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Ankh - Jan Klose interview

Remember when comic adventures ruled the genre? Those games were filled with quirky characters, laugh-out-loud dialogue lines, and zany outside-the-box puzzling. And best of all, they possessed that most important ingredient: fun. German development studio Deck 13 remembers, and they’ve set out to bring back a little of that magic with their upcoming adventure, Ankh. The game is set in the all-too-familiar locale of ancient Egypt, but an ancient Egypt like you never saw in any history books! With a whole cast of memorable characters, including its adolescent hero, Assil, who sets the plot in motion by using a sacred pyramid to party with his friends, Ankh promises to bring "pure fun” back to gaming, and wrap it up neatly in vivid 3D graphics, while preserving a classic interface. The game has already released to early critical acclaim in the developer’s native Germany, and is due soon for worldwide release. Adventure Gamers was thrilled to sit down with Jan Klose, Creative Director for Deck 13 and project leader on Ankh, for the latest inside info on the game, the company, and even a small glimpse into what lies ahead.

I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with AG about Ankh, and it’s very nice to meet you!

Nice to meet you too! I'm Jan Klose, and I'm the project leader of Ankh. The internal team consists of 13 people, and we've been heavily supported by about the same amount of external people.

As the project leader, what is your role in the development process?

It all starts with creating the game concept. I've been working with the team to create a thrilling story, and then try to bring it to a state where the production becomes realistic. Many ideas have to be cut out, to allow the game to be made and released. On the other hand, the best ideas have to be kept alive, to turn the game into something very special.

Later in the production, my role is to observe the schedule and financial framework (with the support of my partners, of course) and to make sure that the game follows a specific style.

Where did the name Deck 13 come from?

The idea was to have something unique in the name. The "13" is kind of like a "pirate" number, and the "Deck" reminds you of a ship, as well. However, on many ships (and in many buildings), the 13th floor or deck is omitted due to superstition. So our name is meant to show that we're not afraid in anything.

So you guys are developer rebels! How is it working with bhv Software? They seem to be very enthusiastic about your game.

Exactly, that's the idea! We are daring and that's the idea behind our games. They're supposed to be courageous undertakings!

We've been working very well with the guys at bhv Software. It was, and still is, a great time. Which is very good, because although the game is already released in Germany, a lot of work remains to be done!

The current game is actually a sequel to an earlier Ankh game, which featured a lead character named Domi. Will gamers who haven’t played the earlier game be missing out on anything?

It's not necessary to play the earlier game in order to know anything about Ankh. The "new" Ankh is a unique game that stands alone, and the new hero, Assil, is a whole new character.

The basic story for Ankh sees our hero, Assil, get together with his friends for a party in the sacred pyramid. In the process, they unleash some sort of evil curse. While there, Assil takes possession of an object of great mystical power, because he mistakes it for a bottle opener. These events bring him into conflict with the boss of the day, Pharaoh Iphenep. What more can you say about the story?

Assil is a young man who doesn't care much about getting a job and earning money. His father is a rich pyramid architect and Assil is just bored. So he steals the keys to a new pyramid from his father and invites some friends to have a party. However, due to an accident, they wake up the resident mummy who in return curses Assil with a horrible death curse. At the same time, Assil receives the "Ankh", by chance, which is a powerful artifact. His main objective from now on is to get this curse removed.

However, later in the story he learns that there are other important things in life... as you might guess, this new knowledge occurs to him when he meets a very charming woman for the first time. At first, they don't like each other much, but later in the adventure... well, I really don't want to reveal too much!

There have been a lot of games based in or around Egypt, which ranks right up there with Atlantis as one of the most over-used destinations for adventure games. How do you distinguish this game and its locale from that horde?

First of all, Ankh doesn't really take the Egypt setting seriously. If you're after historical facts, then Ankh is definitely not for you. Our aim was to use this magic location and display it in an absolutely different way! You'll encounter the "Camel-O-Wash" center, a fish burger hut, a ferryman who behaves like a New York taxi driver, and many more things that wouldn't fit into any "classic" Egyptian game. It's a bit like Shrek did with the fairytale setting; we took Egypt and turned it upside down!

I like the comparison to Shrek. Are there other inspirations behind Ankh?

Apart from classic adventure games like The Secret of Monkey Island, we've been inspired by recent animation movies like Ice Age and Antz.

I can see the Monkey Island influence. The look of the game is definitely cartoon-styled and similar to Shrek and other recent films.

Yes, we liked the current 3D comic style from those movies very much, and also that "special" look of all of those characters of the Monkey Island series. Everybody has very unique features.

You have a lot of crazy characters in your game. Aside from Assil, you have Thara, the daughter of the Arabian ambassador, and a belly dancer guard named Boulboul, to name only a couple. How many speaking characters are there in Ankh? And could you describe a few of these characters?

There are more than 40 different characters in the game. Most of them have very special features. For example, Olga is the manager of the fish burger hut, whose hatred for her customers is topped only by her feelings against cats. Then there's Osiris, god of the underworld, who is more of a bureaucrat and has absolutely no sense of humor whatsoever. We also have a half-blind tailor who mistakes Assil for a girl... and I shouldn't forget the crocodile, which Assil meets more than once. I have to say those two really don't become friends.

What about Pharaoh Iphenep and Assil's romantic interest, Thara?

Thara has a real problem with the Pharaoh. I don't want to reveal too much here, because this is an important part of the plot, but he's imprisoned her because she doesn't accept his authority. There's also the so-called group of "banana throwers" who seem to attack the Pharaoh with, well, banana peels.

Banana throwers?

Indeed. But there's more behind that than there might seem! Apart from the message "Don't take yourself too seriously", the game also carries some messages about liberty and personal identity in a hostile environment.

Any personal favorites among the many characters, and are they based on any real life personalities or role models?

Although we intended to include a special character for all our team members, this was unfortunately not possible due to time limits. I especially like the palace guards; they are inspired by John Cleese from Monty Python, similar to his role in The Life of Brian. Some other characters like Fatima, a friend of Assil's, are based on current sitcoms, and the mysterious Thara may remind people of Leela from Futurama.

The dialogues and characters we saw at E3 were very funny. Humor is very hard to do well in games and there haven't been many comedic games in a long while. How did you manage humorous lines, characters, and situations with global appeal?

First, we had the advantage that our original Ankh game was well received in the UK. Although the market for the game was limited back then, we received very positive feedback regarding the humor. And we know that the British are hard to please about humor! Further, we simply love to think about jokes and funny situations, to watch sitcoms like Friends and King of Queens, and above all, we like humor that's not so much in-your-face but a bit more subtle. And finally, Telltale Games, the company of former LucasArts employees who is going to produce the new Sam & Max titles, gave us a lot of support. So I'm sure that the humor has that global appeal and still keeps its own special style. Other "big names" like Ron Gilbert, creator of Monkey Island, and Bob Bates also told us that they really like the approach of Ankh.

What was Telltale's role in the development?

Telltale helped us regarding the concept itself, as well as checking our work-in-progress versions and commenting on what was working well and where they saw possibilities for improvement. With their help, we ironed out some bumpy parts of the story and within the dialogues.

Switching over to your game engine, why 3D, and how did you balance the many positives of 3D game construction with a desire for detailed graphics people normally associate with 2D pre-rendered backgrounds?

I think the modern lower-end PCs have just reached a point where it is once again possible to create rich and beautiful scenery as we know it from 2D game, but this time using 3D graphics.

3D has many advantages and it's still possible to preserve the feeling of the classic games. Ankh works with almost still images at many places, giving the player the possibility to slowly explore the screen. But then the camera moves and shows that you're within a 3D world. This is especially nice regarding the many small cutscenes that can now take place right in the middle of the game instead of being some sort of extra. And finally, you can do beautiful close-ups of characters during conversations, making them feel much more "alive". This results in a much more cinematic feeling.

Speaking of cutscenes, how are these handled in the game?

There are more than 100 cutscenes within the game, ranging from mini-sequences with only a few special moves and camera angles to full-blown action sequences. All of them are directly tied to the player's actions so that the player never leaves the game world in order to watch a special scene. They are all rendered using the in-game engine. So there's no cut between the game and the films.

Often in games, camera views can be a source of frustration. For example, in many 3D games you can lose the character behind some obstacle or another. How did you avoid these sorts of problems?

First, we spent lots of time finding the right camera angles for the corresponding scenes. Also, we're using a "classic" screen display, despite the 3D technology, which is similar to the 2D display. The camera is sometimes still, and at other places it just moves sideways, but it doesn't do wicked turns and stuff in places where the player needs an overview. And finally, when there's an inevitable obstacle between the player and the camera, the obstacle is faded to transparency so you can see behind it.

About the controls, the game is mouse driven, correct? What else can you tell us about the interface in the game? For example, how is the inventory managed?

We tried to use an interface that's as easy as possible. Yes, it is mouse driven, and the inventory is simply displayed on screen, so you have direct access to the items. It's really minimalist but it works absolutely fine. The mouse cursor is interactive and reacts to the item that you move over. If you move the mouse over a door, for example, the cursor switches to "enter" mode.

Are scene exits marked?

They aren't specially marked, unless you move the mouse over them. But, they're easy to find, as well as most of the items the player needs. We tried to avoid any pixel hunting.

How is the dialogue handled in the game -- is it player-directed or all automatic?

The dialogues are multiple choice and there are lots of them in the game. In most of the dialogues, the player can either get straight to the point, or he can "play" with the character and tease him or her, or be rude, or extra smart. The player has full control over Assil's reactions.

Do these choices affect the game at all?

Yes, they do. In many dialogues, the player receives new quests or items, but only if he chooses the correct answers. However, in Ankh it's not possible to mess things up completely, so he can't annoy another character so much that he wouldn't help Assil further.

How many locations are there in the game, and could you describe a few of them?

There are more than 20 different locations and many of them are split up into various sub-locations. One of the most important locations is the bazaar, a place where Assil meets many people and receives lots of quests. Another big location is the Pharaoh's palace, with a huge garden and the temple of Osiris. Assil will also visit some more uncommon locations like the bottom of the Nile...

The bottom of the Nile! Really?

Yes, but he can get out again alive if he manages to get past the crocodile!

It sounds like Assil gets himself in some pretty crazy predicaments. What is one of the most fun you had creating?

My personal favorite is when Thara tries to convince friends of hers to accept Assil as a companion while he is threatened by his death curse in the background of the scene. A typical slapstick situation that is actually rare in games. However, we had so much fun creating it!

From what we saw briefly at E3, the puzzling for the game seems whimsical, with Monkey Island type of inventory applications. Is this true, and are there other types of challenges in the game as well?

Yes, we tried to omit any boring "box shifting" or sound puzzles. All the game's puzzles are mainly there to support the story and not to play for time. Plus, the solutions are sometimes a bit weird, but always fair to the player.

There are inventory related puzzles and as said earlier, dealing with characters is also an important part of solving puzzles. Speaking of challenges, there are no extra mini-games in Ankh. Although there are some action-like sequences, they do not require the gamer to be quick fingered. They are used merely to increase the tension. Other than that, we tried to keep the puzzles extremely varied and balanced between item puzzles and dialogues.

By action sequences, what do you mean? Can you describe one in a general way to show what you mean by "action" without giving away too much?

There's a sequence where you have to escape from the palace. You see guards running on another level of the palace so it seems as if they would appear at your place any minute. Assil's companion shouts that Assil must do something quickly, and runs off. The music is dramatic, and Assil looks very nervous. Now it's up to the player to go and fetch a cup of tea... or plunge into the atmosphere and help Assil escape as quickly as possible. But there's no real timing, as there is no way to "lose" the game. It's a difficult tightrope walk with adventure games, but I'm sure that we found a very interesting way to solve it!

How is the music handled? Is it originally designed for the game, and what is it like?

The music is very orchestral and cinematic. It has been originally designed for Ankh and sounds very Egyptian and adventurous at the same time. It's inspired by the recent motion picture The Mummy. The music is based on the different locations that Assil visits and tries to generate a unique atmosphere that fits to the current surrounding and feeling of the scene.

Who arranged and composed the music for you?

The music for Ankh was produced by a famous German music producer called Dynamedion. They have composed the music for almost all the major German games of 2005, like The Moment of Silence and Spellforce.

I was thinking back on the dialogues and the complexity with all the possible choices. Will the player need to take notes or is there some sort of in-game notebook?

The player has a "to-do" list that he/she can always access, but it doesn't reveal much more than the current quests. So it helps you keep track of the quests, without revealing too much of the riddle's solutions.

Is the game non-linear at all?

Basically, the game has a linear storyline, but you can decide about the order of solving the quests and picking up items. So you can have many "open" quests for a long time if you wish, or you can solve them one by one.

What do you mean by open quests? Are they optional or just according to a flexible timeline on when you have to have tasks completed in the game?

To take a very easy example, there's a tailor with some blunt scissors. Although you need to sharpen the scissors later in the game, you can do it immediately, or wait until you really need it for the next quest. So it's up to you to decide to just ignore that tailor in the beginning or help him directly. Some games do that differently and thus limit the player's freedom of choice.

But they are not optional. In Ankh, all missions have to be solved, but to do this, it is not necessary to look at each and every item or to go through all possible answers in a conversation. There are some side events, but the quests themselves all need to be solved. So I'd say, yes, it's more like a flexible timeline.

Any easter eggs or in-house jokes in the game you can share?

I don't want to spoil too much, but you should have a good look at the banana plantation once you discover it. Also, there are plenty of in-house jokes hidden in Ankh. But interestingly, it's more the other way round: "famous" phrases from Ankh are repeated over and over at the office. One favorite is, "Hello? Death Curse? Ring a bell?" But I think you really need the context for that one to make sense!

I'll be looking for that line when I play the game! For years now, many developers have gone to hybrid or even shooting games. So why are you guys so committed to an adventure game?

That's an easy one. Our basic approach was to fill a gap in current computer gaming. While the cinema is extremely successful with comedy content, games producers have somewhat retreated from that area in the recent years. Now, if I love humorous movies or TV sitcoms, and if I want to get just that feeling when playing a PC game (i.e. if I really don't like sci-fi, guns, and heroes with blood-stained swords), then there's simply no good game for me to play.

However, these games have been very popular in the past. And we just couldn't believe that people aren't interested in these games any more. We suppose the games were just going down together with the 2D technology, and finally 3D is catching up in terms of rich environments as they are needed for such games. Conclusion: the time for great new adventure games is just now!

bhv Software is publishing the game in Germany, Micro Application in France. What is the schedule for the rest of the game territories, and any plans yet for a North American release?

The game will be released all over Europe, including Eastern Europe. France and the UK are going to see the game very early next year. The English and French versions are very close to release. We're also negotiating with a soon-to-be disclosed group about online distribution of the English version, and a regular boxed product is also planned for the U.S. It's all coming very soon!

The crew of Deck13

 

What are you most proud of with this game project?

We wanted to take the classic games to a new and state-of-the-art level, and I'm sure that this is what we achieved! I think that we have found our own modern style while keeping the spirit of the classics alive.

What is in the future for you guys? Do you have any other new projects waiting in the wings or just looking forward to a nice break?

We've already got a signed agreement for our next title, which is also going to be an adventure game, but at the moment I can't reveal much more details about this... Let's say that fans of adventure heroes like Indiana Jones might love the next title.

So there's definitely no break in sight! Although some holiday time wouldn't hurt too much!

Thanks very much for taking the time to talk with Adventure Gamers. Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

If you like comedy then you should definitely give Ankh a try. I'm pretty sure that you won't be disappointed at all. And thanks for talking with me!


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