I think we can officially introduce the word "Sokalian" into the adventure game lexicon.
With due respect to the many talented designers and programmers who worked alongside Benoît Sokal at Microïds on Amerzone and the Syberia games, there is an unmistakable signature style brought to each game by the Belgian author and artist. It's difficult to pinpoint, exactly. Sure, the artistry itself is usually mouth-gapingly gorgeous, but it's not just that. There's also a seamless blend of reality and fantasy, primitive and modern, natural and mechanical, ordinary and exotic. But perhaps more than that, there's ever a hint of melancholy and pain in Sokal's worlds and their inhabitants, making the games as much about the atmosphere as they are about the journey.
After having played through the opening section from the first world of the upcoming Paradise, I can safely say that the new game is every bit as Sokalian as the ones that have come before it. For many, that will be all the endorsement the game requires. For others, that will probably create more questions than it answers, which I can only begin to address here.
The first title from White Birds, Sokal's new company, Paradise tells the story of a young woman named Ann Smith. Or more accurately, a young woman who believes herself to be named Ann Smith. Really she's the daughter of King Rodon, a dictator in the violent, troubled (and imaginary) African country of Maurania. Having heard her estranged father is ill, "Ann" sets out from Europe to see him before his death, only to have her plane shot down by rebels. Rescued unconscious after a crash landing, she awakens in a palatial harem with no memory of who she is or what she is doing in Africa.
While the amnesiac protagonist premise earns no points for creativity, Paradise gets full marks for its original setting. The complete game spans four main locations throughout Africa, including a Baobab village, an emerald mining complex, and Rodon's floating city-on-a-boat. The preview, unfortunately, was limited only to the harem in the arid, sub-Saharan city of Madargane, offering just a teasing glimpse of what is yet to come.
The presentation will be instantly familiar to anyone who has played Syberia. The third-person perspective and point & click interface are traditional and intuitive. Actions are carried out through a context-sensitive cursor, movement can occur at a walk or slow run, and dialogues are handled by exhausting a list of keywords. Even some of the added optional touches like the cinematic viewer and stylish mechanical menu are back from the land of mammoths, and you'll almost certainly avail yourself of each. The quality of the cutscenes is superb, and once unlocked, they are well worth re-visiting. The animated main menu is phenomenal, showing a close-up of the game's black panther emerging from and receding back into the shadows in a variety of poses and growls. I sat captivated for several minutes as I watched it play out before ever hitting "New Game" for the first time. Very Sokalian, but taken to a new level.
The painstakingly detailed pre-rendered backgrounds are certainly up to the artistic standards we've come to expect, though the abundance of earth tones and a heavy reliance on soft lens effects did leave me wanting to escape into the more visually compelling, lush wilds of Africa that I knew lay ahead. Which of course is exactly what Ann is trying to do. In order to be freed from the harem, Ann must develop an elaborate ruse to arrange an audience with the reclusive prince.
The puzzles in the early going are a fairly even mix of inventory collection and strange gadget manipulation. Again, no surprise to players of Sokal's previous games, who will feel right at home in mixing ingredients, pulling levers and spinning dials to accomplish improbable tasks. There's nothing here to make Mensa members beg for mercy, though a little too much pixel hunting and seemingly arbitrary plot triggers tripped me up for a while. Still, the self-contained location ensured that I didn't stay lost for long.
If there's been one criticism about Sokal's previous games, it's the lack of interactivity in the beautiful but "empty" environments. And while I feel that complaint is missing the purpose of this intentional design decision, it's certainly true that gameplay gets sacrificed in the process. So how does Paradise stack up in comparison? It's far too early to say definitively, but Madargane at least seems to be reasonably balanced, with very few screens where there isn't at least something to look at or do at some point. While there aren't many optional interactions along the way, Paradise is certainly no more guilty of that than the vast majority of current adventures.
Of course, no discussion of Paradise would be complete without returning to the black leopard, which not only becomes Ann's companion through the game, but also a playable character at times. Ann is alone to begin the game, but it's in Madargane that she discovers the great cat, locked up during the day, but freed to roam at night. The preview section included one playable portion, which unfortunately was barely functional, and took several tries until I finally succeeded in getting through it. Why such technical difficulty? Because unlike Ann's sections of the game, the panther sequences are all rendered in real-time 3D. Cameras swing around the leopard as you move, though frankly I saw no reason for the shift to 3D, as the minimal cinematic benefit was negated by the equally marginal loss of pre-rendered graphical quality. Control is still handled completely with the mouse, but it's not quite point and click. Instead, you guide the cat with an onscreen directional indicator, holding down the left mouse button to move and pick up speed, and right clicking to jump. Timing and speed were critical in the one required activity I experienced, and while there's nothing overly complex here, it will undoubtedly take some getting used to. Still, it's a nice change of pace, so I look forward to seeing the sequences in their final form.
Regrettably, the feline isn't the only element that is clearly unfinished in the preview version. The 3D character models, while nicely drawn, are in low resolution and badly animated, and localization isn't yet complete, with documents and dialogues not fully translated from their original French. Obviously these things will be sorted out before release, but White Birds will need to do some serious crunching to iron out all the wrinkles in the remaining time. But given the near flawless polish of Sokal's previous games, there's no reason to expect less this time around. The only question is whether the ambitious target date is attainable (let's not consider the unthinkable prospect of a rushed release).
While a pre-beta build probably isn't the best way to form opinions, my early look at Paradise was plenty to confirm really all it needed to: it's Syberia with sand. Okay, maybe that's simplifying a little too much, but the Sokalian influence is clearly evident. For those left wanting by the gameplay in previous titles, there may yet be trouble in Paradise, though only the full and finished game will answer that for sure. If you're already a Sokal fan, you can confidently look forward to trading in your youki for a leopard and striking out for the dark continent when the game releases later this month.
And now for a more personal view of the first two worlds of Paradise, let's hear from the game's author himself…
Notes from Benoît Sokal
Paradise World 1 - Madargane
I am Benoît Sokal, co-founder of White Birds Productions, author of video games (Amerzone, Syberia I & II) and cartoonist. On Paradise specifically, I am the author and the Art Director.
Once I decided that this game would take place in Africa, I imagined a very big country. A country with a North border still of Arabic inspiration, and one that becomes more and more "dark Africa" when going South. I also have to say that I went on holiday in Morocco, in Marrakech two years ago and that I was fascinated by the city. Besides the global atmosphere, the challenge for me was to faithfully represent those amazing mosaics, like in the Prince's apartments or the City Gate. I think that the final result, in Madargane, is close to what a real North African city is, without all the added fantasy of course.
Madargane (World 1) is first of all the place in which you discover who you are as a player, and that is Ann Smith. It is also the world in which you meet with the one that will be your silent companion throughout the whole game: the mysterious black leopard. But there are also a lot of other characters to meet and interact with in this world, from the little Palace servant, Aicha, to the Prince of Madargane himself.
When I started working on world 1, I did not look back to my holidays pictures. In fact, I tried to re-create an "ideal" Moroccan/North African city from scratch, using only my imagination. I also bought a lot of Art and Travel books. And, lastly, I looked into the works of a painter from whom I learned a lot during my Art studies: Delacroix and his views from Morocco.
Paradise World 2: Baobab Village
The second world players will encounter when playing Paradise is Baobab Village. I like this world very much. I had a great fun in imagining it, and even more in taking that vision and translating it into the design. The overall presentation and feel of Baobab Village all came from the stories we were told about African tribes, and their sometimes very strange habits. In parallel, I had this idea of these strange animals, the gazelines, with a long neck allowing them to reach high leaves in the trees. I imagined that they could also be used as hordes, being ridden by warriors. And, little by little, came the picture of the Molgraves. A tribe of fierce and proud warriors, trying during all their life to never touch the ground, as it is considered as "evil" and "impure". What an amazing way of life!
From this initial premise, the village at the top of the trees seemed almost logical. As well as a whole life entirely organised from these trees, such as water collectors, bungee ropes, hunting methods, etc. More specific details came later: the major which is a caricature of some English ex-Army members, loving wild life and Gin… Or the language spoken by the Molgraves, inspired by the way some shepherds in Corsica whistle long sentences to each other from a valley to another… Baobab Village will offer players an amazing and fascinating backdrop as they play through the second world in Paradise!
Paradise World 3: Zamarat
Zamarat is the third playable world in Paradise. In this world in I wished to introduce a notion of "real" politics and economy into Maurania's global picture. I've used Zamarat as the backdrop to describe a country in which the natural richness of the land has been over-exploited and embezzled to the profit of a few. I also imagined a man, Harambee, for whom the idea of work is more important than the work itself. For him, "idleness is the Mother of all vices". He does not care if there is nothing to dig for, as long as workers are still digging away. To some this is a very absurd way of thinking, but is not far off from the thinking of Stoic philosophers. It is however, far from my own way of thinking.
When doing research for Zamarat, I visited some of the oldest and deepest coal mines in the North of France. I discovered that the wagons used in the mines were towed by horses, resulting in a very sad life for them. The horses were brought down into the mines using special elevators and harnesses, and would then spend all of their remaining days there until their death, never seeing day light again. The horses would often become blind from life-long exposure to darkness and lack of natural light. I imagine that in an African mine, they might have used elephants for the same job…