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Carrying on the vision of Benoît Sokal in Syberia: The World Before

Syberia: The World Before game director Lucas Lagravette discusses the task of carrying on the Syberia franchise without creator Benoît Sokal.

The best-selling Syberia game series is inseparable from its creator, cartoonist Benoît Sokal. Though Sokal did not become a full-time game developer himself, his vision and distinctive style fueled one of the most beloved entries in the point-and-click adventure game genre.

Sokal returned to the series with the release of 2017's Syberia 3, and was deeply involved with the design of this year's Syberia: The World Before before his passing in 2021. Sokal's vision didn't just include an alternative-universe Europe fueled by intricate automatons—he was also deeply invested in protagonist Kate Walker, and how her journeys through Europe picked through a continent shaped by a century of painful conflict.

The famed cartoonist's passing left the team at Microids with the unenviable task of finishing The World Before without his guidance. Fortunately, game director Lucas Lagravette had worked closely with Sokal for some time, and had already gotten his sign-off on many of the game's puzzles, themes, and story beats. Lagravette and his colleagues also worked to make the mouse-and-keyboard designed series more controller friendly, so that The World Before could be released on consoles. 

As a quasi-successor to Sokal, Lagravette knows more about what the cartoonist's vision can still offer the video game world. In a conversation with Game Developer, he discussed how the point-and-click adventure series can still thrive in our modern world, and why Sokal's alternative vision of Europe is more relevant than ever.

Why does Syberia still resonate?

There were plenty of PC point-and-click adventure games in the '90s that found commercial success, but Syberia is one of the few that's successfully transitioned to the 21st century. Lagravette explained that while Syberia's far-flung European landscapes and autonomous machinery have visual and thematic appeal, it's Kate Walker has resonated with players for so long.

Lagravette said out that when the first Syberia games were released, Walker was something of a unique figure for game protagonists. The series followed her journey not just as an adventurer, but as a person growing through their travels. "People wanted to see where Kate is going to end up," Lagravette explained. When she debuted, other game heroes like Lara Croft were first and foremost action heroes—vessels for the player to explore the game world. 

Syberia protagonist Kate Walker greets a woman at a counter.

Walker was her own person; a literary character who had her own reactions to the puzzles and machines she encountered. Lagravette said that because of Walker, the Syberia series has a dedicated fanbase that doesn't necessarily play a lot of other video games. 

That made the direction for the fourth game in the series a particular challenge. Before its passing, Sokal wrote a new story for Walker where instead of pushing forward as a gung-ho adventurer, she spent more time looking back and reflecting on her own past—and the past of Europe. A new character, Dana Roze, allows players to explore a fictional Eastern European nation beset by rising fascism in the 1930s. 

"The two elements blended very well together," Lagravette observed.

Sokal cared deeply about the puzzles

Preserving Sokal's vision was a task the Microids team was already working on before his passing. Lagravette said that in the last few years, he was like a "teacher" to the team, invested in letting a new generation of developers carry on the Syberia story. His main focus was apparently making sure that the game wouldn't be a "caricature" of older Syberia games, and ensuring the series didn't shift too far into more modern alternate history genres like steampunk or clockpunk.

"You can say Syberia uses a clockpunk aesthetic, but it's doing its own thing with it," Lagravette noted.

An automaton from Syberia: The World Before

This comment illustrated something striking about Syberia and its use of Automatons like train operator Oscar. In the '90s, Sokol's art style was operating parallel to a growing audience interest in a genre called "steampunk." The genre's literary origins are in the 1970s and '80s, but its creeping aesthetic influence in the '90s even influenced cinematic commercial disasters like Will Smith vehicle Wild Wild West.

Sokol was never strictly operating in the genre, but there was thematic overlap. According to Lagravette, he guided the design team on The World Before to try and make sure the fantastic machines of the game's world had as much diegetic purpose as possible—that applied for the puzzles that were built with the machinery too.

"We have so much backstory—all written somewhere—little pieces of stories that helped us build the setting and the environments," Lagravette said. He also said that Sokol wanted the puzzle mechanics to feel like they might realistically work. The automatons and clockwork machinery of the series allow their creators to "cheat" a little with the laws of physics.

"Repairing a car is tough and complicated, and you can't learn just by doing it," Lagravette. "With our automatons, you feel that it could work in reality, but we cheat a little to make it easier and feel rewarding."

It's a design philosophy that complements Sokal's vision of an "alternative" Europe, a Europe that works like our world but where the countries have different names, and autonomous clockwork machines ride the rails across a connected continent.

A vision of Europe

According to Lagravette, the Syberia games were almost kind of a journaling experience for Sokal. He said that for the cartoonist, Syberia wasn't about the automatons or Kate Walker. "It was his vision of Europe and Europe's history," he said. He noted that Sokal himself traveled to the regions fictionalized in the game—places like Austria, the Czech Republic, and Wrangel Island in real-life Siberia.

In Sokal's fictional European countries, real-world political forces still have their analogs. Walker wanders through former Soviet camps, and the damage wrought by early-20th century fascism still hangs over the story.

With The World Before's focus on a character living through the rise of a "Brown Shadow" faction (a not-too-subtle nod to the "Brown Shirts" of Germany's National Socialist Nazi party), it was worth asking if Sokal, Lagravette, or the other developers felt conscious of the new rise of right-wing authoritarianism that took place during the game's development.

"It's complicated," Lagravette said—with maybe a bit of apprehension. He noted that the team didn't have any particular "message" to send about contemporary events, but the game's development cycle ran from 2017 to 2022. In that window, you had the January 6 riot in the United States, far-right political parties gaining a foothold in France, Italy, and Sweden, and authoritarians like Viktor Orban of Hungary cracking down on democratic protests.

And right before the game released, Russia invaded Ukraine with a wave of far-right propaganda attacking Western "corruption" and praising a deeply conservative vision of family and religiosity. "We discovered that we were releasing the game in the reality of 2022," Lagravette admitted. "That wasn't the point, but obviously there's a more universal message I guess, that fascism sucks whether it's 1937 or the 2020s."

It was a more subconscious than conscious decision he said, to tackle a topic that would become uncannily relevant by the time the game shipped.

Sokal dreamed up a Europe that was deliberately different from the one in our world, but he was conscious that it was a parallel world, a mirror vision, where the same political forces and selfish desires could deal lasting damage on the world. In worlds like this, heroines like Walker and Roze play an important role. 

Players invested in their journeys can find some agency in uncertain times, and that agency doesn't demand a reliance on force or violence. The Syberia series rewards intellectualism, curiosity, and empathy. Putting those traits at the core of your story not only reward players who find those emotions as a worthy fantasy, it makes for great game worlds and interesting puzzles alike.

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