Taking flight with White Birds, Part Two
In the first installment of this three-part White Birds feature, the French studio affirmed their ambitions as storytellers, not strictly game developers -- an attitude which has some potentially ominous overtones for adventure gamers. Still, with one game behind them and several more already in production, White Birds isn't ready to abandon the genre just yet.
Returning to Paradise
White Birds' first game as an independent company was Paradise, a haunting journey into Africa. Making uncommon narrative decisions and crippled by various technical problems at the time of its release, Paradise was met with generally lukewarm reviews. Michel Bams makes no effort to hide that the sales of the game were very disappointing, especially in the United States. He agreed to discuss White Birds' intentions in making Paradise, and what worked and what didn't. (This section contains spoilers.)
While willing to recognise some mistakes, Bams remains passionate about the value of the story, and doesn't in the least regret not picking an easier option and doing a game more similar to Syberia:
Traditional adventures are selling less and less, so you have to try new narrative options. I'm not principled against conservatism, but you have to accept that, as far as adventure games are concerned, conservatism doesn't pay. So we wanted to offer new ideas to people who had played our previous games, and to newcomers. And we knew, and accepted, that some people would not be willing to follow us down that road. Still, I wouldn't want us to look like those talentless artists who are continually convinced that they're great but misunderstood. We all believed in this story, and we put our souls into it. But maybe we did screw up in the execution. Maybe it works better as a novel than as a game...
Maybe we did something wrong with the way we presented Ann. The point of the story is to make the player wonder who she is. Is she truly an amnesiac, only realising little by little what is going on? Or is she mad, schizophrenic from the get-go, knowing perfectly well who she is, but refusing to admit it in the face of the horrors she sees on her way, until the very end when she accepts it and plunges into complete madness? Maybe we didn't reveal the nature of her character progressively enough in the game, contrary to what we did in the graphic novels... And maybe we didn't manage to get away from Syberia as much as we should have. Still, we did good things with Paradise, we succeeded at creating a mood, a truly 'Sokalian' atmosphere. And I still love this story, and will defend it to the end of my days.
Some members of the adventure community can be like the nurse in Stephen King's Misery [who kidnaps an author and tortures him until he writes a new story with her beloved heroine]. But Benoît is just not interested is churning out Kate Walker stories till the end of his days! Paradise's plot may have been darker, less poetic than Syberia's, but that is the story he wanted to tell, and he convinced the rest of the company to follow him.
After Paradise, White Birds decided to work on murder mysteries, with two projects currently in progress. Benoît Sokal is no stranger to detective stories, having written and drawn many graphic novels starring the anthropomorphic duck Inspector Canardo. While the style of Canardo's adventures leaned toward noir, the upcoming games will be classical whodunnits. The hero will be Jack Norm, an American, middle-aged former police inspector now working as a PI, who uses both traditional sleuthing methods (searching rooms, talking with witnesses, etc.) and a very modern personal assistant that allows him to sort and analyse the clues he finds.
Jack Norm's first game, Sinking Island, is nearing completion, and will be previewed soon in an upcoming article. Work is already in progress on his next investigation, currently codenamed Broadway. The murder will take place in a New York theatre, during a stage presentation. The investigation will take place entirely in this Elizabethan theatre, which should be an interesting place to explore. One of the keys to solving the murder will be that the various witnesses, based on their location, will have seen different details of what was happening on-stage, and you'll have to prod their memories to form a complete picture of what happened.
Broadway may be released at the end of 2008, though a first quarter 2009 release seems more likely. A DS port is also being considered.
A first look at Nikopol
Another project currently in progress is an adaptation of Yugoslavia-born artist Enki Bilal's Nikopol trilogy. Bilal's three graphic novels, The Carnival of Immortals (1980), The Woman Trap (1986) and Cold Equator (1992), had already given birth to a film (Immortal, loosely based on the first two books, and directed by Bilal himself), and will now become three adventure games. Work on the first one is underway.
I have to agree with Michel Bams when he
says: "Every time I have to introduce Nikopol to somebody who doesn't know Bilal's story, I start off saying I'll be brief, and end up needing over 15 minutes to explain the plot and the world it takes place in. You accept those elements quickly when you read the graphic novels, but summing them up is not easy." Let's just say, then, that Nikopol is a disjointed but poignant story that takes place in a grim futuristic world. It revolves around a man called Alcide Nikopol, his son who shares the exact same name and looks, and a blue-haired woman named Jill Bioskop, and also features Egyptian gods meddling in the affairs of mortals, a mind-reading cat, and lots of Baudelaire.
Enki Bilal is closely involved with the project, as this story is very close to his heart. He's been contributing new sketches for the characters, reflecting how he sees them now, as some of his ideas have changed in the 27 years since the release of The Carnival of Immortals. He's also been updating parts of the story. For instance, the graphic novel set the story in a Paris dominated by fascists and opposed by the "Czechosoviets"; while the totalitarian elements will be retained, Bilal is thinking of turning the conflict from political to spiritual -- without making the game a caricature of current events.
I was fortunate to play a very early sequence from The Carnival of Immortals during my visit. The first thing that struck me is the graphic style: I really felt that I had entered the graphic novel. It is pre-rendered 3D, but made to look like a drawing or painting, and is reminiscent of Bilal's style. White Birds return to a first-person, node-based perspective here, but with many technical improvements compared to what was used in Amerzone. While some people associate a first-person perspective with Myst-style games, it should be noted that Nikopol's story is full of life (grim as it may be) and clearly character-driven.
The game casts you as Alcide Nikopol's son, who discovers that his father, whom he never knew and thought dead, is alive, and decides to go looking for him. This will make him search high and low, always one step behind, in a futuristic and totalitarian version of Paris, over which is hovering a pyramid-like spaceship with Egyptian gods.
The Carnival of Immortals will feature traditional adventure gameplay, but with several timed sequences representing about 20% of the game's length. For instance, near the beginning of the game, as you're trying to leave your flat, you face an alien creature intent on killing you (after mistaking you for your father). There is then a timed sequence, where you have to find a way of delaying it and trapping it, relying on usual adventure mechanics but with an added time pressure -- for instance, if you don't figure out how to block the door fast enough, the alien will open it and kill you. If that happens, you're automatically restored to a point before your death.
Bilal's story is extremely powerful, though its fragmented nature and focus on characters who have very little control over their fate makes it a surprising choice for adapting into a game. But Michel Bams assured me that White Birds are committed to remaining true to the style and spirit of Nikopol, while trying to draw those who've never read the graphic novels into Bilal's world.
White Birds hope to release The Carnival of Immortals in mid-2008 on PC. They're also considering porting it to other platforms, including Java-enabled cell-phones, while exploring various distribution methods such as Xbox Live.
What lies beyond
With two Jack Norm investigations and the first part of Nikopol in full production, it seems like we'll get to see a lot of White Birds in the coming year. Perhaps a surprising amount considering the company's concerns about the state of the genre and its own involvement in it. But while adventures lie at the core of their immediate projects, plans are already underway for an even more ambitious future. The third and final part of this article will provide some glimpses of what lies further ahead.