Known for her love of the absurd and magical realism, Sabrina Calvo has many strings to her bow: writer, designer, screenwriter, video game designer... In 2018, she won the Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire for her novel Toxoplasma. She has just co-written a virtual reality fiction with Charles Ayats called 7 Lives, directed by Jan Kounen.
Writer, designer, scriptwriter, video game designer… How did you come to these different art forms?
Everything happened very organically. When I started creating at around 9, 10 years old, I was making comics. I was trying to replicate the horror films I was watching at the time because my mother was working in a video store. And then I realised I was too lazy for comics... By the age of 18, I started writing short stories and realised that this format let me do whatever I wanted. At 23, I published my first novel - at the time, I was a video game journalist. Then, at 30, my writing career took off and I started working more seriously in the industry. Today I write books, poems and video games... and I still draw.
You often talk about writing. Do you think it's the basis for everything? What is your writing process?
For me, writing is fundamental. It manifests itself in several forms: words, of course, but also drawing. Because for me - as for many comic book creators - drawing is writing. And the words often come at the same time. More than a writing process, I would call it a creative process. And I often take as my starting point words that I misunderstand, like when I mishear conversations. Images emerge from words that don’t exist, which I then try to explore further. Drawing is there to emphasise a perspective or a vision. I wrote an entire film based on an initial image I had of two people dressed in black, wearing helmets and running along a slope to escape helicopters - Megiddo, for my brother Steeve. I didn't know what the story would be behind it, but I knew that was the scene I wanted to describe.
You recently co-wrote your first virtual reality work, 7 Lives. What was your process like?
7 Lives is neither an interactive experience nor a cinematic story. This work gives the user a major role, and their psychological participation is important: the game requires you to build a whole universe yourself, with your mind and your feelings. To me, video games are quite similar to poetry: they can leave a lot of space for the person perceiving them. For 7 Lives, we had a substantial budget, but we didn’t want to tell a story, rather we wanted to evoke the feeling of being estranged from ourselves. Is it possible to describe a feeling? To describe empathy, the ability to hear others' pain? We wanted to walk this fine line between traditional storytelling and pure evocation. It was a constant challenge and I think in the end we achieved our goal - nobody could be indifferent to the experience of this game.
Do you think virtual reality is the future of video games?
Virtual reality is a medium which is suitable for certain types of experiences. It offers a unique perspective: in 7 Lives, for example, the player identifies with someone who commits suicide, and then with their soul which remains suspended outside their body, in real time. Because it's virtual reality, some people talk about immersive experiences: I don't like that term, it's a bit of a catch-all. There are conventional games which are more immersive than VR. Furthermore, I don’t necessarily feel VR technology is on the cutting edge. I believe much more strongly in augmented reality. The day we have smart contact lenses, society will change dramatically. We are far from that, and I don’t know whether it is desirable. Personally, I am very satisfied with my little emulator window on my computer!
You are adept at a kind of excess, sticking to absurdity and surrealism... Is this part of a desire to reverse the current trend of very realistic video games?
I don't feel like I work with surrealism: I'd be more likely to classify my work as magical realism. Toxoplasma tells the story of a raccoon that was decapitated, dismembered and then placed on a swing in a public park. That was something I heard on the radio when I was living in Montreal, and I decided to use it as a starting point for the book. I start from the real, but I think the best way to talk about this manufactured reality is through the fantastic.
You often say that you are looking to create “accidents” during the game creation processes. Why?
I can't imagine creating if I'm not surprised by what I create. I don't write my books, I live them. I move with my characters. I am convinced that it is by observing systems that we discover the truth about them. You have to be on the lookout for accidents, for when things go wrong. And maybe we can use the exceptions to change things. Poor writing and poor framing can ultimately increase your strength and accuracy.
7 Lives, by Sabrina Calvo, will be presented on the Institut français platform dedicated to independent video games culturegamer.fr, available at the beginning of 2020.
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