The Reprover

The Reprover is a piece of digital art; or a lightly interactive comic book; or a French film whose pacing you control yourself; or a story written on the surface of a polyhedron. Or perhaps it is most accurate to call it a hypertext, but, if so, it is considerably more coherent and satisfying than most literary hypertexts I have encountered before.

The story concerns several characters: an aging writer, his unhappy wife, the wife’s niece, the niece’s husband. This last is the Reprover of the title, a man who can be hired to wear a uniform and stand at the elbow of his clients, expressing with the eloquence of his eyebrows alone that the client ought to refrain from some contemplated self-indulgence (a rum baba, human blood, a new pair of shoes). There is more to it than this — an entire alternate world by turns funny and disturbing — but a lot of the pleasure of the work for me was in exploring and trying to pursue leads into the parts of the story that intrigued me, so I will not spoil the rest by revealing it here.

As with many hypertexts, it would be difficult to say where the story ends. One can see all the pieces exhaustively, but none of them really seems necessarily to be the last. Nonetheless, there is a sensible progression of events, even if one encounters them out of order; in the end one comes away with a narrative after all.

So there is a story here. The other obvious question is, what does this gain by being interactive? What is the player/reader supposed to do?

The interface may seem, at the beginning, quite complicated. There is a screen with four panels, always three drawings and a video clip. Each of the drawing panels is associated with a small amount of text. One can click from panel to panel, reading the adjoining text that appears; pass one’s mouse over the text to make it vary in small ways; pass one’s mouse over the art panels to make them, also, slightly change; and view the video. In addition to all this, there is control over the musical soundtrack: one can leave it off, or one can turn on one or several layers of looping music. Thus a single click creates a simple melody, a second click adds a second line to the loop, and so on.

When one has experienced all this adequately, one moves on to another screen by double-clicking one of the drawings. Each drawing is reciprocally connected to another drawing in another screen, so that it is always possible to go back; quite often there are visual similarities between the two drawings, characters dressed alike or in like poses, which hint at comparisons and contrasts.

To visualize the relationships between all the possible screens, one can also turn to a 3D mode, which presents the whole thing as a polyhedron with triangular facets. If this seems a bit much to imagine, see Trailer #3 on the website: it demonstrates clearly what is difficult to describe.

I found, personally, that this potentially fussy interface worked naturally after a little practice, and that it is all directed towards a specific type of reader/user experience. This is a form of art that works by accretion and elaboration: first you see the essential meaning (the unadulterated text that accompanies a panel, or a single line of the soundtrack) and then, as you are ready, you add the other layers, by increasing the number of musical elements, by mousing over the text to make it show its variations, by viewing the video clip which comments on it all. One of the trailers says something like, “if you like art and you like sandwiches, you will like The Reprover.” There is a point in this. The meaning of the work comes from juxtapositions and contrasts, from new details that give new implications to something already known.

Of course, you could say that most hypertext is about juxtapositions: what links do, after all, is put one thing next to another. But it takes discipline and craft to make the results coherent, rather than a vague jumble of suggestion. In The Reprover, the discipline is evident in the subtle visual echoes between linked images, and in the care that has gone into selecting scenes for the story. I did not feel, in the end, as though any of the pieces were arbitrary or irrelevant.

It does not hurt that The Reprover has superb production values. The images are colorful and stylized as though from a children’s book, lending a curious innocence even to the more adult moments in the story. The video portions are well shot and well acted, full of dry humor, with odd little props supporting the idea that the tale takes place in an alternative version of the 1980s. The text is available in both French and English, and while the English text inevitably preserves that slightly foreign tang of having been translated — something to do with the ordering of phrases and even the content of some of the thoughts — it is lucid, error-free English all the same.

I am not sure whether The Reprover will appeal to the whole audience of this blog as much as it did to me. I found it charming, funny, strange, at times disquieting, sometimes beautiful, and quite distinctly itself. But it helps to have a bit of a taste for French films or literature, I think. I was also at times reminded of Borges or Calvino — Borges because of its formal complexity, Calvino for the gentle, mannered exploration of an implausible premise.

In any case, this is not a game; it does not have a text parser or anything close to it; it does not offer any control over the direction of the narrative. I felt that I was instead in charge of pacing and direction — of triggering new elements when I was ready for them, and deciding which themes to pursue. The Reprover was more amenable to that kind of control — exploration by theme — than any text-based IF game I’ve encountered. I found that a satisfying kind of agency to exercise. When I could no longer find links that led to new scenes, I went to the 3D view and inspected the whole story carefully to make sure there were no parts of it I had left unexplored (there is a strangely tactile pleasure in turning a story around in your hands and seeing all its faces). When I was satisfied that I had read everything, I returned to the screen that I thought the most fitting coda and viewed it again. And then I was done.

In sum: this is a work that knows what it’s trying to accomplish as a piece of interactive art/film/literature, and it succeeds.

(I received a review copy of this work. It is available for sale for 16 euros.)

15 thoughts on “The Reprover

  1. I’m curious about something you write: “the English text inevitably preserves that slightly foreign tang of having been translated — something to do with […] the content of some of the thoughts”.

    Could you please quote a few specific examples from “The Reprover” (or even from other translated works) in which the content of some of the thoughts suggested that it was translated from French?

    (And by the way: congratulations on this blog and on your tireless work for interactive fiction!)

  2. Could you please quote a few specific examples from “The Reprover” (or even from other translated works) in which the content of some of the thoughts suggested that it was translated from French?

    Fair enough — I’ll have to go back and look through it for specific examples. This wasn’t meant at all as a criticism, though!

    (Incidentally, here is another take on The Reprover, from someone who found it maybe just a little less easy to settle into than I did.)

  3. All right: having had another look, here are a few bits that struck me as particularly un-English; I have blotted out the names of the characters so that they will not be a factor in the impression each passage gives.

    To oppose his wife’s departure, **** gave his body to the pavement. (Illustration: a man lying on the ground in front of a car.)

    Referring to the wife leaving her husband: The operation presented a few difficulties of an adhesive nature, but nothing that could hinder the wild elation of a woman who was no longer in love.

    Equipped with hostile cutlery, **** felt the meaning of life slip through his fingers…

    Re. the Tour de France: My jersey, it ought to be pale yellow, because it’s Mr **** who deserves to have half the colour.

    Thunderstruck, the cat **** stopped in his tracks and dropped onto the tiles the limb of his animal kingdom colleague.

    Yielding, in spite of everything, to his reprover’s mute influence, ****, columnist, ended up taking the path to the bathroom.

    A few of these reveal themselves through their grammar — the Tour de France quote has a particularly French sentence structure. In other cases, what strikes me is the reliance on abstract nouns where the Anglophone instinct might be to go for more particulars (“limb” rather than “leg”, “animal kingdom colleague” rather than “fellow animal” or the like); a greater-than-usual tendency to the pathetic fallacy (“hostile cutlery”); a verbose beginning with a bathetic end (“ended up taking the path to the bathroom”); grandiose and subjective rather than simple and objective narration (“gave his body to the pavement” rather than “lay on the ground” or “lay in the path of the car”).

    To some extent these are features of the author’s personal style, and reflect The Reprover’s heavy use of symbolism and metaphor. Nonetheless, they also strike me as more common to French source material than to English or American.

  4. Thank you very much for your answer!

    I saw the original French text of the Tour de France quote in the screenshots from the game website: “mon maillot, il devrait être jaune pâle” (“my jersey, it ought to be pale yellow”) is indeed a sentence structure from spoken French, and its translation is probably a bit too literal.

    I notice that the other examples you quote are — or try to be, anyway — amusing thanks to the contrast between the literary, or long and complicated, words or turns of phrase and the much more prosaic situation. This style of humor may be more frequent in French than in English; I don’t know.

  5. Sure — and I did, in fact, find this funny much of the time. There’s plenty of Anglophone humor that also turns on a contrast between style and content, but my gut feeling (I haven’t made a detailed survey) is that it usually works a little differently. Possibly this is because of a different idea about what constitutes elevated diction, so the two language cultures have different targets for mockery?

  6. It might also be “non-idiomatic elevated diction”, so there’s more chance for confusion across language cultures. My initial reaction, without context, to someone “giving themselves to the pavement” wasn’t to see them lying in front of a car, but leaping from a high window.

    Granted, this is much less of a problem when it’s illustrated.

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  8. I noticed that Sam Kabo Ashwell, in his recent review of The Reprover, wrote something about the style of humor of the game which reminded me of the comments here:

    The style of humour is, again, very much French-translated-into-British. It’s wry and archly disapproving, occasionally melancholic, with a touch of ironic high-melodrama; the sort of thing I associate with the Kai Lung books, but with a very French approach to discursive wackiness.

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