So I finished a game called The Council.
The initial pitch for the Council certainly doesn’t sound like any video game I’ve played in my life before. I’m sure after a long day of work most people are not dying to get home, kick off their shoes and dive into a virtual discussion about the nature of free will or grip their controller in excitement while choosing their character’s opinion on American expansionism. I’m sure said scepticism is only going to build when I tell you that the game contains absolutely no action of any kind, is almost entirely dialogue driven and delivers it’s 15 hour long story at what can only be described as a languid pace.
Frankly, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’d just described a version of Telltale’s The Walking Dead re-written by a philosophy undergraduate. Despite being the quintessential acquired taste, it’s also one of the most original and interesting adventure games I’ve ever played in my life.
The game places you in the shoes of Louis De Richet, a member of France’s Golden Order secret society on a mission to find his mother who has gone missing whilst attending the “council”. The game consists of five episodes wherein you explore a secluded island and participate in a meeting of famous individuals from the 19th century. If you’ve played The Walking Dead or Detroit Become Human you’re probably pretty familiar with this genre already. You walk around and find things to interact with that either advance the story or help you solve puzzles and if you’re not doing that, you’re engaging in dialogue trees that have repercussions for the story and can take your narrative off in different directions.
So it’s a modern adventure game but what exactly makes this so interesting?
Firstly it’s the only game of it’s kind that I’ve ever come across that tries to create an in depth RPG system that underpins the dialogue and exploration. Depending on your success at the game’s various challenges you’ll be rewarded with experience points which can be invested into a wide array of skills that help Louis navigate the various discussions he finds himself embroiled in. Find yourself wanting to lie to the guests about your intentions? Well you’d better invest some points into manipulation. Keep coming across occult symbols but can’t decipher what they could mean? Well just pop a few skill points into occultism so you can translate the clues. It’s done in such a way that it always keeps a few options tantalisingly out of reach and leaving you curious about how situations could play out.
For example in a confrontation with Napoleon Boneparte (yes, you do hang out with the French emperor himself) he accused me of stealing from the host and backed me into a corner. Unfortunately my Louis wasn’t a particularly skilled liar so I wasn’t able to convince Napoleon that he was mistaken. Fortunately my Louis had a fair few points in agility so he was able to knock out Napoleon and flee the scene with his plunder (Yes, you can knock out the French Emperor).
Another area where the Council completely stands apart from the crowd is in it’s setting and the multitude of guests you interact with during your play through. I feel like the peak of Imperial Europe in the 1800s is a period that is criminally underused in video games and provides all manner of engaging narratives to set a video game in. Give us a war game set during the French revolution or the Napoleon wars instead of another modern military shooter!
It’s likely just the history nerd in me but I thoroughly enjoyed the interactions with real world characters such as George Washington, Napoleon Boneparte and Manuel Godoy. It did genuinely feel like you were playing the role of a minnow in a pond full of carp while the future of Europe and America is being hashed out. The main thrust of the game beyond the search for Louis’ mother concerns the Louisiana Purchase which is quite possibly the most obscure historical backdrop for a video game I’ve ever played. The Council itself is split between representatives of Europe’s monarchies and the new democracies in France and the United States which presents an interesting gameplay conundrum. I naturally wanted to side with the democrats but the game cleverly has you spend a decent amount of time with the guests before the sides are drawn meaning I didn’t want to upset certain monarchists who I’d already formed good relationships with.
The final element of the Council, which didn’t so much grab my attention as demanded it, is it’s final third. This part of the article clearly comes with a pretty massive spoiler warning so if you’d like to experience all this for yourself (which I highly recommend) I’d advise skipping ahead.
In the final third of the game you discover that not only are Lord Mortimer and Sir Greogry Holm (the hosts of the Council and owners of the island manor) part of an ancient family of demons but that this family has been controlling the fate of humanity from the shadows using their occult powers to control and influence world leaders. As if that wasn’t enough of a left field turn for the story, shortly after that you discover that not only is Louis himself a demon but is actually the son of Lord Mortimer who wants to recruit you to his cause. It’s every bit as strange and out of left field as it sounds but the game actually does a great job of sticking the landing and making this supernatural direction work.
The “reveal” essentially recontextualizes everything you’ve experienced in the game and uses “Louis is a demon” as a meta-narrative explanation for all the gameplay elements. The game contains special abilities and a leveling system not just because games need that sort of thing but because in the actual narrative Louis does indeed have special abilities. In fact it ends up going even further by giving you special demonic powers – namely the ability to read the guest’s minds and eventually possess certain characters. It’s a really well executed build up of expectation about how the game will play out and then a clever subversion of this. Suddenly you have all these ways to break the systems you’ve been working within and it feels fantastic although there is of course the option to reject your demonic nature and rough it out with the humans.
Of course this recontextualization also extends to the way the narrative resolves. Once the demonic overlords are revealed, the democracy vs monarchy argument which has dominated the game so far becomes a much more philosophical discussion about the nature of free will and if that free will is worth the cost of your security. Lord Mortimer wants to break away from the current order of things and give humans much more control over their own destiny despite Gregory’s warnings that this would lead them to becoming uncontrollable and thus dangerous to themselves. Given the unprecedented amount of warfare and staggering human loss of life that follows this period of European history (namely the napoleonic wars and world war I and II) it’s actually quite a clever way to lend weight to the player’s decisions. It’s particularly well presented as the demons genuinely are altruistic and want the best for humanity, they simply have conflicting ideas about how best to manage them.
As with any good “choose your own adventure” style game there are multiple different endings you can get which depend on a range of different factors – who is alive at the end of the game, philosophical decisions you’ve made at key points of the game and one relying on an entirely secret hidden character.
In my first attempt I ended up supporting Mortimer in giving humanity it’s freedom only for him to decide he was so impressed with me that he was going to take my body as his next vessel and essentially kill Louis. It left me with a sort of morbid satisfaction, I’d gone into the game expecting one thing only to be surprised at the scope and depth which ultimately swallowed me. By siding with the demons and fully embracing the demonic powers I had played with fire and ultimately got burnt. It frankly made complete sense is a game which uses consequence as a key gameplay element.
It was only after a little outside research that I was able to see the other endings, the pick of the litter being a route you can take where you contact the head of the demonic family, Ashael and if you pass a series of obtuse and alien conversations, allow him to possess you and kill Lord Mortimer preventing his plan. The final sections in this ending play out like something from a David Lynch movie complete with out of sequence scenes, strange conversations and dreamscape environments. It all felt so very far away from the historical fiction of the first few chapters and it oddly completely works.
The Council sounds like it shouldn’t work, it’s so incredibly niche even within it’s genre but it’s one of those rare occasions where every element the developer has worked on comes together. It’s got all the issues that come as part of the package with a small independent developed game. The animation is janky, the soundtrack is forgettable and the voice acting is spotty but you really can feel the passion that the devs have poured into the narrative, setting and blending the gameplay seamlessly into it. If you’re at all interested in games that don’t tread the beaten path and wholeheartedly commit to their premise I couldn’t recommend the Council more.