19 Jul A look back at 20 years of Syberia with Microids Studio Paris
Hello and welcome to Backstage, Microids’ new blog. Each month, it will reveal the secrets behind the design of our top video games and introduce the teams that worked on franchises like Asterix & Obelix XXL, Flashback, Gear.Club and Blacksad.
And what better way to begin this adventure than by taking a look at the Syberia epic, a key component of Microids’ DNA? What’s more, the game will be celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. In this spoiler-free retrospective, we will take you on a journey back through time as we tell the story of a series of games that have been played by millions. We will be joined by the scriptwriter Lucas Lagravette, artistic director Xavier Tual and audio producer Paul-Elie Hamou, as we try to find words to describe what makes the world of Syberia so unique.
The vision of a curious and creative mind
Before going any further, we must talk about Benoît Sokal, without whom the story would never have begun. Before he left us in May 2021 at the age of 66, Benoît was the conductor of each episode, and the many memorable characters and environments in Syberia were born from his fertile imagination.
As you may already know, it all began in the comic book world. Benoît Sokal grew up near Brussels, one of the most creative centers of the Franco-Belgian comic book industry. While the rest of his family was more interested in science, at a fairly young age, he became fascinated with sketching and storytelling. He enrolled at Brussels’ renowned art school Institut Saint-Luc, which was attended by comic book legends such as André Franquin (Spirou & Fantasio, Gaston) and Philippe Francq (Largo Winch). There, he honed his innate talent, which was soon noticed by his peers. Not long after, the publisher Casterman came to the school to scout promising artists for his new magazine À suivre, and decided to hire Benoît Sokal to produce several strips.
The author used this opportunity for creative expression to illustrate and tell the amusing story of Inspector Canardo, an anthropomorphic bird leading an investigation in a colorful world. With his disillusioned manner, proclivity for liquor and unlikely encounters, Canardo stood out from the other strips in the magazine and caught the attention of readers. It was so popular that Casterman devoted entire comic book albums to his character. They were a hit in book stores and, at barely more than 20 years old, Benoît Sokal was catapulted to the forefront of the comic book scene.
Years later, in the mid-1990s, Benoît was an accomplished artist with a growing number of creations to his name, in the comedy genre with Canardo, as well as a more realistic style with Sanguine, for example. This was also a time of major advances in computer technology, which fired the artist’s curiosity and led him to become a pioneer in digital comic coloring. The burgeoning use of 3D, in the movie Jurassic Park and the game Myst, for example, were further fuel for the pictorial storyteller’s imagination. He wanted to explore these new possibilities and immerse his audience in stories like never before. His publishing house agreed to help him transpose his graphical world onto an interactive CD-ROM.
A small team of pioneers formed around Benoît Sokal, who decided to use an imaginary tropical country that he had depicted in Canardo as the basis for the new project. It was a vast land filled with unknown vegetation and fantastical creatures, which the player could explore by clicking on exquisite pre-rendered environments. Equipped with an incredible vehicle like something out of a Jules Verne story, the hero of the game is on a mission: to find the Ovovolahos tribe and return to them the mythical egg of the White Bird, which was crucial for the balance of the ecosystem and had been stolen by the explorer Alexandre Valembois.
Following five years of development, Amerzone was finally published by Microids in March 1999, making a big impression on both players and critics. The contemplative and poetic atmosphere of the game stood out from the big games of the time: Metal Gear Solid, Banjo Kazooie, F-Zero X, and Half-Life. The audience was won over by the immersive visuals, the depth of the narrative and the accessibility of the mechanics, all early signatures of Benoît Sokal’s work. The award-winning game Amerzone sold more than one million copies and its success encouraged the team to create a second video game.
2002: the odyssey of Kate Walker
Building on their first experience, Benoît Sokal and Microids continued their collaboration and, this time, the Belgian artist decided to take his audience on a journey into the East, an area that had long fascinated him, particularly after reading the graphic novel Corto Maltese in Siberia. He also created the character Kate Walker, a young corporate lawyer from New York. She is sent on an assignment to the village of Valadilène, in the French Alps, to oversee the sale of a failing automaton factory to an American multinational. When she arrives, the last member of the family that owns the factory has just died, but, as she had already granted her approval, the acquisition can still go ahead. That is until it comes to light that an heir who was previously believed to be deceased, Hans Voralberg, is alive and living somewhere in Siberia! Keen to press ahead with the sale, Kate’s employer urges her to go in search of Hans. So, she boards a clockwork train driven by a quirky automaton and sets off to solve this mysterious case.
What should have been nothing more than a formality for the protagonist turns into a long journey, which takes her through breathtaking scenery, as she meets eccentric characters and uncovers unimaginable secrets. Kate Walker, a city lawyer, also discovers herself, as she turns into an explorer and frees herself of a stifling job and family. When players booted up the first Syberia in 2002, with their CRT monitors and brand-new GeForce 3 graphics cards, they were totally amazed and wholeheartedly joined Kate on her adventure. Sales rapidly took off and several well-known magazines talked about it being the “best adventure game of the year”. Benoît Sokal and his friends had scored another hit and it marked the beginning of a story lasting 20 years.
Many of the things that made Syberia a success were already present in Amerzone, but this time they were magnified. Superb graphics and sound design, an in-depth narrative with many underlying messages, and intuitive puzzles: these were the main ingredients of this essential point-and-click, as Microids Studio Paris explains.
“Syberia’s visual aesthetic has been one of its distinctive traits right from the first instalment, and we have strived to raise the bar with each new release,” the game’s artistic director, Xavier Tual, told us. It was a remarkable achievement at the time, and the game continues to shine today thanks to its complexity and coherency. Beyond purely technical aspects, the game’s unusual style also drew attention. By seeking inspiration from various sources and allowing his mind to roam free, Benoît Sokal produced stunning sketches and storyboards. From the unconventional architecture of the Notary’s Office to the melancholy atmosphere of the sprawling Aralbad Spa Resort, and the elegance of opera singer Helena Romanski to the metal frame of the automat Oscar, everything in Syberia seems like it is something out of a dream.
The game’s audio also plays a part in making it such an immersive gaming experience. Starting with the music, which attained a new level in comparison with Amerzone, thanks to the enchanting orchestral compositions of Dimitri Bodianski and Nicholas Varley. “With Syberia, Benoît Sokal created a fantastical and poetic world, where the visuals are central, but where the sound has always played a key role,” explained Paul-Elie Hamou, audio producer. From the second instalment, Microids has collaborated with the famous composer Inon Zur, who has created some unforgettable pieces. “As well as continuing to develop the sound signature of the world of Syberia, the hugely talented Inon Zur fills our story with the emotion it demands,” emphasized Paul-Elie. We also have experienced sound designers and brilliant voice actors, like Françoise Cadol and Sharon Mann (Kate Walker in the French and English versions respectively), to thank for the compelling sound of Syberia.
And, of course, Syberia is a riveting and fully fleshed-out story. It grips players right from the start and takes them to the other end of the world, with its amazing cast of characters and many revelations. It is also a philosophical tale with a rich subtext, from the consequences of chasing a dream to the clash between industry and nature. In addition, the narrative is conveyed in a very organic way, through telephone calls and found documents, rather than imposed cutscenes. As the scriptwriter Lucas Lagravette told us, the puzzles themselves are always justified by the plot: “None of these sequences must seem pointless; they must serve the story and, as far as possible, be as full of narrative content as an in-game cinematic could be, for example, but using different means.”
The story continues
20 years after the first instalment, the release of a new Syberia game is still just as eagerly awaited around the world. On March 18th, players were able to discover The World Before, the fourth episode in Kate Walker’s story. On the edges of the tundra, the protagonist continues to stray ever further from her previous life. After leaving the cell where she was held by an evil militia, she finds a portrait of a mysterious young woman from another time, and decides to investigate her identity…
Acclaimed by critics and players, Syberia: The World Before is born of a franchise that has managed to remain relevant over the years, despite changing trends and countless advances in technology. How did the developers go about adding novelty while remaining faithful to the original material? We put that question to Microids Studio Paris.
First, in terms of graphics, Xavier Tual points out that, thanks to the power of today’s machines, players can freely explore environments, in contrast to the pre-rendered environments of the past. The aim was to create the immersive experience enabled by modern technology, while conserving the unique identity of the franchise’s early years. “Our challenge was to recreate that “digital painting” feel in real-time 3D. We were able to rely on talented artists to breathe the soul that was so important to Benoît into the game.” For Xavier Tual, to realize the ambitious goal of reproducing Benoît Sokal’s unique signature, the human factor was more important than logic: “It was about alchemy rather than methodology. We created synergy between the teams and Benoît in order to produce a creative virtuous circle. The trust built enabled us to go further than we hoped; in that respect, it was kind of magical.” The artistic director added that the areas where the team really pushed the limits were “in the lighting, the details and the framing, to really bring out the story’s emotional content.”
On the subject of the game’s narrative and the puzzles it us made up of, Lucas Lagravette, the head scriptwriter and development director of The World Before, explained to us that the team adopted an iterative process to create a satisfying experience for players. The outlines of the puzzles were first sketched out during the scriptwriting stage, before being designed in detail by the game designer (Romain Pierson), working alongside the concept artists (Amanda Goengrich and Xavier Tual). They were then integrated in the engine by a team of level designers, led by Adrien Laurière. At this stage, the mechanics were still rough, but it was already possible to imagine the end result and make initial adjustments. The graphic artists then refined the rendering, by adding textures in particular, before the moment of truth arrived: “The publisher’s teams had this version tested by players in real-life conditions (in what are known as ‘playtests’), which allowed to see what worked and what didn’t, and then make final adjustments so that each puzzle was exciting, while bringing in fresh changes.” Lucas added that “some totally new mechanics were brought in for this episode,” particularly due to changes related to the timeline and characters.
This brings us to the major feature of this episode, which allows players to play in turn as Kate Walker, a modern-day explorer, and Dana Roze, the young woman in the portrait, who lives in the 1930s. Lucas Lagravette emphasized that, while the two main characters don’t have specific “abilities”, as in an RPG game, they offer two distinct gaming experiences: “Ultimately, Kate and Dana are people like you and me, with no super-powers or special abilities, other than their sharp minds and strength of character. Players control them in the same way, with the exception of a special item that Kate has, which she can regularly use to advance through the game. However, Kate and Dana are placed in very different environments. The former conducts her investigation in a fairly contemporary 2005, while the latter is caught up in the chaotic events of the Second World War. The game environment therefore changes radically depending on the character you are playing, as do the missions you need to complete.”
In terms of the music, Paul-Elie Hamou told us that the team paid special attention to reflecting this duality in the compositions: “To distinguish our story’s two time periods and their respective heroines through the music, Inon Zur used the Syberia theme for the character Kate Walker in 2005, and composed the Hymn of Vaghen for Dana Roze in 1937. Benoît Sokal wanted this new theme to be inspired by the works of Chopin, and we asked Inon to use classical orchestra instrumentation, which creates a contrast with the more “ethnic” style of Syberia 3. When Benoît listened to the result, it was exactly the kind of music he had dreamed of!” The soundtrack perhaps plays an even more important role in The World Before as Dana Roze is a musician herself: “Because one of the heroines is a pianist, the music had to be a core element of the narrative and a powerful source of emotion,” pointed out Paul-Elie.
Xavier Tual concluded that, for him, regarding the artistic direction of this episode, with its dual storyline: “It was an exciting challenge to create two linked periods, with their mutual interplay. Through their contrasts, they enhance each other and contribute to the immersive experience.”
An epic human adventure
Over these past 20 years, Kate Walker and her companions have experienced intense events and changed greatly. At the same time, countless players have grown up with the young lawyer, and some link their memories of the game with times in their lives. The development teams can definitely identify with this feeling; some team members were involved in creating her character, while others have helped her assert herself along her life-changing journey.
To conclude, we asked our friends at Microids Studio Paris to share with us their greatest memory of working on the Syberia franchise. All three agreed that seeing their creation come to life was a feeling like no other. “For me, the highlight was the first time I listened to the music composed by Inon Zur for the game,” said Paul-Elie Hamou. “The other stand-out memory was when we were able to play Syberia: The World Before for the first time, see our characters interact with their environments, make sounds, and have conversations with each other. When we could smile at the humor in the dialogues, and listen to the moving concert on the Musical Square of Vaghen. In a word, when it all came to life.”
As for Xavier Tual, the artistic director, he particularly cherishes the moment when the teams were able to show a functional version of the game to its author: “The presentation of the prologue to Benoît, and seeing how much it resonated with him.” Lucas Lagravette, game director and scriptwriter, reflected that: “It’s difficult to pick out one moment in particular, after nearly 10 years spent working on the franchise. One of the more recent memories I recall is the first time I tested a late-stage version of the game’s emotional climax, the conclusion of Dana’s character arc in this episode. It is by nature a tense moment for a story-based game: if you don’t get it right, it can detract from the whole experience. And this climax in particular presented all sorts of difficulties that were exciting challenges, but made me all the more nervous at the same time.” Happily, as Lucas told us, everything came together as they wanted, and even better than they had hoped! “I would say that it is this success that is one of my best memories. And not so much the success of the moment itself, but the real team effort behind the result.”