Video games should push the boundaries of creation and inspire those who play them. Much like cinema, which has been enriched by the influence of art and literature, video games must draw from other creative spheres in order to find inspiration.
—From the Microids manifesto posted on the company’s website
As a tear rolled down my cheek, I have to admit I was fairly flabbergasted. There I was getting weepy while sitting in front of a computer game of all things. Yes, a computer game made me cry.
US: Jul 2007
But this was no ordinary computer game. No, this was Benoit Sokal’s Syberia 2, the sequel to his 2002 adventure (which, by the way, pushed me to the brink of tears, but not quite into a full-fledged sob like its sequel). Sokal, a successful Belgian cartoonist before turning to game design in the late 1990s, has redefined what narrative video games can do in terms of emotional resonance, intellectual engagement, and visual majesty. I never dreamed that a video game could enrich my life in the way his Syberia series has.
The Syberia games are traditional point-and-click adventures, which means most gamers can be forgiven for not having encountered them. Most mainstream gaming media ignore the genre, treating it with contempt and disdain: “What, I don’t get to run around, jump, and shoot stuff? No thanks!” In adventure circles, however, Sokal’s name is spoken with the same kind of reverence film buffs use for Stanley Kubrick or Atom Egoyan.
It seems strange to mention a video game designer in the same sentence as these other masterful visual artists, but Sokal belongs there. It can’t be argued that Syberia or its sequel are flawless masterpieces the way films like Dr. Strangelove or The Sweet Hereafter are, but in the history of gaming they stand out as pinnacles of the form.
Set amidst a European background spanning the “battle scars of the 20th-century,” the Syberia games follow the journeys of Kate Walker, a corporate lawyer from the United States. Walker is assigned to the village of Validilene in the French Alps to negotiate the buyout of a local automaton factory for the Universal Toy Company. Her mission is complicated by a missing heir whom Walker must track down in order to complete the deal.
This heir is the enigmatic creative genius Hans Voralberg and as Walker travels across Europe and into Russia by train, she gradually learns the history of the Voralberg family, their automaton factory, and Voralberg’s strange obsession with an island called Syberia where wooly mammoths are said to still thrive. Walker is accompanied on her trip by Oscar, an automaton engineer who is something like Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation mixed with the Cowardly Lion from The Wizard of Oz.
Oscar exemplifies Sokal’s attention to creating fully-realized and unique characters, something video games are not generally known for. Similarly, Kate Walker is the only protagonist that I can think of who experiences any kind of emotional growth during the course of a game. Her inner journey is as compelling as her physical one. From an eager and aggressive corporate lawyer in search of career advancement, Walker’s pursuit of Hans Voralberg and the legend of Syberia awaken her to a new understanding of herself and her place in the world.
Walker comes to doubt her allegiance to her corporate employers while finding much to admire in Voralberg’s eccentric genius and his passionate dream of finding the mammoths of Syberia. His quest awakens her to the possibility of a life that is more than just a series of promotions and salary renegotiations. Her struggle resonates with all of us who live in a culture that is similarly attempting to navigate between the worlds of business and humanity, a conflict that is so far defining the 21st-century.
Syberia‘s settings illustrate these themes as well, taking her away from her old life geographically as well as psychologically. Walker travels from her New York office to Validilene, with its Industrial Revolution architecture, and then further east into the former Soviet Union. Sokal’s vision of Russia is like some land that time forgot, featuring a decaying resort spa, an abandoned cosmonaut facility, and empty socialist work camps. The crumbling buildings and withered population appear to be caught between two worlds or two times.
In this way, Walker’s journey seems to be a chronological one as well. In Syberia 2, she encounters the Youkol people, an ancient Siberian tribe who don’t seem to have changed in thousands of years. The Syberia games also address the conflict between modernity and a growing human desire to turn the clock backwards and live in a more simple time. Both Voralberg and, eventually, Walker choose to abandon a life built on modern capitalism, with all of its material benefits, to pursue a more profound and spiritual existence. Exploring the tattered remains of the last century with them, it’s hard not to get caught up in the wonder and heartache of it all and to question one’s own place in this brave new world we have created.
There is almost too much to recommend about the Syberia games. The environments are stunning, created with such care and attention to detail that you have to spend a minute or so with every new screen just to let it all soak in properly. The music is beautifully evocative of the mood of the game and can claim some of the responsibility in bringing those tears to my eyes. As well, the voice acting is superb, attaching you to the characters and allowing you to believe in their reality.
More than anything, though, I recommend Syberia and its sequel for the pleasure of living through Sokal’s wonderful story, the awe of witnessing the wondrous sights Kate Walker sees, and the profundity of involving yourself in her journey and Hans Voralberg’s fantastic dream. An experience that will stay with you and possibly move you to tears, the Syberia games are certainly not what you’d usually expect from a computer game.