A brief introductory essay provides historical and scholarly context for an interview with the French game designer Muriel Tramis, whose pioneering work between 1987 and 2000 unusually foregrounded issues of race, colonialism, and sexuality but remains little known outside of France.
“Surely the desire for diverse stories in gaming is a modern one. Was it not born in the crucible of unsatisfied Anita Sarkeesian fans, ungrateful for the place at the table afforded to them out of the generosity of a white male industry's hearts? Could it have existed—pause for dramatic effect—more than 20 years ago, during the birth of the medium?”—Maddi Chilton, “A Forgotten, Decades-Old Game about Slavery Has Returned,” 20161
As Carly A. Kocurek documents in her work on competitive gaming during the arcade era, gaming culture has long faced “an overwhelming gender problem.”2 Although more recently Gamergate and related battles over the legitimacy of casual, social, mobile, and serious games might suggest that the game industry has only lately grappled with its own homogeneity (Kill Screen writer Maddi Chilton's joking premise in the epigraph), historical scholarship like Kocurek's and growing attention to early, non–North American game design work is gradually establishing a different backstory for contemporary gamer vitriol. In a similar vein, Filip Jankowski has argued that game studies still neglects history, particularly beyond the United States and Japan and the male-dominated realms of game auteurship and production. In his recent Games and Culture essay “The Presence of French Female Game Designers in Video Game Industry, 1985–1993,” Jankowski excavates the work of three French female game designers: Chine Lanzmann (niece of the famed documentary filmmaker Claude Lanzmann), Clotilde Marion, and Muriel Tramis.3 This essay serves to frame my interview with Tramis, whose startlingly diverse oeuvre foregrounded issues of race, colonialism, and sexuality as early as the late 1980s but remains little known outside of France.
Tramis was born on the Caribbean island of Martinique in 1958, eventually leaving the island after high school in order to pursue engineering at the Institut Supérieur d'Electronique de Paris (ISEP). After graduating she worked for five years at the aerospace engineering company Aérospatiale on systems for crewless aerial military vehicles. When she decided to pursue new work in a marketing and communications vein, she found herself drawn to the then-nascent computer game industry in France.4 She launched her career as a game designer at the studio Coktel Vision, founded in 1984 by the engineer Roland Oskian. According to the magazine Retro Gamer, Coktel Vision “began by making games for the Amstrad CPC and Thomson machines (France's most popular 8-bit systems),” and although the years 1985 to 1994 are considered the company's golden era, “it wasn't until 1987 … that Coktel Vision really got into its stride thanks to the huge talent of Muriel Tramis.”5
First and foremost, Tramis's games deserve to be further studied and circulated because they are, like her, island born. Many of her most unique games draw on her personal and familial Afro-Caribbean history in a French overseas region and embody a starkly anticolonial perspective. Her first video game, Méwilo (Coktel Vision, 1987, for the CPC, Thomson TO7, Amiga, and Atari ST, fig. 1), was at her behest created in collaboration with the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, now known for his participation in the créolité literary movement.6 In this point-and-click adventure game, you play as a prominent parapsychologist brought to the Martinican city of Saint-Pierre just before the dramatic eruption of Mount Pelée on May 8, 1902. Charged with investigating a haunted colonial-era mansion, you gradually discover its shameful past—the former plantation owner's killing of a trusted slave, Méwilo, during the 1831 slave rebellion so that the latter's spirit could guard the family's buried fortune for some future time.7
Freedom: Rebels in the Darkness (Coktel Vision, 1988), sometimes subtitled The Shadow Warriors or Les Guerriers de l'Ombre, is often considered Tramis's most important game, as it chronicles an attempted slave rebellion on a French sugarcane plantation in Martinique in the eighteenth century. To play the game you must take on the role of one of four slaves and work behind the scenes to incite a successful revolt against your masters. That the same plantation features in Méwilo and a character from Freedom later appears in another Tramis game, Lost in Time (Coktel Vision, 1993), speaks to a certain historical and regional consistency across Tramis's work, not to mention a lasting and historically unprecedented engagement with themes of enslavement, resistance, and self-determination.8 As Phil Salvador of The Obscuritory writes, “Freedom still shocks today, and that it debuted the same year as Super Mario Bros. 2 is almost unfathomable in the traditional framework of game history and culture.”9
Tramis's exploration of new freedoms through games also extended to sexuality, as in Emmanuelle: A Game of Eroticism (Coktel Vision, 1989, fig. 2) and Geisha (Coktel Vision and MDO, 1990, fig. 3). Although not all of her games are overtly feminist, as demonstrated by Leigh Alexander's nonplussed “Let's Play” on Emmanuelle, many of them employ female protagonists charged with solving complex puzzles, as in Fascination (Tomahawk, 1991, figs. 4, 5) and Lost in Time.10 Tramis has also explained that having players take a male perspective in Geisha and Emmanuelle was primarily a pragmatic decision, even if in the latter case it actually inverted the conceit of the original novels by Marayat Rollet-Andriane (pen name Emmanuelle Arsan) about one woman's sexual adventures. “As for Fascination,” she explains in the interview that follows, “I had fun reversing the codes by creating a female heroine whose intelligence was at least as important an asset as seduction, who solved riddles through logic. But unlike Lara Croft, a heroine who arrived later and was created by a competing studio, she did not use weapons. That was probably my mistake!” From an economic perspective, perhaps, but clearly not a cultural one.
Tramis would work at Coktel Vision for many more years (fig. 6), eventually transitioning to educational games (although it is worth noting that from 1991 on, she worked with Pierre Gilhodes on the Gobliiins series of games that arguably became Coktel's best-known franchise). She would gain particular expertise as a designer of the ADI series of games (fig. 7). ADI stands for Accompagnement Didacticiel Intelligent (Intelligent Accompaniment Tutorial), software designed specifically for early childhood education. The good-natured alien Adi and his younger cousin Adibou have been and still are well known to French schoolchildren—at one point Coktel represented something like three-quarters of the French educational software market.
Coktel was acquired by Sierra in 1992–93, no doubt partly due to Coktel's reputation for point-and-click adventure games, and thanks to Tramis's efforts and personal interests in the genre. Of course, Sierra On-Line and its founders, Ken and Roberta Williams, had been making adventure games like the King's Quest series several years before Tramis's novel experiments, leading some to style Tramis as France's own Roberta Williams. For Sierra, the acquisition allowed them to tweak and distribute select Coktel games like Inca (1992) and Gobliiins II (1992) in the United States, while using Coktel's game label Tomahawk to distribute their own games in Europe (Tomahawk was started in 1988, while Coktel remained the name behind the company's popular brand of educational software).
After Sierra ultimately became a part of the giant publisher now known as Vivendi, Coktel Vision was sold to Mindscape SA in 2005 and had closed by 2011. Tramis left the company in 2003 and started her own company, Avantilles, which develops advanced graphics and virtual reality products. Tramis has also become a published author in her own right, for instance of the novel Le couteau seul sait ce qui se passe au coeur du giraumon (Only the Knife Knows What Happens in the Giraumon's Heart), also set in Martinique.11 She was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 2018, and is the first female game designer to receive it (David Cage of Quantic Dream received his in 2014).
As Jankowski reminds us, designers like Tramis were already cognizant of female oppression and the toxicity of game discourse during their early careers in the 1980s, as evidenced by the French video game magazine Tilt, which debuted in 1982 and shuttered in 1994. Women were commonly objectified and crassly sexualized on the covers of Tilt and related publications like Joystick Hebdo, for instance in Tilt, “no. 44 (siren with bare breasts), no. 56 (a half-naked woman lying on the beach), or no. 90 (a naked woman posing to the viewer).”12 In fact, “Lanzmann and Tramis brought feminist themes to digital games long before the Gamergate affair in the United States.”13 Perhaps even more surprising is that Tramis's games have not received more attention from those invested in either game studies or postcolonial and decolonial studies.14
The following interview and accompanying images are taken from an email exchange with Tramis that I conducted in summer 2019. She translated her answers from French to English, and I have lightly edited her comments only for correctness and clarity. I feel fortunate to be able to present Tramis's reflections on her long and noteworthy career.
alenda y. chang: You left Martinique for France to pursue your university studies. Although there is some linguistic and cultural continuity between the two because of France's colonial history in the Caribbean, what was it like for you in France as a student in the 1970s, in the wake of the 1968 protests? What circumstances later brought you to your career as a game designer?
muriel tramis: I arrived in Paris in 1975 to study at a private engineering school. Being a student in the heart of Paris was a wonderful experience of freedom because the whole city, with its very different districts, was at my disposal. There were historic buildings such as Notre Dame and the Panthéon, but also all the architectural provocations such as the Louvre pyramid and the Beaubourg Centre. I always felt like a character in a novel. This is probably what led me to imagine stories later on.
ayc: Did games, whether analog or digital, play a role in your life before you became a game designer? Are there particular games or game genres that, in retrospect, influenced or inspired you as you embarked on your work in the French games industry?
mt: From a very young age, I loved board games. In the West Indies there are two games that are very popular, primarily among men: dominoes and belote (a card game). I learned both and I often played with my cousins. I wasn't bad. Then I became interested in games where it was necessary to develop a strategy, as opposed to games of chance—checkers, chess, go, awale, Monopoly, Cluedo—and also games of placement, crosswords in particular. But very quickly I preferred to organize games for others rather than play them myself. For example, I was more inclined to be an author of crossword puzzles than a player of them. Later on I loved organizing murder mystery parties for my friends.
ayc: Although you have worked on a striking variety of games, critical attention seems to have centered on two of your Coktel Vision games set in the French Antilles: Méwilo and Freedom: Les Guerriers de l'Ombre. To my knowledge these were some of the first, if not the first, games to deal explicitly with slavery, before even Freedom and well before recent titles in the Assassin's Creed (2007–) and Fallout (1997–) series. What was your experience working on these games? Did you find it, for instance, difficult, ironic, cathartic, or even liberating?
mt: I was willing to do pioneering and activist work when designing Méwilo and Freedom. I knew that such a theme had never been dealt with before in one's debut video game, and that the industry itself was in its infancy. There were no original creations yet. It was pretty euphoric.
ayc: What have you said or what would you say now to those who question the idea of “serious” topics being engaged in the “playful” world of games?
mt: I say that it is the same for all modes of expression. Like cinema or comics, video games must be used to testify or make people think. There are very harsh themes that have been dealt with in cinema such as war or disease, yet cinema is an industry of “entertainment.” The interactivity that exists in video games offers an additional dimension of involvement for users.
ayc: How has your work depended on collaborations, for instance with the Martinican writer Patrick Chamoiseau, or with artists and musicians? Does Chamoiseau's and other writers' development of créolité inform your work? Do you ever experience a kind of double consciousness along the lines of the post- or anticolonial challenges implied in Chamoiseau's “Écrire en pays dominé”?15
mt: With Patrick, whom I knew as a teenager, I was nourished with créolité beginning at the age of fourteen. I was already very fond of literature, and the long debates on our cultural mix that I had with Patrick, who had not yet written any novels, helped to awaken the awareness that I was en pays dominé [in a dominated country]. The greatest proof is that I did not learn the history and geography of my region of origin in schoolbooks because I had the same curriculum as any other student in the city, which was the result of colonization (the four seasons, the French royalty, et cetera). My daily environment was not in conformity with what I was taught, so I had to unlearn a certain number of “truths” and learn by myself what had been hidden from me. I discovered in slavery and colonization an exciting story that did not afflict me—because my ancestors had escaped—but instead amazed me. That's probably why I wanted to talk about it in my first scenarios.
ayc: What role does region or place play in your work? By this, I mean anything from ecological zones (for example the specificity of an island or archipelago) to local cultural and linguistic mixtures. How do you balance specificity with accessibility and standards of game localization?
mt: It is precisely the environmental, historical, and cultural specificities that make an innovative, surprising, and therefore captivating storyline. The creole language is an essential ingredient because the creole soul and the Caribbean way of life have permeated the language. All the more so because in these countries the transmission is oral.
ayc: You have been credited under many different roles in your games work, from writer and designer to coder and producer. You have also served in several professions, including aerospace/defense engineer, novelist, business leader, and specialist in 3D graphics! Is there a creative link between all of these pursuits? And has this wide range of experience given you a unique perspective on the game industries? For example, do you feel that games are too often attributed to solo visionaries, usually designers or developers, rather than writers, artists, or producers? You have also frequently compared your games work to work in cinematic arts and animation. Do you see these industries converging today?
mt: The common link between all the jobs I have done is IT, the technique for which I was trained. I ended up in the armaments industry opportunistically because this sector employed a lot of engineers in the 1980s. But I quickly understood that it was not a sufficiently creative universe. I explained above that I already had a passion for games and even more so for organizing games, so it is quite logical that I found myself designing fun and educational software.
I was lucky enough to be able to satisfy my curiosity by exploring unknown or little-known fields, which led me to follow the evolution, accompany the advent of the personal computer, the accessibility of informatic tools to the greatest number, especially drawing tools. My publisher, the CEO of Coktel Vision, explained that what won his confidence in me to manage the various projects was that my engineering background allowed me to understand the technological issues and interact with the programmers and technicians of the teams, while also having a literary and artistic background. It is notable that most of Coktel Vision's flagship titles were driven by artists with very powerful imaginations (Yannick Chosse, Pierre Gilhodes) that the CEO trusted, and not by developers. It is clear to me that the film, animation, and video game industries will indeed converge.
ayc: You have stated elsewhere that you did not face any particular discrimination either as a woman or a person of color during your long career, despite the worldwide game industry's notorious lack of gender and ethnic diversity. When I first read this, I found it hard to believe! Do you think you were simply fortunate in that regard? Or are such cultural and labor bias issues different in France? Has your work or thinking been at all impacted by more contemporary movements roughly based on class (the gilets jaunes or yellow vests), race (#BlackLivesMatter in the United States), religion (#JeSuisCharlie), or gender (the #MeToo movement to raise awareness about sexual violence, which has its equivalent in the French #BalanceTonPorc)?
mt: I have not experienced discrimination in my career probably because racism is often exacerbated by societal difficulties. I think I have been relatively spared through my status as an engineer and the company of my peers. None of the movements you mention have influenced me, probably because I prefer to create movements rather than belong to them☺. This did not prevent me from conducting personal struggles, in particular activism among high school girls so that they choose scientific and technical careers. I still give talks on the subject today.
I had another commitment in 2004 and 2011: organizing the rally “Paris, Creole City and Negra” to highlight Black personalities who have distinguished themselves in the capital because I find that in an increasingly mixed world, our young people and girls lack Black role models to identify with. The Western white man still sets his standard. Moreover, I would like the religious on all sides to be a little more humble and for the atheists (among whom I am one) to move toward a little more common sense and less obscurantism.
ayc: Your early games that engaged very directly with sexuality, such as Emmanuelle and Geisha, also broke novel ground, but have not been received as highly in some quarters. Do you see this as a function of the games' designs, historical context, or cultural difference? I am thinking here, for instance, of the decision to offer only a male protagonist in Emmanuelle, but also the playfully transgressive elements regarding polyamory, bondage, and generally nonnormative eroticism. I am also reminded of the much-publicized “French” reaction to the US #MeToo movement in Le Monde, signed by actress Catherine Deneuve and ninety-nine others, which described #MeToo as overreaching and expressed a distinctly French permissiveness toward male sexual liberty.
mt: In the 1970s and 1980s, sexual freedom was also feminine. Of course I took advantage of it, and was not the last to express my desires and fantasies. In Emmanuelle and Geisha, while I was immersed in an atmosphere charged with testosterone (which had been the case since my studies and my first job in weapons; it hadn't changed much in video games) I had fun getting into the head of a man. I wondered what a man could feel in the context of Brazilian or Japanese exoticism and flirtation. These titles were not so badly received. As for Fascination, I had fun reversing the codes by creating a female heroine whose intelligence was at least as important an asset as seduction, who solved riddles through logic. But unlike Lara Croft, a heroine who arrived later and was created by a competing studio, she did not use weapons. That was probably my mistake!
ayc: Given that this interview will be part of a special issue of Feminist Media Histories devoted to video games, do you have any suggestions as to how we can broaden both the youth-, male-, and cis/hetero-dominated global games workforce and the range of games available to consumers? Anecdotally, following the Gamergate culture wars circa 2014, it seems like many young women have turned away from video games and/or pursuing careers in game and software development. And every few years, it seems like “hard-core” gamers are up in arms over another challenge to their perception of gaming's dominant status quo, whether it's in the form of walking simulators, art games, serious games, casual/free-to-play/freemium games, or queer games.
mt: The video game sector is subject to the same ostracism as the digital industry in general. To attract more young girls to these occupations, they should be reconciled with mathematics and informatics, which are perceived as frightening and produce a real segregation between girls and boys. Young girls are still too often pushed into so-called female jobs in art, psychology, or communications, while young boys are pushed into hard sciences. We should work on girls' ambition from an early age. Why push them into the nursing or flight attendant professions when they would excel as surgeons or airline pilots? Moreover, we should teach in the common core curriculum a little more logic and algorithms that will prepare future generations for tomorrow's professions such as AI and robotics.
ayc: You are probably best known for your work on educational games, like the long-running ADI games. Do you share the concerns of scholars and players who express skepticism over “edutainment” and trends toward “gamifying” aspects of everyday life? What makes games potent educators?
mt: Playing is essential to our lives as mammals. We learn through play and mimicry. But what made ADI's success was to give an “intelligent” form to a virtual character for the first time thanks to artificial intelligence rules. We haven't invented anything better since. The second strong point of the revolution in educational games is the personalized teaching made possible by interactivity and AI—in other words, the learner is an agent of their knowledge because their curiosity, their desire for discovery and exploration, is put into action. The software adapts to the learner with unparalleled patience and consistency (never gets angry, never becomes a censor), which is something an educator cannot do.
ayc: How do you feel about the latest rush to develop VR tech and games—for instance Oculus and Vive?
mt: I am not attracted at the moment because I am prone to vertigo (no one is perfect). I don't know if this technology can be applied if there are physical problems related to its use. And it's hardly a collective experience (at the moment). But this is probably the next dimension of video games, as shown in the film Ready Player One (2018), whose perspective I loved.
ayc: What is the status of your recent crowdfunded campaign to reboot Méwilo? I am currently teaching a class on indie games and we've been discussing the largely North American histories of independent game design, the so-called indiepocalypse and the promises and precariousness of indie game labor. Does your own experience, even as a veteran game designer, speak to new challenges facing a market that is larger and more accessible than ever? Are you excited about the growing range of free and easy-to-use game design tools for amateurs and aspiring game designers? Did the differences between indie and AAA (big-budget, mainstream industry games) impact your choice to leave Coktel after it was acquired by Vivendi?
mt: My period of video game creation stretched from 1987 to 2000. Since then, I have seen how much the industry and the economic model have transformed. Tastes and playing habits have changed. Increased accessibility has made consumers more demanding at least in terms of images and special effects, which are ever more breathtaking. So, as with auteur cinema compared to blockbusters, it is not so much the design tools that make the difference but the way in which scripts generate emotions. As with all innovations, each new technology brings new artists and we are only at the beginning of this mode of expression. And today we need to integrate the influence of social networks that very quickly convey opinions and walk-throughs. I can confirm that producing a game today is a real battleground. My crowdfunding experience was quite disappointing, probably because my subject is sensitive and cannot be marketed like any other leisure product.
ayc: What were your thoughts on being awarded the French Legion of Honor, especially as only the second video game designer to receive the award? The French government seems to take great pride in the successes of the country's game industry, not only contemporary behemoths like Ubisoft and Vivendi, but historical pioneers like yourself.
mt: I absolutely didn't expect it. I took this as recognition by the Ministry of Culture of my status as a pioneer and a Caribbean woman. It is also a sign that the French influence extends very far: eight thousand kilometers from Europe. My commitment dates back more than thirty years, and I am very proud to be part of the memory of the French industry. This recognition will hopefully encourage many careers, especially among women. The French government is beginning to encourage the creation of independent studios through a series of grants for writing and producing video games. There is a lot to do on the women's side, because they represent only 15 percent of the profession in France (it is a little more, 22 percent, in the United States), while parity among the players, 46 percent of whom are women, has been achieved.
ayc: Thank you so much. It has been an honor to correspond with you.
mt: I congratulate you on your very scholarly essay about me and thank you for the faithful account of my career.