game. Moreover, this happened before the success of Apple microcomputers in France (the Apple //e and Apple //c); even if it drew the attention of some magazines as the first interactive fiction game in French,[65] it is unlikely that the game had a much greater success than other games at the time, and thus the release of the game wasn’t exactly a “defining moment.”

This story of the first French interactive fiction game highlights some very interesting things. First of all, the date of conception is the summer of 1982, and the date of publication is 1983; at this time, Infocom was already a few years old, had already published the famous and influential Zork trilogy (as well as Deadline and Starcross) and published no less than five games in 1983, while Scott Adams had already created quite a number of games for microcomputers: interactive fiction was already a booming genre in the U.S. when a handful of French gamers discovered Le Vampire Fou (which wasn’t a long or complex or literary game). Then, we note that the influences of Le Breton for this first game is Mystery House: this isn’t exactly an interactive fiction game but more an adventure with graphics and a parser. Le Vampire Fou is not exactly an interactive fiction game, but it is the first adventure game with a parser that was published in France. This point is of great interest, and we will return to it a bit later.

Le Breton then met Fabrice Gille, the son of a friend of his, who was 18 and had gotten his Apple // a short time before. Le Breton gave him a copy of his game, which was supposed to be copy-protected. Gille cracked it in no time, which impressed Le Breton and prompted him to want to work with Gille.[66] Both then founded Froggy Software to publish Le Breton’s next game, Paranoïak; Gille programmed both the software and the copy-protection. Paranoïak was Froggy Software’s first game and won the Golden Apple 1984.[67]

Froggy Software went on to publish a dozen games on the Apple // before closing in 1987; the main reason for this was that the games were becoming obsolete because of the rise of the Macintosh. Their games, mostly written or coded by Le Breton, had a particular flavor: they were not serious games at all (“adventure, humour, leftfield and a willingness to make fun of anything”[68]), and they dealt with very different themes than the usual fantasy/sci-fi production of English games: the themes tackled were often political, for example. The games encountered a good critical reception in magazines, prompting the games magazine Tilt to dub Le Breton as “the Alfred Hitchcock of gaming.”[69]

Paranoïak was the first success of the company; in the game, the player has to battle against mental illnesses, all with a humorous tone. Then came Le Crime du Parking, published in 1984 as well, which had an even greater success; the player has to solve the murder of Odile Conchoux, found strangled in a parking lot, and the game deals (much more seriously, but with silver linings of humor) with themes such as rape, homosexuality, and drug addiction.[70] Même les Pommes de Terre ont des Yeux! (Even the Potatoes Have Eyes!), published in 1985, was also a big success: it was set in a South American dictatorship where spies were everywhere (hence the reference to potatoes potentially watching you), and the tone is very humorous.[71]

So what were those games like anyway? First of all their parser was quite primitive—it was just a two-word parser, but it could recognize quite a number of words; moreover, the quality of the parser didn’t fluctuate from one game to another, which is a less trivial concern than it may appear at first: Infocom (and others) had the good idea of building the parser in an interpreter that could be used for all of their games, but for other French game companies the quality of the parser would often fluctuate. Second, Froggy Software was the first company to include funny answers to some inputs; the tone of the games was very humorous for sure, but they were the first to include funny default responses in their games, as well as a recognition of curses and insults. Third, all of their games included graphics; actually, most of the screen (about the top three-quarters of the screen) consisted of a picture of the room and the objects. As a result, the descriptions were really sparse, and the graphics were necessary to advance in the games (though you could turn them off at any time). The only exception to this is the game La femme qui ne supportait pas les ordinateurs (The Woman Who Couldn’t Stand Computers), written by Chine Lanzmann and coded by Jean-Louis Le Breton, published in 1986; this story of a flirtatious, then murderous computer and your adventures on the Calvados network (a French network of Apple // computers that people—among them the creators of the game—used as chatrooms) had seven different endings that you had to complete to win the game. The game was text-only, and the parser was quite primitive since it only consisted in Yes/No answers.[72]

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So as a matter of fact, every Froggy Software game featured graphics and two-line descriptions.[73] But in fact, as we mentioned briefly in the previous part, most interactive fiction games in French that were released in the 80s featured graphics as a prominent part of the game. As a matter of fact, we can say that interactive fiction didn’t exist in France in the 80s. Interactive fiction as we know it—one can say, Infocom-style IF, or “literary” IF—didn’t exist: only a handful of games were text-only, and almost none of the rest were aiming at any kind of literary quality whatsoever. The term “interactive fiction” was never used in the 80s by any game company or any reviewer (at least, none that I know of[74]): people were talking about “adventure games,” “role-playing games,” and then when point-and-click games started, “text adventure games.” The descriptions were sparse at best, and the graphics took up most of the screen (we will detail this a bit more later). And, even if a handful of English-speaking interactive fiction games had been translated into French at the time (such as some from Interceptor Micro), no Infocom game was ever translated into French; game creators in France thus didn’t really have a model of literary text-only interactive fiction to be inspired by.

In what follows, we will still continue to refer as those games as “interactive fiction games” but as well as “text adventure games” or simply “adventure games”; the reason is that they are what was the closest to interactive fiction that was available then in France, they had a parser and a keyboard-based input, and some of them didn’t have any graphics.

Other Successful Publishers:
Loriciels, ERE Informatique

Froggy Software wasn’t the only successful company that produced text adventure games at the time; around 1984, a few other French game companies achieved a very similar (and in some cases, greater) success by publishing adventures written in French. There are quite a lot of them, for example Titus, Lankhor, CobraSoft, Excalibur, and even Infogrames; in the following part we will talk mainly about two companies: Loriciels and ERE Informatique.

Loriciels was a company created in 1983 by Marc Bayle and Laurant Weill; the name is a pun between “logiciel” (software) and “Oric” because they first focused on publishing games for the Oric microcomputers. They didn’t just stay on the Oric, and they expanded their area of publishing to the ZX Spectrum (often for adaptations of their Oric hits), then the Amstrad CPC, and later the Atari ST and the Amiga. The company first achieved great success with an non-textual adventure game, L’Aigle d’Or,[75] in 1985, for which they won the first-ever “Tilt d’Or”;[76] they won a second one for the text adventure with graphics Le Mystère de Kikekankoi (The Whowatwen Mystery). They were among the biggest game publishers in France in the 1980s, publishing about 150 games in 10 years;[77] but a stream of financial problems forced the company to shut down in 1993.

The first text adventure game Loriciels published was Le Manoir du Docteur Génius (Dr Génius’s Manor). The game wasn’t exactly a success; it was a short adventure where you had to escape a manor filled with traps, with bits of humor but described as lacking in atmosphere and surprises.[78] The graphics were just lines drawn à la Mystery House; the parser recognized quite a lot of actions but was limited to the first four letters. A sequel of this game, Le retour du Docteur Génius (The Return of Dr Génius) was released in 1985 for Oric as well.

One of their biggest successes in the genre of text adventure is Le Mystère de Kikekankoi, released in 1983 for Oric, and then in 1985 for CPC with greatly improved graphics. Once again, this is a text adventure with graphics very much in the spirit of Mystery House (for the original version). You find a message in a bottle from a woman imprisoned by a mad scientist; you must rescue her by exploring the city of Kikekankoi and the nearby cave. The game is timed—you have 500 turns to rescue her—and instant deaths are numerous; the parser recognizes about fifty verbs and a hundred nouns (a list of what is recognized by the parser is given at the beginning of the game). The game had a big success upon its release and was praised in Tilt as “still enjoyable even if a bit old” in 1985;[79] it’s probably one of the most famous French adventure games of the 1980s.

Le diamante de l’île maudite (The Diamond in the Cursed Island) was also a great success in its time; released in 1984 for Oric and 1985 for Amstrad CPC, you had to explore an island to discover a diamond in underground caves. The graphics show a notable improvement compared to those of Le mystère de Kikekankoi; the game screen shows a picture, below it the parser, and consistently asks the question “What do you do?” The game is a really long one as well: for the first time, it is likely that not one, but two developers worked on this game. The improvements of the parser system earned rave reviews from the press: the vocabulary was a good size, but what compelled the critics was that the words were completed from the third or fourth letter, and bad words were deleted with a beep; it was also possible to enter several commands at the same time using a slash. This game had great success and is also one of the most famous of the era.

Other quite successful text adventures released by Loriciels are Citadelle (a role-playing text-only adventure with a parser recognizing 260 words), Tony Truand (a game with a complex story and 120 locations), Le pacte (a horror game created by Eric Chahi, who went on to create Another World—known as Out of This World in the U.S.—several years later), Han d’Islande (an adaptation of a novel by Victor Hugo; featured graphics but also a noticeably longer prose than usual), and Orphée (with graphics, a sidebar indicating the characters in the area and the inventory of the player, and the parser above the graphics; the game was beautiful but very hard).

>

ERE Informatique was created in 1981 (which makes it one of the oldest French video game companies) by Philippe Ulrich and Emmanuel Viau. They released a variety of games in diverse genres, but their biggest hits were text adventure games; all of their games were released only for the Amstrad CPC. They were bought by Infogrames in 1986, allowing them to focus more on the game crafting aspect and less on the commercial aspects. However, financial and royalties problems with Infogrames led to the closure of the studio several years later, in 1989, with most of the designers leaving to found another video game company.

One of the most famous games by ERE Informatique was the SRAM series (SRAM and SRAM II, both released in 1986). In those widely acclaimed games, the player is on a strange planet,[80] and a huge political change occurs; a hermit and a witch call for your help to get Egres IV on the throne. In the second game, Egres IV has become a bloodthirsty sovereign, and you have to dethrone him. The tone of the game is humorous, though the humor in the game is more subtle than for other games at this time; the world is a sort of medieval world with anachronisms—there are fire extinguishers—and influences from other genres, which makes for an incoherent but funny setting. The graphics of the game were praised and were top-notch at the time of its release. The game itself required a lot of work from the three authors, Serge Hauduc, Ludovic Hauduc, and Jacques Hemonic: the first game underwent nine months of development (and the second required three months); still, both games are pretty short games. The game sold very well and was a massive hit for ERE Informatique.

Another famous game was Le passager du temps (The Time Passenger), released in 1986. This game was another great success for ERE Informatique: using a simple but well-crafted story (your uncle disappeared, and you are traveling through time as you’re looking for him), the game manages to stay long and difficult; the graphics were praised, but the most beloved feature of this game is the cat that appears in the sidebar, commenting on the action in a humorous tone.

Perhaps the most acclaimed game by ERE Informatique is L’arche du Capitaine Blood (Captain Blood), released in 1987; it sold well in France, as well as in many other countries.[81] While it’s not interactive fiction per se, it’s still worth mentioning for its conversation system: the game has 120 icons you can combine to form sentences to communicate with the aliens you encounter in the game; this system required a lot of work by Philippe Ulrich, who reportedly wrote tens of pages of dialogue with the aliens. This novel conversation system (that wasn’t really emulated later) was praised, as well as the graphics and the sound; the story is a fairly complex sci-fi story of clones and aliens. We note that this is one of the first cases of a successful point-and-click game, paving the way for the golden age of the genre a few years later, and taking the adventure game further from interactive fiction.

Other interactive fiction titles published by ERE Informatique are Oxphar (an adaptation of a play, set in a medieval-fantasy world; the reviews praised the graphics as well as the wit and poetry displayed by the game; the parser was a simple two-word parser, with the feature that the game could learn new synonyms for verbs), Harry & Harry, Crash Garrett (a humorous and almost parodic story about undercover Nazis in the U.S. in the 1930s), and 1001 BC.

>

As we saw with the example of these two publishers—surely among the most successful publishers of adventure games in France in the 80s—interactive fiction wasn’t really common; the games were more text adventures with graphics. However, they share common paradigms with “literary,” text-only interactive fiction; the games underwent a period of evolution throughout the 80s, and different systems and game design concepts were tried. In the following part, we’re going to attempt a transversal survey of IF in French in the 80s: rather than enumerating games chronologically, we’re going to enumerate topics in interactive fiction design theory and see how they were addressed in various games of this period.



[1] As of January 4, 2011, the count is as follows: 142 games in Spanish, 139 in German, 55 in French, 25 in Italian, 17 in Swedish, 4 in Dutch, 2 in Russian, and 1 (often a demonstration game) in Esperanto, Norwegian, Portuguese, and Slovenian.


[3] rec.arts.int-fiction topic “German IF is dead”, June 21, 2007.


[4] Command Lines: Aesthetics and Technique in Interactive Fiction and New Media, page 17,
note 3.


[7] Tilt magazine, July 1984 issue, page 16.


[8] We have to keep in mind here that this was before the boom of microcomputers, of course.


[13] Marion Vannier, head of Amstrad France, in Les Chroniques de Player One, p.38 (Éd. Pika, 2010)


[16] It was even the machine used by some members of the community in their youth to play interactive fiction or adventure games.


[17] Tilt, July 1984 issue, page 16.


[18] Tilt, July 1984 issue, page 82.


[19] Tilt, July 1984 issue, page 82.


[20] As for Stuga, the authors had played Adventure and wanted to create a Swedish version: groups.google.com/group/rec.games.int-fiction/msg/70df36d635f1ad19. However, I don’t know how the authors managed to play Adventure in the first place—maybe the game first transited through the Norwegian connection to ARPANET and then somehow ended up on a mainframe in Stockholm?


[21] Ciel Bleu, the publisher of the first French interactive fiction game, was previously importing software from Canada to sell at a pretty expensive price in France; Jean-Louis Le Breton, founder of Froggy Software, remembers that his goal was to create French games at an affordable price (200FF or 250FF) compared to the games in English that were then sold at a very high price (350FF or 400FF).


[22] With the invaluable help of Grégoire Schneller, who provided most of the references here.


[23] More on this game a bit later in this article.


[24] Micro 7, December 1983 issue, page 137.


[25] SVM, April 1984 issue, pages 88–89.


[26] A name-dropping of an American game that nobody can find in France is an interpretation that makes less sense.


[27] A very mysterious company—I could not find any information about it anywhere and thus was unable to determine if they published any other Infocom games in France around this time.


[28] Which is a very expensive retail price for a game (about $120) and is probably the kind of things Le Breton was alluding to (cf reference above). One could at the time find games—and even English games, as we will see—on this platform for about 200FF.


[29] Tilt, January 1985 issue, page 76.


[30] Both text-only and with graphics, but all with a parser, though the article focuses more on the text adventures with graphics since the genre was the most common in France at the time.


[31] SVM, April 1985 issue, page 115.


[32] Though maybe not all the games available, since Witness is not in this list even though Tilt mentions it four months earlier.


[33] Those three computers thus seem the platforms for which Infocom games were released at the time.


[34] Every other Infocom game released before September 1985—thus, every Infocom game released before 1986 except Spellbreaker.


[35] ST Magazine, September 1985 issue, page 11.


[36] Let’s just note another (hilarious) list made by the same magazine a few years later, in its August 1987 edition (page 55), where the listed Infocom games include Brimstone, Essex, “Mind Forever,” Mindwheel, Sorcery, and Skul/West.


[37] The games listed are: Ballyhoo, Cutthroats, Deadline, Enchanter, Hitch Hikers Guide to the galaxie [sic], Infidel, Lurking Horror, Moonmist, Planet Fall [sic], Seastalker, Wishbringer, Witness, and Zork I,II,III.


[38] This game was indeed never released in France; a review of the game in the September 1987 issue of ST Magazine (page 54) states: “We found this game. Not in France, but in Belgium.” and “For those who want to play this game, they will have to solve a tough puzzle first: finding the game!”


[39] Was it a lack of success of Infocom games, or the beginning of the fall of Infocom, that maybe prompted them to choose their releases carefully in an attempt to avoid losing money?


[40] In the September 1987 issue of ST Magazine (page 54), the journalist writes, “Every single publisher that tried to sell Infocom games in France ended up with stocks that no one would buy.”


[41] Infocom games were apparently never released in France for the Amstrad CPC or for the Oric, which were the two more popular microcomputers at the time; the reason might be that those computers weren’t that popular in the U.S., and it would have required more work to adapt the Z-Machine on those computers first to get the European market; in any case, it was perhaps a mistake by Infocom, but it seems that it wouldn’t have changed anything either.


[42] Unfortunately, the research about those games is less comprehensive than for Infocom games, leaving room for a more precise and complete analysis.


[43] Micro 7, April 1984 issue, page 118.


[44] Tilt, January 1985 issue, pages 71 and 73.


[45] Tilt, January 1985 issue, page 76.


[46] ST Magazine, December 1987 issue, page 55.


[47] Micro 7, March 1984 issue, page 107.


[48] Tilt, January 1985, page 70.


[49] ST Magazine, December 1985 issue, page 31.


[50] ST Magazine, August 1987 issue, page 55.


[51] Tilt d’Or for Best Graphics in 1986 for The Pawn, and Tilt d’Or for Best Adventure Game in English in 1988 for Corruption.


[52] The reviewer in Hebdogiciel couldn’t get past the first screen, even after trying every verb he could think of, deeming the game “unplayable unless you have a Master’s degree in English studies.”


[53] Other examples are a translation of Eureka, by Ian Livingstone, and four translations of text adventure games by the French company Les Aventures in 1985 for Spectrum.


[54] As compared to other countries, such as the Netherlands or in Scandinavia, where learning to speak English is more emphasized (by for instance having TV programs with subtitles instead of dubbing); the traditional cliché is that the French are bad at speaking English, which is probably not too far from reality.


[55] Leading potentially to an earlier boom, because there would then have been excellent games on microcomputers?


[56] Tilt, January 1985 issue, page 76.


[57] SVM, April 1985 issue, page 115.


[58] Quote of a famous tirade of Cyrano in the play Cyrano de Bergerac.


[59] After all, the boom of microcomputers happened in 1984, with computers with very good graphics capabilities; could it be that the French were just waiting for graphics to buy computers?


[60] Who ended up being a successful cartoonist in several magazines such as Fluide Glacial.


[62] Rural and sunny area in the south of France, not too far away from Toulouse.


[63] Wired.com, excerpts from Replay: The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan, http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/06/french-touch-games/


[64] Idem.


[65] A hilarious photo of Le Breton can be found in the December 1983 issue of
Micro 7 on page 31; but beware of the clichés about French people. (http://download.abandonware.org/magazines/Micro%207/micro7_numero11/Micro%207%20N11%20%28Decembre%201983%29%20-%20Page%20031.jpg)


[67] A prestigious award given by Apple every year for games on the Apple // computers.


[68] Wired.com, excerpts from Replay: The History of Video Games by Tristan Donovan, http://www.wired.com/gamelife/2010/06/french-touch-games.


[69] Idem.


[70] Apparently, because of that, none of the American editors that Froggy Software contacted to try to get this game published in the U.S. was really keen on doing so.


[71] A port of this game in Inform (without graphics) has been done by the author of this article and can be found here: http://ifiction.free.fr/index.php?id=jeu&j=013.


[72] An Inform port of this game was done by the author of the article and is available on the IFDB, as well as the original ROM: see http://ifdb.tads.org/viewgame?id=brxdd0j3xu8mmgmc.


[73] Very much in the style of Masquerade, for example.


[74] Note that La Femme Qui Ne Supportait Pas Les Ordinateurs was decribed by Froggy Software as an “interactive novel,” a term that wasn’t re-used by anyone else, though.


[75] That can be translated as The Golden Hawk; the game was an adventure game where your on-screen character had to progress through a series of rooms in a castle to find an artifact; the game was praised for its atmosphere and its isometric-2D graphics.


[76] That can be translated as “Golden Tilt”; it was the Game of the Year award given by the influential video game magazine Tilt.


[77] Their strategy was to be very open to new games: anyone could send them their game, and they would publish it if they liked it; that’s how they published L’Aigle d’Or.


[78] Tilt, January 1985 issue, page 74.


[79] Idem.


[80] The title of the game read backwards surely gives a clue about the planet.


[81] It charted first in France, Germany, Italy, and the U.K. and sixth in the U.S.

March 30, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , ,

2 Comments

  1. […] Bios ← Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (Part 1) […]

    Pingback by Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (Part 2) | The Portal | March 30, 2011

  2. […] une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (1, 2) by Hugo Labrande. Here’s an exerpt: As pointed out by a few critics, among them Jeremy […]

    Pingback by Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF « The World SF Blog | April 21, 2011


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