Saturday 20 September 2008

A new adventure game from the makers of Fate of Atlantis!

What do you say when you hear that one of the founders of classic adventure gaming is about to return to their roots? Ron Gilbert is about to with Death Spank, Tim Schafer is creating BrĂ¼tal Legend, Dave Grossman has Sam & Max. All exciting and wonderful. But did you know that the lead designers of the legendary Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein have teamed up again? That's right and it's for a true-blue, classic adventure game based on the exploits of the infamous Mata Hari.

Time to sit up and take interest, indeed.

Mata Hari, for those who are unaware, was a real historical character. At one time the most famous exotic dancer in Paris, with a string of male admirers, she was later executed by the French authorities for being a German spy - creating the enduring image of one of the greatest femme fatals in history. But her story is much more complicated than that, and who better than Barwood and Falstein to bring her extraordinary tale to life...

Born in Holland to a wealthy background in 1876, the promiscuous Margaretha Zelle always craved an exciting life, but she wasn't to find one straight away. Her stable upbringing was suddenly uprooted when, at 13 years of age, her parents were divorced and declared bankrupt. If this wasn't already a shock, two years later her mother died and she was moved to spend the rest of her youth at an uncle's house, abandoned by her father.

Three years later, at 18, she responded to a lonely-hearts column from a Dutch Army Captain, Rudolf MacLeod. A few months after that they were married, but her life didn't improve the way she had hoped. Her new husband was a hard-drinking, womanising, abusive husband who neglected to mention he had syphilis. Things were impossible, but when MacLeod's disease killed one of their children, their marriage was pushed to breaking point.

After being beaten with a cat-o'-nine tails by MacLeod for wearing a low-cut dress at a ball, it was finally time to leave and attempt to find the life she'd always wanted. But MacLeod was determined to make it as difficult as possible and placed adverts in the local papers warning all shopkeepers to refuse her credit. Penniless and without prospects, she left her Dutch homeland in 1903 for the city that would change her life but ultimately destroy her.

Paris was dazzling and exciting, but she still has no prospects and soon she found herself forced to turn to prostitution in order to be able to eat. It was only when she was given a job at a circus that her calling would become apparent; Her talent, she was told, was in dancing.

Her desire was always men, perhaps an attempt to make up for an absent father, and dancing got her a lot of male attention. Despite not being considered classically beautiful she was determined to be become a professional dancer. She trained hard, developed her skills and created a whole new persona in the process: The sultry Mata Hari.

Inventing a new exotic history and claiming to have been trained in "sacred" Indian dances, an eager and ignorant public lapped up "Mata Hari". Her creation was a bigger success than she could have ever imagined and with the success came all the attention she could ever desire.

Despite the fact that her shows mainly consisted of her removing her attire (although never appearing totally nude on stage) she was seen as a serious artist. This wasn't the crudity of the Moulin Rouge, the public believed, this was ancient high-art performed by a highly skilled woman. She entranced Parisian high society, Dukes, Officers, Marquis, and became a respected celebrity overnight. Contemporary critics wrote that she danced like a "feline, trembling in a thousand rhythms, exotic yet deeply austere, slender and supple like a sacred serpent". She had men eating out of her hand and she loved every moment of their attention.

"Tonight I dine with Count A and tomorrow with Duke B. If I don't have to dance, I make a trip with Marquis C. I avoid serious liaisons. I satisfy all my caprices," she wrote.

Stories soon found there way into the press that added to her mystique; she was the daughter of an Indian temple dancer who had died giving birth to her, that she grew up in a jungle in Java. As a result, soon she was performing as much off-stage as on.

By 1908, however, her mystique had worn thin. She was over-exposed in the public eye, had many imitators and her credentials had come into question; Was this really high-art or just a woman undulating in various states of undress? The fact that Mata Hari was very vocal about her many lovers did nothing to dissuade her detractors that she was nothing more than an attention-loving harlot. Despite these issues she was unwilling to give up her luxurious lifestyle, and resorted to earning money at Paris's many maisons de rendez-vous (one step-up from ordinary brothels), while living off the generosity of her admirers.

If things had started to become difficult for Hari, it was nothing compared to the chain of events that were kick-started by the political situation in Europe. Having just found work in Berlin, the sudden start of the Great War quickly put aside any ideas of stability. Her job ended, all her furs and money were seized and, as a result, she had no choice but to retreat back to her native country and into the arms of an old lover. It was there, in neutral Holland, that she was visited by Karl Kroemer, the German consul.

Kroemer told her that he was recruiting German spies for the war and offered her 20,000 francs. She wasn't interested in being a spy, throwing away the bottle of invisible ink she was given, but happily took Kroemer's money, in the same way she had taken so many other's. She felt she deserved all the money she was given and had no qualms taking it. In Hari's eyes, Kroemer's money was nothing more than compensation for the assets that had been seized in Germany.

Naively, she failed to realise how much Europe had changed and, on her way back to Paris, British intelligence stopped and interrogated her. Little did she know that despite not finding a single thing to incriminate her, the British still marked her as suspicious. Why was this? The report merely noted that she "speaks French, English, Italian, Dutch and probably German" and that she was a "handsome, bold type of woman". Apparently it took little more than for her to be foreign, bilingual and confident for her to become a potential enemy.

Once back in Paris she resumed her expensive lifestyle, living in luxury at the Grand Hotel, but things weren't as simple as before: She was now secretly being monitored by two undercover policemen. They steamed open her letters and questioned any staff that worked with her. Reports show that, while they discovered plenty about her love life, they found nothing relating to espionage.

Also, despite being back in Paris, things hadn't really improved since she was last there and, finding life difficult once again, she longed to see the man she had truly fallen in love with, a Russian captain who resided in the eastern war town of Vittel. Unfortunately for her, travelling to such towns required permission from the head of French intelligence, Captain Georges Ladoux.

An ambitious man, Captain Ladoux had risen to his position amid fears of German spies infiltrating France, and he had his doubts about Mata Hari. Suspicious that she was a German agent, he promised her a permit on the proviso that she become a spy for France, for which she would be rewarded greatly; one million francs for valuable information. It was an odd move for Ladoux, but one that might have revealed Hari's allegiances. She took the pass and didn't worry about the consequences -- afterall she'd never done anything for Kroemer.

While at Vittel, her lover, freshly wounded from the frontline, asked for her hand in marriage. Excited, she immediately accepted, and turned to the practicalities of where they could find the money they would need for their new life together. Of course, she knew just where to begin.

Her first mission for Ladoux required her to seduce a German officer she had known before the war, now residing in Belgium, and attempt to gather information about weapons. Unfortunately Belgium proved impossible to enter and she was routed to Britain where, still under suspicion, she was sent away again, to Spain.

Determined not to give up, she began an affair with a German Major named Kalle in Madrid and managed to get him talking. She hurried back to France, only to discover that the information she had gathered was baseless and possibly deliberately misleading. Desperate to earn her million francs and return to her lover, she went back to Madrid attempting to get more intelligence from Kalle. Once again she came back with misleading information, much to the frustration of Ladoux.

It seems that Kalle could see through her deceptions and was enjoying playing with her. Cementing this idea is the fact that shortly after she left for the second time, Kalle ordered a German message be sent to Berlin using a cipher he knew the French had cracked; Mata Hari was Germany's spy, "Agent 21".

In theory this should have finally exonerated Hari from all suspicion once and for all; Why would the Germans use a cipher they knew the French and British understood to talk about a real, valuable spy. It is likely that Kalle was enjoying mocking France's attempts at gathering intelligence. Hari had no experience as a spy, after all.

Ladoux was fearful for his reputation. Hari had proven a worthless spy and he was afraid that people would think he'd only hired her as an admirer succumbing to her charms. He didn't want it known in France that the Germans were aware of their (lack of) progress in cipher-breaking and suppressed this information. He certainly didn't want it known that Germany was mocking his department.

With this information being suppressed there was no reason to doubt Kalle's message and a warrant was issued for Hari's arrest. Astoundingly, with little or no evidence aside from this one German message, she was tried and found guilty of treason. Instead of becoming a useful French spy and being able to marry her lover, she was marked as a traitor and sentenced to death.

On October 15, 1917, her request for clemency being denied, Mata Hari was executed by firing squad. According to eye-witness reports, refusing a blind fold or to be tied to the stake, her fearless expression never changed, even after being shot.

30 years later, one of her prosecutors, André Mornet, would admit that "there wasn't enough evidence to flog a cat".

This is the story of Mata Hari as best we can piece it together today. A small minority still claim that Mata Hari really was a cunning and devious German spy, but whatever the truth, it cemented the mythical idea of the beautiful seductive femme fatal, one that's been featured in countless stories since, and made a legend, for good or bad, of "Mata Hari".

Was she really a German spy or was she just a pawn in someone else's career. Was she, as most historians agree, a naive scapegoat, caught up in a complex and volatile situation beyond her complete understanding. Until 2017, when the French authorities open all of their documents relating to the Mata Hari case, it's up to people like Falstein and Barwood to do justice to this woman's incredible story, treating her life with the dignity and respect it deserves.

Of course, knowing how successfully they have weaved well-researched fact with mythical fiction in the past, it does raise the question; Why, in the name of all that is sweet and holy, did they decided upon THIS as their box art...

Mata Hari is due for a German language release in November 2008. An English language release has yet to be announced but is expected. (We can only hope it's better than the artwork suggests.)

The game has been released in an English-language version on Steam... and good taste does seem to have prevailed, thankfully.

Take a gander here: