White Birds - Michel Bams and Olivier Fontenay interview

After creating the Syberia games at Microïds Canada, author and artist Benoît Sokal established a new studio in France, White Birds Productions. Paradise was the first game developed by the new company, and when we met with White Birds co-founders Michel Bams and Olivier Fontenay at E3, this debut title had only recently been released. Bams and Fontenay shared their experiences with Paradise and offered some surprising glimpses into what White Birds is working on now.

Congratulations on finishing Paradise. How do you feel about it, now that it's out?

Michel Bams: Benoît really wanted this game to be different from Syberia, and I think he managed to imagine and, shall I say, create a story that's clearly different from Syberia. Much darker, more tragedy. I like the story very much, and frankly I always thought that Syberia, in my mind, had a poetic side that I didn't like that much, personally. I prefer Paradise, but I have to say that part of the community has Syberia in mind, and may have been expecting something more poetic than Paradise is. That's okay. I mean, that's what the author does, he tells stories. You have to like it or dislike it, that's the way the story is, and we're happy with the story. I think the story's great.

I'm really looking forward to it, but haven't had the chance yet. Too many games came out all at once. Paradise and Dreamfall are the two that spent a year on our most anticipated list.

Michel Bams: We're looking at Dreamfall with a lot of interest because we want to know if this is going to work in terms of sales. It's a game that has a story behind it, but it's real time 3D, with action... we'll see.

Is real-time 3D something you'd toy with?

Michel Bams: Sure. In the adventure field, technology is not something which is driving the games as it is in first-person shooters, where you can add a real technology layer. In the adventure field we believe it's the story which drives the game, and technology comes second, even third after the story. Maybe second is the music, voices, something like that. But still, you have to think that 3D real-time now really starts to offer graphical solutions that make us think that, yes, we will have to make that move one day. Not yet, not yet. The next game is not going to be 3D real-time, it's still going to be 2D.

That's Aquarica?

 

Michel Bams: Nope. But before we move on to the next game, there's something else we want to discuss about Paradise. One of the reasons why we created White Bird productions was that we consider ourselves storytellers, and we want to try to bring the stories to as many media as possible. There are two fields we think we know, video games on one side, and graphic novels on the other, because Benoît is a cartoonist. So Paradise is also a series of four albums published by Casterman, which is one of the leading graphic novel publishing houses, and we've created a label called White Birds to host our games when they are adapted into graphic novels. So Paradise is going to be four albums. The two first are released, the third one is due for the end of this year, and the last one by March of next year.

Do they follow the four worlds in Paradise?

Michel Bams: Absolutely. The thing is, it's the same story, but it's not the same way of telling it. There are certain aspects in the graphic novel in which you have more freedom than in the video game, and vice versa. For example, there is a tolerance with nudity in the graphic novel that you cannot have in the game because you will immediately be tagged as mature, which means you won't sell.

Will the graphic novels be published in the United States also?

Michel Bams: No. We would like to, but...

Olivier Fontenay: These kinds of books are really rare in the United States. You have lots of comic books, but not this kind of book.

Did Benoît do the art in the books?

Michel Bams: Benoît is not sketching the graphic novels. Benoît does graphic novels on his own; he has a recurring character which has nothing to do with what he does in games.

Olivier Fontenay: In fact, he's working as much on the Paradise graphic novels as on the game. He wrote the scenario, the storyline, and then he's acting as the art director most of the time for the game team, but also for the graphic novels.

Michel Bams: The sketcher, Brice Bingono, who made all the sketches in the graphic novel, has seen very, very little of the game. Benoît wanted him to figure it out for himself. For example, the main character is quite different, the way she is presented in the game and the way she's presented in the graphic novel. So yeah, Paradise is... we haven't completely turned the page, because we are really now on the sales side of it, but in terms of creation and production, it's done. Now the future is more what we're thinking of in terms of next games, and to answer your question, no, it's not Aquarica. Aquarica is one of the projects we're working on, and we have not concluded whether it's going to be 2D or 3D. We want to give ourselves a little bit more time. We have the story, the scenario is written, we know what this game is going to be about, we know who the characters are, what they're going to do. We're just thinking of whether it should be 3D or not.

Olivier Fontenay: We're working right now on a 3D real-time prototype, internally, to see if we can meet what we expect of this type of technology for such a game. We're really not sure if this prototype will be exactly what we want. We will make a decision in July, probably, if this is exactly what we want to reach, especially Benoît. Benoît is very excited by the idea of working in real time graphics, but he wants to make sure he gets the proper tools. So we're not sure yet.

That's an interesting process. We saw another game yesterday [Dead Reefs] that started out in 2D and they decided it wasn't working in 2D so they switched it to 3D. It hadn't occurred to me that you make those kinds of decisions midway through.

Olivier Fontenay: There's two sides of that. The graphical side is a question of quality. Are we able to have the same level of detail and the same attention to detail in 3D as in 2D? The answer is maybe not, but the general atmosphere is probably much more involved than the exact amount of detail. We also have to manage something a bit different—I don't know if you remember Amerzone, which was in this 3D-like environment, and then one day we decided to make Syberia, with completely different tools that were brand new at that time, using 2D backgrounds with 3D characters. At that time, a lot of people disliked our choice. There were many, many people on the forums saying "Oh, it's not like Amerzone." Now with Paradise, we've experienced exactly the same thing. In fact, Benoît has a lot of fans who are pretty conservative. Every choice is a really tough choice for us to make, so we want to be really sure of all choices.

That's not just artistic, too, because it affects how you control the game, your whole experience with the game.

Olivier Fontenay: Absolutely. It's conceptual. The main issue for us is about concept and if we are able to deliver an interesting experience for the player. It's been, I think, five years since adventure games came out with real-time graphics, the Myst series and some other games, and I can't remember one which has been really convincing.

Michel Bams: Yes, which is why we are watching Dreamfall with interest. So that's Aquarica, which is also a project we want to... Benoît is really dreaming, and he convinced us that his dream could be a movie. So we really are hoping to do that. It's another way of financing things. So, we go little by little. And now we are working on Benoît's next game, which is called Sinking Island, on which we have said very little.

Continued on the next page...


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