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Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (Part 2)

cover of The IF Theory ReaderVal 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 first 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.

The “French Touch”: Interactive Fiction in France in the 80s)

The production of adventure games in French in the 80s was very diverse, as well as numerous: hundreds of games were released, with different themes, different interfaces, different tones, and the genre was extremely popular at the time. Enumerating all the games published during the period would be tedious, and to be fair quite useless; instead, we are going to attempt a review of the genre throughout the 80s in a transversal way, looking at some characteristics of adventure games rather than the games individually. This methodology will allow us to see better the evolution of the genre, as well as its specifics.

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The first point we are going to discuss is the form of the games. As we said before, most adventure games with parsers in France featured graphics, and that is what the gamers and reviewers were really used to and liked. Text-only adventure games were not really successful, and as a matter of fact a bit patronized by reviewers, who saw text-only adventures as a thing from the past (before adventures with parsers as a whole became a thing from the past at the end of the decade). Is that to say that no text-only adventure game in French was ever released? As a matter of fact, almost. Browsing through countless adventure games with parsers released at the time, I was only able to find a handful of them that were text-only, which makes me say that 99.9% of French text adventures in the 80s featured graphics;[1] let’s have a look at this list.

There is Froggy Software’s La femme qui ne supportait pas les ordinateurs (The Woman Who Couldn’t Stand Computers),[2] written by Chine Lanzmann and coded by Jean-Louis Le Breton, released in 1986. The story is as follows: your computer went crazy and tries to seduce you; adventures on the Calvados network[3] ensue, with seven different endings you must explore to win the game. The game is text-only, but it is still a very particular type of interactive fiction: the parser only recognizes Yes or No, and the story unfolds by choosing your answer to questions the characters sometimes ask you. However, the setting is quite clever and noteworthy. The game looks like an online chat with different characters, along with system messages (such as “Connecting network… Done”), and there is absolutely no description of an external or imaginary element. you could almost think that what happens in the game is in fact happening to you. The only thing that reminds you that it is a game are the title screen and the ending screen (the only two illustrations of the game).

Another text-only game was Citadelle, published in 1984 by Loriciels. This is seemingly the first text-only adventure[4] and was presumably not a huge success.[5] Still, the game was praised by Tilt,[6] noting that the game was long and offered quite a lot of challenges for the adventurous gamer; the only drawback they note was the absence of graphics, which made the combats boring (they could consist in a succession of “You miss. The gnoll misses. You miss. (etc.)”).

The other text-only games I could find are CobraSoft’s Dossier G: l’Affaire du Rainbow Warrior[7] (File G: The Rainbow Warrior Scandal), published in 1985, which seems more a CYOA than a regular text-adventure and doesn’t seem to include graphics; Mission secrète à Colditz released by Soracom in 1986.

This completes the list of text-only adventure games in French released in the 80s. Interestingly, it seems that Citadelle is the only text-only adventure game with parser released in France in the 80s, making it possibly the only interactive fiction game in French of the decade.

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Since virtually almost all French text adventure games featured graphics, we will talk briefly about the different type of graphics in those adventure games.

The first text adventure game in French, as we said before, is Le Vampire Fou by Jean-Louis Le Breton. Le Breton had the idea of writing such a game after playing Mystery House, by Ken and Roberta Williams, on his newly acquired Apple //+; as a result, the graphics in Le Vampire Fou are simple lines drawn on the screen.[8] This style of graphics can actually be found in a couple of other games. For example, the early game Le Manoir du Docteur Génius, published in 1983 for Oric and the first game published by Loriciels, has similar graphics;[9] its sequel, Le Retour du Docteur Génius, was published in 1985 with similar graphics, though slightly better (some areas are colored on the screen, and the drawing is simply better done). This style of graphics, a consequence of limited graphics capabilities of the microcomputers on which they were released,[10] quickly disappeared with new computers with improved graphic capabilities. The only noteworthy attempt was the 1985 CPC game Bad Max;[11] the story is heavily inspired by Mad Max, the music of the game was composed by the Alan Parsons Project, and the game also features line-drawn graphics, with an interesting (and in retrospect, quite funny) twist: the game is in “Stereo-3D,” that is to say everything is drawn twice, once with red lines and once with blue lines a few pixels away, presumably creating a 3D effect when playing the game while wearing the 3D glasses that went along with the game.

Later, games had better graphics, but the design remained unchanged. This was the design chosen by Froggy Software:[12] the graphics are on the upper part of the screen, and the descriptions and parser are below. This design can be found in almost every Froggy Software game, as well as in games such as Le diamant de l’île maudite (Loriciels, 1985), Atlantis (CobraSoft, 1985), Attentat (Rainbow Productions, 1986), Le Pacte (Loriciels, 1986), La cité perdue (Excalibur, 1987), and many others.

Another, different interface was also very popular: the graphics were embedded in a frame at the center of the screen, and there was a sidebar to the right, with the parser either above or below the picture frame. While not totally revolutionary, this interface could be quite beautiful and allowed some improvements—the sidebar could be used to list the exits, the inventory, the objects or characters present in the room, or even, as in Le passage du temps, a cat that was commenting on the action. This kind of interface was used in games such as Le mystère de Kikekankoi (Loriciels, 1985, CPC version), Orphée: Voyage aux Enfers (Loriciels, 1985), Oxphar (ERE Informatique, 1987), Le passager du temps (ERE Informatique, 1987), La Chose de Grotenburg (Ubi Soft, 1988), Excalibur Quest (Excalibur, 1988) and L’île oubliée (Bruno Fonters, 1993).

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As always in this type of game, the quality of the parser is always vital; there were numerous systems and improvements that were designed over the years.

As for Le Vampire Fou, the parser was extremely primitive: it seems like a two-word parser (that didn’t recognize a lot of words), but in fact opening the ROM file with a simple text editor shows that the actions that you had to do to progress in the story were hard-coded! This was obviously not a very good parser, and it could only get better.

The vast majority of the parsers of this era were simple two-word parsers, that quite often only recognized the first few letters of a word. As a matter of fact, the reviews of some games (such as Conspiration de l’an III by Ubisoft in 1988) state that those games were correcting typos, but it is possible that the game in fact only recognized the first few letters of each word. The fact that only the first few letters were recognized was cleverly hidden by Le diamant de l’île maudite (Loriciels, 1985): the game had an auto-completion feature that recognized the word after the third or fourth letter was input by the player and deleted words it didn’t recognize with a bleep. This clever feature (praised by critics[13]) accelerated the input for the player: everyone wins.

Interestingly, there is one major difference with interactive fiction companies in the English-speaking video game scene: the fluctuation in quality of the parsers. Typically, the most famous companies that produced interactive fiction in English had a parser that was designed and improved inside the company and used for all the games the company produced; in fact, in general it was not just the parser that was identical: the games were created in a programming language that was internal to the company and then played embedded in an interpreter.[14] Surprisingly, this system wasn’t really used in France; the only company that reused the same parser several times was Froggy Software—and it’s probably because Jean-Louis Le Breton was a programmer on the majority of Froggy Software’s games (he probably reused some code he wrote for other games). But as for other companies, the parser was seemingly rewritten every time, leading to parsers of uneven quality (for example, in 1985 Loriciels published Orphée: Descente aux enfers with a parser that could recognize complex sentences—such as “X, take key to Y”—as well as Le diamant de l’île maudite that had a two-word parser that recognized 90 words[15]). As a consequence, there wasn’t really an increase in the quality of parsers over time, which means that even at the end of the decade, some games commercially released by relatively successful companies could have a parser of very bad quality.

A particularity of the parsers in text adventures in French of this era was that they reacted to insults. The first games to do so were games by Froggy Software (which had in general a humorous tone): upon input of an insult, the game reacted in various ways: in Même les pommes de terre ont des yeux, a picture of a big and ferocious man was displayed, and the only way to continue playing was to type what he asked, that is to say “pardon à genoux” (“bowing my head and sorry”), whereas in La femme qui ne supportait pas les ordinateurs it was just a “Oh, that’s cheap!” A lot of subsequent games—especially the ones with a humorous tone—also recognized the input of insults and reacted in various ways: sometimes by insulting the player back,[16] or more creatively.[17]

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As for the tone of the games, we have to notice that a lot of them were humorous. The first one, Le Vampire Fou, had funny descriptions—and more generally, most Froggy Software games featured quite a lot of humor in the descriptions and the answers of the parser.[18] Numerous other games, even if they featured a long and complex adventure, had an overall funny tone or occasional funny descriptions; for example, Le passager du temps memorably featured a cat to the right side of the graphics, which could occasionally provide hints and commented on the action, leading to a lot of puns and pop-culture references. But in fairness, a lot of the humor displayed in the games wasn’t exactly subtle; when badly done, this kind of humor would lead to games that aged quite badly and were not exactly noticeable for their literary qualities. As a side note, the fact that a lot of text adventure games featured a lot of humor (in their descriptions and answers to the player) in an otherwise normal setting and adventure is an artifact that we don’t really find in later French adventure games of any kind. Most point-and-clicks that were released by French companies didn’t feature this sort of compulsive humor; apparently, this was a phenomenon that was limited specially to text adventures in the 80s.

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Finally, let’s talk a bit about the themes, settings, and stories told by these text adventures. It is interesting to note that the themes were very different from adventure games in English, which very often featured fantasy and sci-fi themes. Instead, French interactive fiction seems to have had a lot of games with an historical setting: Ancient Greece (1001 BC, ERE Informatique, 1986), the French Revolution (Conspiration de l’an III, Ubi Soft, 1988), World War II (Mission Secrète à Colditz, Soracom, 1986). A great variety of periods were explored[19]—with more than a few times the excuse of a time-travel machine (Le passage du temps). The more common among historical games were certainly games set in the Middle Ages (La geste d’Artillac, SRAM, Montségur, Les Templiers d’Orven, etc.); this may seem pretty logical, as fantasy settings are classic adventure game settings and offer a lot of challenges to the player as well as a very particular atmosphere. However, it is worth pointing out that there actually seem to be more games with a Middle Ages setting than games with a fantasy setting.[20] Fantasy is certainly an English genre, and while the genre has become more and more popular in France, the “real” Middle Ages is a period that is part of French culture and that surely is familiar to more people. Speaking of typically English-speaking genres, there are very few French text adventures with a science-fiction setting.[21] There are also quite a variety of games that were set in a contemporary world, with, as Tristan Donovan points it out,[22] some adventures deeply grounded in reality and sometimes news: the publisher CobraSoft published games like Meurtre à grande vitesse in 1985, set in the French high-speed train TGV in which you have the two hours between Paris and Lyon to solve a murder, or Dossier G: l’affaire du Rainbow Warrior in 1985 as well, echoing the affair of the Rainbow Warrior that everyone in France talked about in the summer of 1985;[23] there was also Mokowe (Lankhor, 1991), which was about poachers in Kenya. Finally, the horror genre was quite popular as well.[24]

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Here are, in a nutshell, some of the aspects of French text adventures of the 1980s; as we can see, there are quite a few particularities that are worth noting, both as interesting for the history of the craft of French text adventures at this time as well as in comparison to other text adventure scenes. We will now move forward a bit in history to talk about the end of text adventures in France, at the end of the 1980s.

When Adventure Games Take Over: The Downfall of Interactive Fiction

As the 80s came to a close, it seemed that interactive fiction and adventure games with parsers were less and less common and more and more considered as a thing from the past.

This is easily seen in reviews of games in various magazines. Actually, it seems that starting in 1988, the critics considered text-based games as a prehistoric genre—even though successful text adventures came out as late as than two years before! For example, the game Mike & Moko, published by MBC[25] in 1988, got a fairly positive review in Micro News that still expressed not understanding why MBC was wasting good ideas (here, an adventure playable by two players simultaneously) by using an overused, worn-out gaming form; the review starts with, “The kings of adventure games with keyboard-input commands (though this genre disappeared years ago) strike again!”[26] Another game, Le Maraudeur, released by Ubi Soft in 1989, gets a review in Amstrad Cent Pour Cent that rates the game fairly poorly, starting with, “Here is one of the last adventure games in the direct style of old games,” and stating (with a bit of humor), “The style of the game is not surprising at all, since it’s exactly the same as the old games (those released last year).” With this comment, it is as if in 1988, the critics suddenly felt (or maybe just decided) that the genre of the text adventure with graphics was old and outdated.

What happened in 1988 (or the year before) that triggered this sudden qualification of text-based adventure games as an outdated genre? We’ll have to look at the history of adventure games and the games released around this date to find some clues about what happened; and in fact, we find that we can consider 1987 as the year in which mouse-controlled adventure games became massively successful. In this year, ERE Informatique released L’arche du Capitaine Blood, which didn’t use command-line prompts but rather point-and-click systems and an icon-based conversation system; the game was extremely successful and an evident artistic success, with critics praising every aspect of the game,[27] and it enjoyed very good sales in Europe and around the world. 1987 was also the year of the release of Maniac Mansion by LucasArts Studios: this game was also very successful, established LucasArts as one of the best developers around, and popularized the system of point-and-click with a few action verbs. It was also the year of the release of Le Manoir de Mortevielle (Mortville Manor), developed by the French studio Lankhor; it was a point-and-click game set in a manor, where you had to solve a murder mystery. The game received very good reviews (noting its stunning voice synthesis feature) and is still considered a classic French adventure game. This combination of no less than three classic point-and-click adventures in the same year surely generated a lot of attention to the point-and-click system as a very welcome change (easier to manipulate, better graphics, and coincidentally better games); we can easily think that when text adventures with somewhat weak parsers, still pictures, and stories that weren’t as good as the aforementioned games were released after them, the comparison wasn’t particularly flattering and quite possibly made them look outdated.

In the following years, quite a few successful point-and-click adventures were released as well: as for classic French adventure games, we can list for instance Les Voyageurs du Temps (Future Wars), published in 1989, Maupiti Island (the sequel of Le Manoir de Mortevielle) in 1990, and Croisière pour un Cadavre (Cruise for a Corpse) in 1991. The LucasArts games also enjoyed some success in France around this time. This means that from 1987 to the beginning of the 1990s, numerous good point-and-click adventure games were released in France; the text-based adventure games, already considered as an outdated genre, couldn’t rival this new genre, and soon enough the genre was becoming extinct.

Soon enough, the only publisher that released new French text adventures was Lankhor—and paradoxically, Lankhor was the publisher of Le Manoir de Mortevielle and Maupiti Island: the company made both text adventure games as well as point-and-clicks that supposedly ended up killing the text adventure genre. In 1990, La secte noire got some nice reviews—it is described in the September 1990 issue of Joystick as a “very classic, but still enjoyable, adventure”;[28] its sequel, La crypte des maudits, was published in 1991 and had as a feature an improved parser: it was equally well received.[29] Mokowé was one of Lankhor’s last games, an adventure about poachers in Kenya, with features such as activity in the village and in the jungle depending on the time. It was a very hard game but also very interesting.[30] Lankhor published a couple of other text adventures, as well as some point-and-clicks. Unfortunately, for reasons that remain unclear, they stopped making text adventures. They actually lost a lot of money with their 1993 point-and-click game Black Sect (only 3000 units sold, because of a mediocre interface and too-easy puzzles), which apparently prompted them to review their strategies and stop the development of some games. They ended up not making any more adventure games of any kind: from 1992 until its closing (in December 2001, because of some financial difficulties), the studio only made racing games.

Upon examination of the history of different studios of the time, we can note a very interesting pattern. In 1985, Eliott Grassiano, who worked at the time for Loriciels, founded Microïds with the help of the founders of Loriciels; Microïds went on to be very successful, creating the famous adventure game series Syberia. Eric Chahi, who wrote Le pacte for Loriciels, later worked for Delphine Software and created Les voyageurs du temps (Future Wars), Another World (otherwise known as Out of this World), and Heart of Darkness. When ERE Informatique went bankrupt, a lot of the people who were working on its games founded Cryo Interactive, which became a very successful company, creating for example Under a Killing Moon, DragonLore, Chroniques de la Lune Noire, Faust, and a series of historical adventure games in 3D that were successful in France (with titles such as Versailles and Egypt:1156 B.C.: Tomb of the Pharaoh). Also, we can note that Infogrames and Ubisoft, founded in the 80s, published quite a number of text adventure games during this period (but not only text adventures). The pattern here is that a lot of the people involved in the creation of text adventures in France in the 80s went on to work on a variety of other adventure games that were very successful worldwide, prompting some critics to talk about a “French touch” in adventure games: the people that created the French touch had the opportunity to create text adventures first, and we can thus think of those text adventures as precursors of this French touch.

After the last Lankhor text adventure (in 1991), this seems to be the end of text adventures in French. I couldn’t find any other text adventure on any computer with a date of release later than 1992. Thus, in a very similar fashion to what happened in other communities—the English and Spanish ones, for instance—the genre seems to be definitely dead. In fact, it is just hibernating, as we will see in the next part: for the French community, springtime came at the beginning of the millennium.

The 2000s: The Genre Rises from Its Ashes[31]

The year 2000 saw the resurrection of interactive fiction—at least, an organized attempt to centralize the interest in interactive fiction, both playing and creating. The Yahoo! mailing list “Inform_fr” was created this year and featured discussions about “French adaptations of Inform text adventures [as well as] discussions about translations and creations of ‘interactive fictions’ [sic] in French.” Several members of this mailing list stuck around and are still active members of the French community.

The real kickstart for French creation of modern interactive fiction in Inform is certainly the translation of the Inform 6 libraries. The translation was done by Jean-Luc Pontico, who released them in January 2001, along with Aventure, the (first-ever) translation of the classic game Adventure. The next year, Eric Forgeot released a demo of Le pouvoir délaissé, an upcoming game; this was the first attempt at the creation of a novel French interactive fiction game, but unfortunately it is still unfinished to this date (the author moved on to other games instead).

The first completed original interactive fiction game is Filaments, by JB Ferrant. The story of the game is about a young girl, Margot, living in Paris and uncovering strange and surreal events; the game is mainly an adventure game, with quite a bit of humor as well, but mostly serious (and even dramatic) events. The game is fairly long and unfortunately has a few annoying bugs, but it remains a very good game; it is most certainly a modern game as well and features no graphics. It was translated to Italian later the same year and won the Best Game in Italian of the Year award.

JB is actually a very important author in the French interactive fiction community, if not the most important. After authoring the first original French interactive fiction game, he went on to release a couple more games in 2004 and 2005. He then undertook a huge project, a very ambitious game named Ekphrasis; it is actually the first French game with graphics, sound, and music and is a long game featuring a fine arts teacher traveling around Europe (complete with actual photos of the monuments he visits) to uncover a mystery involving forgers and Renaissance art. Recently, he released Works of Fiction, his first game in English; unfortunately, no French version of the game is available. He also participated in a handful of Speed-IFs.

The next step in the development of the French interactive fiction community was the creation of a message board in August 2004 in an attempt to centralize the people interested in reading interactive fiction (both in French and English) and creating it too. The forum has been moderated by Eric Forgeot and remains quite active today, as more and more members (and potential authors) have joined the forum since its creation.

Eric Forgeot is a central figure in the French interactive fiction community; under his pseudonym “Otto Grimwald,” he has been the moderator of the forum for years and often gives technical advice to young authors who ask for help on the forum. He authored quite a number of games, winning the French IF Comp in 2007 with Les Heures du Vent (Hours of the Wind) and participating in every Speed-IF event that was organized. He also provided a few technical advances to the community, as he created the Inform 7 extension that allows the creation French games with it (he has been using Inform 7 for his games since it was out), as well as translating the libraries for JACL and Hugo into French and creating a Linux Live-CD complete with IDEs, interpreters, and games to get started in interactive fiction. Recently he wrote a tutorial for Inform 7 for lesiteduzero.com, a famous French website that compiles a variety of tutorials for programming languages, which brought new people (and potential authors) to the community.

The French interactive fiction community was becoming more and more organized; it was only a matter of time until an equivalent of the IF Comp was created. The idea was prompted by “Stab” in April 2005, and thus the first French IF Comp (or Minicomp, because of its small number of games that are entered every year) was organized by Eric Forgeot shortly after. The French IF Comp has been organized every year since then and features in general no more than four or five games; it always provides an opportunity for people to try to complete a project of theirs, and the community, though small, tries to get involved as much as possible.

The first French IF Comp saw five participants entering: the winner was Adrien Saurat, with a humorous one-room game called Le cercle des gros geeks disparus (Dead Geeks Society); he went on to win the 2006 edition with a post-apocalyptic game called La Cité des Eaux (City of the Waters) and the 2009 edition with a story of chimney-sweeping men in an underground city, Catapole (this game was played in an “international edition” of Club Floyd in 2010[32]); as a matter of fact, he won every edition of the French IF Comp he entered. He was also a participant of the first two French Speed-IFs in 2007; he recently entered IntroComp 2010 with a game called Plan 6 From Inner Earth.

Another event among the French community was its participation in the Commonplace Book Project: as part of a museum exhibition about the Commonplace Book by H. P. Lovecraft, several interactive fiction games were created using themes from this book. About half a dozen games were written in English, but the French community (as well as the Spanish one, as a matter of fact) participated in this project; various members of the community wrote a chapter using a sentence from the book, and the various chapters were tied in a Glulx game (with pictures and music) that was ultimately shown at the exhibition. This was the first (and to this date, the only) game created in a collaborative effort, and was quite a success.

Interestingly, the French community also rediscovered the concept of Speed-IF and organized four of them, the first one being in the summer of 2007. A few of these games were actually expanded by their authors to lead to reasonable-sized (and reasonably bug-free) games. Moreover, the organization of such Speed-IFs prompted the organization of a Speed-IF in English (organized by Jacqueline A. Lott, who is also a regular visitor to the forum) on the theme “The Francophones stole the spirit of Speed-IF!”

The Contemporary French-speaking IF Scene

Judging by the very different history of French interactive fiction, one can ask how, and to what extent, the contemporary scene is shaped by this history.

The answer is brutally simple: no direct legacy of this history remains among the contemporary scene. In fact, no author of the contemporary French-speaking IF scene declares to be influenced by any 80s games whatsoever, and a lot of them didn’t discover interactive fiction because they played it back in the 80s; moreover, French games that were published in the 80s are seen as outdated, with very little to learn from them. The contrast with the English-speaking scene is striking: a lot of people writing and playing interactive fiction in English played Infocom games, or Scott Adams or Magnetic Scrolls or even Phoenix games; Curses, the first game written in Inform, has been described (even by its author) as an interactive fiction exactly in the style of Infocom games; Infocom games are still praised as being the canon of interactive fiction and for their literary qualities and inventiveness. In comparison, the contemporary French-speaking interactive fiction community barely makes any reference to 80s adventure games in their discussion or in their creations, and the history of 80s text adventures in France is not very well known to the members of the French interactive fiction community (as shown by the present article, which is an attempt to write this history for the first time ever).

In fact, we could say that there is no common interactive fiction culture that ties the members of the French interactive fiction community together. This is a major difference from the English-speaking interactive fiction community. Is that bad? In a way, yes, but it is actually a double-edged sword. Surely it is a drawback: the fact that no company creating interactive fiction in the 80s was as extremely successful as Infocom means that not a lot of people were playing interactive fiction in the 80s, and if they did, they might not remember such games as extraordinary, breath-taking, epic adventures. In fact, the great success of Infocom probably relies on two factors: the availability of their games on every microcomputer, and the quality of their games, which were long, epic, hard, and very pleasant adventures. Neither of those factors are present in the 80s French interactive fiction scene. The games were for the most part exclusive to one platform, and some were available for only a couple of computers; moreover, they aged pretty badly and were quickly considered as outdated. As a result, while a lot of English-speaking people played and enjoyed Infocom adventures and can nowadays find games that are very similar to them, a significantly smaller number of people played interactive fiction in the 80s, and even though they probably have their favorites among those games, they appear outdated, a thing from the past. Moreover, their form was very different from what interactive fiction is nowadays: there is no automatic identification between modern interactive fiction and 80s interactive fiction. Conjugating all those factors, this leads to a very, very small audience for interactive fiction in French, and this is an enormous drawback; surely the success of an interactive fiction company such as Infocom would have given the French community a bigger base of players and potential authors and might even have shortened the “hibernation period” we mentioned before. As another proof for this, we can take a look at the Spanish community: the company Aventuras AD created interactive fiction gamess from 1988 to 1992 and was massively successful, spawning a great interest in interactive fiction, creation of fanzines, and so forth. The community then entered a hibernation period and woke up in 1997, with the creation of a newsgroup (and then a mailing list, and then a website with forum) about interactive fiction, and the same year the first competition was organized:[33] the success of Aventuras AD (as well as the interest generated by the success of this company) gave the Spanish community a wealth of potential players and authors and makes this community bigger[34] and older than the French community.

But in a way, not having canonical references for what good interactive fiction is means that canonical interactive fiction in French is still yet to be written: the community is only a few years old and has the opportunity to attempt to create influential games and explore new game design and storytelling paradigms. Moreover, since the community, as well as the number of games, is small, a lot of the members of this community have played the majority of French games, and this hopefully creates an exchange, a reciprocal influence that can make the whole community aware of what is done in itself and give authors new ideas, which in return will influence other authors.

But this affirmation is to be contrasted: as a matter of fact, a lot of people in the community can read or speak English and thus can play English interactive fiction gamess. As a consequence we cannot really talk about French IF as a “closed world” where everything is yet to be (re-) discovered. In fact, the French-speaking IF community is very much aware of what happens in the English-speaking community and sometimes talks about various events happening in it; a lot of (and perhaps even the majority of) French-speaking authors played, and continue to play, interactive fiction in English. Thus, a lot of the IF theory that is discussed in various newsgroups, forums, or webzines is known to the French-speaking authors; they know about game design, storytelling, conversation systems, and other important questions, as much as an English-speaking author knows. Thus, as any other author, their creations and designs are built upon these theories: French-speaking games are every bit as modern as English-speaking games. But unfortunately, it is unlikely that a debate about an aspect of the theory of interactive fiction, or a novelty in a game, will have any influence on English interactive fiction: the language barrier, as well as the fact that the English-speaking community is a busy one, means that very few people of the English-speaking community will look at what the French community (or as a matter of fact, any other community) produces and talks about.[35]

Still, if authors of interactive fiction in French know about what the English community is discussing, how and to what extent are they influenced by interactive fiction in English? First of all, it turns out that a few of the members of the French-speaking community played some Infocom games before joining the community, either at the end of the 80s on their microcomputer[36] or by rediscovering those games on abandonware websites;[37] once again, Infocom games created an interest for interactive fiction for some people. But even though some people played those classic games, they are not quoted as a major influence among the community. They are not considered as “classics” in the community,[38] but those who played them agreed that they are indeed very good games. Instead, the French community plays a lot more games from the modern era—as we mentioned before, the French community keeps up with what the English community is doing. Sometimes, it’s a modern English game that prompted someone’s interest in interactive fiction—for example, JB Ferrant’s first interactive fiction game he played was Aisle.[39] More generally, a lot of members of the French IF community play interactive fiction in English, either Infocom’s games or more recent ones,[40] but very few cite them as major influences.

But then what exactly are the influences of the French-speaking IF community? What prompted the interest in interactive fiction of the members of the community? There are multiple answers[41]. It appears that in almost all cases, people stumbled on a game that they liked and that made them continue their search for interactive fiction, then landed on the forum of the community;[42] some of them had already played this kind of games before,[43] whereas for some[44] it was a totally new discovery. The games that people stumbled upon were sometimes Infocom games,[45] sometimes modern interactive fiction gamess in English,[46] but quite often modern interactive fiction games in French. In fact, Filaments can be considered as a cornerstone in this regard: a lot of people that joined the community after its release said that they found this game and loved it, prompting them to look for more games of the same kind.[47] Filaments may in fact very well be considered as the first classic of the modern era of French-speaking interactive fiction. But as a matter of fact, other games in French are sometimes quoted as being the game that generated interest in interactive fiction.[48] But interestingly, it seems that the members of this community share very similar interests that could somehow explain (or be put in relation to) their interest in interactive fiction—other than an interest in computers and programming. Those influences are, among others, CYOA books,[49][50] role-playing[51] (with, interestingly, a few authors of interactive fiction being or having been game masters in various role-playing games), role-playing computer games,[52] and quite logically adventure games.[53] Those influences may possibly be quite common in other communities such as the English one, of course, but they are worth mentioning here for the reason that few people in the French-speaking community came to it (and became part of the “modern era” interactive fiction community) because they knew interactive fiction from games they played in their youth, for instance: we’re looking here at possible influences that could, by their similarity to interactive fiction,[54] explain why most people became interested in interactive fiction when they first discovered it only a few years ago. Trying to figure out what are the previous influences of the newcomers in interactive fiction is useful to determine which fields are closely related to interactive fiction (thus possibly giving some clues about what interactive fiction is similar to and what characteristics are similar), as well as understanding what can bring people to interactive fiction (and what potential audiences can be interested in interactive fiction). Furthermore, it is easy to determine those influences for the French community, because it is a small community where, so to speak, everyone knows each other.

Finally, let’s have a look at the games produced by the French community. It might not be very relevant to try to find any pattern in the games created by this community, because the number of games, as well as (and perhaps more importantly) the number of authors, is very small: there are about 60 original games belonging to this “modern IF” era,[55] and the number of authors is about a dozen.[56] Thus, the patterns we may end up finding depend too heavily on individual preference. We’ll then just note that a lot of games have a contemporary setting; also, fantasy and medieval games are very well represented (as well as a couple of “historical” games set in some ancient period).[57] We can also note that quite a few games are actually very short,[58] and games in general are of short length;[59] however, this doesn’t seem to be too peculiar when compared to modern interactive fiction in English, for example.

In a nutshell, contrary to bigger communities, the contemporary French-speaking interactive fiction scene is not influenced by any previous history of interactive fiction; this actually harms the community, because interactive fiction is not an established genre in the eyes of a certain gaming audience, and it lacks any reference point in the past that players could associate with interactive fiction. This is, in a way, a totally new genre, which can deter players from trying it, as well as the fact that there will be no nostalgic players that discovered and/or participate in the modern scene to relive similar experiences from games they played in their youth. Thus, the community is still very small, and it seems that its audience is equally small. Interestingly, the members of the community thus have different and composite influences, which surely leads to different approaches, tastes, and takes on interactive fiction—but in fairness, the community is probably too small and too young to make this mean something.

Conclusion and Perspectives

The goal of this article was to present a history of, as well as some more general perspectives about, the French-speaking interactive fiction community. As we saw, this community is very different from the English-speaking community on many levels.

Writing the history of interactive fiction in French in the 80s for the first time, we saw that this history was a very different one from the one (centered on English-speaking countries) that is usually told. The influence of Infocom games is negligible to non-existent; as a consequence, the form of interactive fiction in French in the 80s was closer to adventures with graphics and a parser than to purely text-based games. We also saw that while a few companies were fairly successful, none of them had the success or the influence and the market dominance of a company like Infocom;[60] the reasons are numerous, from the late blooming of the market, thus giving them less time to get established as giants before the rise of point-and-click adventures, to the possible concurrence between skilled studios, or even a lower literary quality that made that games sometimes quickly outdated.

The consequences on the contemporary French-speaking IF scene are very important: because interactive fiction didn’t have as much success in the 80s—and in fact one could argue that they simply didn’t exist before the modern era—the community lacks a large base of players (and potential authors) that could probably have been brought by a greater popularity of the genre some decades ago. The community has found some other influences, and various people from diverse backgrounds are now part of the community. Still, even if the community seems to have reached a maturity and a stability that ensures that it will continue to create and stay active for some years, things are not looking wonderful: the community is still very small and doesn’t seem to grow (or to increase its potential audience significantly by reaching out to more players) very fast. This created a paradoxical situation in the community, where the few authors that keep the community alive are sometimes tempted to write their own games in English so that they could be played and reviewed by a greater number of people. The fact that very few English-speaking interactive fiction players play and review any game that’s not written in English contributes to a sort of one-way relationship that could be harmful to every other, non-English-speaking community.[61] Of course, the English-speaking community is hardly responsible for that; the “culprit” is the language barrier, and the fact that English is nowadays widely acknowledged as the global language. This is a challenge that the French community has to face: to manage to keep a healthy number of games published in French while looking for ways of reaching new audiences—for example by making their work more well-known among the English-speaking community. This is definitely a crucial time for this community, and there is certainly a lot to do for its members.

Acknowledgments: The author wishes to thanks Grégoire Schneller for his invaluable help digging in old magazines to find references to games in English in France, as well as the French IF community for “keeping French text adventures alive”!



[1] Even of bad quality: one can find a remark in the January 1985 issue of Tilt (page 76) about how some (quite dishonest) developers drew beautiful graphics for the title menu and the first few rooms, while the rest of the graphics looked quite bad, the goal being to lure the player with a promise of quality graphics.


[2] The ROM for this game is actually hard to find, but an Inform port of this
game was done by the author of this article and is available here: http://ifiction.free.fr/index.php?id=jeu&j=029.


[3] A French network for Apple // computers, using the Transpac communication network, that featured services such as chatrooms, email, message boards, and online news (via the Agence France Presse). The network was used by Jean-Louis Le Breton (under the alias “Pépé Louis”), Chine Lanzmann (“Chine”), and other online friends, who all make a cameo in the game.


[4] Though the review of the game in Tilt describes it as “the first RPG entirely in French.”


[5] Numerous articles about Loriciels state that L’aigle d’or was their first successful game.


[6] Tilt, July 1984 issue, pages 54–55.


[7] Inspired by the Rainbow Warrior scandal of the summer of 1985, in which French intelligence sank a Greenpeace ship while it was stationed in New Zealand but got caught. The whole affair was revealed to the public, creating a scandal in France.


[9] One can wonder if the graphics here are inspired by Mystery House or by Le Vampire Fou.


[10] The Apple //+ and Oric-I could only display a handful of colors, and the display was quite imprecise as well. Thus, every adventure game that was published for the Oric-I had similar graphics, such as Le Mystère de Kikekankoi. The next generations of those computers, the Apple //c and Oric Atmos, could display more colors.


[12] Such an interface design is comparable to the one in Masquerade.


[13] Amstrad Magazine, February 1986 issue.


[14] This is the case for Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, and Level 9 Computing games.


[15] Amstrad Magazine, February 1986 issue.


[16] SRAM (ERE Informatique, 1986) displayed a picture of a pig, saying “Here’s a photo of you last year.”


[17] Oxphar (ERE Informatique, 1987) displayed “You have to clear this infamy!” and the game suddenly changed to an Arkanoid-style mini game where you had to break the bricks forming the word INFAMY—which, according to reviewers, could take some time!


[18] In Même les Pommes de Terre ont des Yeux!, a game set in some South American military dictatorship, the default response “I don’t understand” was the parser saying with a strong parodic Spanish-inspired accent that he didn’t understand what you were saying.


[19] It seems that French people have a particular taste for history; in video gaming, it is shown by, for example, the success of Les voyageurs du temps (Future Wars) by Delphine Software, or by the French studio Cryo Interactive (in collaboration with the French National Museum Reunion) authoring a very successful series of more than a dozen 3D point-and-click adventures, each in a different historical setting—Pompei, Versailles, Greece, China, Aztec Mexico, etc.


[20] That quite often blend in role-playing elements, in fact—among others, Citadelle.


[21] Compared to the six science-fiction games written by Infocom.


[23] As an interesting side-note, CobraSoft was the only French publisher I know that included some kind of feelies with some of their games: included with Meurtres à grande vitesse were some clues that the player was to discover in the train, such as a tape or some nails.


[24] With games such as Le Vampire Fou, Le Manoir du Docteur Génius, or Le Pacte.


[25] A French publishing company that specialized in text adventures with graphics; created pretty late (1985), it published half a dozen games before going bankrupt, and it designed its own authoring language, Jade/Jadis.


[27] The game won the “Tilt d’Or” the same year.


[31] The interested reader can refer to the timeline of modern French
interactive fiction written by Eriorg and published in SPAG#47; this
timeline is fairly complete up until 2006. It is available from here: http://www.ifwiki.org/index.php/History_of_Interactive_Fiction_in_French.


[32] A transcript of the session is available at the ClubFloyd website: http://www.allthingsjacq.com/intfic_clubfloyd_20100704.html.


[33] SPAG #49, “A History of Spanish IF”


[34] Another possibility to explain the size differences would be to take into account the number of people speaking Spanish/Castellano worldwide (half a billion) and the number of people speaking French (a quarter of a billion). I don’t know if, as it seems to be the case in the French-speaking community, a lot of people playing interactive fiction in Spanish are Spanish; if it is the case, then considering that France has 65 million inhabitants when Spain has 45 million, this would definitely prove that the ratio of people playing IF in Spanish is greater than the ratio of people playing IF in French. But even if we consider the worldwide numbers, the Wiki of CAAD shows that the average number of games released in a year is about 25, when in the French community 10 released games means a good year; the ratio still seems higher.


[35] Very few people from the English-speaking community had a look at what was produced by the other communities; the only examples I know of are reviews of Ekphrasis by Emily Short (personal website) and Felix Plesoianu (SPAG #47), a translation of Olvido Mortal by Nick Monfort, and playthrough of Catapole at ClubFloyd last year (organized by Jacqueline A. Lott, who is also an occasional contributor to the forum of the French community).


[36] Cf. SPAG #47, “Interview of Adrien Saurat,” and Eriorg’s presentation post on the community forum.


[37] Such as Samuel Verschelde (“Stormi”), who found The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy and A Mind Forever Voyaging on such a website and then discovered the French-speaking interactive fiction community.


[38] But again, there don’t seem to be a lot of games considered universally as “classics.” There are several reasons behind this: no common interactive fiction culture and little heritage left by the 80s (thus no potential “old classics”), perhaps even a reluctance to call games written in English “classics” (because some people potentially can’t read English), and a very young community that hasn’t produce a lot of games yet. The only candidate could be the first French game, Filaments—we’ll talk a bit about this later.


[39] SPAG #47, “Interview of JB”.


[40] Cf. various sources, such as SPAG #47 (“Interview of Adrien Saurat”) and the list of played games on the IFDB profile of Eric Forgeot (“Otto Grimwald”), Grégoire Schneller (“Eriorg”), Samuel Verschelde (“Stormi”), and myself.


[41] For a more detailed account of those factors, the interested reader may
have a look at the presentation topic in the community forum (http://ifiction.free.fr/taverne/viewtopic.php?f=1&t=7), as well as the interviews of JB Ferrant and Adrien Saurat in SPAG #47.


[42] This is actually not true for some of the most recent members, who found the tutorial for Inform 7 posted by Eric Forgeot on a famous website of tutorials of programming languages; information is lacking concerning the origin of their interest in interactive fiction.


[43] Such as Adrien Saurat, Eric Forgeot, and Grégoire Schneller.


[44] Such as JB Ferrant, Benjamin Roux, Samuel Verschelde (who describes having been dumbfounded when he found (in 2000) that this kind of games existed), and myself.


[45] Such as for Samuel Verschelde and Adrien Saurat (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Galaxy) or Benjamin Roux (Zork).


[46] Such as for JB Ferrant (Aisle) and Grégoire Schneller (Savoir-Faire).


[47] Such as for Grégoire Schneller (who played Savoir-Faire first, but didn’t really like it, and then played and loved Filaments) and myself.


[48] Such as the aforementioned winner of the French IF Comp 2006, La cité des eaux, or even the humorous one-room “few-moves” Les espions ne meurent jamais (Spies Never Die).


[49] CYOA books were very popular in France in the 80s and the 90s. They were edited in France by Folio Junior under the collection Un livre dont vous êtes le héros (A book in which you are the hero), which incidentally is the name most people now use to talk about gamebooks. Several series were translated and edited, such as the Fighting Fantasy, Lone Wolf, and Sorcery! series, as well as numerous books by Herbie Brennan. The Choose Your Own Adventure series of gamebooks is, however, unknown in France.


[50] In fact, JB Ferrant collects the Steve Jackson gamebooks (he says he has over 300 books now), wrote three gamebooks (that can be bought on his website), and his second interactive fiction, La Mort Pour Seul Destin (Death as Your Only Fate) is an homage to the Sorcery! series of gamebooks. I myself was an avid gamebook player (around 50 books) in my youth.


[51] Such as for JB Ferrant, Jean-Luc Pontico, and Adrien Saurat.


[52] With the Ultima series being quoted as a reference, as well as Baldur’s Gate.


[53] The Monkey Island series seems to be a reference for most people, as well as the Myst series, and countless others.


[54] What those influences had obviously in common with interactive fiction were things like interactivity, puzzle-solving, and branching narratives; we could probably find more.


[55] We have to note that some of them are actually games created by a young author to get more familiar with an authoring language.


[56] Actually, there are exactly 16 authors, only 9 of whom authored more than one game.


[57] The Wired article that we quoted before wrote that French games of the 80s had very different themes from the games written in English; far away from fantasy and sci-fi, French adventures were more rooted in reality, said the article. This is actually still true, as most recent IF games in French are set in our modern world, and very few belong to the sci-fi genre. As for the fantasy genre, it is indeed a bit represented, but medieval settings are very common in French adventure games (thus making a fantasy setting maybe less far-fetched): it was represented in the 80s by games such as Citadelle, Montségur, and La geste d’Artillac, and as for recent IF, a lot of games by Eric Forgeot have a medieval setting, out of personal interest it seems.


[58] Because of the games created to get familiar with the programming language, as well as Speed-IF games, but not only.


[59] The only long games are actually JB’s Filaments and Ekphrasis, as well as Loïc B.’s Largo Winch and Enquête à hauts risques.


[60] On the other hand, the French interactive fiction scene did enter a state of hibernation very similar to what happen to the English and Spanish communities, probably because of the rise of the point-and-click genre; the fact that the whole genre didn’t rely on one enormously successful company didn’t prevent this hibernation.


[61] This is seemingly what happened to the German community for a time, where every German author switched to English as the language of their games because it would attract more attention to their games.

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

1 Comment

  1. [...] Bios ← Asimov’s Science Fiction, Vol. 35, #3, March 2011 Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (Part 2) → [...]

    Pingback by Racontons une histoire ensemble: History and Characteristics of French IF (Part 1) | The Portal | March 30, 2011


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