"Role-playing game" has taken on a whole host of meanings in recent years, but Avant-Garde is one in which you actually, you know, play a role that's outside the sphere of your typical day-to-day dealings. (Unless you are a time-traveler, method actor, or hit your head very hard recently.) In short, you step into the rags-and-chewing-gum shoes of an artist in 19th century Paris. Your goal? To art! In the process of leveling up skills like form, composition, and anatomy, you'll brush shoulders (and, er, brushes) with the likes of William-Adolphe Bouguereau, Édouard Manet, and (eventually) Picasso and Van Gogh. All the while, times change, movements force you outside your box, and no one ever understands your poor, tortured soul. It's a wonderfully unique little thing, though its playable alpha status means it still has quite a ways to go.
At this point, Avant-Garde is already smartly constructed and surprisingly clever. Beyond the obvious touches (the aforementioned arts-relevant skill systems, the fact that each location is a famous painting from the time period), dialogue between various famed artists is equal parts punchy and catty. Here's the big picture:
"You can befriend artists like Courbet, Bouguereau, Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and other artists of the time - or become their rival. Unfold their storylines as you play and live history like it was happening in front of your eyes. For example, William-Adolphe Bouguereau is a rich and famous artist, but modernism is threatening not only his position but what is most dear to him: beauty - can he hold off the avant-garde and preserve order?"
That said, you're more than capable of molding history in your own image. For a fairly hefty chunk of change, you can even create your own artistic movements, which... isn't actually how that worked at all, but it leaves room for some great revisionist fun/poop jokes. And really, that's what I'm digging so much about the alpha: it's more Oregon Trail than musty, mundane edutainment. You get to leave your own (inevitably silly) stamp on the most hallowed annals of time, and - in much the same spirit as all the best art - everything's more interesting when you get to be a self-obsessed jerk.
Or you can just construct incredibly overwrought, overreaching metaphors like me. I decided to name my character "Videogames" and designated his/the medium's greatest quality as "Visionary," with "Loner" as the biggest flaw. Then I proceeded to name all my works after (slightly more recent) history's most important games, imbuing them with stats to match. For some reason, however, my re-imagining of Call of Duty as a "grotesque" nude didn't go over so well.
I had a good, semi-educational laugh, but sadly, closer inspection revealed some rather large chips in the paint. As I mentioned earlier, Avant-Garde's currently in alpha, so a few major features aren't quite, er, functional yet. For instance, befriending other artists doesn't really do much except occasionally grant an absinthe-powered stat boost. And while that's admittedly the greatest thing ever, it's only the skeleton of a system. Same goes for training skills at the academy and even creating art, which you can sell, enter in a single yearly competition, or... well, that's basically it.
But Avant-Garde's already got a seriously sturdy spine holding up its still-developing muscles, and I'll definitely be keeping an eye on it. Maybe even two eyes, but only if I don't have to sell one in order to fund Leonardo da Videogames' next project: a bronze self-portrait sculpture called "Citizen Kane."