Weapons in hand and ideas in fist, revolutions are a regular feature of history. Ideological, violent or non-violent, societal or political, the concept of revolution is a hybrid one that cuts across many realities, both historical and fictional.
Videogames are no exception to this theme. Whether as a vector for stories, a driving force behind game mechanics, or simply for the creation of universes and the incarnation of characters, revolution (but also riots and other movements in opposition to an established order) quickly becomes fertile ground for many, many stories. All the more so as it responds to an issue that is constantly overlooked: yes, videogames are political, just like any other form of artistic creation.
Each art form is different, of course, and allows us to explore the very notion of revolution in a different way. All can be adorned with fiction or, on the contrary, evoke or reconstitute reality, as we perceive it or as we know it. But video games are a medium of interaction: through a story, a graphic design, a soundtrack, a way of playing and apprehending the universe, the player is able to act on her environment and, depending on the type of game, change the course of the narrative. From a simple slice of life to a more epic setting, the plots follow one another and are never the same: save the world, explore the universe, make the best score or… lead a revolution. Because in digital worlds, you can do anything: relive an existing revolution or create a new one. The materials are there, all you have to do is shape them before you can take control of what becomes your story.
But what’s the difference between a game and a novel? Between a game and a series? A movie? A painting? Interaction! And with it, immersion. Because the video game experience allows a certain freedom, but also gives impact to your decisions. There are numerous mechanisms to draw you into the adventure: vibrations from the controller; internal point of view; realistic graphics or, on the contrary, graphics that contrast with reality; engaging characters; situations you can easily identify with… Through immersion mechanisms, video games can put you in the position of the revolutionary fighting for his freedoms, the dictatorship that represses him, or even the citizen torn between two worlds. Through choices, stories and characters, video games let you feel different emotions, leading to different choices. And not all emotions are necessarily positive: the joy of victory, yes, but also the fear of getting caught, the anxiety of discovering an oppressive world, the unease of a situation you perceive as problematic without really knowing why (or, on the contrary, knowing exactly what it refers to)… Games take you into various situations.
So, what will your revolution be? What will your role be? Are you ready to give it a try?
Is confronting history necessary to represent the revolution?
Revolution often means history, with a capital H. Because our history is full of examples, and the French Revolution is one of the most important, we often focus on this type of story.
History is full of examples of revolutions. It’s the trajectory of revolts, of insurrections, a historical mechanic that we often find again and again. Needless to say, in France, the French Revolution was one of the spearheads of such movements. In video games, the same is true: this moment is very often represented in games, whether through historical reconstructions or extrapolations based on these facts. Bringing history to life also means asking questions about how it unfolded, putting the player in the shoes of various protagonists who played an active part in these events.
While the example of the French Revolution is easy enough, since it’s one of the events most often repeated in various productions, it’s also a way of seeing the impact – or rather the non-impact – of history on immersion. Can you just play and get involved in a plot that’s already taken place? Can you really change the course of history completely, or do the most immersive revolutions have to take place in fictional contexts?
Assassin’s Creed Unity: modeling the French Revolution
When it comes to modifying and reusing history, it’s hard to ignore the Assassin’s Creed saga. The basic principle is as follows: in the near future, thanks to the Animus, you can explore your genetic memory and explore history. You soon realize that this is part of a global conflict, that of the Assassins versus the Templars (or Those We Cannot See and the Order of the Ancients, depending on the era of the games), two groups that have been at loggerheads since Antiquity. The first games transform the entire history of mankind into a giant, latent conflict between the two brotherhoods. Press articles, photographs, works of art – everything is revised and modified to immerse the player in this opposition. One game follows another, plot thickens and the historical moments explored all have one thing in common: exploring a turning point in history, be it a great revolution or not.
In Assassin’s Creed Unity, you take on the role of Arno, a young Frenchman who lives through the events of the French Revolution. The developers have modeled Paris entirely from the real city, historical documents and buildings at their disposal. Note, for example, that Ubisoft’s teams were the last to model Notre-Dame before it burned down in 2015.
In addition to personal stories and the conflict between Assassins and Templars, you’ll be taking part in historical events. The barricades inside Paris block your progress, and you’ll come across Robespierre and Danton, as well as other historical figures. In an article published on the L’Obs website at the time of the game’s release, Guillaume Mazeau, a historian specializing in the French Revolution, points out the anachronisms and Manichean vision the game offers of the Revolution, highlighting its fantasized ultra-violent side. Because historical events are always sources of issues in terms of representations and convey ideals, the French Revolution is no exception.
Yet Assassin’s Creed Unity offers little interaction with the Revolution: it’s a context, a setting in which you evolve, but on which you have no impact. It’s a setting necessary to the plot, but one over which you have no control or interaction. Immersion here is achieved through historical reconstitution, through monuments that we see in their former state, through details and potential anachronisms, much more than through the characters, their awareness or the expression of their ideals. In a way, this type of game allows us to take a step back and focus on other events, but it is also a source of historical errors and more global manipulations.
We. The Revolution: judge and jury
What if we told you: let’s play a judge in a revolutionary court in 1792 France? The Polish game We. The Revolution offers just that. Be sure of your decisions, though. Because you’ll have blood on your hands.
In terms of gameplay, first of all, you play the role of Alexis Fidèle and lead the investigation. You have access to various witnesses whom you can interview. You’ll also have access to documents. Then, it’s up to you to take charge of the trials, many of which will lead your defendants to the guillotine. Among the parameters to take into account are the moods of the various parties: the revolutionaries, of course, but also the nobility and the population. You’ll have to be careful about the questions you ask, or you risk incurring the wrath of the people, while some of your decisions will only have an impact later in the game. In any case, you are relatively free to conduct your trials as you see fit, and thus to be master of your choices.
Because you play a judge and hold many destinies in your hands, We. The Revolution could be a game based on the ideals of a revolution. However… the reality of the game is quite different. So far, we’ve been talking about titles that place you in the position of a revolutionary (with or against your will), and in which revolt is one of the main messages. But We. The Revolution takes advantage of a revolutionary context to convey an entirely different message: proof that graphic choices have a drastic influence on the game and its perception. By showing dark images, all in red and black, of the guillotine and blood, and highlighting the manipulations of a judge to save himself, manipulate the crowds and play on the escalation of violence, We. The Revolution makes us feel empathy for the royalists. The revolutionary leaders are graphically bestialized, and the images of the population echo the ideologies of dirty, poor people screaming behind grates. We. The Revolution totally dehumanizes the Revolution, turning it into a tool for new oppression and manipulation.
What if we reused the French Revolution as a tool for a different vision of history? These are the conclusions that emerge from We. The Revolution. You’ll find yourself in an ambiguous position as a player: if you know a little about the history of the French Revolution, many of the elements and choices will make you cringe. If, on the other hand, you’re not necessarily familiar with the advances made by the Revolution, particularly in terms of society, the game will return you to the idea that the nobles are delicate and gentle when faced with a vociferous population thirsting for violence.
Here, it’s not so much the emotions induced in the game that make you question and experience the Revolution, but rather the discrepancy, the very visible bias of this clumsy title in many respects.
Referring to history… and doing something else with it
The problem with games based on real historical events lies in the bias of the title. If it’s an uchrony, the possibilities are numerous, and history can be rewritten and modified. As in Assassin’s Creed, the context becomes not only a place for reinterpretation, but also the setting for secondary and ancillary stories.
Steelrising is an uchrony. Louis XVI is passionate about mechanisms. He hires an inventor to build him automatons capable, in time, of replacing his soldiers. The first androids are born, and they’re going to take part in the French Revolution! And guess who you’ll be playing the role of… an automaton, of course! You’ll be wandering around a particularly dark Paris in search of battles with opponents, in order to improve your machinery. The Revolution becomes as much mechanical and industrial as it is human, or rather, automaton-like, in this game, which gains in difficulty and whose main gameplay feature is inspired by Dark Souls in its die and retry mechanics.
It’s a fact that, while history has many stories to tell, most of the time, living through the Revolution also involves a relatively fictitious context. This provides a setting where we can play on immersion and emotion, where things appear less set in stone, less immutable than those of historical events. It gives depth to a setting, and makes you feel less like you’re playing with a frozen painting than in a virtual world where your actions will have a real impact.
You’re just a cog… really?
What if the key to immersion, interaction and emotion in the face of various injustices came from the universe in which the plot takes place? What if distancing yourself by setting the scene in a fictional country, in an indeterminate future, could instill revolt, and put you in a position to feel and explore the revolution in a different way? Set against a backdrop of fictional governments and countries, with a whiff of reality in contexts that we can identify with (and identify with), and see reproduced, the awareness-raising aspect is matched only by the criticism or cynicism of our realities. So, in the ultimate paradox, History may not be the best context to set you on the road to revolution or revolt of any kind.
There are several ways to present revolutions. From the inside, as a revolutionary trying to change things. From the outside, as a spectator or visitor discovering a revolting situation. But also as a cog in an oppressive system. Often, this situation is the point of origin of the game. Because you’re in this configuration, you’re going to play this or that character. And there’s nothing trivial about this choice.
The Last Worker: in the Jungle of mass consumption
In The Last Worker, you’re Kurt, the last human employee of Jungle, the fictional digital equivalent of Amazon. Your task? Fetch parcels ordered from the outside from a titanic warehouse. You have to sort them according to orders, send them for delivery or destroy them depending on the condition of the box. The company now has only one human employee: all the others are robots. You are subject to the same performance rules as your metal counterparts. You even live in one of the factory’s disused rooms, so you’re unaware of what’s really going on outside.
At first, Jungle is a company like any other: home delivery, exacerbated productivity, deplorable working conditions, questionable ideology and reappropriation of minority symbols to make itself look good. From the very first minutes of play, you’re placed in a certain ambiguity: is the game just going to be a management- and delivery-oriented title, pushing you to make the best score? Or is there more to it than that? Completely dystopian, The Last Worker gradually begins to show its true face: a small robot, piloted by a human outside the complex, comes to ask for your help, urging you to rebel, to lead a revolution from within. The world is falling into ruin, resources are increasingly scarce, but humanity is encouraged to consume more and more. Only you can still destroy the Jungle from within. But do you really want to?
Over and above what might be considered a rather facile statement given the current socio-economical-ecological situation, The Last Worker questions our relationship with mass consumption and work. But here’s the thing: with this game, you’re on a remote-controlled track. The scenario pushes you to discover the inside of the factory and its truth, encourages you to rebel, but leaves you no choice. You go from discovery to revelation, feeling empathy for poor Kurt but also his duality: wasn’t it more comfortable not to know the truth? Since the game leaves you no choice, it puts you in the same position as Kurt: you can only endure these revelations. But who can you rebel against?
With the controller in hand, the situation is that of a long corridor being explored: of course, you’ll need to get the best score in the delivery phases, so as to secure your job as a character and continue the game. On the other hand, moments of exploration and tension require a bit of dexterity and infiltration… If the game is available on Switch, The Last Worker remains originally a VR game. A virtual reality game, then, that puts you in Kurt’s shoes, in the shoes of this character oscillating between the tranquility of his daily life and the reality of the society in which he evolves.
It’s up to you to observe everything, as if you were sitting in an amusement park seat. So why this game more than any other? Because it’s the first milestone in an awareness, a way of experiencing a revolution through video games: start by observing, by following a predefined route, before taking flight and making your own choices…
Paper please: an awakening consciousness
Little by little, you’ll be given a choice. An alternative that begins with the realization that the society in which the game takes place is totalitarian. Welcome to Paper please. A critique of totalitarianism and migration policies, Paper please puts you in the shoes of an immigration officer responsible for checking the papers of people wishing to enter the country. But here’s the thing: you’re receiving instructions from the government, peace may only be a facade, and your borders, open at last, may not stay open for long.
The game presents you with a dilemma: to implement government directives, or not to do so and let in political opponents, potential terrorists, journalists and other characters with various aims. The gameplay is fairly straightforward: you have to go through the various documents at your disposal, check their validity, question people and decide whether or not to let them through. Simple? On the face of it, yes, because despite the easy-to-learn gameplay, Paper Please is all about moral dilemmas. You can totally accept the entry of political opponents, for example, but this will influence your performance, your pay at the end of the day and what you can do with that money. Because you need it to lead your life: it allows you to buy food, to look after your child or yourself, to pay taxes, heating, housing… So, what do you choose? Your survival, your family’s survival or the revolution?
By putting you in this position, the game pushes you to your limits. It presents you with moral choices, asking you about your position and your involvement. Will you be “lax”? Revolutionary? Agree with the government? Some actions end the game quickly, while others require you to live with your decisions and their implications. The further you go, the more tense the phases become: you don’t have enough space on your work surface to put all the necessary documents. New directives arrive day after day, some overriding previous ones. Little by little, you discover the face of the government you work for. The conditions for entry into your country are becoming more and more drastic: has a terrorist managed to plant a bomb and open the perimeter wall wide? The next day, you’ll need a new special authorization to enter the country. Isn’t that enough? You’ll be able to detain new entrants if you have any doubts. What if it’s possible to bribe you or the guards? As the days pass, the situation becomes increasingly tense.
Paper please plays with you: the gameplay involves you with a minimum of interaction. Because little by little, you realize that you’re in control of the destiny of the various nationalities, and above all: it’s Paper please that plays with you, controlling you through events, rewards and decisions. But are you sure you’re really free to do as you please? The many constraints imposed on you (the need to earn money for food, heating and care, the moral constraints linked to the decisions you make, etc.) make you aware of your environment. Your conscience awakens, and with it, your will to act. But can you? After The Last Worker, where you follow a predefined path and a fixed narrative, Paper please offers several possible endings, at different points in your adventure. The choice is yours. But will you open your eyes enough to realize it?
Valiant Hearts: The Great War: refusing to move on
No, Valiant Hearts isn’t really about revolution, but it is about another kind of revolt: the player’s revolt against the game. You follow the intertwined destinies of four characters during the World War I, all in a comic-book style (some shots clearly evoke the drawings of Tardi, a comic-book specialist on this period). Explorations, actions, puzzles, you play as your protagonists throughout the Great War: a soldier, his daughter, a nurse, his son-in-law, unfortunately requisitioned on the German side, and a dog, a lifelong companion who will put your little heart to the test.
Why talk about Valiant Hearts here? The game, developed by Ubisoft Montpellier, is one of those titles that teach us that you can get your heart broken playing a video game. And that sometimes, injustice awakens other emotions in you. If the whole story is hard, strong and full of feelings, it’s in its final minutes that the game pushes you to revolt. But not against the plot or the characters: against the game itself. It is such an emotional vehicle that it becomes a masterclass on the subject. The game, released in 2014, leads to a new way of reacting to these emotions: not moving forward. There comes a point when you won’t want to do anything else, just put down the controller, turn off the console and leave your characters in this in-between state in the middle of their story. Although it’s not what the developers intended, isn’t it a form of rebellion not to have the desire or the heart to finish a game? Isn’t it pushing emotions to the limit to put your heart on edge, to put you in such an uncomfortable situation that you’d rather quit?
Since video games play on your emotions to make you feel and explore the revolution, Valiant Hearts succeeds in immersing us in a heavy atmosphere, with very little text, since dialogues are in a mixture of pictograms and incomprehensible slang. It’s all about the visuals, the feel of the joystick, born of the inertia of the characters, the slowdowns as they pass through the mud, the vibrations of the joystick as the bombs hit… and that famous finale, which we won’t spoil for you here, and which once and for all plays on your emotional relationship with the video game. Does revolt come from personal stories? From History? From these life trajectories or from the one you’re pushed to take, controller in hand, to end an adventure you don’t want to end this way? And is it possible to experience total injustice when empathy for the character goes beyond the screen?
Sometimes, you don’t need to move forward to experience a powerful moment of revolt, to want to change things. It’s mainly through emotions that video games manage to immerse us in situations that are as tense as they are historic, as powerful as they are violent, as cathartic as they are new.
Move forward and discover… open your eyes!
Many titles set up a universe and force you to follow a predefined path, where you’ll shake things up in small ways. The developers leave certain doors ajar for you. But what about choice? As we’ve said, video games are all about immersion and interaction. Of course, living an adventure and being at the center of it is an integral part of immersion. The themes explored are touching, thought-provoking and chilling. But what if you were given a choice? To believe or not to believe, to commit or not to commit, to become aware of your surroundings or simply to run away?
Thanks to certain narrative- and character-driven titles, you’ll be able to explore other societies, other struggles and simply live out the various revolutions on offer.
Road 96: from awareness to decision-making
Welcome to Petria, a country ruled by Tyrac, an unscrupulous man who controls the media and the country, and whose election posters are reminiscent of a skilful blend of the different propagandas of history. All information comes from Sonya Sanchez, the darling of television, who has eyes only for President Tyrac. Her news items include the approaching elections and the mysterious disappearance of teenagers. The propaganda blames it all on the Black Brigades, a group of “terrorists” who seek to overthrow Tyrac’s rule. Are their actions good or bad? Will you side with Tyrac despite your flight?
You’ll take on the role of a teenager seeking not to disappear, but to flee the country, by reaching the road 96 and the Wall, the only border you can cross, which is nothing more than an ultra-monitored crossing point. The game’s narrative is particularly interesting: randomly-generated stages provide access to episodes linked to different characters. These form a vast web, depicting various aspects of this dystopian universe. Crossing paths with Sonya reveals the duplicity and corruption of the media, and the way she manipulates information. Alongside her, you’ll gradually realize that you shouldn’t trust what’s around you. With John, you’ll discover the Black Brigades and their true purpose. The truth about the events that led Petria into totalitarianism will gradually come to light. Other characters crystallize the different aspects of this type of story: Zoé, the daughter of the oil minister and therefore recruited as a child, will tell you about her path to escape, her own awakening. The same Zoé we meet again, in 2023, in Road 96 Mile 0, a prequel to Road 96 which we’ll talk about shortly.
Your journey ends when you reach the Wall… or are caught. Then comes the terrible revelation about what happens to teenagers who stand up against the established order: if you haven’t succumbed to your journey, your character will end up in a camp. And so begins a new journey and a new destiny. Road 96 puts you in the position of perpetual choice: you can interact with your environment, tagging posters to encourage people to vote against Tyrac, trying to make other protagonists aware of the need to act, to try to change mentalities. Because that’s what it’s all about: making the characters, and you, aware of the reality of this universe. A world where the slightest piece of information is a manipulation, where appearances are deceptive and where, as a teenager, you have a say. You can act. But it’s up to you to take responsibility.
When you pick up the controller, you control the destiny of these teenagers, but you also have the opportunity to make choices that will impact the rest of the universe. This coming revolution is also yours. And the attachment you feel for your teenagers (all the more so if one of them ends up in a camp, revealing some of the game’s unspoken secrets) has repercussions on the way you play. Will you make the same choices once the destinies of several of your teenagers have come to an end? Once you’ve uncovered the lies, manipulations, corruption and rescue attempts that go on in Petria? By revealing the universe bit by bit, Road 96 accompanies you in its revelations and leads you along the path to a form of revolution. But also an awakening.
In its prequel, Road 96 Mile 0, the player embodies just two characters, Zoë, the daughter of the oil minister encountered in the first game, and Kaito, a teenager from humble origins suffering government repression. Through their two eyes, you’ll learn two types of awakening: opening your eyes to what has surrounded you since childhood and deconstructing your upbringing; but also sliding into rebellion, either peacefully or more radically.
What decision will you make? How will your adventure end?
While Road 96 and its prequel plunge us into a dystopian world close to our own in many respects, and where it will be easy to draw parallels with our own society, other games propose leading revolutions or accompanying revolts.
Protestations, manipulations…: it’s up to you!
There’s only one solution… protests! And what if video games took over? That’s the idea behind a number of games. Based on the gameplay popularized by zombie games, where you have to lead crowds of undead to infect and destroy, a number of protest games have emerged. The principle is often the same: revolt, convince others to join you and form the biggest crowd possible.
“When injustice becomes the law, rebellion is a duty”. Such is the summary of Disobey – Revolt Simulator, a game for which a demo is currently available. The principle is simple: lead a revolt, somewhere between a management game and an action game. Coordinating groups of protesters, finding weapons and medikits, confronting the police – the means are many, but they all put your sense of organization and management to the test. This is also the case in Riot – Civil Unrest, where you re-enact major demonstrations around the world. The campaign mode includes conflicts such as the Arab Spring in Egypt, No Tav in Italy, Keratea in Greece… Throughout the seventeen levels, the game pushes you to take action, lead crowds and publicize your revolutions. The game is a strategy title with several points of view: you can play as both protesters and police officers, with changes in weapons and other options available depending on which side you play.
Since the beginning of this article, we’ve been talking about the emotional and immersion aspects of the various titles. This is often achieved through the plot, the gameplay choices and the characters. The feelings conveyed by these different elements reinforce immersion, making you wonder about the environment that surrounds you, about the characters’ motivations, about the universe. But with event management games, the aim is quite different. It’s in the multiplicity of means, in crowd control, in group dynamics. Highlighting these mechanics casts a new light: we’re no longer trying to emphasize the why, but the how. How can you make your event a success? What means should you use? How big does your group need to be to have a chance of succeeding? What opposition will it face? By placing us on the outside, god-game-style, these management games (whether historically based or not) offer us another view of revolution and its means.
And there’s no need for realistic graphics (or pixel art, in the case of Riot – Civil Unrest) to emphasize the means. With Anarcute, you take on the role of a group of adorable (cute) rabbits who lead their protest and revolt (anar). With placards and new possibilities as the levels progress, Anarcute is both an action game and a puzzle game: how will you achieve your goals? It’s up to you to use different strategies to get there. It’s all a question of numbers, since the more of you there are, the greater the chances of success.
Numbers and manipulation are also the tools of the trade in Not For Broadcast, a stunning live-action title that puts you at the controls of a live editing console. The news unfolds before your very eyes, and it’s up to you to decide whether to mute the sound, focus on a particular person, send out the advert, and so on. The message you convey to your viewers will depend on the way you edit. Less revolutionary and more focused on mass manipulation and its mechanics, this game shows us, by example and by pushing you to perform it, all the possibilities of transforming a message through editing, sound cuts and image hijacking.
In reality, video games place you in two positions: that of the revolutionary, but also in the more debatable one of the oppressor. The aim is often to put you in the shoes of these different protagonists, whether to denounce, show by example, or add distance to better grasp the issues at stake. Since you are the main actor in your games, video games often place you in positions where discomfort is omnipresent: in Paper Please, do you really want to denounce such and such a person? In Riot – Civil Unrest, do you really want to win as the police? Are all means good enough to rally rabbits to your cause in Anarcute? Other titles play on this unease: Mind Scanner asks you to “cure” mental pathologies that are actually anti-government opinions. The proposal of rebellion comes to you like a breath: Phew! There is another way, a possibility of overthrowing these governments that oppress you and the characters.
Conclusion : There isn’t just one revolution. Choose yours…!
Of course, there are plenty of games to help you lead your own revolution. Mind Scanner gets you thinking about mental health and psychic manipulation. Robothorium puts you in the role of a robot rebelling against humans, raising other issues related to robotics and digital technology. Just as Detroit Become Human raises questions about androids, their rights, their humanity, and how a revolution should take place: can it only exist without violence? State of Emergency (1 and 2) puts you in the shoes of a protester having to find his way through the barricades. Even some management games encourage revolution in the most historical sense of the term, such as Empire: Total War, which (among other things) features the French Revolution… But others take you in opposite directions: Beholder, for example, puts you in the shoes of an informer who has to keep an eye on what’s going on in his building. Still others place you in different situations, sometimes between two waters, sometimes pushing you to revolt or to preserve a corrupt system. Your decisions and emotions will determine your gaming experience.
As always, and this is all the more obvious when we look at these different cases, video games are political. Like any art form, it offers both entertainment and a strong message. Whether it’s through the gameplay experience and immersion, interaction, graphics or context, video games never cease to prove that the experiences they offer us convey a message.
By giving a voice to other types of story, to other means of expression and to development teams from all horizons, video games make it possible to truly experience revolts and revolutions from every possible angle: whether as the silent link in an oppressive society, as a proven and active revolutionary, as a demonstrator, etc. Immersion is an essential element, and gameplay a dynamic, interactive tool, conveying emotions of varying degrees of intensity. Immersion is an essential element, gameplay a dynamic, interactive tool, a vector of emotions of varying degrees of intensity. And emotions are the prism through which you will live these experiences: injustice, fear, anguish, but also liberation and laughter.
With the joystick in hand, worlds open up to you, their revolutions becoming yours through your involvement, your choices and the directions you take with the joystick.