So this is the setup: it’s the final decade of the eighteenth century, and you’re the technically competent son of the leader of an international secret society whose mission is to root out and debunk weird occult stuff. Your mother, Sarah de Richet, who is no one to be trifled with, has disappeared after she received an invitation to a secluded island off the coast of England where a mysterious aristocrat, Lord Mortimer, holds periodic gatherings of the most influential figures in Europe and the Americas. You’ve received your own invitation from Lord Mortimer to come to the island and help locate your mother since she’s supposed to be a major participant in the most recent gathering and the guests can’t be kept waiting indefinitely while the servants search for her. Complicating things is the fact that Sarah explicitly instructed you before her disappearance not to come to Mortimer’s island. She never explained why she didn’t want you there. It’s all a great mystery.
This is how The Council begins, and it is probably the point in the plot where things are at their most coherent. This episodic narrative game is full of decisions and plot twists that are designed to take the protagonist, Louis, on a very bizarre journey of self discovery in the heart of a mansion that’s designed like an eighteenth century escape room (or a twenty-first century adventure game). Play time is split pretty evenly between social sparring sessions with the likes of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte and brain teaser style puzzles that require the player to do some creative thinking about a variety of famous stories from Western mythology and religion. Undergirding everything is a character advancement system that borrows heavily from tabletop gaming, but with all the combat skills stripped away in favor of a variety of social ones. The player gets to decide how Louis develops based on his interactions with his fellow guests with a broad emphasis on either diplomacy, intelligence, or investigative gumption.
As one might expect from a narrative game, the choices also impact how the story plays out; Rachael and I were both intrigued by the title when we noticed it, and so we agreed to play it in tandem with our own save files so that we could see immediately how different choices affected the story’s events. What we found is that the level of difference between divergent story paths are actually pretty significant; in the beginning of the second episode, because of the choices we made, Rachael found herself investigating a murder while I had to simply explain why I wasn’t culpable for the disappearance of the same character from the island. Like with other narrative games, there are still a number of major story beats that will happen regardless of your decisions, but for the most part taking different paths rewards the player with significantly different experiences within the individual episodes of the game. In a video game genre that’s notorious for only presenting relatively cosmetic differences in a story based on player choice, The Council puts a lot of effort into hiding the strings so the player feels like their choices have significant impact. It’s not just the character progression system that borrows from tabletop games.
One satisfying aspect of the plot, which concerns world events that actually happened two hundred years ago, is that the writers are not afraid to simply throw history out the window in service of their story. If you know going in that this is not a story that suffers from the prequel curse, it helps immensely to add tension to the game’s proceedings, especially if you know enough about Western history from this era to have a sense of what is supposed to happen. Perhaps more satisfying than the plot’s indifference to historic anachronism is its strong anti-colonialist underpinnings. Being a story about powerful people in the Western world making decisions that will affect the course of history, there’s a lot of room for callous disregard of those decisions’ impact on the people who were exploited because of them. It’s occasionally done clumsily (Rachael observed that Louis, while a classic Enlightenment era rationalist, is a little more woke than you might expect from a young Frenchman who travels in the circles of Europe’s social elite), but the writers clearly care about letting the player know that they find most of the ideologies and agendas proposed by the game’s characters repugnant. Of course, for all the historic intrigues, you then reach the fourth episode and things take a highly fantastic turn that’s best not discussed here. Be assured though that it’s not an out of nowhere revelation, and the true explanation of what’s going on ties together all of the disparate plot points that arise in the earlier chapters in a generally satisfying way; the twist was clearly planned and intended from the beginning.
Also, there’s a strong possibility you get the chance to slap Napoleon, which is enough fun on its own to warrant the price of the game.
If you’re interested in a story that clearly knows its historical subjects well but doesn’t feel beholden to what history tells us about them while throwing in a mess of fun puzzles that play around extensively with European art and doling out wild twists with almost clockwork regularity, then you’ll probably enjoy The Council.