Interview with Benoit Sokal: „I dream about Scarlett Johansson”

Posted: 25/05/2008 in Wywiady
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With great pleasure we present to You our interview with Benoit Sokal. The creator of Amerzone, Syberia, Paradise and Sinking Island has agreed to talk with us about his current projects, and also about the future plans of White Birds. Ladies and Gentleman, exclusively for – Benoit Sokal! Enjoy… How does it feel to work for your own company – White Birds Productions, in comparison to your earlier job at Microids? Do you have much more independence now, or maybe rather more responsibility? And maybe both at the same time?

Benoit Sokal(BS): Fisrt of all I am free to do the projects I want. Computer games, but also comic books, movies… In fact, I am working on a CGI movie, Aquarica, in parallel to my new game project. This freedom is the reason why I created White Birds. Of course, it means more responsibilities, but that’s fine…

AG: Was it a difficult experience to go through the mostly negative critique of Paradise? It was far from being such a huge success as Syberia. Didn’t you have moments of dejection in connection with this?

BS: Yes and no. At the beginning, it was hard, but now I am thinking of Paradise as a transitional title. I was not wishing to do Syberia 3, 4, 5… anyway. I already have a series in the comic book world with my character Canardo, and was not wanting to build something like this around Kate Walker. I am still happy with what we did with Paradise. I think that the story is good. But it was maybe too “dark”…

AG: The philosophy of White Birds in regard to computer games is to treat them as a true discipline of art capable of creating and transmitting emotions, comparable to literature, cinema and comic books. You can say that your company is active in all those fields, and connects them together in specific instances. But can we already consider your games as a new form of art, a new kind of expression? How much art is there in them and simply how much entertainment?

BS: I always thought that video games are “art”. Not only mine, but many of them… OK, not simulation games for example, but any game that tells a story deals with emotion and can be called “art”. What I am trying to do in my games is only pushing the envelope a little bit further. Because I know that my public is composed mainly of adults, I know that I can tell more “complex” stories. I also believe that more and more games will deal with emotions in the future. My feeling is that currently computer games are like the movies in the early 30’s : entertainment, with only a very basic notion of “emotion” in it. In the future, little by little, it will become a major mode of expression. I might be out of the market then:) Again, what interests me today is to have a “cross-platform” approach – making games, movies, graphic novels… all at the same time.

AG: Where do you get your inspirations for createing new worlds and stories? Which books, films and comic books inspire you? What other kinds of art do you get inspiration from?

BS: My mind works a bit like “sponge”: I take inspiration from many sources (movies, books, real life…). I always need a long period of time before the stories start to build themselves in my mind. I have stories waiting somewhere in my brain that are 10 years old or even older : they’re just not ready to get out. Finally, at some point I write a first draft, and I make it evolve.

I read a lot of novels, and see a lot of movies, new and old ones. I especially like the “noir” American movies and novels from the 50’s and 60’s. I like a lot the movies from the Cohen brothers also.

AG: White Birds is currently workin at full steam. We have very promising games on the horizon. Let’s talk a bit about Aquarica. Will the main character be a woman with difficult life-experiences (like in Siberia and Paradise)?

BS: Today, Aquarica is first of all a movie. Once the movie will be well on track, we might think more in depth about the computer game again. There are two main characters in Aquarica: a young women and a young man. And yes, they are in love:)

AG: Sketches for Aquarica cut quite a dash and look really fascinating. In our previous conversation you said that when you create new sceneries to your games you’re interested in regions that we don’t know much about, which character remains pretty much savage and undiscovered for people from the West. From that appraoch came the idea of using the ZSRR era in the East and the savage, cold Siberian wastelands as inspirations for Syberia. Did similar kinds of motivations steer you in establishing the movie reality of Aquarica?

BS: There is a big difference between Aquarica and my previous works, as I am working on this project with a very good friend of mine, François Schuiten, and he is the co-author. We imagined this story together, during some holidays in the south of France. François has a house there and we usually go and see him there during summertime. We started thinking of a imaginary kind of whale, so big that it looked like a small island… and it became Aquarica.

If there is a literature inspiration to it, it would be Melville’s Moby Dick.

AG: We know that you have great ambitions regarding the audiovisual market in the nearest few years. What can we expect of the animated movie Aquarica?

BS: When I started this project, I told my partners (and my wife): in three years we will climb the stairs at the Cannes Movie Festival. I hope this joke will become true:) The movie will have a very high production budget for an European movie. Let’s hope it will be great in the end.

AG: Nikopol the game – the computer adaptation of Enki Bilal’s Nikopol Trilogy – looks very interesting in the early stage. With whom do you cooperate on that title?

BS: As Enki Bilal is a friend of mine, and a great artist, I really did nothing on this game. The game is supervised directly by Bilal together with one person from White Birds team.

AG: Did your earlier work on your comic book Inspector Canardo help or maybe distract you in the creation of a classical criminal story for Sinking Island? Did you come back to your narrative roots at some point? Nostalgia ;-)?

BS: Yes and no, again. I always liked “noir” themes. Since my first video game, Amerzone, I was wanting to make a kind of Agatha Christie puzzle solving game.

AG: Where does the idea for Sinking Island´s characteristic high tower in Art Deco style come from?

BS: The original idea comes from this “sail looking” hotel in Dubai (Burj al-Arab – red. AG). Then, as I like Art Deco very much, I wanted to have a kind of miniature Empire State Building in my game.

AG: From the very beginning you have put innovations into your games. Firstly, there was Valembois hydrofoil in Amerzone, then illustrious automatons in Syberia and a not very successful control over the black panther in Paradise. Yet we have a great idea in Sinking Island. Namely the Personal Police Assistant, a gadget that replaces the typical inventory system. In our review we compared PPA to the innovatory inventory system from Kheops Studio’s productions. Both of them define the gameplay at some point. That’s one of the biggest pros of Sinking Island for us – a little CSI, but yet in very oldschool style. How did you get such a brilliant idea? Can we expect similar solutions in your next games?

BS: Thanks for your comments. The idea came through brain storming sessions with the design team. As always, it was first an interface idea only, and little by little it became the PPA. It is often like this – by gradual iterations – that I like to work with my team.

AG: Weren’t you afraid that you can make some conservative adventure fans angry by implementing the time mode? Why did you decide to create such “expert mode”?

BS: Some players were upset with this time mode, but most of them liked it. The objective was to offer more challenge. It seems that, in the end, the idea pleased.

AG: How does White Birds want to explore new technological markets as mobile consoles and telephone markets?

BS: We are finalizing the adaptation of Paradise on the NDS right now. We are also wishing to adapt Sinking Island to the NDS and the Wii. Telephone seems a wrong route though. Too complicated…

AG: Will King Of Africa on NDS be very different in gameplay and design comparing to its PC version Paradise? Will the control over the black panther be improved?

BS: We have left the black panther out of the game:). All controls are made via the stylus, and we have tried to optimize the bottom screen as much as possible. We are quite happy with the adaptation. The game will be called Last King of Africa on NDS.

AG: How will the expansion of White Birds in the direction of internet technologies be done? Can we expect your productions to be divided in episodes and downloadable? This system of distribution can ease availability and then the games can be released for the whole world at the same time. Which game will first be distributed in episodes?

BS: We are thinking of this kind of solutions, but nothing’s into development yet. It seems to be one of the future solutions for adventure, but still quite risky. We would like to find a co-producing partner to finance the first episode, and do a real test on the Internet.

AG: Do you have some other plans regarding the internet market?

BS: No, not really. Nothing in the MMORPG field, if that’s the question…

AG: Please tell us about a role that White Birds takes in the PLAYALL project and what benefits will you get from this cooperation regarding future productions of your games?

BS: PlayAll is a great project for us. It will allow us to get the next gen/current gen technology on the consoles in the next 12 months. Via PlayAll, we’ll be able to develop our first game for the PS3, the one I am currently working on. It is called “Krao” and it’s a 3D real time game in which you are playing an eagle.

Before PlayAll, White Birds was not really a technology driven company. This project makes us share the technology of much better studios than us in the console field (like Darkworks, Kilotonn or Wizarbox).

AG: We can read something about games for kids on your website. Is this an important part of White Birds’ production? Are these an educational kind of games? Is it good for the kids to sit in front of the computer from their early years;)?

BS: Through our partnership with the publishing house Casterman, we have access to lots of licenses, including kids. This is why we developed the Martine series, for PC and the NDS. They are games mixing adventure with activities.

AG: Walter Jones from Sinking Island was born in Krakow in Poland, the same city that we come from:) Have you ever been in Poland and do you know our fauna and flora? Maybe you can get great inspiration for one of your next games, totally based on Polish motives;-)

BS: I have never been in Poland, but part of my family, on my father’s side, comes from Poland… I have planned to go there in the future. I’ll let you know:)

AG: Would you like to take part as an executive director if someone proposes you making motion picture based on Syberia? There are many computer games adaptations in the making nowadays and Syberia has a great story that would be perfect for a feature film. Which actress would you see as Kate?:)

BS: Why not. But the Syberia rights are not belonging to me, and I have my own project in the movie industry with Aquarica. Also, I have to confess I’ve put Syberia behind me. Nevertheless, I would be pleased to see it as a good movie. Concerning the actress, I don’t know, really. For Aquarica, I would love to have Scarlett Johansson (the movie is featuring a “real” actress), but that’s more kind of a dream…

AG: We wish you then the fulfilment of dreams in the nearest possible future and thank you very much for this interview.

BS: Thank you and best wishes to Polish gamers.

Benoit Sokal was interviewed by Maciej „Troubleman” Bauer and Łukasz „Lookasso” Balowski. English version editor: Igor „Ascovel” Hardy. The interview was originally published in Polish 24.05.2008.

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