Knut Müller

Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 17 March 2008. Last updated on 25 November 2012.
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Knut Müller
Knut Müller is an indie game developer and the designer of the Rhem series.

Knut Müller is a German independent game developer who is best known as the creator of Rhem. Rhem is a first-person graphical adventure game to the likes of Myst in both style and gameplay. Born in 1963 in Reichenbach, Germany, Müller had studied visual arts (painting and graphics) in Leipzig and electronic music in Dresden before taking a leap to become a game developer. A self-taught computer programmer, Müller was inspired to become a game developer when he grew fascinated with a freeware adventure game called Das Tor der Minerva (The Gate of Minerva) which he saw in a local computer magazine back in 1997. Later, his fascination with Myst solidified his interest in this genre of adventure games and laid down the foundation for a professional career in game development that lasted to this day. Today, he works mainly freelance as a visual artist and a composer. Rhem is his first game project.

We are privileged to have this interview with the multitalented game designer and developer. In the interview, Müller speaks about his inspiration behind Rhem, the challenges of being an indie game developer, his gaming and game design philosophy (in particular, the difference between cinema and gaming), what gamers can expect from Rhem 3: The Secret Library, and what holds for him and the Rhem series in the future.

What inspired you to make the leap from being a freelance artist to becoming an indie game developer? What was the greatest challenge you faced in making this transition?

I'm actually a freelance visual artist, composer and indie game developer. I didn't jump from the bank of freelance art to an opposite bank of game developing. My kind of working is a permanent move from one area to another. I love and need this interexchange of creative perspectives. Maybe the question is, what was the motivation to start touching the ground of the indie game world? It started with my study of "electro-acoustic and electronic music". During that time I started working with the computer. I got to know some adventure games like Myst. I liked it and wanted to create a small world of my own images, sounds and logic. To create Rhem was a great journey and a process of never-ending learning.

What was your favorite adventure game of all time (aside from your own games, of course)? Why?

It's difficult to make a ranking, because I like some games. Sometimes I like the graphic but not the story. Sometimes I like the atmosphere but not the kind of puzzles. But I can always learn from every game.

The greatest game for me is Riven, the sequel of Myst. There is one large unique world and all elements are connected to each other. There is a natural and surprising beauty all around. The puzzles are logical and a real part of the world (not only added). I can feel the love in the whole ensemble of the Riven world and in the smallest detail. The gamer has time to fill these images and sounds with its own fantasy and make it alive. If the atmosphere is so true and dense like in Riven, it's not necessary to have a "real-3D" environment for more illusion. Too much illusion shrivels the power of fantasy and imagination. I think a good "classical point-and-click graphic adventure" can be a game to advance and let grow imaginative and logical abilities.

The category "book" isn't antediluvian and obsolete at all, notwithstanding it is nothing more than paper with black signs since a hundred of years. The differentiation (if a book is good or not) depends on its content. It depends on the competency to let the human fantasy and intellect fly. I think, we should speak about "classical point-and-click graphic adventures" (and all computer games) in the same kind. It's not important for me to make more illusions, real-3D, effects, 3D-sound... because only the aesthetic, intellectual and emotional facts count. If a game stays on the basic of newest technical comforts to boost illusion, it will become old and unfashionable, sooner or later. Some game reviewers criticize the category "classical point-and-click graphic adventure" because of missing illusion. They benchmark "classical point-and-click graphic adventures" under wrong attributes.

I also like the original Myst. This game opens the gate to a new world. The puzzles are really great. The structure is clear and rich. And there is a lot of other games which I played with great pleasure: Myst 3 Exile, Obsidian, The Journeyman Project 3...

I admire the works of other indie game developers, for instance "Darkfall 1 + 2, Barrow Hill" by Jonathan Boakes and "Alida" by Cos Russo. To see these works gives me power for my own work, because there are lonely days as an indie game developer. Sometimes I'm despaired by the lot of work, a missing idea, an error... and at this point it's good to see somebody else was in the same position and solved the problems.

The original development of Rhem took 4 years, admittedly a long time for an indie game title. Why did it take so long? In retrospect, what lessons did you learn about the game development process that subsequently benefited the development of later sequels?

It took me 4 years because of 3 reasons. The first reason was: At this time I worked full time as a visual artist (painter) and composer. The schedule was not organized yet to add a third activity. The second reason was: The time of developing the game was as long because the way was full of meanders, blind alleys and bad organized workflow. The third reason was: In the course of time I got better soft- and hardware to implement the ideas.

You have claimed that there is a sharp distinction between cinema and gaming. This distinction, however, is not shared by all adventure game designers. Why is this distinction important? How does this enhance the gaming experience in your own games?

Each category of art generates a different dependence to the public. For example: A strong dependence of time is in live music and movies (in a cinema theatre). In these cases the audience is bounded to the path of the time arrow. As long as the audience doesn't leave the event, it has to follow the predetermined time.

Music on cd or movies on dvd is allowed to repeat or skip. This possibility arrogates the responsibility of the audience because they can use it for a better experience or for mutilation. For example: To use the repeat function to see a scene twice can make sense to clear a plot. But using the volume button to make a phone call cuts a music piece. The computer game normally has the possibility of freedom in every step (in the specific boundaries of the game). In Rhem 1 + 2 + 3 the gamer is free in every step between the entrance journey and the exit journey by railway vehicle. Maybe some steps have another result than the gamer thought, but it's always a result of his own action. For me, this attribute of freedom is one of the most important possibilities of computer games.

Some game designers victimize the possibility of freedom sometimes to make a scene faster and to get more "action". The gamer can't control inserted movie scenes with music, cuts, camera swing. In these moments the game becomes a movie. Maybe the game visuals are much more realistic than Rhem, but in this moment the gamer feels the hollowness of this illusion. He feels: Here I'm not the master of my own senses and actions anymore.

In a much lighter case the function of music makes the same effect.

How long was the development of Rhem 2: The Cave and Rhem 3: The Secret Library? What resources (such as graphics, sounds, and programming libraries) were you able to reuse over the development of the entire series?

Every Rhem sequel took me 2 - 2.5 years. I use some sounds in all episodes to support the feeling of togetherness.

What were the major programming and development tools (for graphics, sounds, scripting) you used to develop Rhem?

Graphic: Bryce 2-6, StrataVision 3D, Silo, Amorphium, Final Cut, Motion

Sound: SoundEdit, Peak, Logic

Scripting: Macromedia Director

The exploration of Rhem is largely a solitary experience. What appeals to you about this style of gameplay?

I like at this kind of game...

- to discover the landscapes and buildings

- to solve good puzzles

- to have no time-pressure

- to unravel the principal topic of this world

- and to play it with my girlfriend (in that case it's not a solitary experience anymore).

How fair or unfair do you feel that your games are to be judged on the same criteria as games from a top tiered game studio with multimillion dollar development budgets? Why?

Actually I don't have problems to be judged on the same criteria as games from big studios. I always know there are points which could be made better, even with my idea how to create a game. I know the suboptimal sections in the Rhem series but missing time and money cuts some ideas. I always try to improve the realization of the game. This is a process, what develops step by step. The problem with some judging is a wrong standard people expecting in my games. My games trust in the power of still images, relaxed manner and slowness. Maybe I should found a "Slow Game" movement according to the "Slow Food" movement ;-) The technique and engine I used for Rhem are miscast to make an ego-shooter. But I think for making a puzzle-based graphic adventure still images, few animations and "step-by-step" moving are the best solutions. No "360 degree panorama engine" or "real 3D-engine" did satisfy me. I played and enjoyed "Myst 3" with the "panorama engine" and "realMyst", "Myst 5" and "Uru" with the "real 3D-engine". The "real 3D-engine" allows some puzzles, whose realizations are not possible in the "Rhem-engine". That could be the only reason for me to use a "real 3D-engine". But for my idea of the game the problems and costs are in no relation to the advantage.

What in Rhem 3: The Secret Library will be new for the series? What kinds of puzzles will be in this game?

Rhem 3 is continues the "story" and game-play of Rhem. But it's also an answer to Rhem 2. I got some sentences to Rhem 2: "Rhem 2 is too dark." Therefore I designed Rhem 3 as a conclusion of Rhem 1 and 2 with more elements of grass and trees. The technical parameters are the same as Rhem 2. But I added a possibility to navigate by the arrow keys. The character of environment sounds has changed. They are compositions of natural and artificial sounds. It's possible to finish the game and leave Rhem 3 after solving the necessary puzzles, but furthermore there is an extra level for "hardcore gamer". To found all extra clues and solve some extra puzzles will allow to visit a small extra area.

Some puzzles in Rhem 3: The Secret Library (such as the leaf puzzle) are quite elaborate, in that clues to their solutions are not laid out in the immediate surroundings where the puzzles are located. How do you gradually lead the player toward the intended solution without being overly contrived in its logic?

The exact shape of the puzzles are depends on my feeling of balance between complexity and evidently understanding. Most of the puzzles can be solved in 3 steps:

1 - Collect clues!

2 - After collecting a bunch the player can see in an overview similarities, relationships and solutions.

3 - The player have to find the puzzles which the similarities, relationships and solutions are connected to.

How do you see the Rhem series evolving in the future?

There will be definitely a Rhem 4. Later things are beyond the horizon.

What do you believe to be the profile of an adventure gamer who will most enjoy Rhem?

It is advantageous for the gamer to be curious and patient.

What can we look forward in you over the next 5 years?

I can reveal the next 5 month only...

- making drawings for an exhibition in February.

- making an italian version of Rhem 3.

- starting the design on Rhem 4.

- writing my third string-quartet.

- making drawings for an exhibition in August.

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