Interview with Benoît Sokal, on the day he visited Athens

Σάββατο, 13 Μαΐου 2017, Συντάκτης Fallen Angel

Interview with Benoît Sokal, on the day he visited Athens

It was a sunny Friday morning and the 12th Comicdom Con Athens was about to start, introducing its new section ‘Focus on Videogames’. The guest of honour of this section was none other than Benoît Sokal, designer of famous comic books Inspector Canardo and game designer of renowned adventure games, such as: the Syberia trilogy, Amerzone, the Sinking Island and Paradise. The popular designer would make his presentation ‘From comics to video games’ in the afternoon, but before that, early in the morning, he was scheduled to meet with Adventure Advocate to talk about everything.

The day before, there was an announcement on Adventure Advocate’s Facebook wall, a call to friends of adventure games who spoke French to join us in this interview. Pavlina spoke no French, but her love for Sokal’s work and her passion to meet him in person were enough to convince us; she would be the lucky reader to join us. Cristina and Pavlina met downtown and confirmed they were all set for this meeting: Cristina was wearing her Syberia-mammoth T-shirt and had brought a goodie-bag filled with traditional Greek products and drinks. Pavlina had charged her voice recorder and mobile phone and was ready to immortalize that meeting.

This was Sokal’s first visit in Athens and until that moment he hadn’t had the chance to visit any point of interest in this lively, yet ancient, city. So, they took a moment to look at a great panoramic view of Athens and the Acropolis, talked a bit about the renowned monument, as well as traditional Greek products, shot some photos, and then the interview began:

Adventure Advocate: All those years we've seen two faces of Benoît Sokal: one in the comic book series, where savage and deadly humor rule, and one in the adventure games, where there is romanticism and dreaming. Is having two distinctive and contradictory personas something you do on purpose?

Benoît Sokal: That’s a really good question; and a hard one as well. How can I answer to that? Just like you, like everyone in the world actually, we all have different characteristics; we all are both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. When I started writing comics, I was very young. I still had an adolescent way of looking at things, I saw no future, and I had no future. Everything was darker back then. So, it’s only natural that I would start with detective stories. They were dark, including murders, crimes and lots of blood. But they were also parodies. That’s because I was young as I said and I had no personal experiences to share or personal stories to tell. When you’re twenty years old, you’ve experienced nothing yet -unless you’ve lived through the horrors of war of course. But even if you do have experienced certain aspects of life before you reach that age, you still need some time to absorb and process those experiences before being able to share them with others.

Before long, I started having a more romantic view of the world, a more poetic aspect of it. That’s why some albums of Canardo and Amerzone are more poetic. Everything constantly changes, right? However, I may now have a more poetic view of life, but I still experience some dark, pitch-black nights. [AdvAdv: those are never brought into your games though] Well yes, but why not bring them? At the moment, I am writing Syberia 4, and it’s a little bit dark! Yes, Syberia 4 is darker. I’m talking about the sexualities of Kate Walker, a little. And I’m also talking about reactions to much more violent situations. Not because of modern times and what’s happening in the world; it would be very difficult for me because both the subject and the situations change. Though, if I wanted to be honest with you, I must admit that I really don’t know yet as this is still work in progress.

AdvAdv: Amerzone, as you mentioned, is more romantic than the original Canardo stories. Sinking Island was a detective story featuring a male protagonist, but it had nothing to do with Canardo's general feel. So, being half way there already, do you ever consider creating an adventure game featuring Canardo himself?

BS: No, never. I’m really not interested in doing such a thing. As I told you, I created Canardo when I was very young. It just so happened, that Canardo was immediately a great success. But I needed change. Back then, I wanted to change the setting every month or so actually. One month I would be all for noir crime stories, and the next I would delve into more poetic ideas. I wanted to explore things that were away from my comfort zone and I didn’t want to be labeled as… well, anything. So when I moved into the video games world after a while, I didn’t want to do Canardo again, I wanted something different. Back then, literally everyone insisted I had to bring Canardo into video games. They even suggested I told Canardo stories for the rest of my life because “they are so amazing” they said. But I needed something new. [AdvAdv: So when Kate’s leaving her past behind, she’s actually leaving Canardo behind?] Νo, actually Kate is a very different character from Canardo.

Kate is also very different from all the women we meet in Canardo stories. Kate Walker may actually be the ideal woman for me. I remember I wanted to create a female character that would be different from the standards of the time that were women of action emitting tons of sexuality. I wanted to create a female character that would be more, more than just… that. I wanted to find a different female role-model and bring it into video games. For me, you see, Lara Croft is a man. Well, she’s not exactly a man obviously [Benoît Sokal shapes a curved female figure in the air and laughs], but she acts a lot like a man. She may be beautiful, but I didn’t want that, not just that; I wanted a lot more.

AdvAdv: And you sure succeeded in that. Which brings us to our next question: Syberia is considered by many a ‘game for women’, and I believe you’ve said yourself that you create games addressed to women. Could you explain what you mean by that? What is the difference of a female gamer in your opinion?

BS: It’s not just for this game, it’s broader. You see, a man always writes for women, always! Ever since I was young I had an idol, a superb comic book artist named Hugo Pratt. He used to tell me that if you manage to make girls cry at the end of the book, then you have succeeded in telling your story. I still keep this in the back of my head when writing. [AdvAdv: Well, when Syberia ended, men cried as well] Yes, of course! I don’t know how things are in Greece, but in France women are the ones who read, not men. I’m not talking about comics of which most readers are men, but about romance stories. Those stories are mostly read by females; and to be exact, not only women, but also men who are in touch with their feminine side. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about sexuality here. I’m talking about a way of thinking, a feminine, more sensitive and complex way of thinking. This is not exclusive to women; it’s a human’s dual nature. I always write for all those people, ever since Amerzone.

AdvAdv: White Birds were really important in Amerzone. It can't have been a coincidence that this was the name of your company some years later down the road. Now, in Syberia, we see a white owl again. Those are a lot of white birds. Do they mean something special to you?

BS: Yes, absolutely. First of all, the white birds in Amerzone have a story of their own. They were the first thing I could imagine seeing in 3D at its final form, and indeed they were the first element we later created in 3D. When I wrote Amerzone in the comics, back in 1984-1985, I started writing a magical story including ordinary and realistic people. I was very influenced by the works of Gabriel García Márquez, and generally by the South American literature writers of that era. I was also very influenced by German movies taking place in South America, films like ‘Fitzcarraldo’ by Werner Herzog. That is why at first I wrote a very realistic story. My publisher, however, refused to proceed with it and said I had to tell this story with Canardo. So, I wrote everything from scratch and came up with a short Canardo story about it. But this was not enough for me, not nearly enough. I promised myself I would return to this story one day. And so I did when I got involved in the video games world and I started imagining white birds in 3D. That very design later became the logo of my company, those white birds. But my company is now dead.

AdvAdv: Yeah, unfortunately. You had two more adventure games under development at the time, right? Aquarica and Broadway.

BS: Ah, yes! You’re well prepared! Aquarica is a story I wrote together with one of my best friends, François Schuiten. During the holidays, we used to write stories. We used to drink a little too much during the holidays, and in the afternoons we used to imagine a story in the South of France. This was at first a story for the movies, and director Martin Villeneuve tried to turn Aquarica into a movie. But it was a very expensive one because of the special effects required. While writing Syberia 3, however, I also wrote the comic book of Aquarica, a tome of which is expected to be released by the end of the year.

Broadway, on the other hand, just disappeared. It was supposed to be a sequel to the Sinking Island, but we had no money so…

AdvAdv: Money always seems to be a big problem. However, a game and comic designer of your caliber would easily get funded on Kickstarter. So, why don’t you launch a campaign? We want to give you our money!

BS: Great, go right ahead! Where’s my money? [all laughing] Joking aside, it’s not so easy to make a good Kickstarter. Luckily, in the end I managed to find the money for Syberia 3 without Kickstarter. We even tried to launch a campaign at some point, but we didn’t as it wasn’t necessary after all. You know, if you lose and you don’t reach the goals, it’s very bad for you. I don’t know exactly how the system works, but losing is bad for you. [AdvAdv: Yes, but there’s no chance you’d lose!] Well, as you know I wasn’t successful only in games, and after some hard times I had in game development, I don’t really trust you people, to be brutally honest with you. Hard times bring disappointment.

AdvAdv: That’s sad, yet expected. But those who disappointed you were the publishers, not the people, right? It’s a different thing, no one likes publishers. We know they don’t let artists express themselves freely.

BS: Yes, you are right. But it’s also more complicated than that. Obviously money is everything. But success is a very strange thing and it's not always connected with financial prosperity. My wife was a bookseller and I personally have spent hours in bookshops. My wife saw things from the other side of the glass, however. She used to see people buy books. She saw piles of my books and next to them piles with books of other writers. She also saw how people bought books: they would walk around, and then op! they would pick up a book and then put it back in the pile. They would keep doing this, picking up books and then leaving them back in the pile because they didn’t have enough money to get them all. Nothing is easy.

AdvAdv: No, it isn’t. By the way, people tend to compare a major game designer’s work with that one masterpiece that made them famous. How does that make you feel? Do you feel pressured, or inspired?

BS: Hm... I think I don't care. [all laughing] If you think at that, it's not possible to tell people the tale you have in your mind and you want to tell them, nor to move forward and evolve. When I was writing Syberia 3, I already knew that the first two Syberia games were the masterpieces of my work as a game developer. But you can't stop at that, you just can't leave it to that. At least, I personally never wanted that. I wanted to change, to make something different, something new. That's how the Syberia saga was created even though Canardo was already a great success. Because when I realized Canardo was successful, I automatically wanted to do something different. [AdvAdv: Like a true artist!] No, not really like an artist at all. Especially not when there are taxes you need to pay! But that’s another story.

Anyway, after Syberia 2, I wanted to do something different. That’s because I didn't want to get bored of the game, or of the team working on the game. What keeps one's inner gears turning is one’s will and good mood to do something they’ve set their hearts to. For me it was establishing a new company and being the one in charge of the entire procedure. And I managed to do that, but what a mistake that was! It was a really beautiful mistake, but a mistake after all. You can't be a creator and at the same time be the person who’s managing the company and paying the salaries. I think here lies the answer to your question: what motivates me is a good adventure, one I actually want to experience.

AdvAdv: So you have the same motivation as Kate Walker, how nice! People loved the fact that Kate abandoned her mundane life in search of a magical one and the fact that she set off on a romantic journey to find herself and also to help others. How about her new adventures? Will we have a reality check in Syberia 3? Is Kate going to be crashed by the harsh reality?

BS: No, not really. For me, there are two things that matter. The most important is that Kate Walker changed. At first, she was a very serious woman, one with a secure future. She was a lawyer, with a good job, a fiancé, a best girlfriend; she had what people call a 'good life'. But from the moment she leaves that status, she becomes a planet that has lost its sun. She's drifting like a leaf in the wind, going towards whatever may pull her, without having one steady point of reference any more. And that is exactly what an adventure is, that's what I personally believe an adventure is. This is a very important element in my opinion. If you remember at the start of Syberia 2, Kate Walker throws away her mobile phone. That for me is a symbolic gesture, one showing that this person has now no connections to things or people. This allows her to meet new people, see new places and experience different things; all of which could be real, but are not exactly real.

That's the second thing I'm very interested in; everything to be a bit, but just a bit, outside your reality realm. When a story ends, I need to have touched people in a deeper way. To me that’s extremely important, it’s my main intention. Let me explain it to you with an example. Imagine this: someone is hiding behind the door, waiting to scare you. What happens? They startle you. You're momentarily scared to death. You say: "OK, you were hiding there, and you scared me." And this is the end of it. Now imagine something else: At night, you get back home and you notice that your cup of coffee has moved from here, where it was this morning, to here [Benoît Sokal takes a cup of coffee in front of him and places it at the far end of the table]. This is something you are not going to bypass as light heartedly as the jump scare. You are going to think about it. You are going to think about it all night long. Why? Because you don't know what happened. It could have been your mother moving the cup, your fiancé, a sibling, a friend, a neighbor, or someone else, a complete stranger. This is a longer story, because you keep thinking about it, examining it, trying to figure it out. When you can broaden the picture and go a bit further, that’s when you can actually set off on an adventure just to discover something. Well, that for me defines fantasy itself.

AdvAdv: Beautiful thinking! And speaking of beautiful… we first saw Kate Walker some 15 years ago. Has she changed in the meantime? Because times have changed, and I happened to notice in the videos that she looks a bit more... sexy?

BS: She is with more polygons I think, and a little bit sexier, and maybe a bit younger. But that is because of the graphic designers who have designed her as they pleased behind my back! [all laughing] Kidding aside, she is very pretty. But for me, Kate is the same, in my mind and in my heart she has not changed. Technology has evolved and thus Kate changed. She sure looks better thanks to the improved technology we are now using: her movement is smoother and her image -and especially her facial expressions- are more accurate, more detailed and life-like. But what interests me is her character. I care for her and I want her to evolve slowly and gradually.

When you start telling a story, your main character needs to be... blank. As the protagonist of the story, they will meet a great deal of people. If they had a strong personality themselves, there would be problems in the narrative, and you can't allow that. So, they need to be blank. That's why many protagonists are usually reporters or detectives. Think of Tintin, do you remember Tintin? He has a very simple face: he has a circle for a head, two dots for eyes and a simple line for a mouth. However, the characters around him are more typical and characteristic. Think of Captain Haddock, who is very complicated, or even Professor Calculus; they both have more elaborate characteristics compared to Tintin. So, the main character is the simplest character. And that happens for good reason.

The same goes for the case of Syberia. At first, the main character is very simple because I need to add things to her little by little and gradually evolve her into a complex character. I need to think what’s going to happen next, what will make her laugh, how doubts will start growing in her, what are her changing hopes and fears. You need to remember that this character is the result of all her previous stories and her past experiences, from even before we first met her. That makes her more complete, more complicated and believable.

I also try to present her as a gender fluid person. It’s much more interesting, creatively speaking, as there are so much more things to say. But I’m not sure how people would perceive it, so this is a very light aspect and it’s only lightly shown in the story. There is no actual sex; it’s just that the character is floating in between sexes. I have no intention to present sex scenes in the game. Think of modern TV series to get a better understanding of this. By the way, I am a major fan of TV series, I usually leave the TV open while I work and watch a TV series or the other; I absolutely love them. Now, think of female characters in modern TV series. Many of them are… in between sexes. They have complex personalities, they change and they show many different faces; they are both females and males depending on the occasion. That’s actually a very appealing idea to me.

AdvAdv: And to us! We can’t wait to see how all this has been implemented in Kate Walker’s character and the Syberia saga. Thank you for this amazingly interesting interview!

BS: Thank you, girls! It’s been a real pleasure. This was my first interview in Athens and I really enjoyed it. I’ll see you both in the afternoon.

A special ‘thank you’ should also be addressed to the 12th Comicdom Con Athens’ team, the French Institute in Athens, Enarxis Dynamic Media and Le Livre Ouvert for making this interview possible.

Finally, let’s see some interesting points from Benoît Sokal’s presentation ‘From comics to video games’ about him and his family as well as the Syberia saga:

- He considers himself a graphic novel designer. However, he was drawn to the video games world because he fell in love with 3D graphics. He was impressed by movies like the Jurassic Park and the Titanic and he believed games were the new means to tell a tale in a world that spreads beyond realism. ‘Once upon a time’ is the beginning of a story addressed to everyone in all corners of the earth. What he loves in game-story-telling is how stories lose their ‘linear narration’ because players can chose to do things in a different order, or interact with other characters choosing different dialogue options leading to different outcomes. He considers this to be the revolution brought to story-telling by video games, the fact that the viewer becomes an active player, who doesn’t have to obey typical narration rules. This is extra challenging to storytellers, as he admitted.

- There are ideas he has about the Syberia universe that we have never seen. Technical restrictions and budget limitations got in the way. Maybe we’ll see those in the comic books he is designing with his son. Actually, we have seen only bits and parts of what they have already conceived and designed. For instance, there are secondary characters with amazingly interesting, and long, background stories.

- He has worked together with his son on the scenario of Kate Walker’s last adventure because his son travels a lot more than he does and has a wide and broad knowledge of geopolitical dynamics and events. Though the famous designer has never been to Siberia, his son has. So his son’s knowledge is brought into the Syberia universe in small yet significant details. Another interesting trivia is that the Syberia adventure games series was actually partly inspired by the fact that Benoît Sokal’s family were immigrants, traveling from one country to the other. He’s drawn to the idea of people moving without having a destination, following the flow of events. He believes this is Europe’s story in the 20th century and this is the story he wanted to tell us in the Syberia saga: the voyage that represents Europe’s destiny.

- The renowned designer likes working with teams and taking into consideration their suggestions and ideas, but he does want to inspect everything himself. He personally selects the actors and actresses who will lend their voices to his characters. But he does so only for the French version. He hopes the localizations (including the English one) will be equally worthy. He also brings in the office sketches and drawings to explain his ideas and how a scene should be built. But he then leaves graphic designers do what they know how to do best although he doesn’t always see eye to eye with them. Funny story for the end: he can’t understand how young people from his development team can spend their entire lunch break playing other games instead of going out to stretch and socialize. As he doesn’t play many games himself (apart from his own, obviously), this habit of theirs strikes him as very strange, and bad for their health!

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