Monday, 19 March 2018

Interview with Muriel Tramis

Introduction by Ilmari


Our first interview with a French adventure gaming legend

It has been almost a year, since we posted a call for questions for Muriel Tramis, a creative force behind many titles of Coktel Vision - a company that played a similar role as Sierra in French adventure gaming industry, and indeed, later merged with Sierra. We've covered many of her games in the past and we might already distinguish two central topics investigated in her games - her Caribbean heritage (as shown in Mewilo) and sexuality (for instance, in Geisha). The latest game with her involvement we've covered was Fascination and we still have plenty of her games to look forward. I am pleased to announce that we've finally received the answers, together with some exciting news concerning a crowd-funding campaign for remaking an old game of Muriel Tramis. Without further ado, let's begin the interview!


The personal history of Muriel Tramis

How did you end up in gaming industry? Was it something you had planned or was it more of a coincidence?

Designing video games was for me a second professional life. After five years of working on weapons  systems, in  a  military  environment,  I  wanted more peaceful  activities. I found that images could convey strong messages, for example, in advertising. I wanted to use them for ludic purposes.

From childhood, I already  had  a  great  attraction  for  board  games. That's why I was delighted to continue playing in my job. When I first met the Coktel Vision studio I wanted to innovate in a game talking about my own Caribbean culture.

Having studied and started my professional career in Paris,  I felt a bit "in exile", far from my native island. And I probably needed to get closer in spirit.

Being a female game designer wasn't that common in 80s and 90s. Was it difficult to work in the gaming industry as a female?

Not at all. My engineering background allowed me to understand all the technical aspects.

In a similar vein, did your ethnicity cause any difficulties?

None. Coktel Vision welcomed people of very different origins. There were also English, German and Spanish people for the translations. And even a Romanian programmer who had fled the Ceausescu regime. The director was of Armenian origin. Maybe that explains this mix that I think was a pledge of relativity...

Did you ever consider yourself a role model for other female or non-white game designers? Would you have some word of encouragement for any aspiring game designer from some minority or otherwise oppressed group?

I have indeed a temperament of an activist feminist. Since graduate studies,  I have always been in a minority in a masculine environment, which besides has not been displeasing for me ;-)

So, when I had my diploma of computer engineering, I acted within the French Association of Women Engineers to convey the message to young women that they must go to the technical professions. The future!


Important work since 1982

Today I am still solicited to talk about this in conferences. This proves that young women still need to be convinced. I then say them, "We are 50% of technology consumers so why would we not be 50% of producer-designers-developers?"

Of course, when I speak to non-whites, my message has even more militant impact. I remember a special conference in Brussels in the European Parliament on how to help minority women find their place in a predominantly white society. Very rich in exchanges.

The state of early French adventure gaming in general and Coktel Vision in particular

We've seen on our blog many times that  we  know  almost  nothing  about  the  early  days  of  French adventure  gaming.  We  are  particularly  unclear  about  what  influences  the  French adventure game designers had. Where you influenced by previous adventure games, either from France or from abroad? Did you have any particular game designing role models to follow? And what was Coktel Vision like as a working environment?

I was probably influenced by the first LucasFilm games' style, but I tried to integrate more images and develop an original man-machine interface.

With just my computer science training, I worked only with intuition, because the game designer job did not exist yet. There was no guide, no recipe, no teaching. Everything had to be invented.

But we were all aware at the studio that we lived in an era of innovation and that we were going to create something totally new in edutainment. And I'm talking about all the products that came out of the studio.

Many of the Coktel Vision adventure games seem to have been developed by a company called  Tomahawk.  What was the real relation between these two companies?




Tomahawk  was  not  another company; it was simply a trick, a brand under which Coktel Vision created some "touchy" games like Emmanuelle or Geisha. Since we were also creating educational games, we did not want to mix genres. Very few games were released under this brand, it was not the majority.

Coktel Vision was finally taken over by Sierra. What were the reasons leading to this turn of events? Did the working conditions change after that?

All solutions were good for expanding our market. It was an exchange of good practices. We distributed Sierra products in Europe and they distributed us in the United States. We benefited from an expanded sales and marketing environment, as our product catalog grew but it was positive because we opened up to the world.

Individual games

1) Mewilo and Freedom

You created these games in collaboration with writer Patrick Chamoiseau, also from Martinique. What was his actual involvement in the creation of the games? Which one of you came up with the main story of the games?





Patrick is a teenage friend I knew at the age of 14.

We kept the relationship when I went to France to study computer science. In the mid-1980s,  I chose  interactive writing instead of writing novels because I wanted to express myself with the tool on which I had been trained. So I wanted to create video games and I proposed Patrick to experience this new media. He was not known yet and was therefore more accessible than today. After some discussion, the stories of Méwilo and Freedom came over us as a logical answer. It should be about slavery because slavery had built us.

We had settled the issue of our Creole identity. Then I had to design the gameplay, while thinking about programming. At the time, I was keen on "murder parties" that I organized at home for friends. It was very fun and my friends loved it. Then, I transposed this know-how into the interactive mechanisms of Mewilo and Freedom.

I asked Patrick to write the dialogues of Mewilo, in which there are many characters, because I liked his metaphorical literary style. In Freedom, there were far fewer texts and literary work was less important, the game being mainly based on strategy

It is obvious that both of these games are well informed of the history and culture of Martinique. Did you have to do a lot of research for the games or were all the details something you had always been aware of?

I  was  bathing  in  an  atmosphere  of  cultural  revolution  where  I  discovered  my  own history, not learned in school, and the foundations of the Creole language.

For Mewilo, I searched photos of the city of Saint-Pierre before the eruption of 1902 in the departmental archives to present it in the most faithful way possible. As for Freedom, there were many descriptions on  the topology of the plantations where the slaves and the hierarchy of command were subject, so it was not difficult to put them on the scene.


And the dedication to historical accuracy shows in the final product

Both Mewilo and Freedom deal with such important issues like slavery. Did you have any sort of message with these games? Did you have any hopes of improving the world with them?

The great Greek, Roman, Arab and Chinese mythologies had their heroes and an abundant literature. Why not the Caribbean?

We only know them through the pirates! But there were many battles fought by the different countries of Europe to dispute the New World.

And the dictatorship of sugar has caused an imbalance in the environment and human relations of this region, and the Creole society still bears the aftermath. I felt a great emptiness on the side of our myths and founding legends, on the side of our history, unknown or suffocated under a bundle of shame. I wanted to extend the Creolity movement to video games too.

I was convinced that there were all the emotional springs needed to immerse users in a universe, which was certainly painful, but rich in dramas, actions, characters and historical facts that Europe, Africa and America all together had lived through for four centuries.


It's rare to see such important matters like racial relations dealt in adventure games

Were there any difficulties getting the management of Coktel Vision to publish such historically deep and thoughtful games?

I was lucky enough, 30 years ago, to come across an "independent" studio that let me express what I had in the guts, I owe it to the boss of Coktel Vision, Roland Oskian, who remained a very faithful friend.

Nowadays, I am  having troubles finding a producer in France for creating a new version of Freedom. I will have to finance it myself!

Would you say these games are topical nowadays, in the current political climate of the world?

Freedom deals with the experience of the slaves and the desire to escape from a cruel and unbearable  situation. Mewilo deals with the consequences of the slave revolts, which gave rise to all kinds of legends. These are two works of Creolity.

While I was playing Freedom, I couldn't complete the game. The manual mentioned that winning would require killing all guard dogs, but I always failed to kill the last of them. Now, I understand if you have forgotten the minor details about the game, but was  there  some  trick  how  to  deal  with  the  dogs?  And  what  was  the  ending  of  the Freedom like?


Where I was stuck in Freedom


If  it  is  impossible  to  win  this  is  not  intentional  on  our  side.  the  game  certainly  lacks fine tuning and it's probably different from one machine to another (Amstrad, Amiga or Atari) because of the difference in speed of the processors.

2) Emmanuelle, Geisha and Fascination

Sexuality plays a prominent role in these games. Was it your own idea to portray sexuality in your games or did the idea originate from somewhere else? Did you face any objections or prejudices about such a daring theme?

It  was  my  own  idea. I found that video games had been until then too much just a matter of men. It  needed a few feminine desires and fantasies in there. The only condition on my publisher's part was that they had to appear under another brand: Tomahawk. I can say that I created the first female heroine before Lara Croft. The result was that the players were playing as a couple.


Back in the days it was revolutionary to portray a sexually active female hero

Considering that different people have quite different opinions on what to count as erotic or sexual, did you have any difficulties in deciding how to make sexuality a part of these games?

We shouldn't speak of sexuality but rather of eroticism. At the time, games showing little "undressing" were often strip pokers. Otherwise, there was the series Leisure Suit Larry, but I found these games a little vulgar. I wanted to write real stories with serious issues that could have been movies.

A common criticism made against any visual erotic media is that they seem often to be meant primarily for heterosexual male gaze and that especially females are portrayed as just passive objects of lust. Did you have any concerns about how to avoid clichéd gender roles and stereotypes in your games?

Exactly, I wanted to finish with the clichés. In Fascination and Lost In Time my heroines are smart and use logic to get by. They are not violent.

If you would design these games from the scratch nowadays, would you try to take sexual diversity and various sexual minorities more into account?

Certainly  yes. I'll think about it when I do remakes of Emmanuelle, Geisha, Fascination and Lost In Time...

3) Gobliins-series

Who came up with the main concept of the Gobliins-games that there are different characters with different abilities?

This system of a game based on solidarity belongs primarily to Pierre Gilhodes. We were looking for  a new concept of human-machine interface. How to interact with a scenario in an innovative way? We had to go through these three little characters with very different but complementary talents.

Who came up with the zany and unique humour of the Gobliins-games?

This universe came straight out of the imagination of Pierre Gilhodes. An absurd universe and completely offbeat. What comes closest to it is the very British humor of Monthy Python, but it is even more delirious.

Miscellaneous questions

Of all the games you've been involved in, which game are you most proud of, and why?

I’m proud of Mewilo, because it’s my first one and I think I have managed to awaken some consciences if I believe the press articles on this subject that appear today. Currently, there will be a series of conferences at the BnF (Bibliothèque nationale de France; French national library) in May, where I have been invited to talk about the cultural and pedagogical significance of all my titles.

What do you think about state of the game industry today, both in terms of what content is being made, and the industry itself? Do you think there's room for games dealing with serious topics?

I find that modern games lack imagination. While the images are beautiful, the pretexts are futile. I think that, like cinema, games should deal with serious subjects and convey more emotions.

I've heard that you are working on a re-edition of your old games. Could you tell us more about that project? What games will be included? How far in the development this project is?

I started with Mewilo, the secret of the jar of gold. I have reworked its look, but I will remain faithful to the original scenario. I do not think we need to upset everything. I want it to remain full of retro charm. For Christmas 2018, an English and French Windows version will appear. If it is successful, versions for smartphones and tablets might be next. I'm counting on your community of fans to give me a hand to make the game known and to join the on-going crowdfunding campaign.


I'm excited!

The website and the funding page of the remake are written in English and I don’t want gamers to think the game is meant only for French people.

7 comments:

  1. Sounds like a very strong-willed person, and probably an even better role model for women in gamedev than Roberta Williams in her day, if such a thing is possible. (But then, as a guy, it's not my place to approve or disapprove.) Still, impressive!

    The Mewilo HD art is surely gorgeous. If I still had the attention span for actually playing adventure games rather than reading about them or analysing them, I'd be all in for that.

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    1. I've been asked by Muriel Tramis to send her answers to all the comments given for her interview. Here's the one for you, Kirinn:

      "I've often been compared to Roberta Williams. We met when Sierra was distributing Coktel Vision products in the USA and Coktel Vision was distributing Sierra products in Europe. But we didn't have the opportunity to work together.

      Mewilo is a style of play for the general public, accessible to all generations, teenagers as well as people of the 4th age. It is intended for beginners or those who are not used to playing because one does not need to be skillful to manipulate the game system, one should rather reason and make deductions... Your reader would surely be very comfortable to take it in hand and progress."

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  2. I'm really glad that she agreed to do an interview with us. It's great to hear more of these developer voices! I wish that I had more time (and understanding of French) to explore these games with you.

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    1. Here's the answer for your, Joe:

      "One thing that may not be clear in the article is that the game will be fully available in English. No need to know French to explore it. It shouldn't stop people. Our website (www/mewilo30th.com) is in English, as is the Ulule page (www.ulule.com/mewilo/)."

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  3. Very cool to hear from Muriel, thanks for the interview

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    Replies
    1. Nice to see a new commenter! Muriel Tramis was interested whether you knew her and her work even before reading the interview.

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  4. As a general comment, Muriel Tramis asked all interested readers to share the interview further. So, if you care for the fate of French adventure gaming, spread the word!

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