Kate Walker has been in a wooly limbo for far, far too long, but at last her tale comes to the last panel of its triptych. Syberia 3 is slated to be released on April 25th, finally, after years of delays and funding problems. When we last saw our intrepid lawyer-turned-adventurer, the year was 2004 and her mobile phone was a barbaric monochrome affair that only worked as a phone.
But, mercifully, the will to tell this story never flamed out and we now have a Syberia installment for our times.
If the preview I was given at GDC 2017 is any indication, we’re due for a fascinating story that might just be worth a thirteen year wait--and far from feeling like a dated throwback to a long-dead era of gaming, it’s surprisingly timely.
I looked at a section of the game that was about two thirds of the way through the story--for this I was but a passenger, scribbling my notes away. But I was able to actually get my hands on the game for the prologue and found the controls to be a thoughtfully designed puzzle in their own right.
We still have the same adventure game experience that fans of the series might expect, with items to collect, and plots advanced through Byzantine puzzles. Benoit Sokal’s delicately surreal sensibility once again spills out into a painterly world just to the side of our own. The subtitles are still that distinctive handwritten print that is also very much Sokal’s. But there are new ways of interacting with puzzles that are meant to use a full range of motion to simulate various actions.
For instance, one early puzzle saw me find a knife to use as a screwdriver to open up a control box for a switch. I was using a PS4 remote and I found I had to use all 360 degrees of control stick motion to turn the screwdriver, open and close the panel, and insert a fuse. It’s meant to imitate intuitive physical motion--"how would you interact with this object if you were actually there with it?", rather than “how would I poke at this in a videogame?” It takes some getting used to, but it has a lot of promise.
Of even greater importance to me is Kate Walker’s story, however. I spoke to Benoit Sokal directly about this; Walker was, after all, an example of a woman whose quest for her own independence was central to the story of the very first game. She showed what kinds of stories videogames could tell if they weren’t shackled to convention, and how a narrative of women’s liberation was not inimical to the production of a good, challenging game.
More than anything, she embodied the idea that a woman’s quest for wonder and meaning in her life was ideal for a fantastical story. So where does Syberia 3 take her? Sokal offered a few tantalizing hints.
The themes of Kate Walker’s story in this installment will center on doubt, particularly “starting to make Kate a bit darker,” in Sokal’s words. He said that he wanted to “deconstruct” her and her character in this narrative, making the most of the transformative forces that carried her through the first two games. She gave up everything in the first game--a good job, a socially advantageous marriage, her home in New York--to pursue a dream in mythic Syberia: finding a lost heir, seeing the land where mammoths still roam, and rescuing a civilization under siege. Sokal also alluded to “questions about her sexuality” that may come up in the narrative but gave few additional details. What he wanted above all was to make her story more complex.
When I took control of the game to play the prologue, she was true to form, staring down powerful men who did their damndest to make her feel foolish and weak. We find her recovering from mortal injuries in a Syberian hospital-cum-asylum, having to prove her good health to a scrutinizing scold of a doctor who tells her “you’re one of the very last representatives of a world that is fast disappearing, Ms. Walker... that no one will miss.” There are fully voiced dialogue options--voice actor Sharon Mann makes an enthusiastic and triumphant return as Kate Walker; hers is a voice that reaches across the years, stirring more than a little nostalgia for the earlier titles. But Kate’s role here is to look forward more than ever.
“Syberia 3 is about Kate’s future,” Sokal told me, “while 1 and 2 were about her past.”
That future is about deciding who she is now. More than ever, there seems to be no going back to New York. Even her traveling clothes, from the strange device she wears around her neck to her homemade snow boots, are now more of that fantastic world beyond the veil than her old life.
As I played through the game I felt a range of familiar sensations come back: it really was like the old Syberias but with a rich graphical and control update.
Syberia 3 is a game that truly benefits from its lavish graphical upgrades; Benoit Sokal’s vision takes flight here as his gorgeous drawings and paintings come to life with hitherto unmatched fidelity. The world through which Kate Walker learns and grows is one that bores like a tunnel through everything we think we know, a dreamscape that assembles the familiar into beautifully strange gardens.
The mid-game level I was shown by a Microid’s developer takes place in Sokal’s vision of Pripyat, Ukraine--the ghost city that once housed Chernobyl’s workers and families. You and a band of Syberian tribespeople known as the Youkols are making your way through abandoned Metro tunnels, but come across an impasse that requires you to send an automaton to the irradiated surface to find the tools to clear it. Throughout the game you see desiccated or decaying Socialist realism, just as you did in the other installments. I asked why that aesthetic seemed to fascinate Sokal.
He talked about wanting to make a world “fantastique et monstreuse,” and that the “paradox of Soviet civilization,” which his Ukrainian family grew up with, was ideal for exploring that blend of fantastic and monstrous.
“[Pripyat] has become paradise on Earth for the wolf packs prowling about the buildings,” he said. “There are ruins where the vegetation is sprouting everywhere you look and where you can see bison wandering the streets. The place is both horrible and fantastic. The contrast between such terrible misfortune and the abandoned beauty is inspiring.” One of Pripyat’s most iconic places, the abandoned amusement park, is given new life in its Syberia 3 counterpart, Baranour.
The brutal realism of Soviet architecture contains its own beauty, even as the fires of its industries devastated countrysides; but there was also beauty in the stark contrast between that pollution and the ways in which nature endured. Sokal spoke of a childhood memory where he beheld “little white flowers blooming on the trees amid a sooty countryside, blackened by factories.” It is, he said, “the most horrific and amazing background for that little white flower.” That image, which he calls a paradox, inspired much of the art direction for the series.
In Syberia 1, Kate Walker dynamiting a massive statue of Soviet Man blocking the railroad tracks was almost painfully on the nose in its gender and political commentary, leaving behind a dead factory and cosmodrome where a drunk cosmonaut finally achieved his dream of going to space. In each game, Walker explores dreamscapes of ruin that echo what many Russians and Eastern Europeans saw over the last two decades. Fallen statues, fallow fields, cold and empty factories, ashy dachas. In finding the beauty of these places, Sokal uses them as a seedbed for the wondrous fantasies Kate Walker discovers; aviaries, beautiful forests, waterfalls, icy wonderlands where mammoths herd together.
That white flower of beauty persists and blooms into something all the more enchanted in Syberia 3, and as with Dragon Age’s Morrigan, Walker makes it her mission to learn about and protect what is magical in this world against the final revenge of the machines.
That theme emerges in a surprisingly timely form. The overall thrust of Syberia 3 was described to me by one of the Microids developers thusly: Walker and the Youkol people, whose nomadic way of life has been dictated by the migrations of sacred snow-ostriches, are trying to flee from fascists who are attempting to assimilate them into a sedentary, “civilized” way of life. The Youkols’ culture is the “fast disappearing world” that Walker’s condescending doctor spoke of, after all. In the face of that, she becomes an outlaw to help the Youkols, hunted by the regime and a private detective who will stop at nothing to put their march across Syberia to an end.
Walker must endure all of this and make critical choices as she helps lead the Youkols and their snow-ostriches to “the promised land.”
Syberia has always been about journeys, and this tale of fascists trying to stop a religious minority from enjoying the transformative power of travel is gut-wrenchingly current. That pursuit of freedom through motion is a theme from Sokal’s own life. “The story of Europe is just that,” he said, “wandering from country to country. In Syberia you see my story of the 20th Century, traveling by train.” He referred to the memorable train journey that defined Walker’s alchemical trip through the first game, adding “the train of Syberia is the train of Europe.” He envisions it as a spinal throughline, connecting cultures and changing people in a world where another country and another language were an hour away by rail, even in a Europe divided by walls.
Now, powerful forces wearing uniforms and flying in rusty Sikorsky attack helicopters conspire to end the journey of Walker and the Youkols; the stakes are higher, as they should be for the last entry in a trilogy. But from what I saw in the bits of the game I had access to, it’s not so heavy-handed as to turn the meditative and cerebral Syberia series into an explosive action-adventure hellscape.
The theme and feel of the series endures; perhaps like a white rose.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.