'We. The Revolution' Is a Bleak Morality Tale of Revolutionary Violence

A tragedy of ambition and corruption, 'We. The Revolution' is so skeptical of politics it fails to portray any.

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Apr 23 2019, 4:29pm

'We. The Revolution' screenshot courtesy of Polyslash

The trick is knowing when to stop. Few people do. Revolutionaries, or game designers.

When We.The Revolution opens, you are an important but politically insignificant Parisian judge serving on what will become the Revolutionary Tribunal that sent thousands of people to their execution in the final years of the 18th century. As Judge Alexis Fidèle, your job begins as mere procedure. Each day you deal with a new case and a new defendant, you figure out what are the critical questions you need to ask, and then you conduct a thorough questioning before the jury until a verdict is rendered. Then you hand down your sentence, sign some forms, and go home to your family.

Politics are present in the courtroom from the very beginning: You are told in advance that commoners want to see your defendant acquitted, while revolutionary politicians want to see an execution. In most cases, your verdict will improve your standing with one faction while damaging it with others but, crucially, it’s not immediately clear why this matters. The cases keep coming, but a backlash never does.

The Verdict form for We the Revolution, depicting a wax seal being applied to a death sentence.

These dynamics are mirrored in Judge Fidèle’s struggling home life. An alcohol abuser and incorrigible gadfly, his family’s affection for him is hanging by a thread. He’s got an embittered father who seethes over wrongs suffered during the anciene regime of the French kings, a wife who feels completely abandoned by her partner when it comes to parenting and homemaking responsibilities, and an older son whose political radicalism is rising in alongside his contempt for his hard-drinking father. Through a series of nightly conversations around the dinner table, and choices about how to spend family time in the evenings, you can shore up your relationships with your family, but never all at once. Inevitably, Fidèle must disappoint some among his loved ones, and in the small world of the Paris elite, the quality of a judge’s home life affects how he is regarded in public.

But what starts out as a kind of judicial Papers, Please increasingly inverts the dynamics of that bleak bureaucratic drama. As the Revolution begins to take on a life of its own—following a loosely historical course, but one that takes countless liberties with exact chronology of events and massively simplifies the political landscape—the role of a judge and the meaning of justice become increasingly political. You have procedures to follow and a job to do… but you can twist them to serve your ends. The obligations you have are also means to gain power and influence within the system you serve. Suddenly you’re dealing with messy prosecutions of politically dangerous defendants, and the winner-take-all politics of this contested revolution mean that there is increasing pressure to make use of the guillotine.

From being a mere functionary in a political machine, We. The Revolution transforms you into its puppetmaster. Whether he’s of a politically ambitious bent or because the best guarantor of safety in the Revolution is to ensure he is helping to chart its course, Fidèle starts getting further enmeshed in revolutionary politics. The problem is that the real source of his power is his courtroom, and suddenly the dry procedure of the early cases is recast. The questions you ask are no longer about establishing facts, but steering the jury to a convenient conclusion.

A game of dice in We the Revolution, yet another inexplicable minigame.

There is enough here for a fascinating game about revolutionary politics and how they reshape the function and place of formerly anonymous bureaucrats and professionals. The way the mundane procedures of the first cases are turned into ways to influence and profit from an ostensibly impartial process, and the way those decisions filter back into the narrative about the rise of Judge Fidèle and his family through French politics, would be plenty for We. The Revolution to bite off.

As the game continues, however, we start encountering more systems that don’t tell such clear stories. You can attempt to curry favor with the Paris mob at execution by delivering speeches and hitting the right emotional notes with each topic to improve your standing. This same mechanic will appear as you engage in factional intrigues with other characters, and attempt to persuade other political players to back your plays against rivals. Along the way you’ll also face a series of choices about how best to implicate your enemies in counter-revolutionary activities, and fend off their attempts to do the same. Play your cards right, and these enemies may well end up in your courtroom, facing your particular version of justice.

But these systems (and the game keeps adding more of them: at one point you start commanding armies?) often feel curiously detached from the other parts of your story. In between court cases, you simply have more buttons to press that ostensibly affect the political landscape, but it also turns We. The Revolution into a collection of talking heads. There are some negotiations that do feel fraught and emotional, but many others that feel like a kind of Simon Says. Many of your alleged political blood-feuds don’t resonate because, unlike your immediate family or the people you see every day in court, your enemies and allies both feel like strangers whose relationship to you is constantly told but never shown.

Family night in We the Revolution, which ends each day of the game.

Early in the game you begin fighting further battles using an abstract territory-control game on a map of Paris. You send agents into enemy districts to take them over, into yours to defend them, and into riots to help quell them before they rage out of control. Here again, the game is depicting something that feels uninvolved with the rest of what you are doing. It’s exacerbated by the sheer shallow, whack-a-mole feeling of this territory control game, which feels less like a proper strategy layer and more like a Parker Bros. board game best left to gather dust in a family game closet.

All these disparate pieces of different games don’t add up to a cohesive whole, which undercuts the effective storytelling and courtroom dramas that occupy the rest of the game. With each new mechanic, I felt more removed from the sage of the Fidèle family and more impatient just to get on with the Revolution. The small scale battles and negotiations of balancing your relationship with your family against the needs of career and politics are increasingly swamped by all these minigames. The human stakes diminish as Judge Fidèle, without clear motivation or belief, slowly transforms into a kind of revolutionary Dorian Gray.

The guillotine standing tall in We the Revolution

Perhaps this is also symptomatic of the cynical, tragic eye that We. The Revolution casts toward its subject matter. It is skeptical of the revolutionary project, constantly foreshadowing and exaggerating its turn toward bloodthirsty self-promotion. With hardly a glance at the politics driving events, it portrays not so much political ideas gone wrong as political naivete turned into a weapon by the cynically ambitious. It is a game that portrays the will to power as being devoid of ideology, full of abstracted mechanics built around the idea of manipulating people into doing your bidding. People are sheep, and tragedy ensues when people stir them into thinking they might be more.

It’s a frustratingly conservative vision, and one that is more shallow than this game or its characters really deserve. It’s undeniable that revolutions are often incomplete, disappointing, and frequently corrupted or partially reversed. But it’s too easy and circular to project intent and design backwards from those outcomes. It would be more fair to say that people have different visions of the promised land that lies on the other side of an oppressive status quo. This is one of the tragedies of history and politics, and it’s also the kind of conflict that makes for a compelling story. It’s the kind of conflict that transforms friends into enemies, thoughtful dreamers into isolated tyrants. By flattening all those conflicts into a bloody climb up a ladder, We. The Revolution’s story loses much of its tension and gravity. The stakes may be life and death, but in a story so nihilistic, they hardly seem worth the trouble.