Archive for the 'research' Category

Ocean observations.

Oct 06 2012 Published by under research

The Pacific Ocean in Venice, Los Angeles, is oriented in the same direction as the North Sea that was the model for the beach in Bientôt l’été. It’s also a West coast. Meaning that the sun sets in it and it is lit from the opposite side in the morning.

But it’s very different in other respects. Where the waves on the North Sea form a complex choreography that starts already far from the shore, here the water surface is calm overall but for a narrow strip near the beach. As if to compensate, the waves are often much bigger than those in Belgium and the North of France.

Since the dizzying dance of the North Sea waves that inspired Bientôt l’été is missing here, I wonder if people who are more familiar with this type of coast will be able to appreciate the reference in the game.

Another difference is the air. Breathing along the North Sea is exhilarating. There is a very distinct smell to the sea water and breathing too deeply can make your head spin. Here, the smell is much more faint.

And then there’s the sound. The much more chaotic wave patterns combined with unrelenting strong winds make of North Sea beaches very noisy affairs. You often have to scream to one another to be able to understand. Not here. When a wave crashes, you certainly hear it. But then it subdues. It becomes so quiet that you can hear the foam fizzing on the sand.

The seagulls too are quiet things here. While in Europe, the screaming of the gulls sends mortifying chills down your bones, here a gentle peep once in a while is all you get out of them.

I guess I’m starting to understand what is so pacific about this ocean.

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Marguerite Duras, game designer.

Jul 08 2012 Published by under research

I’m reading Le Vice-Consul at the moment in which Anne-Marie Stretter plays an important role. Anne-Marie Stretter, the wife of the ambassador of France in colonial India. Not unlike Anne Desbaresdes, the wife of the factory owner in Moderato Cantabile. The latter only has one lover. The former has several. She is mentioned as such in the beginning of L’amant de la Chine du Nord as well. Not much more is said of her. And the novel goes on, throwing a poor white school girl in the lusting arms of a wealthy Chinese gentleman.

In Le Ravissement de Lol V. Stein, Anne-Marie Stretter is the older woman who seduces the fiancé of the lead character away from her, casting her into a ten year long depression. The name of that fiancé is Michaël Richardson. In Le Vice-Consul, one of the lovers of Anne-Marie Stretter is called Michael Richard. She seems to prefer him.

I’m now in a part of the novel where Anne-Marie Stretter is on a beach (yes, a beach, as in many other novels of Duras and in Bientôt l’été). She is lying in a chair surrounded by her lovers. The men talk and she sleeps. She remains the sphinx, even when she is the center of attention. And she taints every other story with her presence, even if only featured casually, in the margins.

There’s also several films by Duras in which Mrs Stretter makes an appearance, highlighting other aspects of this elusive character. Makes me want to make a videogame about her. But I don’t know enough about her. That’s sort of the point and the beauty of Anne-Marie Stretter. Can we make a game about something unknown and yet familiar? How do we allude in videogames?

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L’amant de la Chine du Nord

Jun 21 2012 Published by under research

The North China Lover is a re-telling of the same story as in Marguerite Duras’ probably best known work The Lover. The novel makes references to its predecessor in the form of corrections. The male protagonist, for instance, is described as slightly different in this version, while the female protagonist, or the child as she is often referred to, is described as being the same. The book also includes film directions, as if Duras was trying to correct the film Jean-Jacques Annaud had created the year before, based on the first book.

The story takes place in the French colonies in Asia, where Duras grew up. So it’s likely that it is at least in part auto-biographical.

A French family in colonial Vietnam, impoverished after the death of the husband and some bad business decisions. A mother, two sons, and a daughter in her early teens.

The girl meets a rich Chinese man and they have an affair.

He is madly in love with her. But it is unclear throughout the entire book whether the girl actually loves him or if she is just manipulating him out of childlike curiosity on the one hand and financial gain on the other.

Nevertheless, they do have a real relationship that consists mostly of meetings in an apartment the man seems to possess precisely for this purpose. He is described as weak and fragile. He does absolutely nothing. He doesn’t need to. His family is rich. The contrast between him and the girl’s older abusive brother could not be greater.

Despite the age and race difference, the girl’s family encourages the relationship for the sake of the money. The man does help the family in the end. But this cannot prevent their return to France. The emotions the couple experience in the period between knowing she will leave and the actual departure are described in great detail.

The book ends years later when the girl, now a woman, in France, receives a phone call from the Chinese man. He tells her that he has never stopped loving her.

This is another book in which Duras investigates “abnormal” love. But, again, she does this without dismissal or glorification. The fact that the girl’s feelings remain ambiguous seems perfectly normal, given her age. She is simply not capable yet of loving the man as much as he loves her.

The novel also paints a very nuanced portrait of racism, in all its shapes and sizes. Despite the white family’s poverty, they still feel somehow superior to this immeasurably rich Chinese man. But this does not really bother him. He is accustomed to it. He is very sophisticated, well mannered and even kind. While the white family of the girl comes across as virtually savage, cruel and uncultured.

But it is to Duras’ credit that she doesn’t judge. There is love everywhere. Next to the romantic and sensual love between the girl and her lover, there is the adoration of the mother for the older son, the love of the girl for her younger retarded brother, the love between both children and an indigenous servant of about their age, and the love between the girl and her schoolmates.

Many beautiful details appear in the book. Movingly precise descriptions of the motions of hands, glances of eyes, warm humid skin, etc. Duras’ superb restraint somehow leads to some of the most acutely recognizable presentations of the emotions that coincide with love, and the suffering of separation. It’s when we are silent that we feel the most. When nothing in our face or our demeanor betrays any emotion, that we show our nobility, the nobility of creatures who love.

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Jun 20 2012 Published by under research

I first encountered Agatha through Marguerite Duras’ film Agatha et les lectures illimitées and only later read the booklet (which is structured as a theater play, but it’s not unusual for Duras to include theater- or film-like descriptions and instructions in her work). The film consists of long shots of the lobby and immediate surroundings of Les Roches Noires, the former hotel in Trouville-sur-Mer where Duras lived (and earlier also Marcel Proust). Over these slow images, Duras and her much younger partner Yann Andréa read the text. Once in a while a woman or a man is seen standing still, looking away. The man is played by Yann Andréa. The woman by a younger actress.

The text and the way it was read in the film mesmerized me and has profoundly influenced how the voice parts are handled in Bientôt l’été. Not that there’s anything special about it. It was exactly its dryness and virtual indifference that made the effect so emotional, so strong. It was quite difficult to get our voice actors to speak like that, especially considering the rather heavily emotional content of some of the text.

A man meets a woman after receiving a telegram from her asking him to come quickly because she loves him. When he arrives she tells him that she is leaving him.

In the conversation that follows the man tries to understand the reason why. Because it is obvious that the woman still loves him. They reminisce their youth at the seaside, near a river, exploring an abandoned villa, playing piano and making love in an old bed in the empty building.

Suddenly it becomes clear that the man and woman are brother and sister. And that this is the reason why their relationship has to end.

Agatha is a beautiful text filled with wonderful descriptions of the many emotions that coincide with love. Some people have argued that Duras is a subversive writer with her portrayal of aberrant characters and relationships. But I deeply disagree.

Her work is about the beauty of love. But it doesn’t avoid its complexity. She investigates love, obsessively, and isn’t afraid to explore what’s underneath. But never to the point where she abandons the concept or discredits it.

When she writes about incest, we see the beauty of love, and feel the sadness of its impossibility. She doesn’t demand rights for this special love to exist, to be recognized. In a way, the complexity, the impossibility only makes the love more beautiful. And we do not want to destroy that by making it acceptable.

Love is disruptive, love is not easily controlled but at the same time love can be a habit, can grow into some kind of organ or a limb. And the fear of an end to love is that of amputation.

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Jun 19 2012 Published by under research

I found Love the most difficult of Marguerite Duras’ novels I’ve read so far. I actually read it a second time, when I realized that I just didn’t get it. The second time, I read it very slowly and deliberately. It remained a difficult work but I did discover its beauty.

Three people on a beach. Two men, one woman. It’s the same beach as in all the other novels by Duras. T. Beach, S. Thala. With features that remind very strongly of Trouville-sur-Mer where Duras lived. The boardwalk, the hotel, the town on the hill behind the coast.

One man walks near the shore, in the distance. When he comes at the end, he turns back. Or sometimes he disappears. He is followed by gulls, sometimes. The other man is near the woman. She sits on the beach. He approaches her, seems interested in her romantically. She is evasive.

Sometimes it feels like they have done this before. That they came back to this place after having been away for a long time. Maybe one of the men was looking for the woman.

They meet each other, and they leave each other. Like the tide. During the day. Sometimes at night. They cry. They sleep.

It feels like the entire story takes place on a long straight stretch of sandy beach. Though it’s difficult to find a “story” in the novel. If anything, the lack of story in L’amour has greatly inspired and supported my own desire to have no story in Bientôt l’été.

There is no need for a story. We are dealing with emotions that we all know. But what we need is an opportunity to explore them, to see them in another light. To discover the indifference at the bottom of love, or the beauty of distance, the joy of unfulfilled desire and the poetry of psychological torment.

A dog dies on the beach. After a storm, we find dead seagulls. A man screams. A woman plays with the sand. Her eyes are closed. We want things. We know it. Yet we play. We play the game of human contact. We know that we can never get as close as we desire. So the distance of communication is comforting.

We always return. We are glad to see each other. Glad to have company on this incomprehensible piece of rock hurling itself through time and space. The sunset is beautiful.

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Le ravissement de Lol V. Stein

Jun 18 2012 Published by under research

The Ravishing of Lol V Stein is a key work of Duras for me. Next to The Lover, it’s the one I remembered most vividly reading in my early twenties, when I first came in touch with the writing of Marguerite Duras.

The entire book revolves around a single event. An event that recurs in several of Duras’ novels. There’s a ball in a seaside casino. This ball is attended by a young couple, very much in love. An older woman swoops in and captives the attention of the young man. He dances with her the entire night, and when he leaves with the woman, his former fiancee still sits in the same position, numb, holding her friend’s hand.

The Ravishing of Lol V. Stein takes place ten years after this event. Miss Stein has spent most of this time in a psychiatric institution, but when the book starts, she lives in a beautiful villa, married to another man, with three children.

Like Anne Desbaresdes in Moderato Cantabile, Lol Stein enjoys taking long walks all over town. On one of these walks, she follows a man to the home of a her friend from back at the ball, Tatiana Karl, also married in the mean time.

The man whom she had followed turns out to be Tatiana’s lover, Jacques Hold. When he falls in love with Lol, she rejects him and prefers to spy on his encounters with Tatiana in a hotel, instead. Lying in a wheat field, she watches them through the window, while he knows.

At the end of the book, Jacques accompanies Lol to the seaside casino where Lol’s drama occurred. The tension rises during the train ride there, but when they finally arrive and see the abandoned ball room, nothing happens.

The casino and the hotel make an appearance in Bientôt l’été, as architecture housing the café where the players meet. And the mental state of Lol V. Stein definitely inspired the characters. They take long walks on the beach, while seemingly unconnected fragments of amorous thoughts float by, rushed in by the violence of the waves.

There’s always a feeling of insecurity about Lol. One never knows whether to expect a reasonable conversation or a complete nervous breakdown. And all the while Lol seems to frolic through life, almost giggling.

The novel switches viewpoints about one third in. The uncertainty about who is telling the story, rather typical of Duras’ style, was also very inspiring to me in terms of how to approach the characters. There’s a deep ambiguity about their role as avatars or characters in a story that seems to be missing.

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Moderato Cantabile

Jun 17 2012 Published by under research

The earliest ideas for Bientôt l’été were not based on any specific novel, but inspired but a certain atmosphere that is present in much of Marguerite Duras’ work. Above all, it was this atmosphere that I wanted to capture in a videogame. When starting the research for the game, we were quickly attracted to the setting and the main characters of Moderato Cantabile as a starting point for Bientôt l’été.

In a small industrial town on the North Atlantic coast of France, a murder has happened, interrupting the piano lesson of the son of Anne Desbaresdes, the wife of the local factory owner. A man has killed his lover in a café. Mrs Desbaresdes joins the crowd to see the murderer embracing his victim on the floor before the police take him away.

The subsequent days, Anne Desbaresdes strays from her usual walks with her child, to visit the place of the crime. She meets a factory worker, Chauvin, who seems to share her fascination with the event. Together they speculate about the reasons for the crime and the possible events that might have lead up to this desperate act, while discovering a taste for the wine served in the café.

Over the course of their meetings, the reader increasingly gets the impression that Desbaresdes and Chauvin are no longer talking about the strangers involved in the incident, but about themselves. It is never explicitly said, but somehow, in between the lines, one senses a sort of falling in love happening.

I grew up in the province of Belgium closest to the sea. My grandfather lived at the seaside, in the dunes, and we visited often. The long sandy beach of Belgium is a major attraction for spending leisure time. This has given me a fondness for the seaside that resurfaces when I read Duras, who lived on the beach of Trouville-sur-Mer for many years.

The sea is an important theme in her work. But also the socio-historical context. Seaside towns only started emerging at the end of the 19th century, because the water and the air were considered healthy. So they have always been places of leisure. Their earliest architecture is the Belle Époque and Victorian style so typical for the pass times of the well to do. Every seaside resort has a casino, for instance. And a seaside casino is another recurring theme in Duras’ work.

The situation of sitting at a café table, talking and drinking, is copied almost literally in Bientôt l’été. This is exactly what you do in the multiplayer part of the game. Not that there’s any chat. You find things to say on the beach. And you don’t know who your partner is (unless you use the special private mode and arrange to meet a friend). Your partner will always be displayed as the other character, regardless of their choice. So if you play the woman, they will be portrayed as the man. Because that’s how the story goes.

You talk, you drink, you smoke, you listen to music. and then, inevitably, there is nothing more to say.

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Novels read.

Jun 16 2012 Published by under research

I had already read a few novels by Marguerite Duras long before even thinking of creating something like Bientôt l’été. It was my philosophy teacher in art school who introduced me to her work. My friends and I adored it and devoured it, even in Dutch translation.

For Bientôt l’été specifically, I have read a dozen or so books. The text in the game (270 separate phrases at the moment) comes from these novels.

To read these books in their original language was one of my main reasons for going back to school to (re-)learn French last year and the year before. The spoken text in the game will be in French. But for the written text, a choice of translations will also be offered (English and Dutch so far).

Marguerite Duras is a very celebrated, if somewhat controversial, author in France. Yet, outside of France, her fame is mostly limited to Jean-Jacques Annaud’s 1992 film The Lover, which the writer disliked so much that she re-wrote the story of the novel that the film was based on and switched publishers when her publisher didn’t want to release a new book with the same story.

In an attempt to familiarize you, dear readers, a bit with the subject matter (and style) of Bientôt l’été, in a next few blog posts I will discuss the different books that I have read for this project, try to explain their stories and attempt to evoke a sense of the spell they cast on me.

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Her Venetian name in deserted Calcutta.

Apr 30 2012 Published by under aesthetics,research

We watched a 2 hour long film by Marguerite Duras yesterday -Sunday is the holy day for living room passivities around here. Now I finally know that its title, “Son nom de Venise dans Calcutta désert”, is the answer to the question “What is Vice-Consul of France shouting?”

The entire film consists of several people talking in a neutral voice -often in pairs, often in the form of questions and answers- over slow camera pans of an abandoned and empty baroque mansion. Only at the very end do we see two women, sitting, for a few moments.

The story, however, is populated with multiple remarkable characters, many of whom recur in several of Duras’ novels. It’s the story of the ball. The ball where a heart is broken such that it renders a person mad. The woman who breaks the heart is, as always, Anne-Marie Stretter, who was called Ana Maria Guardi when she lived in Venice.

The events take place in Asia, among French diplomatic circles. But the images we see, are of a Western building, abandoned. Probably somewhere in Europe, not Asia. The neo-classical style creates a connection between colonies and motherland. But it’s a vague one.

Despite the recipe of this film being one for utter bore-fest, I experienced it as a fascinating journey that I wanted to absorb every drop of. It’s strange how, once you have stepped towards the film and allowed it to capture you, you never want to leave. The few times that I nodded off -as one does in front of art films- I cursed myself for missing a few sentences. That’s how intensely desirable the text had become.

And the strangest thing happened with the images. Even though the scenery depicted nothing of the story, and even though it was set in a different place and the light was wrong, at some point, the images began to fuse with the story. And the rooms and grounds of the abandoned mansion started to refer to the events and places in the story. Even though no connection exists, and none is actively suggested, after seeing both simultaneously for an extended period of time, one became absorbed by the other, as I was absorbed by the film.

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Trouville in Space

Mar 14 2012 Published by under concept,research

I visited Trouville-sur-Mer to find Marguerite Duras but found something completely different, yet surprisingly related to the project nonetheless.

I think I had more or less ruined any fan-boy experiences I might have had in Trouville by obsessing over the place on Google Earth, through pictures and even in Duras’ own films. I had already designed an entire game world largely inspired by this seaside town (before I decided to have an empty beach instead). So I was actually quite familiar with it. When I saw Trouville in real life, I recognized everything, I knew my way around.

In a way this is kind of horrible and it somewhat confirms Walter Benjamin’s fears regarding photography: that the technological reproduction of images takes away from the “aura” of the photographed objects. A theory that was extended by Baudrillard when he claimed that these objects no longer really existed. That we are now living in a world that consists only of images.

But I digress.
Or do I?

What I did find in Trouville was something that is completely unphotographable (but that might be reproducable, or at least evokable, through an interactive medium). What I found was the sea. And the wind. The tide and the clouds. The enormous sky that surrounds our planet. And the moon.

What I found was a planet, a solar system, floating around in an unimaginably large universe.

I had never spent this long a time at the seaside before. To see the day turn to night and to day again, to witness the tide come in and then float back, to stare at the sky endlessly, to wait for the moon, follow the sun, to sleep in the roaring noise of the ocean and the continuous tearing at man’s constructions by the restless winds of the sea. The seaside is the place where this planet connects to its surrounding universe most palpably.

I had already decided that Bientôt l’été would take place on a remote space station. For me this is a symbol of how we inhabit and communicate through the internet. A fond memory of meeting my wife, too. But now, after this overwhelming confrontation with the universe, the space station situation is suddenly starting to trigger other emotions as well. No longer just looking inward and to each other, but looking out, at the planets, together, sitting next to each other on a rock hurled through an immense universe at immeasurable speed.

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