Interview With Benoit Sokal
by Laura MacDonald
It has been a year since I last spoke with Benoit Sokal. And what a year it has been for he and team Syberia at Microids. Rather than go into Benoit's lengthy accomplishments, I suggest that you read through the first interview instead. There is a wealth of inside information in this first chat about his life, background and a detailed discussion of the overall Syberia story and game 1 of the two-part series.
A brief excerpt from that interview..
There are also current creative thinkers who desire to create something truly different. Foremost among them, is Benoit Sokal. Born in 1954, Belgian cartoonist, Benoit lives in Reims, France, with his wife and two children.. He began his celebrated career, with the creation of his cynical and world weary duck detective, Inspector Carnado ….
First GameBoomers interview with Benoit Sokal
Big thanks to Benoit for taking the time to talk with me once again. I would also be extremely remiss, if I failed to acknowledge Cedric Orvoine, who is Microids PR manager. Cedric coordinated everything to make this interview happen. He also,once again, provided his capable interpretive skills for Benoit and myself. Thanks Cedric.
And now, Benoit…
BS: Hello Laura, I have many kind memories of the conversation we had together.
LM: Thanks, so do I! Wow, this has been some year for you guys!
BS: Yes, it has!
LM: I really appreciate your taking the time to chat with me again. I wanted to start with a question about the game engine for Syberia. Although Syberia 1 had the appearance of traditional graphics, the game actually used 3D technology. I know you are using the same engine for Syberia 2, but the screen shots I have seen appear to have added enhancements. What graphical changes can we expect in Syberia 2?
BS: We have to talk more in terms of a progression, rather than a revolution, in terms of the graphics. We are working with the same engine, but we have had more time to tweak it up a little bit. So we are going to have falling snow, added ice reflection…more dynamic lighting effects. The integration of the characters into the environment is better. Syberia 2 will also have better animation, more fluid animation. The clothing textures are improved.
LM: That all sounds excellent!
BS: Graphically, I can’t say we changed everything because we are using the same engine. We just pushed the capabilities even further. Every aspect has been optimized!
LM: Let’s talk about the story. Where do we find Kate at the beginning of Syberia 2?
BS: The first thing you see will not be Kate. You will see into the lawyer’s office in New York. Kate’s boss will be calling her and He is trying to convince her to come back to New York.
LM: Oh.. cool!
BS: She’s on the phone, while she is on the train with Hans. The train is traveling in the direction of Romansbourg, which will be the first universe of Syberia 2. So basically, her boss is really trying to convince her to come back to work for them. And she sends him packing! It’s a whole cinematic and that is how the game starts. When the gameplay really begins, you are at Romansbourg. You are in the train and now you have control over things.
LM: That leads into one of my questions. There were a lot of people that Kate left behind in the first game. Are any of them going to be looking for her? Will those characters figure into Syberia 2? Her Mom, fiancée, friend and the others?
BS: The ones that are the most active in looking for Kate, are her bosses and the people at the Marston office. Her Mom is going to try to call her a few times. All the characters that she left behind are talking really through her boss’s voice. What her boss is saying is, “she must come back - because that is what the reasonable thing to do is. Coming back home, coming back to what she knows and blah-blah-blah.” But, on the other side, she is going to meet a whole new bunch of people, during Syberia 2. This new cast of characters, what they are going to say to her is “that she is now a different person. That she is never going to go home again.”
LM: Ahhhh…I don’t blame her! I wouldn’t want to go back there either.
BS: (laugh) There are some people looking for her. I just don’t want to say too much. But, the hunt for Kate is going to be more than just phone calls.
LM: That’s interesting! Speaking about the characters, one of the things that some people commented on about Syberia 1, was the game felt isolated in places. Seems like you have a lot more people in part 2. Also animals and things like that.
BS: One of the goals we wanted to achieve with Syberia 2 was to bring more life into the environments. Syberia 2 is more of an outside game than Syberia 1. There is also more interaction between all of the characters. In this game, ¾ of the action takes place in external settings. It’s really only in the first world that events takes place inside places. And even in Romansbourg, the game play takes place half outside and half inside. After Romansbourg, most of the game is in external environments. She is going to interact with animals, with Hans, Oscar and a whole bunch of new characters that she will meet. We also wanted to add some life into the environment by adding, what we call “anim blocks”. These would be the birds in the trees, the snow fall. You will also see different animals crossing your path on your journey.
LM: I have seen a list of the new major characters, if you could tell me a little about them as I mention them?
LM: In Syberia 1 we just heard about Hans and saw evidence of him. Now Kate has joined Hans. Are we going to learn more about Hans?
BS: Exactly. We are going to learn much more about him. We are going to talk a lot with him, spend time with him. Kate’s whole focus really changes. She used to be hunting for Hans, now she is supporting him. She really embraced Hans dream, which is to find the Mammoths. She is going to do everything she can to help him reach that goal.
LM: How about the new characters Ivan and Igor? Are they bad guys, good guys?
BS: These two guys are exactly the type of characters that were not present in Syberia 1. They are opponents to Kate’s journey. Their role is really important in the story development. They have a real role in that department. It is not just that you meet them, then they give you some information and you don’t see them again. They are going to be there throughout almost the whole game.
LM: Ahh, so they are main characters in the game?
LM: Who is the Patriarch?
BS: He is one of the main characters at Romansbourg. He is the head of the Monastery. Romansbourg is really split into two different zones. One is the town. Then, in the little mountain near Romansbourg, you also have the Monastery. The Patriarch is the head of the monks there. Again, I don’t want to say too much. But, he plays a huge role in the story, because Kate is asking for his help. What she learns instead is that he is more of an obstacle to her plans.
LM: I thought he might have been some kind of moral guide – because of his position.
BS: He has strong opinions on religion and on what the cause of Han’s sickness is. He has strong views on what they should do to help Hans to feel better. But obviously these opinions are against what Kate thinks.
LM: In the first game, Oscar grew along with Kate. As she became more sure of who she really was – Oscar became seen as more and more human. Is his role equally prominent in the sequel?
BS: Absolutely! But again Laura – we don’t want to say too much, because Oscar plays a huge huge part in the story. Yes, he is becoming more and more human. He will become humanized to an extent that you can’t even imagine. Maybe we could say that Oscar is becoming a legend.
LM: Wow – ok that is very interesting to hear. He is my favorite supporting character.
BS: He is becoming much much more than at the beginning of Syberia 1. That is for sure.
LM: How about the Youkals. We saw a film about them at Barrockstadt in game 1 and learned they were perhaps the key to the Mammoths. As much as searching for the Mammoths – Hans was also searching for the lost tribe. Will we discover the Youkals in game 2?
BS: Oh Yeah! Kate will interact a lot with the Youkals. The third world in Syberia 2 is their village. You will meet a wide cast of Youkals and you will have to interact with them.
LM: One of the best things about Amerzone, but not so much in Syberia 1 were all the animals. Everyone by now should have seen the screen shots of Youki from Syberia 2. What exactly is a Youki and how does he figure into the game?
BS: He is the son of a dog and a seal. Half dog, half seal. He is always hungry. He gets pretty excited and is sometimes out of control. Mostly when it is related to food. He really is all about food. For a good part of the game he will be Kate’s main companion. Youkis are a strong part of the Youkals culture.
LM: So are they integral like the Mammoths?
BS: Different they are more like a pet.
LM: Oh like companion animals!
BS: Exactly. The Mammoths are more mythical.
LM: Ohhh – I want a Youki. I also noticed there was an owl like creature. The Harfang? I got the sense that this was some sort of spirit guide. What is the story on the Harfang?
BS: Well you saw it right. The Harfang is a spiritual symbol for the Youkals. When you are at the Youkal village, you will interact with a Shaman. The Harfang has a strong relationship with the Shaman.
LM: So like his eyes and ears?
BS: Yes, exactly. You never interact directly with him, but he is all along Kate’s journey. He will be guiding her spiritually.
LM: I read somewhere that the dialogue system is changed somewhat for Syberia 2. Is this so?
BS: That is a misconception. I saw that in a few places also. The only thing that was changed was that we, meaning myself and the other designers, tried to work on adding additional dialogue lines for Kate. Like when you want to open a door and you can’t – instead of always saying “I can’t do that”…“I can’t do that”. We tried to create more responses that will cycle.
LM: That makes sense. The puzzles in Syberia 1 were primarily mechanical. Will we see similar puzzles in Syberia 2 and also what will be different?
BS: Two parts to the answer. First part is that the puzzles will be less mechanical, because the whole environment is really less mechanical. Most of the action takes place outside.
LM: And Hans wasn’t in these places yet – so he wouldn’t have built all these things?
BS: No, everywhere you will go on the game he has already been. Most of the places you will see in Syberia 2, he has been there. But it is just that as you go deeper and deeper into northern Russia and the more you travel into that area, the less civilization is there around you. So the less mechanical things are around you. You are in the forest, on the ice, on the sea. So most of the puzzles are oriented to this new environment and there is a natural flavor to these puzzles. The other part of this answer is that I don’t like to see puzzles as being a challenge to the player. We are working to find the right balance between puzzles and the story. The puzzles are not intended to be a big intellectual challenge. We want them to be really integrated and a real part of the story.
LM: I like the sound of that! After Syberia 1 was released and you had the chance to sit back and look at your creation from a distance. Did you have anything you saw afterwards where you thought “Ahhh I want to change that”?
BS: Obviously looking back at Syberia 1 there were some things that we look at now and say we could have done that better and so on. But there is no major thing I would change in that game. It is kind of an infinite process. Little things change from Syberia 1 to 2. We changed the lighting a little bit. Kate’s attitude is different. More attention paid to details. That is sort of the motto we have with Syberia 2.
LM: The “look of the game” to me was really amazing in game one. The sequel looks equally beautiful – but it does have its own unique style. What were your sources or inspirations for the art in the game?
BS: For Syberia 2 it is more difficult to talk about inspiration, because it is more about imagination. The degree of architectural elements are less than in the first game. Most of the environments are external, so some ideas came from reading and books. But it mainly comes from my imagination, what I think northern Asia or northern Russia would be like.
LM: To back track a little bit. I want to discuss the game environments. How would you describe these?
BS: There are four new locations – which means you might go back to locations you have already visited…
LM: Oh good – I wondered about that.
BS: It’s just a question, maybe you will – maybe you won’t.
LM: Uh huh.. too late (laugh)
BS: The four locations are Romansbourg, which is the last Russian city before the wildness of northern Russia. After that. The 2nd location is more of a journey than an exact spot. It is kind of a corridor. It is a long path in the forest and the snow that you have to travel across. The 3rd location is the Youkal village, which is the last surviving village of these people. The 4th location is the “dream of Hans”. So it might not be a real place, it might be a fictional location. One that only exists in the mind of Hans.
LM: So this could be Syberia or possibly Han’s dream of Syberia? Wow, that is something to wonder about. Hmm. About Kate...I have read that you might be considering further Kate Walker adventures, though obviously she would not be with Hans. Any future plans you can share about this?
BS: Well actually, there are no definite plans. But I think the chances are good that we will see Kate Walker’s adventures continue.
LM: What are the chances we will see Syberia 1 and/or 2 ported to MAC?
LM: Ok – that’s a straight forward answer (laugh) What is Benoit working on after Syberia. If not Kate – then what?
BS: I don’t know, that is a good question. I have a few projects in mind. I have more than one game in preparation. One of them could be Syberia ..well not Syberia 3, but the follow up of Kate Walkers adventures. Uhmmm it is just too early to tell.
LM: You can’t talk about it now can you (laugh) That’s ok. How about the chance of a game based on Carnado?
BS: Ohhh Nooo. (laugh) I am phased out with Carnado.
LM: Tired of the old duck eh.?
BS: I think there is a big distinction between my work with the comic books and the gaming. I work on only two things, the game with Kate Walker and an animated film.
BS: But for the moment it is only a project.
LM: Any changes in the Syberia interface and control? I heard there was going to be a keyboard option.
BS: That is true. When you go into the options you can choose between controlling with the mouse or the keyboard. So you will be able to use either one.
LM: Good. Last time we talked about Syberia and it’s appeal to women, but this game seems to have really cut across gender and age lines. By now you must have a great deal of feedback from those in the media and from gamers. What specifically do you think accounts for this games huge cross appeal?
BS: It has always been one of my main goals to create a game that would talk to as many people as possible. So that is how I created the story line. That’s why we chose to not build the game with heavy system requirements. It is really about having a game with broad appeal.
LM: It has often been said that no change comes without loss. Does Kate have any regrets?
BS: No, to make it short, she will not have any regrets. But, what I am interested in is working on trying to build Kate Walkers psychology around the fact that she changed so much and that she left so much behind. To try to see where she will end up. Everything is about adventure for her now.
LM: One last question cause I know you have to go. Last time that we chatted, you talked about how isolated you felt in your earlier work at your studio. Do you have any moments now with all the activity and hustle that you long for the quiet days of your studio?
BS: Each time I come to Montreal, once a month. I just wish I could stay (laugh).
LM: Really! So you love Montreal.
BS: It is not an easy travel. It is tough to go back and forth every month for a week. Because in a week with the jet lag, you don’t have a lot of time to get acclimated. It’s a joke. But no regrets.
LM: Ahhh good! Thank you very much Benoit for talking with me again. .
BS: Thank you very much Laura. I am happy!
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