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IF Only: Le Reprobateur is a refreshing, multimedia story

A Frenchman in a bathtub

Le Réprobateur is an extremely unusual piece of French multimedia IF. It is a personal favorite of mine — so odd, so unlike anything else out there — but for the past few years it has been difficult to recommend to people, because it was not only commercial, but also unreliable about installation. (At least, so reported the friends who tried to play it.) But Le Réprobateur's author François Coulon has just re-released it, for free, in a browser-accessible format, and now anyone can get at it. The browser version is a tiny bit less elegant here and there than the original presentation, but what you get in exchange is something that actually functions on a modern computer.

The premise is — well, let me give you Coulon's own blurb:

Paris, 1984. Gildas is a reprover, a professional hired by his patients to follow them wherever they go and silently condemn their behavior. Called for help by Magali, unable to resist compulsive shopping and French pastries on her own, he starts to fall in love with the young woman, breaking every rule….

The story imagines a role somewhere between priest and personal trainer, and asks how this person might intercept some particular characters, in an alternate 1980s France. What happens when a professional sports team hires a Reprover to keep its athletes in training? When a writer needs reproof to get past writer's block? To glare at misbehaving lions in the circus?

Meanwhile, there is also a profession of Approvers, whose job is to run around and cheerlead anything you do: a cure for imposter syndrome, anxiety, and generalized forms of cowardice, but not, of course, without its ethical dangers.

I said this was multimedia IF. Each page has several short prose passages, just a sentence or two long, describing some anecdotes from the career of Gildas or one of the other characters he meets along the way. These sentences morph when you click on them, expanding to show additional nuances or takes on what is going on. The effect is reminiscent of Twine's text rotation functions, except that Le Réprobateur came out in 2008, before Twine had taken off, and before the creation of most of the macros that provide that functionality.

Even aside from the mechanical effect of having new phrases and adjectives pop in and out of view, the text does not read entirely naturalistically. It is translated from French, and while I am guessing that the original text adopted a humorously formal tone, the results in English are downright alien — though often still funny.

In addition to the prose, each page offers three illustrations and one video snippet. The illustrations are in a cartoonish or graphic novel style, but despite their size, are crowded with supporting detail, often further explaining what is happening in the text.

Then, each video snippet shows Gildas the reprover speaking to camera in French, occupying a role between narrator and character. He speaks slowly and clearly, so that those of us with somewhat less-than-fluent French have plenty of time to match his utterances with the subtitles. He belongs to the school of acting that emotes with its eyebrows. (In this school he is a fellow student of Emma Watson. You can ruin all the Harry Potter movies just by watching for Hermione's eyebrow acrobatics. You're welcome.) In these videos, he is quite likely to be doing his calisthenics or sipping a green cocktail in the bath, as if you were receiving his candid input in the moment that he had these particular thoughts.

And on top of all of these, there is a four-part soundtrack, which you can activate partly or fully, so that you're hearing just a basic track or additional elements on top. Or silence. Whichever you choose.

There are twenty pages in total, and you can navigate between them either by clicking on one of the page's three illustrations, or by zooming out to a 3D view, which maps the entire story onto the surface of a D20. You can then rotate the D20 and decide which face to look at next.

screenshot from Le Reprobateur

Either way, the structure encourages you to think about the thematic links between the story on one page and the story on the next.

This may all sound both stilted and needlessly complex. In practice, it's pretty easy to get the hang of after a few pages. As for the style, that never becomes less strange, but it does grow on you: or at least, it grew on me, as an expression of a subversive humor that never takes itself seriously, always attentive to the foibles of the main characters. It is also, at least from the perspective of other IF, almost entirely sui generis: part social satire, part literary short story, beholden to none of the usual IF or hypertext tropes and conceits, and not even apparently aware of their existence. This made it refreshing in 2008, and it still feels so now.

What emerges from both the story and the mechanic is an idea of nearly infinite layering and differences of perspective. Le Réprobateur is constantly showing you its characters' different views on what is going on. You, the reader, are constantly revisiting and morphing the prose and the music, or choosing to juxtapose this pair of pages.

Within the fiction, the existence of Approvers and Reprovers suggests that absolutely any act could, with the right framing and in the hands of the proper professional, be considered laudable or the reverse. Moreover (the story suggests), our ability to show discipline or self-restraint is very socially dependent, conditioned on the feedback that we're receiving at the time.

screenshot from Le Reprobateur

Considering all this, it's probably appropriate that the player has no diegetic agency at all. You can't change the story. All the texts, images, and videos are written in advance and may be experienced in any order. But your personal exploration of the space is a unique journey. The story begins on a different page whenever you restart it, as though rolling the giant D20 on which the pages are inscribed.

If you do like this piece, Coulon has also created a series called Prise Multiple, a set of video compositions offering multiple views on the same scenarios.

I should add a word of warning: there are characters in the story, if not the author himself, who express some racist perspectives. I had forgotten that fact until replaying; it was an unpleasant jolt to the system, even when couched in the perspective of a man otherwise represented as rather hidebound in several respects.

screenshot from Le Reprobateur

[Disclosures: Emily has never to the best of her knowledge met François Coulon, though she did receive a free review copy of Le Réprobateur when it was first released in 2008. More generally, Emily Short is not a journalist by trade and works professionally with various interactive fiction publishers. You can find out more about her commercial affiliations at her website.]

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