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The Ring / Arxel Tribe Interview
Writer/ Karen Zierler

The list of European developers and titles is steadily growing. Games such as Rage of Mages (Nival/Byka - Russia), Wall Street Trader (Monte Cristo - France), Knights & Merchants (TopWare - Germany) have attracted attention and/or popularity, however other titles, such as Hexplore (Heliovisions - France) have varied in their success on the international scale. The success or failure of a title generally revolves around gameplay issues and design (graphics, bugs, etc.). However, European titles may also clash culturally with, for instance, the American or Japanese markets. The key to success then is not only great design and gameplay, but also bridging the culture gap, while at the same time, retaining the unique and interesting aspects and influences the European developer's culture provides. A developer may not please every audience, but then again that is all just a part of having choices, likes and dislikes. I mean, not everyone likes Deer Hunter, right? And some people prefer a little culture in their games.


The Hive of the Valkyries.

The influx of games coming from Europe can therefore be seen as a good thing, enriching the different genres with a variety of flavors to satisfy a wide spectrum of tastes. In some cases, even altering the level of quality. This brings me to the Slovenian based developer, Arxel Tribe, the makers of The Ring: The Legend of the Nibelungen, a new and unusual adventure title which takes some very old European tales and transports them well into the future. The game immerses the player in a world which evolved from an important opera by Richard Wagner. I have been fortunate enough to catch up with Arxel Tribe and ask them some questions regarding The Ring's development, what it took to get a game based on an opera published and their future plans which include another exotic adventure title.


GDR: I would like to introduce Arxel Tribe to our readers, you must be the first game developer located in Slovenia. As I understand, Arxel Tribe has its roots in architectural animations, can you tell me about the background of Arxel Tribe, and how you came to developing adventure games?

Guillaume de Fondaumière
- Arxel Tribe - Paris Executive Director
- RING : Executive Producer

Arxel Tribe is a European company founded in 1990 by Matjaz Pozlep (right) and Diego Zanco (far right), two Slovenian architects. Initially, the studio was specialized in the creation of 3D animations for the architectural and industrial design markets in Slovenia and later Italy. The activity soon spread to product presentation and corporate films. Stephen Carrière and myself joined the crew in January 1993 as trainees. We soon decided to associate and established 10 months later a first subsidiary in Paris (France). Stephen and I were in charge of the marketing and helped out on financial matters. A new development strategy was also defined to enable Arxel Tribe grow in other fields. In 1994, Arxel created a Milan (Italy) based subsidiary and established first contacts with advertising agencies and production studios. In Paris, we decided to focus on corporate Multimedia. Soon, we found out that our structure was capable to develop titles for the large public.

After 15 months of development, we released in October '97 our first Adventure Game, Pilgrim , in collaboration with Brazilian novelist Paolo Coelho (The Alchemist) and French illustrator Moebius (better known as the lead designer of The Abyss or The 5th Element). That same year, Nicolas Fructus, a young French artist who was to become our Art Director and key element of our creative department, joined the Tribe.

In October '98, we released RING - The Legend of the Nibelungen, our second Adventure Game. The graphics universe was created in collaboration with French designer Druillet who had previously worked on sci-fi and heroic fantasy comic books and for the film industry (The Name of the Rose....)

Today, Arxel Tribe boasts a work force of 50, where of 40 are located in our production studio in Ljubljana (Slovenia). Half of them work in the programming and Multimedia department; 20 are devoted to computer graphics on SGI work stations with Maya, Avid Grand Illusion, Amazon and other popular professional software licenses. Matjaz Pozlep is Head of Design, Stephen Carrière of Creation, Nicolas Fructus of Graphics. Diego Zanco is head of the production and Executive Director of Arxel Tribe Ljubljana and Milan. I am Executive Director of Arxel Tribe Paris and of our newly created holding company, The Arxel Guild LTD., in charge of the Executive Production of our titles.

GDR: In a previous discussion, Stephen Carrière, designer and scenarist described to me that The Ring "from the start was a madman challenge." How did Arxel Tribe come up with the idea for The Ring and what kind of difficulties did such an unusual design concept present?

Stephen Carrière (shown below)
- Arxel Tribe - Creative Director
- RING : Game designer / Team leader

The RING was born on the day we met with Philippe Druillet and discovered the amazing artwork he had already done on the tetralogy. Funny detail : Nicolas Fructus' (Art Director - KZ) diploma work had been rated by Druillet and they had mentioned the possibility to work someday together.

Why did we embark on The RING adventure? Mainly because everyone told us we should not.

During the scripting work, the main difficulty issued from the inner rules of classical tragedy : all actions are reported by the characters. Here we had to inverse the flow of the story. That meant, making shortcuts or inventing sceneries (like the Valkyries' hive) trying to respect the Wagnerian universe and symbols.

We were under constant pressure not to polish too much the psychological depth of the story while maintaining the dynamics of the gaming flow. This is why we often used the puzzles to insert important narrative elements like Wotan's fault in Nibelheim within the Alberich mosaic or Siegmund's mother life story on the top of the hill in the forest.

Another difficulty was to deal with the multi-protagonist structure of the opera. The solution was so simple it took us weeks to figure it out : to do a multi-protagonist game. We remained with one crucial problem : the position of the player and his goal. That is why ISH was created. ISH is one of the few survivors of the human civilization and has to fight in a hostile environment to track, find and piece together the last remains of the human culture. This quest of identity through art is coherent with Wagner's ambitions with Ring. ISH prepares the fall of the extraterrestrial totalitarian empire to give back their place in the world to his fellow humans.

The tetralogy tells of the fall of gods and the birth of the human era... ERDA [ the mother god -K.Z.], known as Gaya in other myths, will give him that chance but he will have to prove worthy of it. Human beings are made of good and evil, he will have to impersonate both the heroes and the villains. The four (our alien dictators) want to make of ISH a paper god to lead their population to the battle field and they think the Tetralogy will give him the lust for power as ERDA is using the same tetralogy to show him the ultimate danger of this lust (Alberich renounces love, Wotan brings on himself his own downfall).

GDR: Fans of the adventure genre have been following a heated industry debate over whether or not the traditional adventure game is dead. Given that there is a debate raging, why did you choose the traditional adventure format?

Stephen Carrière
- Arxel Tribe - Creative Director
- RING : Game designer / Team leader

Ouch ! To answer that question honestly, I'll have to start with some personal considerations. Something quite unique happened with the development of the video game industry. A brand new expression medium raised from scratch to mass market in less than ten years and we still are waiting for those who will consider it as a real artistic opportunity. Take movies for instance, at the beginning were Griffith, Tod Browning, Karl Dreyer... then a bit later, Fritz Lang, Eisenstein to name a few. I think even Cameron would have to stand mouth gap in front of Griffith's brilliant megalomania in Intolerance or Birth of a Nation.

Now, look at multimedia : a brand new medium is born and after only a few years of existence 99% of the production is still centered on look-alikes and me-too products imitating hits which were themselves built as copies of commercial movies or archetypes. It's hard to believe there can be such a total lack of ambition when you know the thousands of really creative people working in this field.

I am getting a little astray. Adventure is a genre, its rules and conventions are evolving at the pace of ITS target. Let's consider ambitious games with real story-lines : Another World (for me the best video game of all time), Myst (a cool breeze of poetry in a world of brutes), The Dark Eye (so ambitious, bravo...), FF7 (craft in super-production), Grim Fandango (Lucas at its best), Medievil (fast, funny) ... and others. You'll say that some of these are not classical adventure... I agree. My point is that game designers should choose their interactive genre according to what they want to tell and make play. For Ring, the premises were that we wanted to restitute the magnificence of the opera encrafted in the graphics of Druillet. Our priorities were Image, Sound and Storytelling : well, for that, the "classical adventure" style remains the best today.

GDR: The visuals in The Ring are absolutely stunning, can you tell me what inspired the look and design of the graphics, the characters and environments? You mention Philippe Druillet on the packaging. Can you tell me about his involvement in the development of The Ring and how you came to consult him on a game concept?

Stephen Carrière
- Arxel Tribe - Creative Director
- RING : Game designer / Team leader

Philippe Druillet (left) stands in Europe on the stage of the few illustrators who are considered to have placed the comics art at the level of art (together with Jean Giraud (aka Moebius), Bilal, and few others...). In 1972, he was entrusted the creation of the sets and costumes of the "Rheingold" (first part of the tetralogy) for the Paris Opera. The project failed after one year of work for financial problems. 10 years later, there were talks of a movie for IMAX theaters... project failed. In 1997, we met Philippe through a friend of his, Michel Colin, who had been himself a part of the first adventure as a scenic engineer.

It took us 6 month to have the skeleton of the script (after meeting Druillet - K.Z.). During that time, we asked for Druillet to prepare the artwork : (120 sketches - 1m per 70cm - ). Nicolas Fructus, our AD, then started the preparation work on it : turn the characters sketches into model sheets, draw hundreds of top views and archi. grids based on the landscapes of Druillet. The second phase was the corrections : Druillet came back once a week to the office to work together with Nicolas on various elements of design. The third phase was during production in Ljubljana : Druillet worked with the CG team as a director together with Nicolas.

Nicolas Frucus (below right)
- Arxel Tribe - Video Games Art Director
- RING : Art Director

Too often, Druillet's style is considered as a world of such wild imagination that most people call it graphic delirium. The reality is that it's only a fraction of what he has in his mind while creating. His main quality as lead artist is to work really as a team member. He is open to criticism, hard working and willing to share. For me, strangely, working with Philippe was a constructive experience which offered more chances of expression than I would have thought of in the first place when I knew I would have to bear the responsibility to handle the graphic universe of such a famous and admired artist. It is possible to go to him and present him a vision which is not his. Philippe will always look for the best solution for the project and not systematically fight for his. I involved myself much in colors and lighting, with much more fun than pain. A real illustrator's delight.

GDR: Another thing that impressed me was the use of a 3D graphics engine for a traditional point and click adventure. Many fans had complained that moving from one still image to another was dry and sometimes disorienting in other adventure titles. In The Ring, the combination of third-person animations to make progressive movements with first-person perspectives which allow you to look about in 360 degrees (up and down) provide a very immersive environment. Can you discuss the graphics engine and whether or not work on your previous title, Pilgrim, helped you to develop the kind of visuals gamers have been asking for?

Guillaume de Fondaumière (below)
- Arxel Tribe - Paris Executive Director
- RING : Executive Producer

When we decided to create our first Video Game, we oriented ourselves towards the graphic adventure genre, a "natural" orientation for a 3D graphics studio working on Silicon Graphics work stations.

Our first concern was to imagine an engine which would enable us to display the high-quality images we knew we could produce. For Pilgrim, we mainly concentrated our efforts on the cinematic scenes and decided to create a video compression technology capable of displaying 10 to 25 fps in 640 x 480 format. Because the minimum system configurations were very low at that time (Pentium 75 with 4x CD-ROM and windows 3.1 !) we imagined a compression and decompression system in 256 colors, with each image having its own color palette. The result was a fluid playback of the Video even on low configurations.

During the creation of Pilgrim’s engine we created a lot of different compression algorithms which we thoroughly tested. We finally came up with different technologies. Some could be integrated directly in Pilgrim, some would become the core compression and decompression techniques used for RING , CINMovie version 1.2 for the cinematic scenes and CINView, the 360° rotation engine.

But the technology is not everything. It is also a question of concept and adaptation of the technology to the title. In RING, our aim was to have a very dynamic pre-rendered game with feature film like cinematic scenes. The technologies were both created to enable a greater immersion of the player into the adventure.

For Faust, we are going a step forward. But I don’t want to reveal too much for now ! The only thing I can say is that its in 24 bits graphics...and that our next engine will be real time 3D with the same graphics quality as in RING.

GDR: As I mention in the review of The Ring, I was shocked that someone had made a game based on a Wagner opera, Der Ring des Nibelungen. For those Wagnerians out there in the world, can you tell us how you came to use Sir Georg Solti's recordings for The Ring?

Guillaume de Fondaumière
- Arxel Tribe - Paris Executive Director
RING : Executive Producer

When Philippe Druillet came to us with the project, one of our first thoughts went to the classical music fans. If we were to produce a game based on an opera, it was obvious that we would have to satisfy those who knew the opera and Wagner’s work. We didn’t think at first to contact one of the big labels, a bit afraid of their possible refusal. We tried to hire a symphony orchestra and have them play the most significant themes. But this project soon turned out to be a nearly impossible task to achieve, with production costs exploding and a difficulty to plan the production the way we wanted.

On vacation in Vienna (Austria), I entered into a little music shop in front of the famous Opera House. I started to talk about our project with its very conservative owner and to my biggest surprise she was delighted about it. I spent nearly three hours in this shop and I got a real, intensive course on the RING. I was finally told that if we were to create a game on the RING, we had to have Solti’s recording....

Back to Paris, I contacted Charles-Henry de Pierrefeu who is in charge of evaluating possible cross-market collaborations with Polygram Labels. He immediately offered me a meeting, which I attended with a "best-off" CD I had bought in Vienna. It was the first time he had been contacted for a Video Game, but I immediately got a very positive response.

Two months later we had a final agreement settled and started to work with DECCA in Great Britain. David Rinaldy, who works in our creative department and who is a fanatic Wagner fan, was responsible for choosing the right tracks.

The collaboration with Polygram and later DECCA was and is still fabulous. Edward Kershaw, who is the Director of Catalogue Development of DECCA even suggested last month to come out with a new double audio CD with the game’s packaging design. We are very proud about that.... The double album should be out in May. It’s a real dream-come-true !

I think this is the beginning of a wonderful partnership.

GDR: One of the most delightful features of The Ring is the voice acting and rich dialogues. I played the English version of the game, and I was thoroughly amazed at the use of language. I mean it is "just a game" however you spent a great deal of effort to raise the quality to a standard not even found in most movies. What is the background behind the texts, are they taken from the opera or legends themselves, and how were you able to entice Charlotte Rampling to play the voice of Erda, the "mother" god?

Beryl Chanteux (below right)
Arxel Tribe - Production assistant, Scriptwriter
RING - Dialogs, actors direction for motion capture and voices.

The use of language had been a big issue since the project began. Stephen Carrière wanted the dialogs to be written separately, by someone that was completely exterior to the video games business. We met as I was beginning my Ph.D. in Philosophy, and to be honest, I had never seen or what's more played a video game at that time! He explained The Ring project to me, and told me that he wanted to stay as true as possible to Wagner's original libretto for the Opera... in a real adventure game. And such a "crazy" idea was too appealing to be refused.

I plunged into the Tetralogy, and I realized quickly that I had to work on its original German version, for Wagner's writing sets deadly translation problems! Wagner's texts are an amazing source, a fantastic stuff to work on. They are breathing, shining, they are crossed by undercurrents of life and utter feelings and, in a way, the whole idea of the game and of the dialogs was transmission. Transmission of memory, transmission of a mythology, transmission of story.

The transmission of the story by adapting the dialogs to an adventure game was really a challenge, because the dialogs of Ring (game) couldn't be a mere translation. Firstly, because Wagner wrote the Ring cycle for four operas, during sixteen years; the scenes were meant to be sung, thus they are extremely long, rich, prolix... And a 5 minutes dialog is already extremely long in the video game standard! Though it's absolutely magnificent, a synthesis had to be made, trying not to lose the original flame and "gallantry" of the text....

The question of structure is also very problematic in the Ring cycle, for the operas are not based on a complete linear timeline. Hints and explanations are scattered all along the cycle. This process of progressive discovery could be betrayed, yet I had to make the story understandable because the game stopped at the end of the second opera. And of course, there were "added scenes", or scenes transformed into enigmas: it had to remain a game. Thus, texts had to be written, which don't exist in the opera.

What Stephen tried to do with enigmas is to link them as much as possible to the story of the Ring. For example, we decided to unveil the story of Siegmund's mother through the enigma of the tomb, or the story of Wotan's original sin through the enigma of the mosaic in the Nibelheim. So you must really immerse yourself into the original text, until your writing or your sensitivity doesn't form a filtering screen any more.

The voices, the motions, the texts, the design of the characters, all these were intimate parts of the game itself: to give a reality and an history to the characters. And this is what I really loved about the Ring project: during the working process, we all had to build bridges. Bridges with the scenario, bridges with the story board and the art work of Druillet and Nicolas, bridges with the comedians, so that in the end, everything matches to make a whole that lives and tells. And the project then jumped from miracle to miracle: the agreement to use Solti's recording, first, then Charlotte Rampling... We contacted her by her agent, in Paris. I remember we were already happy as madmen not to receive a direct NO! from her. Her agent asked us to send the text of ERDA... and then she accepted! For us, it was a gift from Heaven, because Charlotte Rampling is extremely cautious about her choices, and accepts only projects in which she "believes"... and most of all, because she's a fantastic actress, and an amazing woman.

Then... Here I would like to address a personal message to Karen Zierler: Receiving your review was one of the happiest complete surprises of the Ring adventure. And, as far of my contribution is concerned, you gave me the greatest joy and fulfillment possible. You've been sensitive to the tiniest touches and details and just proved our bet is won! So I take this opportunity to solemnly light from France an altar of cheerful gratefulness to you!!!

[KZ blushes profusely...thank you so very much in return :-)]

GDR: Arxel Tribe appears to be aiming for "cultural" projects. A title such as The Ring could be compared to movies such as Excalibur which used the music Carmina Burana as the score and deals with the Arthurian legends. Or to even go one step further, like "French" films. In a day and age where babes and violence, elves and paladins rule the gaming world, how do you defend yourself against some of those who have said to you, you are being "foolish or pretentious" in the titles you are developing? With this in mind, what titles are in Arxel Tribe's future plans?

Stephen Carrière
- Arxel Tribe - Creative Director
- RING : Game designer / Team leader

Firstly, I would like to clarify something : we have no despite whatsoever against action, RPG, strategy, or simulation games, ON THE CONTRARY. We all play Starcraft , Resident Evil, Baldur's Gate, Motoracer ... and have a lot of fun. The only thing we are trying to achieve is to prove that there is also a place for "content-orientated" games among others.

The response to RING worldwide is very encouraging : your review of course as well as CGW which gave Ring a 4 stars-highly recommended mention, the Gold prize from EMMA Awards for best adventure game 1998, The Gold Prize from Ordinateur Individuel (1st generalist computer mag in France) for best adventure game 1998,... Ring has already been sold to 32 countries, translated in 11 languages. We are not in a position to complain. Ring was only our second game and we think we can improve greatly.

In terms of future projects, I guess, we'll continue taking risks with "dangerous" material. In October, we are releasing FAUST, A GAME OF SOUL, an even crazier project than RING in its concept and its form. In march, we are setting on RING II which we have decided to bring to movie quality (we are engaging talks with some producers about a long featured movie based on the quest of Siegfried). After that ? It's a bit too early to tell.

At the end, your editorial line answers the common passions and ambitions of your team : our small gang is an unusual lot for the video game industry but we have much in common to build on. We've all been fed and raised with Arts, literature, philosophy, Cinema and hours of board RPG. We try to use those roots and offer products which really were born from what we have best.

N.B. : It's funny you quote Excalibur and Carmina Burana because the music of the famous introduction scene is actually the "Funeral March of Siegfried" from The Twilight of the Gods (Fourth day of the tetralogy in Wagner's Ring). This theme is the main one throughout all the movie but I agree that Boorman brought back to life Carmina Burana which became such a Hit after the movie that it made a shadow over its "elder brother".

GDR: For your upcoming title then, Faust, you will be featuring a "new adventure gaming concept." Would you at this time be able to elaborate a little about this concept and what the title is about?

Stephen Carrière
- Arxel Tribe - Creative Director
- RING : Game designer / Team leader

FAUST, A GAME OF SOUL, is a free adaptation of the myth of FAUST . We were fascinated by the evolution of the archetypes of Doctor Faust and the demon Mephistopheles in their various literary embodiments. We inspired ourselves mainly from Marlowe, Goethe, Mann, Boulgakof and Pessoa and tried to offer a new contemporary reading of this famous battle. The game will be a new approach of adventure, structured like a TV series. We'll release in October the first 7 episodes (21 are planned to complete the cycle).

On the form it could be compared to Lars Von Trier's "Kingdom", US brilliant "Profit" or the first period of B&W Twillight Zone [the original TV series from the mid-1960's -KZ]. The story takes place in a deserted Amusement park inhabited by the ghosts of the people who lived and worked there from the 20's on. It's a mix of investigation and paranormal with a strong mystical flavor. Our hero, Marcellus Faust, is an old wise black guy from Mississippi (a guardian angel who lost his wings in mysterious circumstances) and his opponent the dandy Mephisto, master of mischief and illusion.

Each episode is a short story based on a character's life (Lily and Jody the Siamese twins, Nathaniel the spy who became an alchemist, Frank the painter who wanted to be Casanova, Kalinka the costume maker who is in love with a ghost, Hannibal the cruel tiger tamer, Tod a Three feet high bootlegger and Gisele the fattest woman on earth with the soul of a child who moved the demon himself). The interactivity is a mix of classical adventure (1st person 360° rotation) and tailored engine features for the various attractions of the park (interactive ride, reflex games, Real-time puzzles..).

GDR: I would like to thank all the members of Arxel Tribe for taking time away from their various tasks to answer these questions for our readers and say that it has been a pleasure learning more about The Ring, Arxel Tribe and your future plans. I would like to wish you all the best on the development of your new titles.

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