Benoît Sokal

White Birds Productions

Posted by Matt Barton, Philip Jong.
First posted on 27 June 2008. Last updated on 26 January 2012.
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Benoît Sokal
Benoît Sokal is a well-known comic artist and the founder of White Bird Productions.

There are few serious fans of the modern adventure genre who will not recognize the name Benoît Sokal. To most fans, he is best known as the celebrated designer and developer of the award winning and highly creative adventure game Syberia. He is also the creator of Amerzone, Paradise, and most recently, Sinking Island. Sokal, a noted comic book artist (Inspecteur Canardo) in his own right, started his own game studio White Birds Productions in 2003, having previously worked for the French developer and publisher Microids. Sokal's games are known for their strong female characters, intriguing humor, animal themes, and peculiar environments.

We are privileged to have this opportunity to interview the prolific comic artist and game designer. In this interview, Sokal offers some unusually candid answers to questions that have no doubt long burned in the minds of his many fans. He openly talks about how Syberia is "behind him now", his reaction to the mixed success of Paradise, his many current game projects including Sinking Island, and his fears and hopes for the future of the adventure genre.

You are a pioneer in the comics industry in Europe. In what ways, if any, do you see your work as a comics artist influencing or connecting to your work as a games designer? Inspector Canardo reminds me of Howard the Duck. Are you perhaps a fan of that movie or comic book series?

I was very lucky to start in the comics in a period of time where this media really boomed. In a few years, comics moved from being very 'childish' to a much more mature audience. What I learned from my work as a comics creator is double : storytelling and image composition. Both are essential in my work as a game creator.

The main difference between the two media is that, when I create a comic book I work alone. When I work on a video game, I am managing a team.

I did not know about Howard the Duck when I created Canardo. My first idea was to create an animalistic world, based on 'cute' animals, but much more adult than Disney...

What important lessons had you learned about game development in your early years as a developer?

I came to video games 'via' computer graphics. It is because I was fascinated by 3D creation, that I started thinking of making a game. Basically, I do not consider myself as a 'developer.' I think of my work as 'story telling,' in an interactive way when it comes to video games.

Again, the main change for me was learning to work with a team. Which was not easy in the beginning. I had to admit that there were fields in which I could do nothing (programming namely) and other fields where I had to rely on others, which was something very new for me.

Today, with White Birds, I have a structure in which I can create with people I know well.

What do you consider to be the most influential adventure games of the past? Have you ever played any of the games from Infocom, LucasArts, or Sierra?

'Myst,' with no doubt! I have to confess that I am not a big player myself. I played a lot of adventures, and those of Lucas and Sierra of course, but more from a 'professional' point of view. These days, as I am working on a new 3D real time project with my company, White Birds, I played "Assassin's Creed" a lot.

I am surrounded by players. All White Birds members are players and I have two sons that are big players. There is always someone to show me a game or tell me which game I should play.

Why did decide to release Syberia I and Syberia II as separate games, rather than a single big game. Were you concerned that fans of the first game might expect more changes to the interface, given the added development time for the second game?

The original concept was a single big game. Mainly for budget reasons, it was decided to cut it into two parts. I have to say that "Syberia" is part of the past for me. I really appreciated making this game, and was very happy with its sales, but it's behind me now.

The Syberia series is among the few adventure games where the main character is a strong female (well, there is of course also Paradise). Although Kate Walker is attractive, there is no effort to make her overtly sexualized like Lara Croft. Is this a deliberate decision on your part? Do you find that female gamers respond better to female characters?

I like to create female characters in games because I always thought that a women will first use her brain, where a man will use his muscles. In an adventure, it is more interesting to use thinking, rather than shooting.

I always thought of Kate or Ann as "reasonably attractive" women. Nice looking indeed, but more attractive through their personality than just their bodies.

This being said, my "Inspector Norm" is not a "Hollywood star"

neither in terms of his physical appearance.

The reactions from gamers were far more mixed for Paradise than Syberia. How successful did you personally feel about the game, both artistically and commercially?

Artistically : satisfied

Commercially : disappointed...

Paradise is probably a transition in my work. If I was listening only to the messages from the adventure community, or from the trade, I would have done an endless 'Syberia' series... But that reminds me of this novel/movie called "Misery" in which an author is forced to rewrite a story the way a fan wants it...

Reality is that the adventure genre is a tough market, and that there is a kind of vicious circle in which lower sales gives you less production budget...

After a while, you have to think of solutions that allow you to tell a story, with the quality you want, but in a smaller budget range. This is how "Sinking Island" was created : strong story line, lots of characters, but less settings and more puzzles. In the end, the result seems to please. In Europe the sales are very good.

In both Syberia and Paradise, there is a deep emotional bond between protagonist and animal. What do the mammoth and the leopard symbolize, if any, in Kate Walker and Ann Smith's respective journey of self-discovery?

Nothing at all... These animals are both representing a kind of 'Paradise Lost.' For Ann, the leopard is her 'lost and forgotten' childhood...

Reality is more simple : I like to sketch and animate animals.

My next project, on which I am working now with White Birds, is a 3D real time game where you play as an eagle.

Some media critics have argued that video games are not art. As both a successful artist and a respected game developer, how do you respond to this denouncement?

As far as it creates emotion, it is 'art.' It is a very difficult answer to a very difficult question to decide what's 'Art' and what is not. I make no difference in my work when I create a comic book, an illustration, a movie or a video game. I'm not sure that it's 'art' though.

What do you see as the future of the adventure game genre? Where do you see yourself and your company fitting into that future?

Adventure as we knew it is probably dying, or at least in a bad shape. It is not because the community is not there anymore. It is due to the market structure.

Therefore, I see two directions for 'story telling in video games,' if this is a definition that could fit with the word 'adventure.' One is the Internet, with probably episodic content. The other one is 'high budget' productions on console.

Right now, I am working on both with White Birds. But we are also working on a CGI movie and that is another direction.

What is your opinion about adventure games for consoles? It seems that adventure games are still more dominant in the PC market at present, but do you see the console market expanding in the future?

I believe in consoles at two levels. First, on handheld consoles/terminals such as the NDS or the Iphone. If quality is there, casual gamers will keep wishing good content for their equipment. The other direction is 3D real time, and games based on 'action / adventure' on high end consoles. My 'eagle' project is for the PS3 as main platform. But then, the bet is that we will also please to a younger audience.

What will fans of your previous games find most surprising in Sinking Island?

I think that they will not be that surprised. There is a strong storyline and I did put a lot of attention in the graphics. If these are two key points in my work, they will both be there.

Nevertheless, 'Sinking Island,' as a murder mystery, is probably less 'poetic.'

With my team, we have tried to invent a new interface : the PPA (Personal Police Assistant). I am happy with the result, that is quite innovative compared to the 'classical' inventory.

Being a murder mystery game, what literary inspirations (such as Agatha Christie) did you draw from when writing the story for Sinking Island?

Agatha Christie, of course. But you have to remember that I started my creator’s work with a private investigator : Canardo!

I have always been a fan of 'noir' literature and movies, from Dashiell Hammett to 'The Usual Suspects.' Of course all the movies from the Cohen Brothers or classics such as 'Casablanca.'

In Sinking Island, how will the player manage and analyze the evidence collected to solve the case?

Through the 'PPA.' This personal assistant is where all evidence is gathered, can be analyzed or compared.

It is rumored that Sinking Island will not be the last case for private investigator Jack Norm. What can you reveal about any future follow-up project?

The sequel is partly written already. It is called "Broadway" (it’s a codename) and the action takes place in a Broadway theater where a crime is committed during the rehearsals. All we have to do is find a publisher, but that brings us back to question 6...

I cannot help but notice you are from Belgium, land of the great ales. What are your personal favorite Belgian ales? Sorry if this question seems irrelevant, but I am a big fan of Belgian ales and love to hear more about them from a native.

I have been living in France for nearly 30 years now, in the city of Reims and my wife is a Champagne Wine producer. So I have to admit that I am more a wine than a beer drinker now. But when I go to Belgium and see some friends, a 'good old Maes Pils' will be just great!

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