House of Tales
First posted on 28 April 2008. Last updated on 21 October 2008.
The German development studio House of Tales was born out of a collaboration between 2 friends—Martin Ganteföhr and Tobias Schachte—that started back in 1996. After more than 10 years of working together, their portfolio of games includes such titles as Mystery of the Druids and the critically acclaimed The Moment of Silence. Overclocked (also known as Overclocked: A History of Violence), an ambitious psychological thriller third-person adventure game, is their latest completed project.
Ganteföhr is both the writer and the creative director of Overclocked. Working together with publisher Lighthouse Interactive, he and House of Tales have just completed the English localization of the game in early 2008. In the meantime, Ganteföhr has been enjoying Overclocked's success in Germany, receiving among many recognitions the prestigious Jury Innovation Award at the German Developer Awards. He has also been invited to speak at the Academy of Arts Berlin in the symposium "The Future of Cinema". Most importantly, Ganteföhr has stated publicly that he and House of Tales have already started conceptualization on their next, currently top-secret, adventure game project.
Amid the buzz, Ganteföhr still managed to secure a few moments of free time from his busy schedule to answer some questions for us. We started by asking him to describe the main concepts behind Overclocked, his general outlooks on adventure games, and the challenges faced by independent game developers like him. We then thought—why limit ourselves to such easy topics? So, we tried to stump him with tougher questions, ranging from neurobiology to the art of myth telling in ancient times. To our surprise, he managed to answer them all, with a mix of cool confidence and down-to-earth modesty.
- The story of Overclocked involves overlapping experiences of 6 playable characters and a common mystery enveloping them. How do you keep the player focused and oriented in the game while the player has to deal with multiple character personalities? Is the player supposed to identify with every character equally?
- Well, Overclocked's main identification figure is of course David McNamara. He's the central character and it's been my main narrative goal to make the player feel for him and explore his ambivalences and facets. As for the five other playable characters, they're of course important for the unfolding of the story, but there is a connection between them and Dave. So, in essence, as narrative elements, they're at least as much supporters of his characterization as of their own. In a way, the five represent the parts of his (David's) own broken inner psyche, of his own split personality.
- How difficult was the creative process of designing the 6 protagonists for Overclocked? How did you conceptualize the traits of these characters that would make them distinctive from each other? Which character was your favorite and why?
- Dave is most certainly is my favorite character. When I developed the five youths, I looked for archetypical types and behaviours. The five have limited screen time compared to Dave, and much of it plays out in nightmarish flashbacks. So, I wanted them to be easily recognizable but still tried to retain an aura of mystery for them.
- Overclocked deals heavily with violence and the psychology of aggression. Why have you chosen such an intense, controversial theme for the game?
- I chose the topic because it interests me, and is at least as worth to dedicate a game to as War on Mars. You see, making games is a very personal process for me. I have many questions about life, and as long as somebody is willing to listen, I will try to convey my thoughts and feelings in my games.
- What fictional or scientific works have been the inspirations behind the style and story of Overclocked? What games, books, movies, and personal experiences influence your storytelling in general?
- Jacob's Ladder is an influence. My own work in a psychiatric ward is an influence as well. Generally, um, my life influences my thoughts and my work a lot. (I realize that this does not come as a complete surprise. :) )
- The controversial themes are not the only mature and unconventional elements of Overclocked. A large part of the gameplay is based on following the everyday life of a psychiatrist and dealing with his work, his relationships, and his personal struggles. As such, your game seems to venture further into the more serious and mature dramatic storytelling than most other adventure games. How concerned are you that the game may not be so popular because it is being aimed specifically at an older audience? Or else, what are the advantages of such grim and serious approach that will get adventure gamers hooked onto the story?
- I think it depends on how you generally look at games, gamers and the medium as such. I don't think that interactive entertainment is something destined to exclusively cater to teenage males. See, I'm not a teenager anymore. I'm 39. I'm interested in things that are very different from what a boy is interested in. The average gamer is over 30 years old now. Hence, there must be a lot of people like me who play games. I believe making games with mature subject matter (-- and by that I don't mean, 'harmful to minors', but 'interesting for grown-ups' --) isn't catering to the wrong demographic. It is catering to a different demographic.
- Similar to the movie Memento, Overclocked presents parts of its story in a reversed or even totally unordered chronology. What advantages does this narrative technique have to help to immerse and surprise the player?
- To me, Overclocked's backwards-story is fragmented, but not unordered. We have time information displayed at the beginning of each memory time slot, so you can piece together the chronology of things using that information. Actually, I consider piecing together the chronology of events as one of the central puzzles in the game. As far as immersion and surprise is concerned, I think it's an interesting experience to see the cause-and-effect logic reversed, and leave you with situations that are only intelligible in hindsight. I believe this is very similar to the nature of memories and dreams: you may remember that something happened, but you don't know why. You may know exactly what to do, but you don't know why you know it. It's that very special state of mind that I wanted people to experience.
- In consequence to its psychological storyline, Overclocked has to deal in some way with the conflict between the humanistic, subjective view of the human psyche and the scientific, biological view of it. What is your opinion on our current understanding of this complex attribute that makes us human?
- Oh, that's a complex question, and my personal opinion would probably be far beyond the possibilities of this interview (as well as far beyond the possibilities of the game we're talking about).
Let me just say this: I do see that biological determinism has had some kind of comeback in recent year. But I don't believe that seeing the human psyche as something predetermined by genes will help us create a better world. On the contrary, I think it will lead to some kind of selection doctrine, and ultimately DNS-based racism. On the other hand, I've never bought the behaviourist theory of the clay figure human, who'd only need to be educated properly from day zero to become the faultless, genderless Ubermensch. To me, the complexity of the human mind and psyche is still far, far out of reach of both theories, whatever science claims to be able to prove.
- You employ a lot of cinematic elements in your game, including the use of dramatic camera angles, extreme close-ups, panning, and split screens. Yet, you also aim for natural, realistic lighting and weather effects as well as down-to-earth, worn-out environments. By contrast, most other developers try to convey a dark ominous atmosphere by using fantastical exaggerations and stylizations. How difficult is it to create atmospheric yet realistic settings for a game? Why was such a design choice made for Overclocked?
- The main design goal wasn't necessarily to be completely realistic. I wanted the game to feel personal and dramatic in a believable way. I simply wanted to be as close to the characters as our technology and camera capabilities would allow.
- What are the most important lessons you have learned from your previous projects at House of Tales about gameplay design and storytelling?
- I can vaguely remember a Peter Ustinov quote saying something along the lines of: when you're young, you're certain that you can explain the entire world. As you get older, you start to doubt those certainties. And when you're old, you don't know anything anymore.
- From a gamer's perspective, what do you believe to be the most fulfilling kind of experience when playing adventure games?
- The most fulfilling experience is to realize that a game has a soul. There is no formula to make an adventure game feel fulfilling, just like there's no formula to make the relationship between two humans feel fulfilling. It's all about a certain inexplicable kind of chemistry that goes far, far beyond good looks, good manners and being nice.
- You seem unafraid of trying out very different story genres and themes with each new game. How do you describe your own ambitions as a game designer?
- My only real ambition is to do stuff that interests and challenges me. Interactive entertainment can be about anything, and it's the sense of exploration and adventure that makes my work exciting for me.
- Developers disrespecting mainstream trends had kept a low profile in recent years. How concerned were you about the element of unpredictability in today's commercial game market for adventure games?
- I have a very simple opinion on the subject of unpredictability in the gaming industry: Essentially, making games, and making only one game at a time, is a business model that's similar to Russian Roulette. We've pulled the trigger three times now, and the gun clicked three times. That's all.
- Do you see adventure games as amongst the most conservative genres because of the deep-rooted rules of gameplay and the longstanding traditions of the genre? Do you think those kinds of criticisms are actually valid? Do you instead believe it is perfectly satisfactory for adventure games to focus only on delivering new stories and logical puzzles?
- It depends on what you're looking for in interactive entertainment. Escapism? Commentary? Choice? Sandbox gameplay? Involvement in a broader sense? There are many different approaches, and each is valid for a specific player type, or maybe even player mood. To me, coming up with stories is simply more satisfactory than coming up with new settings for an FPS. Plus, I'm not smart enough to work on AI, driving physics or sandbox game concepts.
- You have long expressed your interest in exploring techniques to crank up the pacing of the story in adventure games, so that the player will not lose orientation in the plot and interest in playing the game. Can this be done without reducing the interactivity in adventure games? Or else, is this just an inescapable weakness of the story driven nature of adventure games?
- Indeed, I think that difficulty is the major parameter to influence pace. So, yes: the trade-off for increasing narrative pace is lowering the game play challenge. That doesn't necessarily mean lowering the overall challenge of the game. Figuring out stories and characters can be very challenging, and it can feel interactive, even with less (or simpler) actual game manipulation involved. I do count thinking about something as a form of interactivity. To me, giving the player something to think about means giving them something to do.
- You have expressed fascination with the art of storytelling in its most basic form, particularly with the formation of myths within cultures. In your view, in what way has storytelling changed from ancient times when stories are passed on orally to what is now seen in modern art medium?
- Stories have always existed, and they have always been altered, influenced, retold, fragmented and re-constructed over time. That's what happens in a narrative game, and that's why, structurally, I think of them as a form of myths.
The one important difference is that while the re-teller of a myth has actual creative power over the narrative (-- he/she can alter the story WHILE retelling it), a game player actually only gets a more or less sophisticated illusion of creative power, as its ultimately still the writer who predetermines the choice variants. In terms of story-based interactivity, games are still completely inferior to the most basic, myth-based form of storytelling.
- Thank you for answering our questions.