Taking flight with White Birds, Part One

If someone asked you to imagine where White Birds have their offices, you'd probably picture a few rooms inside some faceless Paris building. You couldn't be more wrong. They're actually located in a 19th century industrial-style area in Joinville-Le-Pont devoted to the film industry, where many big post-production companies work. What, then, is a computer game studio doing there? The answer is that White Birds' founders do not consider it a computer game company.

One of the reasons why Benoît Sokal, Olivier Fontenay, Michel Bams and Jean-Philippe Messian decided to create White Birds, after working together on Amerzone and the two Syberia games, was precisely that they wanted to be free to work on more than just games. Indeed, with a series of graphic novels released (Paradise) and a film (Aquarica) in the works, White Birds have been focusing on various types of projects. Guided by marketing manager Michel Bams, I was able to spend a few hours at their offices recently, trying to understand how they work and think and seeing the projects they're working on. My visit allowed me to realise how important that choice was -- and how much it set them apart from other adventure game companies.

Organisation

 

The name most adventure gamers will immediately associate with White Birds is Benoît Sokal. Indeed, as the author and artistic designer on most of the team's past and present projects, he's a central figure. While his three associates are cramped together in the same room, Sokal has an office of his own, which he only shares with a large drawing table that stands proudly in the middle of the room. There also lay his sketchbooks, filled with scenery, birds, characters, details of buildings, more birds, and all sorts of drawings which somehow manage to find their way onto every desk and wall in the building -- "Benoît often starts explaining an idea to us, only to end up drawing it instead", explains Bams.

Some of the company's current projects have been evolving in his head for a very long time. For instance, the upcoming murder mystery Sinking Island has its roots in a project for a graphic novel he wanted to do with comic strip artist Jacques Tardi many years ago. That project never saw the light of day, although Sokal used the concept of an island sinking into the sea in one of the stories of Inspector Canardo, also entitled Sinking Island. But the plot of the original Sinking Island project remained in his mind for years, and has now become a game.

Michel Bams

Nevertheless, with a size of about thirty people, White Birds work very much as a team, constantly discussing ideas and suggestions collectively. The team's moderate size is due to the company's decision to focus essentially on design and polish, while the brunt of the work on graphics and code is outsourced to companies in Canada and Slovenia. "There are lots of companies all over the world which are able to code simple instructions or make a nice 3D location", explains Bams. "Our part is coming up with ideas and then telling those companies what to do very precisely, by drawing detailed concept art and visiting them regularly. And, after the 3D modelling has been done, to rework the backgrounds to add life, atmosphere and our distinctive touch to them. But we're not interested in having a big in-house team to do the full modelling work."

 

Design philosophy

Benoît Sokal's games have always prioritised narration over gameplay. While there has been increasing focus on the latter over time, this priority is probably going to remain true in the future, though Bams considers that "in Paradise, we've reached the end of the road for a certain style of gameplay." Looking at how things evolved since Sokal's first game offers an interesting perspective on how the interplay between gameplay and narration is handled at White Birds. As Bams explains it:

We've always wanted the gameplay to stem from the story rather than the story to serve as an excuse to introduce the gameplay. At the time of Syberia, there were two types of puzzles we wanted to avoid. Firstly, the kind of wacky puzzles that were the hallmark of many LucasArts games. Secondly, esoteric Myst-style puzzles involving astral conjunctions and runes. Our idea at the time was that, if your car is out of gas, you get a can, find somewhere to fill it with gas, get back to your car and start driving.

But getting the gameplay to feel right has always been a real problem for us. I've recently replayed Syberia, and found some parts really tedious, especially when you've got to go back and forth between places. But at the time when we designed those puzzles, we obviously thought it was a good idea!

When Benoît started work on Amerzone, he didn't consider he was making a game. He was just allowing the viewer to get inside the picture, and to click instead of turning pages. The final result was very simple as far as gameplay was concerned, and was very badly received by the computer gaming press -- which didn't prevent it from having now sold a million copies worldwide.

The state of adventure gaming

 

Whatever its design philosophy, every company making adventure games has to make do with the genre's limitations. Since the days of Syberia, many elements have changed for the worse. For instance, beautiful graphics do not hold the same power now as they did then. "Everything keeps becoming less impressive for people", argues Bams. "When we did Syberia, the pre-rendered 3D locations wowed everyone. But not any more. Benoît often says that, for computer generated graphics, his direct competitor is Peter Jackson: people are so used to seeing things like King Kong in cinemas that when they buy a game, they ask why it doesn't look as good. The days of Myst, when people could say 'I don't really understand what that game is about, but gosh, it's beautiful' are long gone; you can now get that in just any free, downloadable game."

On the whole, Bams' outlook on the adventure genre's situation is not an optimistic one:

We're now starting to wonder if there's a future in adventure games for us. If you're a chef, and they start telling you that you'll have to do without fish, and then tomatoes, and finally with only beef and potatoes, then you have to make do with that. And then if you get told to reduce the amount of beef used, you'll start cooking smaller portions. But your customers will complain that they're still hungry at the end of the meal, and maybe it's time to reconsider your choice of career... We hope the market realities will change. Maybe one very successful game can have a positive influence. Or maybe new platforms, such as the DS, may bring a new momentum to adventure gaming. But if that doesn't happen, then we'll either have to work on different types of games or leave gaming altogether. As a company, we consider that our job is telling stories. If we can't tell them through games, we'll tell them through other media.

Adventure games are currently caught in a vicious circle, which shows no sign of inverting: few sales mean little interest from big publishers, therefore smaller budgets and lower production values, which in turn imply less interest from the public and fewer sales. Our budgets are now lower than what we had at the time of Amerzone and Syberia, and continually decreasing. Games aren't like shoes, where you're mostly paying for the brand; if a game's budget is lower, it's bound to either have lower production values, or be smaller. For Sinking Island, we've chosen not to sacrifice quality or length (as a matter of fact, it's probably longer than Paradise), but we've cut down on the number of locations.

The very casual tone in which Michel Bams discussed this possible change of focus really drove home the reality that the company was born out of a desire not to make games -- but rather to tell stories in various forms. Nevertheless, both White Birds' recent past and immediate future are strongly tied to adventure games, with several currently in the works. These will be discussed in the second part of this article.


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