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From Paris with Love: de Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres

March 15, 2006
 

Suddenly, France is in a twilight zone. The cold is still but the sun finally decided to shine on the “City of Lights” which, contrary to the nickname, had never looked so grey. Representatives from all the French video game media outlets were unusually gathered at noon with national television crews and mainstream press in one of the golden reception rooms of the Ministry of Culture. All cameras fixated on a pair of microphones standing on a small stage.

The press waiting patiently behind a purple velvet cord, the well-preserved building from another time, and the Le Palais Royal (royal palace) park harken to an earlier, more monarchical age. When Shigeru Miyamoto, Michel Ancel and Frédérick Raynal entered the room, the 21st century is suddenly back.

The French Minister of Culture, Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres, began a long oration chronicling, for the crowd, the careers of the three game designers peppering in words like “genius”, “Hyrule” “Rayman”, “Beyond Good & Evil”, and “Alone in the Dark.” On March 13, 2006, Paris, the heart of the institutional French culture, had just entered the Twilight Zone.

How did two French game designers Michel Ancel (Rayman, Beyond Good & Evil) and Frédérick Raynal (Alone in the Dark, Twinsen's Odyssey) along with the beloved Shigeru Miyamoto (Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda) come to receive the honorific title of Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight in the Order of Arts and Literatures) from the hands of the French minister of Culture and Communications?



The honorees with their medals (Photograph courtesy of Bliss Press).

Nobody knew. The Ubisoft and Nintendo PR departments didn't know. Both CEOs of Nintendo France (Stephen Bole) and Nintendo Europe (Laurent Fisher) supposedly didn't know. What is known is that to receive the prestigious title of Legion d'Honneur in France, somebody has to put you on a long list of candidates. Could it be different for the Chevalier medals? The question seems inappropriate. We do not dare to ask the honored people why and how. After a while, tracking this non-mystery became like a game.

Then, when the ceremony was fading out with frozen empty glasses of wine on the big terraces of the minister building, the dictaphone was instinctively put in front of Mr. Jean-Claude Larue, spokesman for the SELL (French equivalent of the ESA): "They deserve it don't you think? You know their work, their talent." Of course, but still, how come? "Well, you know, we're always talking with the Ministry of Culture, and it's our job to explain our industry to the political body." So the idea just "emerged" during casual conversations between some minister and some video game representative. And when two French game designers were picked, it suddenly seemed obvious that it couldn't be a serious initiative without including Japanese legend Shigeru Miyamoto.

Did those officials realize how affable it was for the father of Zelda and Mario, on the verge of a video game Revolution, to come to Paris to give, in a way, his international prestige to an otherwise French-only desuet ceremony? "There are some other French game designers that would deserve the recompense as much as us" admitted, without being asked, the French game designers. In fact, French veteran Philip Ulrich who founded the Cryo company and was at the origin of such games as Dune, Megarace, and Alien, was already given the medal of Chevalier dans l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres back in 1999! Many artists from all horizons are given this honorific recognition: writers, painters, Hollywood stars, movie directors…

Michel Ancel was quick to point out the merits of compatriot Eric Chahi (Out of This World, 1991) who pursued other projects after the hard and too long development of Heart of Darkness (1998), and Frédérick Raynal remembered French game genius Paul Cuisset (Flashback, 1992, Fade to Black, 1995, Moto Racer 3, 2001) with whom he made Time Commando (1996) and might work with again in the near future. When Sega withdrew its offices from France after the Dreamcast showdown and his ambitious Agatha project had to stop, Frédérick Raynal, whose No Cliché studio was attached to the Japanese company, kept a low profile and did some game consulting. With his medal on the chest, and his talented illustrator wife, who was responsible for the look of all his games, by his side, Raynal seemed almost ready to make a come back: "What I miss most is the teamwork, this is the great part of this work, not the game that ends up in a box on shelves. It's the process that I miss, even if it is hard."

Michel Ancel who dealt, for the first time, with guns in King Kong while he "avoided having the characters take aim at other human beings", made a great deal of encouraging the development of games with some minimum moral or human values in his thankful speech. "The youth, our children, play so many hours with our games at an age when all their emotions will impact their adult lives. We have a responsibility." This official recognition from the Ministry of Culture may reactivate the "video games vs art debate", but Ancel is obviously ahead of the controversy: "I think the purpose of art is to open the mind, so I will continue to try to make games that have some value," he concluded.



Miyamoto receiving his medal (Photograph courtesy of Bliss Press).

Shigeru Miyamoto showed neither vanity nor shyness. His mischievious spirit showed as he embraced the Minister of Culture upon receiving his medal. The applauds were unanimous and while modestly receiving them, Miyamoto's eyes rapidly made contact with as much people as he possibly could as if to say, "Everyone counts." Or maybe he was looking into the audiences' eyes to find out how important, or not, this Chevalier honorific title was.

His award speech began with a vigorous "Bonjour!" and went straight to the heart of French culture by saying that he was honored to receive such a distinction from a country he admired for the Impressionist painting movement, especially Monet. He then explained that when he started to work on video games for Nintendo in the '80s, "they were conceived by technicians, not artists". He now feels lucky to have been a part of the evolution of the video games towards an entertainment medium.

When confronted with the always blurry status of the video game, both French game designers Michel Ancel and Frédérick Raynal agree, with careful words: "This recognition is good for video games as a whole". Even though France is less plagued by anti-video game lobbies than the US, and games are selling by hundred of thousands, video games are not really acknowledged or respected. Could this be a step toward changing opinions? Maybe...

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