An Interview with Benoit Sokal
by Laura MacDonald
 
Adventure games, and truthfully, games in general, are going through many changes right now. Some positive, others perhaps not. One thing is becoming evident, there are those games that have added depth and vigor to the media, featuring advanced graphics and adult oriented story lines. 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. Not content with that success and wishing to expand his artistic horizons, Benoit turned to the new medium of software games. His early works include Arxel tribes game, "Ring." , whose wondrous scenes and characters were created by Druillet in collaboration with Benoit. With the support and strategic partnership of Microids, he then enthralled gamers everywhere, with his fanciful and brooding world of "Amerzone". The next gem in Sokal’s creative crown, "Syberia", has drawn wide scale international acclaim and recognition. It is a unique blend of the old and the new, much as Benoit himself. Benoit Sokal is a craftsman who is enthralled by the newest technology, but whose artistic foundations are rooted in the schooled traditions of illustrative art and writing. He was born out the chaos and losses of the last world war and is ever mindful of the lessons there. However, he is also firmly fixed in this age, with an appreciation for the unique conflicts and promises of modern life. I recently had the extreme pleasure of discussing his history, philosophies, vision and perhaps a brief view of the future. I think you will enjoy his warmth, candor and charm. But, perhaps it is best to let Benoit speak for himself and so…. here is Benoit.

First, hello Benoit and thank you for talking with me.

Hello to you Laura. It’s a pleasure for me to answer your questions.

I must ask the one question everyone wants the answer to. Many game related venues have stated firmly that Syberia 2 is releasing in the Fall of 2003. Can you officially confirm for us the plans for Syberia 2 and will we at last discover mammoths?

The only thing I can say about Syberia 2 is that it’s definitely in production! No talking about the mammoths. *laugh* We will have the first images ready to be shown around the first or second quarter of next year.

I know that there will be a lot of happy fans when they read this! I have one plot related question. In the history of the ancient tribe, the story is told about the boat that was sent back every 50 years with the mammoth carcasses and products for those left behind to use. In the history, the boat suddenly starts arriving empty. I wondered if perhaps the people missed the point, that they were supposed to get on the boat and leave with it?

Yes, that will be continued in the second game. It’s a logical follow up.

Well, that is good to hear. Now about yourself, in most, if not all of the material I have seen, you always refer to yourself as a “cartoonist” rather than an illustrator. I have a friend that always used to say “Some of us are cartoonists and all the rest are mere men”. Would you agree with this philosophy? *grin*

Your friend may be right, because to be a cartoonist is a special thing. You have to have different information and understanding. You also usually work alone. There are not a lot of cartoonists that can do that for a long time without becoming a little bit bored. You are always working in your basement. That is one of the reasons I wanted to expand my expertise, to have a team, to share ideas, concepts, to brainstorm. Then you have dynamics at work. Also, I wanted to just meet other people. All day long, you see no one as a cartoonist. You might only see a new person once every two weeks. You are very isolated.

Did this sense of creative isolation affect your acceptance of CD Rom technology? I mean, it seems like many other artists, authors and their publishers became alarmed that this new medium would not only compete with, but perhaps even eliminate print publications. You, on the other hand, seemed to view it as a tool and an expansion of the art, rather than a competitor. Why did you embrace the technology so easily and has it turned out as you had thought?

Well, I think it was a matter of surviving. As you mentioned, in the early 90s a lot of people predicted the death of the printed artistic expression, such as books and comic-books. For me, and a few other authors, it was an emergency situation. We had to find a solution to a problem we were facing as artists. In that, we still had something to express, but had to adapt to a new medium.

But, this change occurred at a very good moment in my life. After spending 20 years working alone in my basement drawing and writing sketches and scenarios, I felt like experiencing a new way of working. I needed to learn how to work with a team, to share ideas. After all that, everything worked out very well for me.

I don’t know if you are aware of this, but the US courts have ruled recently that video games do not contain protected ideas or concepts. So, they are not worthy of protection under freedom of thought and expression. What is your reaction to this?

It’s a bit funny, because in France all rights are protected. So, it’s a bit surprising to hear that such a thing had happened. To me, it’s important because I am always trying to push the video game’s expression as far as I can as an artist. Though, I wouldn’t say that this expression is as important as a painting.

Well, why not? I would think that particularly in many adventure games there are some very important ideas touched upon.

In Europe, video games are the same as comics. They are viewed as very special. Comics are viewed as real art. These books are not simply objects. In Europe, it is a culture. I think that video games are also evolving in Europe, the same way as comics. First, they are just comic book art and only written for a child. Then in the 60’s and 70’s, came growth and they became a real artistic form of expression. Now, they contain not only political ideas, but social ideas. It also has become a historical tool for expression.

How does this relate to video games?

I see this same evolution with video games. There is a parallel to draw between the evolution of comic books and video games. I think, we are still in an early stage of this growth with games. For example, when you become an adult you are still looking for the same history you had as a kid, But, now you want to add some sense to it, some structure and logical ideas to the experience and most importantly, some emotions.

I thought that Syberia had a great deal of emotional power. I have to admit there were moments that I was brought to tears. I also have seen how Syberia struck a real chord with people in this country, particularly women.

I think first of all - it is good to hear that people cried.

One thing about the whole production process of the game, is that I talked a lot about emotions. I think, from what they have said, that those in the publishing side were probably a bit skeptical. However, I really considered telling emotion through the characters as something I really wanted to do. So, I worked as hard as I could to put as much possible emotion and life in each character, to make sense of all of them, to build something that has a dramatic aspect to it.

Also, the game did seem to have somewhat of a feminine perspective. Was this intentional?

From my perspective, you always should write for women. I am not interested in writing for kids or about fighting and things like that. The public for literature, in my opinion, is mostly feminine. I come from the book industry, so I always wrote as a man to women or for women. This continues with Syberia.

Would this be a change perhaps from Carnado?

Carnado is always written with women in mind.

Speaking of Carnado, he is reminiscent of the characters common to film Noir. In Amerzone, your main character is implicitly male. Why a female American lawyer in Syberia? Is there someone who inspired this character?

Not someone in particular. More like the modern woman, ambitious, strong but still human. I really wanted to paint a portrait of an actual woman, one who is representing the reality of young female of the 21st Century.

We talked earlier about the evolution of video games as a medium of expression. I am familiar with the view that many feel this is largely due to the “French Touch”, or the emphasis of the author as a critical component in games. Do you see the author as being paramount to a good game? If so - do you think this concept is becoming more universal or is it still primarily a European concept?

Naturally, it’s more of a European phenomenon, but it is something that is also recognized in the US with movies. I might repeat myself, but in my opinion what makes a game really good is the story that drives it and that’s the author’s job. As you mentioned it, we might have reached the first step of maturity. There’s still a place for growth and evolution in video game production.

I know this next is a difficult question, as most of us are not that comfortable complementing ourselves. But if you could - what do you view as your main contributions to the advancement of video games as a creative art?

It is a bit presumptuous to say that I made the games better or anything. If people think that - well it is wonderful - but I am not a precursor or a force behind new thinking about video games. What I do try very hard to do, is to push back the limits or existing boundaries. That is more of a quest or a personal goal for me than for the industry.

I have also heard you do not involve yourself in the coding or programming aspect of game production. If this is true, have you met limits creatively where what you envision is not economically or technically practical? If so - how did you resolve such conflicts?

Of course! I had to learn a few hints on what was possible and what was not. As a non-technical guy, I really had to understand what were the limits of the medium I was now exploiting. I still learn new things everyday.

I’m not directly involved in the coding or programming side of gaming but, I still work really close to the people in charge of these aspects. I explain what I want to do and they bring me back to earth. *laugh* They make suggestions of what’s possible and we make a decision together. But, I also try to consistently challenge them to push back the technical boundaries they are facing.

I know there are obviously many things that contribute to the success or not of any given game. Assuming the factors of: game environment/structure, story, graphics, user interface and dialogue/ narratives, how would you rank these in importance?

1-Story 2- Game environment 3- Dialogues 4- Graphics 5- User interface

I’m really just ranking them because you ask me. I’m not really that comfortable with ranking these factors, as they all have their importance and contribute largely to the quality of the game They are all essential.

I would have to agree. Considering what you have learned as a game designer and artist, if you were going to give advice to a young game designer - what would you tell them?

I would tell them to hold a job in video games, to learn every thing you can about game development, to be a good designer. You have to understand all the aspects of a game, everything from design and the artists portion of it , the animation, to programming. You really have to understand everyone’s role and all of the elements that go into a game.

Good advice. You spoke of there being room for evolution in game production. What innovations do you see in the immediate future?

To me, what is interesting is the difference video games bring to other expressions, other art forms, and how you use this technology. For the stories.. To see how compared with a movie or a book how you can change history or how things evolved.

Getting back to Syberia and your games in general, I was curious about some of your style choices in your games. In Amerzone you used the first person perspective, in Syberia - you chose a third person perspective. Is there a special reason for this?

There are a few reasons for that but the main one was that we wanted to build the story around Kate’s character. A first-person perspective leaves you with the impression that you are the hero of the game. It’s tougher to communicate emotions in a warp environment and it’s tougher to get the player really involved in the characters’ quest.

I was also fascinated by all the machines in Syberia. I enjoyed how the mechanized puzzles were so well integrated into the plot. Did you design the game puzzles yourself or did the team do them and integrate them into the story?

There was brainstorming within the team, but I supervised everything. I worked closely with two designers who were working with me, not on the story line but with the game play. This would be the puzzles, the actions and such things. Actually, I wanted to do everything on the game. *laughter* Even with the technical - nothing was done without me re-touching something.

Well, it was your game. *smile* Just curious, why mammoths?

Why not? Isn’t it an intriguing phenomenon?

Yes it is! Syberia also seems very European to me, in more ways than just its style and environments. How much of your own life story is in Syberia and are there any particular characters that you identify with?

To write you have to live. In my opinion, you can’t write anything before the age of 25. Of course, this is just my opinion for my own writing. Before that I only made parodies of a beginning novel. To write, really you can’t do that until you have lived a little. It is also the story of my family. My Grandfather during WW II had to get across all of eastern Europe from Austria.

I had read that he was a noted cavalry officer.

You know about him? You have heard about my Grandfather?

Well, just a little. I read a brief item about him in a European article and I imagined that things must have been very difficult for him during the last war. He must have been an amazing horseman and individual.

Yes, he was Chief Commander of the Austrian Cavalry. There was this one story about him when he was the Commander, he would whistle for his horse from the second floor window of the house where he stayed. The horse would then come up the stairs to where he was and he would ride him down to the street. But he was Jewish, so, he had to run away from the Nazi empire, as did a lot of people in Europe at that time. A lot of their history, was about crossing Europe, trying to avoid wars and to survive. For it’s the story of the 20th Century. Syberia is also about that history, the people in that time and their roles. As for the characters - there is a little bit of me in all of them. I am a part of Kate Walker, a part of Oscar, a part of me in all of them.

Benoit, obviously you have been a recognized cartoonist and creative force in Europe for some time, but I read where you doubted this would occur in North America. In fact, Syberia has caused much interest and applause since it’s availability to North Americans. What do you think of all this excitement?

Well, you are right. I was a bit anxious to see how the game would be received by North Americans, but the results are amazing! I’m flattered by all the good reviews we received and grateful for all the positive comments from those who played the game.

It’s obviously a success. I’m proud of what we accomplished. I’m very happy!

I know that the attention to Syberia must be wonderful, but have you been surprised by any of the inferences or insights drawn by reviewers and players?

It’s always funny to see how some people are trying to understand some motivations that you never had or are making references to some things you never thought of. There was a Johnny Walker logo discussion that is a good example of it.

That was something. *laughter*

They talked about it online for three or four days. We got worried that this could make a problem for us. There were a lot of people searching for things that were not thought of or meant in the game. But, some things like the Johnny Walker thing could be a hazard for us. Still, it is great that many people like to talk about the game.

I have one last thought. It can be safely said, that adventure fans are unusually devoted to their genre. However, there are also detractors - who view adventure games as; unprofitable dinosaurs, charming but outdated. What would you respond to those who claim adventure games are dead and people should move on?

Good adventure gaming is far from dead! We’re having the best example right now. You can’t imagine the number of times I had to answer this question before Syberia was released. Why would anyone bother developing a game that won’t sell? And the last time I checked, Syberia was doing very well in Europe, Canada and in the US!

Besides, there will always be a need for good games. Games that are about a true story. In my opinion, we, as game developers, have to evolve. Gaming as you know it today has to change. It cannot stay this way. Users will be asking for more as the gamers-base will grow larger and most important older. There will always be a need for First-person shooters and good RTS, but there will also be a growing demand for adventure games based on a solid scenario, attaching characters and narratives.

It’s all about the story!

Well said, Benoit! I know you have to leave, but I did want to thank you again for your patience and candor during our chat. I know that your many admirers here in the US will enjoy getting to know you, as much as I have.

Thanks to everybody for all your warm welcome and I’m happy you liked the game!

copyright 2002 GameBoomers

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