Martin Ganteföhr - House of Tales interview
"Violence is a phenomenon that is very close to the core of human nature. Violence is all about conflicting, contradicting human behaviour – and it is conflict and contradiction that constitute drama."
Violence is a common enough topic in the games industry, but usually the theme is violence in games, not games about violence. Not so for House of Tales in its highly-anticipated upcoming adventure, Overclocked: A History of Violence. The German developer has never shied away from complex and even controversial subjects, and in the studio's latest offering, the psychological effects of violence is at the forefront of what Creative Director Martin Ganteföhr describes as a "journey into character". Along with its mature subject matter comes an ambitious narrative structure that explores the suppressed memories of five traumatized young people moving chronologically backwards, even as events unfold in normal time for a psychiatrist that seems equally burdened by secrets. We've been excited about the game since first seeing it in person, and with the game finally nearing its English release next month, we went behind the scenes to ask Martin about Overclocked, plus delve into a few memories of his own.
So, Martin, Overclocked has been out for several months in Germany. How has the game been received so far, both publicly and critically? Any surprises, or are you pretty happy with the response to this point?
Well, I think it’s safe to say now that critically, Overclocked has been a major success for us. The review score ratio in Germany is 81%, and I’m very proud that we’ve been covered in important European quality papers, such as Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Quite shockingly, we’ve also won the Jury Innovation Award from the German Developer Awards. And I’ve been invited to speak at the Academy of Arts Berlin, which is an honour.
Admittedly, there have also been a handful of very critical voices. But overall, I’m quite happy that we see some friendly nods and get some pats on the back from who I think of as ‘the people who matter’.
Have you been heavily involved in the localization process, or is the game pretty much in the various publishers' hands at this point?
With the English version, my involvement was indeed pretty heavy. I directed the voice recordings, and also made numerous changes to the translated English script, to retain as much of the ‘spirit’ of the original script as possible. As for the other languages, we’ve put that in the hands of the various publishers. The main reason being that, besides German and English, my language expertise amounts to Latin.
We'll come back to Overclocked, but let's turn the clock back a bit first. At what point did you decide to become a game developer in the first place? As a writer, why games rather than non-interactive media?
Looking back, I think I never made an actual decision. I always knew that I wanted to write. I was also interested in multi-layered, interactive narrative structures. But until I turned 27, I had no concrete plans to combine the two interests. (In fact, I had no concrete plans for anything at the time, but that’s another story.)
So, in 1996, when I was in college, a highly unlikely set of circumstances landed me a writing job on a Multimedia CD-ROM project. Things went on from there. I kept writing. Hundreds of pages, thousands of pages. Products were released, seasons changed, my first son started school. I kept writing. At some point, I looked up from the computer and thought to myself: “I’ve been doing this for a decade now. I must be a games writer.”
Many things have changed during those years, including myself and my work. But what hasn’t changed is my goal to create something that matters to me, and – hopefully – to other people as well.
So why adventure games? Surely not for the lure of fame and fortune. (Or if so, that delusion will have long since been shattered.)
You forgot to mention the girls.
I believe when you try to tell stories, it’s only natural to choose the genre that allows for the strongest narrative and the most prominent characterisation. Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create narrative games with a heart and a soul and a mind. I don’t know to what degree, if at all, we succeed in doing that – but, yeah… that’s why we create adventure games.
Somewhere amidst that decade of creating paper mountains (I'm picturing Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters, but it's you and writing, and possibly no aliens), House of Tales came about. Can you tell us a bit about that?
I studied literature and linguistics, and [HoT co-founder] Tobias [Schachte] worked as a programmer in his own small multimedia company. While I was in college, I wrote all sorts of stuff to pay my bills, ads for the advertising industry, also manuals, technical documentation, online help systems, all that boring stuff. I had theoretical knowledge about narrative structure, but my gaming expertise amounted to having played many of the early adventure games. What I know about the development side of games today, I had to learn the hard way: on the job.
Tobias had a lot more development experience. He had created small games and applications (-- a while back, he showed me his earliest DOS game, “WAR” --), and he’d spent a lot of his free time assembling his own game development technology, which later became our engine and tool set.
However, when we decided to create a “real” game together, we had absolutely no clue how to do anything. To us, the demo that got us the first publishing deal seemed like a major achievement in game development. It can be a blessing to be naïve.
We had no idea how much time, work, stress and money a complete, professional development cycle would involve. And that was good. Had we known, we’d probably have stopped immediately.
Were you completely self-funded at the beginning? How does a fledgling development studio manage to survive until the first game is done?
We started the development when we had created a couple of multimedia titles and applications together. So, we had saved some money. Also, we both kept our old jobs as a second source of income. Two men, both basically clueless, each of us with two jobs -- it seemed like a really good idea. We added other good ideas, such as seriously under-budgeting the project, and setting up an impossible schedule.
When the game was done, we were alive, but exhausted. Preparing another game took much longer than desirable or affordable. Again, we managed to bridge it with savings, copy writing, and game industry jobs. What drove us forward was the excitement about the next project. I learned that excitement is a really pleasant subtype of ignorance. It can make anything invisible. Even unpaid bills. The only thing you see is your goal: making that game.
Your debut effort, Mystery of the Druids, isn't generally regarded as one of the genre's finer examples, though your next PC adventure, The Moment of Silence, is ranked by many as a personal favourite. How did the experience you gained from the first game benefit you in making your second?
I believe Mystery of the Druids was proof that we could make a game. ‘Make’ as in: ‘complete’, ‘finish’. It surely wasn’t proof that we could make a ‘really great’ game. But the first step with anything is – well, actually making the first step. Daring to do it, and then growing with the challenges. MotD will always have a special place in our hearts, and the game has its fans. It’s still on the shelves here in Germany, and it’s still selling. We learned a tremendous amount during its making -- technically, artistically and even financially. But most importantly, we lost our fear. We approached Moment of Silence with increased knowledge AND self-confidence. Instead of panicking and crow-barring things together just to produce a functioning product, we could focus our energy on creating an interesting experience.
House of Tales also produced four mobile phone adventures, which, if I do say so myself, are undeservedly overlooked. What prompted you to explore the mobile phone market?
Beer. We met the owner of Elkware Games (a studio specialising in mobile games) for beers at the GC Developers Village. Their CEO approached us and suggested that we create an adventure game for cell phones. I just laughed, and told him that it was a really silly idea.
Fortunately however, we also have smart people working here at HoT. So, Tobias started discussing details with Elkware, and the beer appointment turned into a solid, very fruitful joint-venture that produced four great little games. I wrote and scripted all of them. And I loved it. It was what game development should always be: a whole lot of fun. (And it paid quite nicely.)
The most obvious next question is, what prompted you to get out of the mobile phone market?
In many ways, the cell phone platform isn’t much different from any other new platform. We entered that market as an early adopter, as a pioneer. We were the first studio ever to create adventure games for cell phones.
But the platform soon developed and changed. The display resolutions doubled and tripled. So did the memory and the processor speed. With each new handset generation, you had to create bigger games. That meant: higher budgets, more development staff, and more development time.
For us, it had started as a series of fun side projects. But we soon realised that if we wanted to keep up with the development speed of the platform, we’d need to found a separate HoT Mobile unit, exclusively devoted to creating mobile games, full-time. We decided against that, as we felt it’d create too much administrative overhead and alienate us from our core business.
With the Nintendo DS popularizing handheld adventures, at least far more than mobile phones ever did, would you consider designing a game for the DS? Not porting a PC game, but creating one from the ground up.
As a developer, I see one thing that’s really tempting about all handheld game platforms: shorter development cycles. I loved creating games for mobile phones, and the idea of developing for DS is equally appealing. We haven’t really considered the platform yet. But that might change.
In Overclocked, you've chosen to tackle a very complex subject in the psychological effects of violence. Is that a topic of strong personal interest to you, or did you choose it more for its narrative possibilities?
Those are two sides of the same coin. Violence is a phenomenon that is very close to the core of human nature. Violence is all about conflicting, contradicting human behaviour – and it is conflict and contradiction that constitute drama.
I don’t have any answers as to what violence is, or why it is there, or what should be done about it. All I have is questions. To me, the game is essentially about the disturbing and irrational nature of the topic.
I understand you spent time in a psychiatric hospital in years past. Working in one, I mean (or at least, that's your story and you're sticking to it). How did that experience help shape your approach to Overclocked?
Yeah, thank you for emphasizing the ‘working in one’ part.
I experienced a lot of things in that hospital that I will never forget. Working there fundamentally changed my views of what life actually is, and what can happen to the human mind. I experienced some of the most touching and some of the most terrible moments of my life in that ward. And yes, some of the themes in the game have a basis in real life. The ‘rewind’ method Dave uses, for example, is (in similar form) an actual psychiatric method to reconstruct memories of trauma patients.
However, I’m well aware that I’m a game writer. I cannot, should not, and don’t want to transfer highly foreign job or life experiences to my games in a 1:1 form. What I’m aiming for, and what I hope to accomplish, is the transformation and abstraction of my thoughts and experiences into something that’s meaningful beyond autobiographical anecdotes. But I’ve always thought that ‘write what you know’ is a pretty strong rule.
Speaking of narrative possibilities, in addition to its thematic depth, Overclocked has an intricate plot structure, delving chronologically backwards into the memories of patients while time progresses normally through the larger story arc for the psychiatrist. So my rather topical question is: are you NUTS? Or perhaps a little less bluntly, what made you decide to try something so ambitious, on top of the already challenging subject matter?
Two answers, one is business-related, one is, uh, ‘art’-related. Firstly, I think exploring the possibilities of narrative structure is the only field where people like us get at least a chance to stick out from the crowd. We make adventure games. We’re in a niche market. We get all the quality pressure from the top of the development community. Our games don’t look and feel like Crysis. We know that, but there’s nothing we can do about it. On the other hand, "Your Average Mystery Adventure" has only 2/3 of our development budget. Its developers may be in a low-cost country, or it may be their first product. Again, there’s nothing we can do about it. Being different is our only option.
Secondly, we’re trying to do creative work here. I firmly believe the only way to create something of value (to yourself and others) is to NOT try and copy others. Copying others is a way of saying that either you don’t trust your own creations, or you just don’t care.
I agree that Overclocked’s set-up doesn’t exactly scream “blockbuster game!” I also agree that its structure is complicated. But I hope and believe its structure is only complicated on the development side, not on the playing side. The structure is intricate, but the actual, essential story is pretty straightforward. I don’t want to confuse the players beyond what they (and I) can handle.
Were there times as you went along where the complexities of the design threatened to become overwhelming?
Technically, the game was accurately split into segments, thanks to Tobias’ invaluably wise planning of the scripting environment and game state handling. I personally scripted 75% of the game, and I had no huge difficulties. However, you won’t be surprised to hear that continuity was a MAJOR issue in a game that has dozens of time slots and is partly narrated backwards. We managed to stay on top of it for the most part. Everything went just fine. Yeah. It was all a real -- nightmare.
How do you think you've grown as a writer from story to story, game to game? How about as a game designer?
That’s hard for me to answer. I’ve heard people say that I’m a terrible writer and a terrible game designer. I’ve also heard people say the exact opposite.
You see, I have few illusions about my talent. I write for a living, and I’m doing the best I can do. In every of House of Tales game, that’s all I could give at the time, given my knowledge and my personal and professional resources. I take this job seriously, and I take my audience seriously. I’m aware that there are many better and more talented writers than me out there. But I’m also aware that there are many who are worse. I do feel that, all things considered, I’m making progress. I haven’t made my best game yet.
You've spoken before about being a big fan of classic adventures, and yet consciously trying to avoid simply emulating what's come before. What would you say is the main goal for a House of Tales game? And as the primary writer, what characterizes a Martin Ganteföhr story?
I guess I partly addressed that above. I don’t view other games as something I’d want to reproduce or draw some mysterious golden formula from. Looking at classics can be enlightening in terms of gameplay mechanics. It can be inspiring in seeing how other people have dared to be creative with the medium. But what it ultimately teaches us is not that we should do stuff that resembles theirs. It teaches us how far creativity can get you.
What is a House of Tales game? I hope it’s a quality game that focuses on story, character, and atmosphere, and is neither utterly stupid, nor completely superficial, nor a total game design train-wreck. That’s what’s intended, at least. I believe we’re getting there. Slowly.
I suspect a lot of people think that being a game developer is all fun and games, so to speak, but the reality is often quite different. Does the grind takes its toll after a while? Small teams, heavy schedule, lots of stress, no room for error. Do you start to feel burned out at some point?
Of course. It can be exciting and fun, but it can also be tiring and demoralising to be in this. Especially with the years ticking away. I used to be 27. Soon I’ll be turning 39. I have no rational explanation for this effect. The Game Industry ages you.
Do you ever get a chance to simply kick back and play games for fun anymore? Like, for a completely and utterly random example, a totally awesome freeware Christmas adventure?
Jack. I’m a computer game developer. Naturally, the first thing I do when I’ve finished my 11-hour computer-workplace computer-game-related workday is: sit down at my computer and play computer games for another 11 hours.
Seriously though, I don’t play all that much anymore. I have kids, and I’m an old bugger who needs his sleep and his books and his cooking and his reporting wrongly parked cars to the cops. I do play demos of the current games, of course. Other than that, I play the Christmas Quest trilogy, mostly.
Wow, what a totally unexpected last part of that answer. I always knew you were a man of taste and discernment, but clearly you're a scholar and a gentleman as well. (Assuming you aren't using the CQ's as your example of how NOT to design a train-wreck of a game, that is.) But back to more important matters, as a writer, do you have any desire to branch out from adventures, or from games entirely?
I will always write. It’s like a curse. We’ll see where, and what. Like many game writers (and even more game journalists, I guess), I have an unfinished, horrible novel manuscript in my desk drawer. I might get back to it at some point, and add more incompletion and horror to it.
And just when you want nothing more than to catch your breath from the completion of one game, comes the dreaded question: what's next for House of Tales?
We have an exciting game in the pipeline. It’s tricky to make, it has an interesting structure, and on top of all that, it MOSTLY has GOOD weather and non-depressive characters!
Yeah, there you have it. We’re selling out.
Too early for details, is it? Well, I'd press you for more, but we've still got Overclocked to look forward to in the meantime. After a year in the upper echelons of the Hype-o-Meter, we're anxious to see what you've been busy working on, and only another month to wait now. Thanks very much for answering our questions, and all the best to the House of Tales team going forward.
Thank you, Jack, for some great questions. It’s been a pleasure (and a lot of work!!). Greetings from the HoT WHQ to the adventure gaming crowd out there. Thanks for all your support during the last decade.