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On May 28, Benoit Sokal, author of SyberiaAmerzoneParadise and Sinking Island, died from a serious and prolonged illness in Reims, FrancePerhaps he was not as famous as Hideo Kojima, and he had fewer awards than Sid Meier. However, without bending my heart, I will say that he was my favorite game designer. When he was gone, the games industry lost more than just a studio head, artist, or screenwriter. Gone, no kidding, a whole era. And not only for the long-time niche point'n'click genre.
Benoit Sokal left us at only 66 years old

Ars longa

The Belgian master has always been primarily an artist. He even disobeyed his strict doctor father for his passion for drawing and dropped out of medical school after two years of study. After graduating from the very respectable and respected Institute of St. Luke in his native Brussels, Benoit began to draw for the young comic magazine À Suivre ("To be continued"). And just a year later, in 1979, the first issue of Inspector Canardo (from the French "canard" - "duck"), his solo graphic novel about an anthropomorphic detective duck, was released. Sokal was still young then, but his author's imagination and unique artistic style can already be seen in these works.
Inspector Canardo is a parody of noir, which has become a full-fledged noir itself over time. There were enough antiheroes (of which only Canardo himself was worth - a misanthrope, a cynic, and an alcoholic), and "not quite villains", and gray morality, and dark gateways, and unexpected turns. Yes, the setting is not unique: before it was "Howard the Duck", and after - "Blacksad". But Sokal's talent makes Inspector Canardo one of the best European comics of the 20th century.
It's funny that quite ordinary people took part in the comics about Inspector Canardo, who did not see anything unusual in the behavior of ducks, cats, and dogs.
Canardo has died on numerous occasions - including in exotic ways like drowning in a urine pit - but always returned in the next issue. At least until he decided to finally take his own life ... at the end of the first (or, more correctly, zero) of the 23 volumes of his adventures. After that, he gave way to his own son - his exact copy, and everything returned to normal. In the adventures of the detective duck, there was enough mysticism like contracts with the devil, and science fiction like a portable time machine, and the most real human tragedy. Canardo had a chance to take part in political intrigues, and to look for the gold of the Nazis, and to meet his personal femme fatale, and to make fun of the canons of noir.
Inspector Canardo has become far from the only, but perhaps the most famous and certainly the most "long-playing" work of Sokal. The comic lasted for 35 years (if you count the first strips in À Suivre) and stopped coming out only in 2013. During all this time, "Inspector Canardo" could not but leave a very noticeable mark on the creative path of its author. For example, an evil Siberian cat named Rasputin, obsessed with the idea of ​​immortality, became the inspector's blood enemy. At the time of its creation, Syberia was not even in the plans yet, but the Belgian artist's interest in mysterious snow-covered Russia was already evident then. In the comics, the island that sinks under its own weight first appeared: in the short story, the so-called Sinking Island. And it was from the adventures of Inspector Canardo - more specifically, from the 1986 release of L'Amerzone - that the first video game grew,
A year after the release of Amerzone, a collection of concepts, sketches, and ready-made art Le Testament de L'Explorateur was released.
Sokal has always been interested in computers - and in particular how an artist can use them. Gradually he mastered graphic editors and even painted his comics using a PC, then he got carried away with 3D modeling, and then it was time for AmerzoneConceptually, it was a quest with the traditional Myst clones. first-person view and the quest for its time is very beautiful and extraordinary, albeit very simple. There were no super-difficult puzzles in the style of the same Myst there. Even then, Sokal believed that gameplay should grow from history, and not vice versa, so he was not going to make his first game too difficult. According to his idea, going through Amerzone should have been only slightly more difficult than reading a fascinating graphic novel: instead of flipping through the pages, the user would simply click on the active points.
Sokal planned to meet the budget in one year and 35 thousand euros. As a result, the game took him four years and 250 thousand, but the result was definitely worth it: the history, atmosphere, art - everything was at the highest level. A device capable of transforming into an airplane, a helicopter, or a submarine. Unusual animals and strange plants. Mysterious tribes of Indians who certainly know something of this kind, extremely important, which in "enlightened Europe" have long been forgotten ... I don’t know if you can get pleasure from Amerzone today: after all, the three-dimensional graphics from the late nineties did not age very well and looks poor. And the Myst-like gameplay will be appreciated only by the most melancholic quest fans. However, at least you should definitely look at the drawings, sketches, and sketches - at least for the sake of the trademark Sokal aesthetics.
Syberia's piercingly sad opening cutscene still chills to the bone
Perhaps it is impossible to call Amerzone a masterpiece: even in 1999, it felt outdated. But knowledgeable people still appreciated the game, and Sokal even received the PixelINA Award. However, it was nothing more than a test of the pen, albeit quite successful - the main masterpiece of the maestro was yet to come.
While Sokal worked on Amerzone almost alone, a whole team was already working on SyberiaNevertheless, most of the game was the merit of Benoit himself. He himself wrote the story and all the dialogues, he invented the characters and the world (by the way, the universe here is the same as in Amerzone) and, of course, painted almost everything himself - from bizarre clockwork to locations. Even though Syberia was technically created by Microids studio, it came out as a true author's game. And thanks in large part to this, it has become one of the best interactive adventures in history.
By 2002, when Syberia hit the shelves, the point'n'click genre was long past its golden age and was slowly declining. However, the creation of Benoit Sokal showed that quests should definitely not be scrapped. After all, there was, albeit a linear, but fascinating plot; not too complicated, but elegant and logical riddles; bright heroes, each of whom remained in the memory: that the automaton-machinist Oscar, that the mad genius Hans Voralberg, that the opera diva Elena Romanskaya ...
Syberia II was almost in no way inferior to the first part
It was also a damn beautiful game. And this is not only the merit of technology (although, of course, the approach that Sokal himself jokingly called "2.75D" worked perfectly) - it was the artistic vision that Benoit always possessed. Clockwork trains, intelligent mechanical people, fantastic animals and birds, small European towns, desolate universities, lost in time and space, the ruins of the USSR - from all this breathed such a soft, light sadness and at the same time such a tart spirit of adventure that I just wanted to enter monitor and stay in this world forever. No game in the world has the atmosphere that Syberia had ... except maybe Syberia 2.
But it is not surprising, because initially, it was a single work. Sokal always thought globally, and in the end, he ended up with a story that was too big for one game. Therefore, the plot was split into two parts and released separately. But together they add up to the story of the upbringing of the main character Kate Walker - traditional, but always relevant. Well, and just a great adventure: sweet, touching, and exciting at the same time.
An album with drawings and philosophical reflections was also released based on Syberia.
The Syberia dilogy won Sokal the Person of the Year at the Phoenix Awards and became the pinnacle of his creative career. Unfortunately, every peak is followed by a decline.

Vita Brevis

Of course, Sokal's playing career isn't all about automatons, mammoths, and Microids. Benoit always fondly recalled his work in a French studio, where at one time he served as art director, but the artist's free soul longed for freedom. In 2003, Benoit founded White Birds Productions with several friends and colleagues from Microids. to work on new adventure games on your own. The White Birds Productions studio was small - only 20 people worked there - and did not do all the work on its own. The company focused on the main things for Sokal: ideas, narrative, and art design. And the rest, like scripting or 3D modeling, I preferred to outsource. Perhaps this is the hidden reason for the fact that nothing as significant as Syberia came out of Sokal's pen.
The English edition of the L'Amerzone comic, one of the stories about Inspector Canardo, was called The Kingdom of the White Birds. In the future, Sokal will call his company White Birds Productions, and the theme of white birds will become a recurring theme in his work.
The first project of White Birds Productions under the title Paradise mesmerized with views of mysterious Africa and a twisted story, but repelled fans of quests with its excessive simplicity: apparently, the time for interactive stories had not yet come. Technical problems and lopsided handling also did not add charm to the game. All in all, it was also the first truly mediocre piece in Benoit's portfolio. The first, but far from the last.
After Paradise failed in sales, the studio decided to change course. Sokal's next work was Sinking Island, which turned out to be an almost classic English detective story. The enclosed space of a small island slowly sinking under the weight of a colossal hotel. The mysterious death of his master, an eccentric rich man. Suspicious guests, each of whom could turn out to be a murderer. In sum, it all added up to a story on the level of almost Agatha Christie. But the most curious thing here was that the action of Sinking Island took place in real-time, just like in The Last Express, - a rarity for the otherwise traditional point'n'click. In general, everything was fine, and the design and plot, as always, were at the highest level. But again it was not without bugs and logical inconsistencies. The game was greeted without much enthusiasm.
Sokal personally had nothing to do with another White Birds Productions game, Nikopol: Secrets of the Immortals, although he worked for some time on the original comics together with their author Enki Bilal
The sequel to Sinking Island was supposed to be called Broadway and told about the murder in a New York theater right during the performance. The authors called the main feature the interrogation of witnesses, each of whom saw only part of the overall picture. Work on the project began even before the release of Sinking Island, but in the end, Broadway had to be abandoned. Unfortunately, this was not Sokal's only canceled game.
The story action-adventure Birdy, the idea of ​​which Benoit had been hatching for many years, also went under the knifeIt was assumed that in it we would play as a bird: we would hatch out of an egg with it, we would hunt, build a nest, protect the family, and just, in the end, float in the air. It could have turned out very peculiar, especially if you remember how much Sokal loved birds: the plot of Amerzone revolved around the egg of a white bird, the yukos in Syberia bred riding ostriches, and the feathered Canardo should not be forgotten.
Scarlett Johansson was to star in Aquarica's full-length animation
Sokal's other unborn child was named AquariaIt was supposed to become a complex multifaceted parable, told through several media channels at once: a game, comics, and even a full-length 3D cartoon with a budget of more than 20 million euros. This was probably Benoit's most ambitious project. But it didn’t happen.
Sokal received the title of Knight of the French Order of Arts and Letters in 2006 and the Belgian Order of Leopold in 2007. However, this can hardly be called the merit of Paradise or Sinking Island. In 2010, White Birds Productions had to close due to financial problems. However, this did not mean that Benoit left art or game development. He returned to graphic novels and the main game series in his life again. In 2012, work began on Syberia 3 - and again under the wing of Microids.
The new part of Kate Walker's adventures came out after five long years and ... not that it lived up to expectations. Maybe the point was that the first two Syberia were a complete story, and the third was the initiative of the publisher rather than Sokal. Maybe it's that too much water has flowed under the bridge since our first acquaintance with the eccentric inventor Hans Voralberg. Maybe something else. However, Syberia 3 has lost everything that made the series special. The magic is gone, the charm is lost, the elusive sad-romantic atmosphere dissipated. Not to mention the fact that for 2017 the game was very, very old, flaunting clumsy animation, inconvenient controls, fatal bugs, and fierce brakes with not the most outstanding picture.
For all the shortcomings of Syberia 3, it had enough strong moments
However, the fans (and I, I confess, among them), for the sake of returning to the world of snow-covered Siberia, to mammoths and snow ostriches, were ready to forgive Sokal everything. Perhaps it is thanks to this that the Syberia prequel was announced in 2019 with the subtitle The World Before, where the events will take place before World War II.
And then Sokal simply left - and left behind one main question: what will happen to Syberia next? Judging by the demo, so far The World Before is fully consistent with Benoit's philosophy: "Art over game design." Everything here is inconvenient and outdated - of course, except for the artistic part. However, fans of genius are no strangers to difficulties, and the game's style is clearly all right. It remains only to wait a bit: the release is scheduled for 2021. Well, the show must go on. Under any circumstances.
Syberia: The World Before. The master's handwriting is still visible
The best the developers of Syberia: The World Before can do is not to spoil anything and to preserve Sokal's vision and art as much as possible. I hope they succeed. After all, we are not destined to see anything like this anymore. Rest in peace, master.

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