Benoît Sokal died in May of 2021.
While he was a celebrated comic artist in his own right, the gaming world knew him best as the creative force behind the Syberia adventure game series. At the time of his death, he was working on the fourth installment in the series, Syberia: The World Before, which was still almost a year away from completion.
That final stretch to release would be overseen by Syberia: The World Before game director and lead writer Lucas Lagravatte.
Speaking with GamesIndustry.biz about the task of finishing the game in Sokal's absence, Lagravette is quick to reinforce the creator's "tremendous involvement" in the finished game as it released last March.
"He had seen the first alpha version that was quite advanced, and he could see what the released game would be," Lagravette says. "There's nothing in the content that he wasn't aware of when he passed away, and that's kind of reassuring to us to know that he was OK with everything that was in game."
Sokal had been dealing with a long-term illness, but even then, Lagravette said he was still closely involved in the creation of the game.
"Even though he knew he was really sick, he was there until the very end," he says. "A few weeks before he died, he and I had to do some last cuts and modifications of the scenario for the game, and he brought new ideas to the table, really nice ideas, even though he was very sick."
"Even though [Sokal] knew he was really sick, he was there until the very end"
Lagravette first started working with Sokal on the development of Syberia 3, joining the team as an intern. That game released in 2017 to disappointing reviews. And while Lagravette was low-ranking enough to not be privy to all the context around how and why it turned out the way it did, he has some ideas of what went wrong.
"From what I saw, with Syberia 3, everyone was just starting," he says. "The team was very junior. And the publisher hadn't made a game that big ever. There were a lot of mistakes and we learned from all of it, which allowed us to have much stronger foundations for The World Before."
Lagravette's experience on Syberia 3 also laid a groundwork of trust with Sokal, which would be essential to The World Before. With that trust and shared history, Lagravette says Sokal could be "a bit less micromanaging the content," focusing his energy more on the overarching creative vision.
"I couldn't drown Benoît in too much small detail and stuff, but you need to be really humble and also honest and transparent with someone like Benoît," Lagravette says. "We had our process with lots of meetings. I would tell him all the major and micro decision we took each week. 'I think these ones you'll be interested in because they're important, but also there are all these decisions I don't think you'll care that much but I'll still expose them to you and you tell me if anything rings a bell or not.' That was kind of our process."
The process worked for them, and Lagravette doesn't recall many times he had guessed wrong about the elements Sokal would and wouldn't want to get personally involved in.
"He trusted the team of designers and was maybe more focused about the artistic direction, the visual stuff, and how we could visually tell the lore that was so important for him in The World Before," Lagravette says.
"He trusted the team of designers and was maybe more focused about the artistic direction, the visual stuff"
And while a lot can happen in the tail end of a game's development, Lagravette is grateful that he wasn't put into the position of needing to deviate from the plan that had been laid out with Sokal.
"There weren't any major cuts for me to decide on, but I had to make some decisions about the content that weren't major," he says. "I usually said, 'I think Benoît would be OK with it so let's do it,' but there were a few ones where I said no because I thought he wouldn't have been OK with it."
Even with Sokal's approval, Lagravette says he still had some sleepless nights worrying about the game. For example, the game is set in an alternate universe, but one that still has Europe, the United States, and World War II. At the same time, it takes place in a fictional country and uses analogous factions for the Nazis and the Jewish population they tried to systemically murder. The Holocaust is a delicate subject to tackle in fiction to start with, and there was concern Syberia's added veneer of fiction could be seen as trivializing or diminishing the tragedy.
"We knew we had to be very careful and very respectful," Lagravette says. "Even though we were changing some events, we still had to tell the core of those events. It's what Benoît called 'taking a light step from reality.'
"Even though we were changing some events, we still had to tell the core of those events"
"It's a very close world to ours, and if you go deep enough in the lore of the game, it's actually not a fictional minority or oppressors. It's more like the game is taking place in a fictional country inspired by countries like Austria, and in this country, they call Jewish people by a certain name. The game is not saying the Holocaust was about a new minority. It's just that the name of it in this country changed. It's still the Jewish people that are the victims of the genocide and the Nazis that did this awful crime."
We ask about a possible future for the Syberia franchise without Sokal, and while Lagravette is clear there's nothing concrete on that front, he confirms the late creator had planned for the possibility.
"I can tell you Benoît left us some stuff for an eventual sequel, because he wanted the game to have a sequel and we would love to do it," he says. "We all have a lot of ideas for that but it's not in our hands for now."
As for how Lagravette would handle creating new elements of the Syberia universe from whole cloth without having Sokal there to give approval and feedback, he's not sure.
"If a sequel was to be done, that would be the main challenge, and the main guideline would be how we do that without Benoît," he says. "I don't have the answer to that. It would be [decided] as a team."
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