Jan "Poki" Muller-Michaelis & Tom Kersten of Daedalic Entertainment on Deponia!
In light of the completion of the acclaimed and beloved trilogy of Deponia (including Chaos on Deponia and the recently released Goodbye Deponia), we dug in deep and found out more about where the series came from, how it developed and what made it unique. From Daedalic Entertainment, Creative Director and Author Jan "Poki" Muller-Michaelis (P), and Line Producer Tom Kersten (T) sit down with Joel Cornell (Q) for an inside look behind the scenes of one of today's most talented storytelling studios.
Don't forget to check out the Daedalic Humble Bundle, on sale now until November 14!
Poki the Writer & Tom the Producer
Q: The trilogy is complete. Do you guys view Deponia differently now that it’s done? What were your expectations going in and how satisfied are you with the end result?
P: Oh, I’m more than satisfied with what we’ve achieved here. When I started on [the world of] Deponia, I was writing the concept for one single game called Deponia. They made the mistake of giving me a year to come up with something, and by the time they kindly let me out of the cellar, I had so much material that it was just not possible to put it into one single game.
It’s much harder for me to eliminate ideas than to come up with any. That was the first point of evolution. We had a very fast schedule beginning from when the concept got signed by one of our partners. We had just a couple of months to develop the first part. During the production of the first two games I didn’t even recognize how far the game had developed on its own, during writing the text and making the graphics, and making the small alterations to the game design and puzzles. After we’d finished the second part, we were already satisfied with how far we had come then, what we did there. It would be really, really hard to make an even better game than the second part. It was a weird puzzle for me. After the second part, I went into the cellar again to make some changes to the script for the third part, which would have been quite shorter than the second part, much more linear. I wanted to have the same feel as the first two parts in the third part. I made a lot of changes in this half year and came up with a final game that was even bigger, which I did not expect. We’re very proud of the solution.
T: I joined Daedalic when they were about to start the actual production for the first Deponia game. I came on board to help in producing, to help Poki to get everything organized; which is an impossible task. But it was great to see how all this grew over time. If you take a look at the concept for the whole of Deponia game that he once wrote as one game, and how everything else developed since then, the progress is substantial. It’s gotten even bigger, I think. So much more wonderful stuff in there. It’s so great to have been a part of this whole process.
P: One big thing of course was that everybody on the team was contributing to the game. Every graphic artist, animator, sound guy, voice artist, scripter and programmer. They added ideas, everybody added to the world. It gained some life of its own. We had a brilliant team.
Q: Speaking of collaboration, you guys have a pretty unique amount of creative power; the writing, the art and design, voice acting, gameplay. How did the different teams collaborate? Coming from different sides, which side took the heavier emphasis?
P: The biggest part of the team is the graphics department. We’ve needed a lot of animators because the art style of Deponia is a hand-drawn, frame-by-frame, classical animation style. To bring it to life is a huge effort, and it’s a completely different approach than most current games are taking. When you do a 3D game, you can put all the effort into the models, The animation is more and more often done by motion capture, and its much more about the single models. In 2D is where we start from, and then the whole work of animating every mimic and movement of the character has to be done, so it’s a lot of work. With every single animation they can choose to add more character to every moment.
If Rufus has to open the door, if they feel like it, they’ll suggest something about him bumping his head on the door, and they do that for every single animation. In the first part, for example, the first animation was astonishing, because usually when the graphic department starts, I’m going into writing the text for the game. So I’m back on my own again, hiding somewhere I won’t be disturbed as much. I have to stay in connection with the art department, because there’s so much material out that I cannot even possibly begin to brief all the small steps I want in the game, so regularly I come back in to talk about the animations to be done in the next phase with our Animation Art Director, Gunnar Bergmann. They show me the results of what they’ve done last.
The man himself.
P: It was one of the first times where I really went breathless. It was a very small animation at the beginning of the first Deponia, where the task to be performed was just having to unscrew a mailbox case in front of Toni’s house with a wrench. There was a big screw on the side, so I just thought they’d come up with a normal animation where he takes out the wrench and unscrews the screw of the mailbox to get it. They made some weird animation where she unscrews it and the mailbox went flying, flies through the air, and lands in his inventory. I was blown away.
T: From an organizational standpoint, these were the happy mistakes at the end of the production phase. We had so much to do and so little time. Always mad doing everything we needed to do. Sometimes doing much more than we’ve needed to do, but it’s been absolutely worth it.
P: At the company, next to the art department, we have the scripters and programmers who work on a logical basis so we don’t have to program any of the deeper game mechanics. We have an engine that is the basis for producing adventures.
T: It’s a fantastic editor that we can work with, in all instances.
P: There are more complex things where they have to do the common programming. Most of the things they do are putting the vast amount of content into the engine and combining it with the rest. The task of our scripters is less the task of a programmer, and more the task of an editor, like you would edit a movie. They have much more influence in the creative outcome of the game. they have to have a real sense of the dramaturgy of the game.
T: There’s lots of direction going into the game from that point.
P: They are dramaturgists in their own right, and work closely with the art department. Of course, we have such tight schedules it’s mostly a process of steadily rewriting the game. When we start, we have the first approach of what will be needed to make the game, but with such little time there’s always a bit of shifting, so there’s lots communication between graphics artists and the scripters.
Sound development, on the other hand, is made by an external studio. We’ve been working together since the very founding of the company, even before I was working with the studio on Edna & Harvey: The Breakout, which was a game made by myself under no commercial license as a student project. I worked together with the guys for that game. I have this huge history making music for games, and even before that for short movies. I have a good connection to their composer team.
T: And Poki and I are basically the two projects leads for this game. with him handling the creative elements and myself trying to get everything organized. We have our department leads for art and animation, for scripting and programming, for sound. Everything just comes together perfectly.
Q: With such a vibrant world so reliant on personality, how does having a team with so many different people crafting one single narrative experience alter the jokes, the puzzles, the writing, the art, etc.
P: I’ve done most of the puzzles and the dialogue myself, so there’s no big problem in communication there. All the gameplay is made by our other game designers, especially our Head of Game Design, Sebastian Schmidt. Sometimes everything works out in my head, but he’s the one who’s arguing most with me because I tend to make the games quite hard for the player, and he’s working hard to make the games more accessible. I learned that it’s a good idea to listen to him. Nonetheless, it’s much fun to argue with him, so I’ll take a little while before I give in.
T: As far the story is concerned, it’s definitely an author’s game. It’s all Poki in there. Regarding gameplay and puzzles, a lot of what Poki mentioned is in there, but it’s mostly in the hands of our game designers. Regarding the characters, it’s very much what Poki had in mind, but we have our art director, Simone Kesterton, who has done a fantastic job in designing these characters further in much more depth and detail than the first scribbles that were presented. Our animation team lead (Gunnar Bergmann) mostly made the key frames for video cut scenes, and we had worked together already for a long time, so we knew what things we wanted, what we didn’t.
P: They love to surprise me with small things I wasn’t expecting, things I couldn’t have come up with myself. There are some parts where I come back from my writing and they’ve already begun to work on beautiful, very funny animations. Sometimes they aren’t fitting in the context, especially because we have such a tight time schedule. There have been cases where animations have to be redone, even when they’re brilliant and funny, but there were also cases where I chose to rewrite my dialogue because the animations were much more beautiful and fitting.
T: One of the most important points about the trilogy is that we’ve been able to keep together the core team of creative people throughout. With Simona, our Art Director, and Gunnar, our Lead Animator, and our game designers. We had some changes on the scripting team, but everyone even still knew the project by heart. This made things much easier over the course of the trilogy.
Q: Given your different backgrounds, where do you guys draw most of your inspiration for your part in Deponia?
P: That’s a huge question, especially in the case of Deponia. When I began the concept, I wanted to create a world with two major initial foundations. The first was that I wanted to create a world for adventure gamers that combined all of my favorite narrative genres into one big story, which is a crazy task to do. To begin with, it was quite an exotic junkyard already, a patchwork of very strange jigsaw parts that had to fit together somehow. I wanted to make a space opera, but I also wanted to have an adventure story with some slapstick cartoon steampunk comedy. I wanted everything.
On top of that, I wanted to make a comedy of errors. It seemed to be impossible to combine all these narrative motives into one game. The other part was that I’m always searching for a topic of conflict that I know I could spend the next few years writing for, coming up with new ideas and new perspectives for that problem. Two or three years passed, and I found such a conflict when I began with Deponia.
Much of it started with some broken furniture in my flat. I found this topic, this inspiration, on my bookshelf. Not in one particular book, but in the bookshelf itself. It was a broken down, €10 IKEA bookshelf that I had for over 10 years. It moved together with me two times, to two different flats, and it was just broken.
T: Well, no wonder!
P: The boards on the sides of the bookshelf were pressed apart so the books fell down into those unseen cracks, but they stuck there, which gave me more room to store books. Of course, I wanted to get a new one, and planned to do so for years. I waited for ages, hoping to buy a bookshelf that would last me the next 20 years, but that time never came because I was often too busy writing or making games.
T: Now, that’s dedication.
P: So, I thought about this, my state of living, if I was doomed to live in a flat with broken bookshelves with all the mess around me, I figured maybe this improvised living style is just my thing. But, I also liked it that way. It’s hard to defend in front of friends when I invite them over and it looks like I just moved in with things in the same spot I left them when I did move in years ago. I grow more and more jealous of people who take their time to settle down. I felt I had to defend this personality, so I put it into Rufus, who is always looking for impossible goals, and really doesn’t care about everything around him. His friends, his living space; he’s just looking for the far goals. That was largely the inspiration of Deponia. It’s a good bookshelf, looking back.
T: Definitely a profitable one.
P: I will say, that the first thing I did when we finished Goodbye, Deponia was to buy a new bookshelf. The old one is still in my cellar.
T: Since I’m more of the organization guy, my inspiration has really been Daedalic, and the way we work here, which is very creatively focused. We’ll always do whatever it takes to get the highest quality for each project. Looking to my teammates, to Poki, that’s been my inspiration right there.
Q: Well, keeping in mind this inspiration for Rufus; a lot of antiheroes like this will be a little bit selfish, but general they come around and wind up a good person. Rufus does not. Rufus is a pretty terrible person all throughout the games. Was that an original design intention?
P: There was certainly an evolution in writing the text. When you spend time with a character, you learn to know him better. As an author, it’s tough to say, but you’re really a tourist in this world, as much as anybody else is. You’re coming to this world, everything is new. It’s not so much that you put things into the world, but they are already there. It’s just a matter of looking them up and writing them down.
The original idea for the character of Rufus was that he should be a character of pure egotistical motives, that had a reason behind them of course. You should somehow understand them, but it was the very beginning of our plan to accelerate these character traits so much that it’s really hard for you to side with him, as a playable character. You really don’t know if you want to connect with him, because the connection between you and the main character in the game is something that’s quite easy. I wanted to see how far I could stretch that.
We chose to have a playable character that you don’t have any insight into at all. There’s a narrator, but you learn very early in the game that she’s just guessing, basically. There’s no connection, and she has as much insight as we do. We can choose to distance ourselves, but on the other hand we are very much more like her. It’s a very strange relationship. We definitely enjoy watching Rufus fail. It’s all some kind of devil’s circle. Do they have that phrase in English? In German, we’d say “Teufelskreis”.
Q: I think it’s something like a vicious circle.
Q: So, what is it about video games in particular that helps the most in telling your kinds of story, as opposed to traditional animation or just writing or film, etc.
P: This element, this new dimension with a player is the most interesting thing. There are very new and sometimes unexpected, never explored narrative, dramaturgic effects that you can achieve just because the game is interactive. There is so much that’s interesting, like we’ve found a new continent story-wise. I think that we’re in a new media, just at the very beginning, standing on the coast of the new land called interactive dramaturgy. There are already some people already running into the woods. Like David Cage, he’s just wildly running off in some direction into the woods of it. There’s so much to explore, and you can’t know what’s around the next bend. Every time, you’ll find that you’ll come across something that has never been done before, and has a certain effect to the story, how you see the character, how you experience a conflict. It’s just like coming through the jungle and seeing a whole new valley behind it. There’s much more exploration to be done.
In A New Beginning, when we have two playable characters, and both of them sat on one table, I knew I wanted not only the dialogue, but multiple choice dialogue. For the first time, suddenly, the player knows which side they’re on, which he’s steering. As an author, you have a new tool to decide the point of view, without changing the actual point of view of the aesthetics or the game. You have parallel views, all of a sudden there’s this multiple choice dialogue and you don’t even know who you’re necessarily talking through.
T: There’s so much great stuff you can do with interactivity. To get to experience the story through your own actions that you have to take to move everything forward, that changes the outcome as a whole. It makes video games a very fantastic medium to work with.
P: See, now you know what Tom’s job is around here. It’s to say in two sentences what takes me half an hour.
T: Doesn’t always work, though.
Q: Well, that’s probably a good thing. Are you guys sure this is just a trilogy?
P: Ha! I’m sure fans would enjoy Deponia again, as would I. But, yes, we’re sure that this is just a trilogy. We’re very sure of that. It partially has to do with the fact that Rufus is so tied into this story arc that he and the world are kind of a metaphor for this conflict. I went to the very boiling point of it, and at the end of the games, it’s really meant to be a trilogy. What I can imagine, but which is of course not planned for the future is that we might tell other stories in the world of Deponia. I would be really glad to come back to the world to tell new stories. As I said, I felt like a tourist in this world. I was able to write Rufus’ story, and I felt like somebody filming a documentary in Africa or something. Well, maybe not Africa. As I got to know the world, I knew there are other locations in the world that I’m eager to discover. I’d love go shopping, maybe find some car keys or something.
T: We’ve definitely moved on from the Deponia series, and we’re looking towards future projects. But, you can never be sure what really happens here.
P: I really don’t want to make the mistake to continue on the story, when it ended already. It would just be like the making a fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. Oh, they did that.
T: Exactly. It would be like if someone went and written another Star Wars movie after Return of the Jedi.
P: Yeah, wow, imagine if that had happened.
Q: Good thing it didn’t! Thanks for the lead in, by the way, Tom.
Q: What are you guys planning next? How heavily are you guys involved in Blackguards?
P: Loosely. We have a very brilliant team there that really doesn’t need us.
T: Basically, we haven’t been involved so much with that project. It’s a different genre, but from what we’ve seen it’s a fantastic project. They’re nearing the end of production right now. It’s a huge turn for Daedalic doing a turn-based RPG. It’s a whole different scale than doing a classic point-and-click adventure game. I myself have been busy producing Journey of a Roach, which is another game coming out on November 5. We’ve finished lots of games in the last couple of months. We did Night of the Rabbit in Spring, and Blackguards is coming soon. We have some new projects coming now just in the concept or pre-production phase.
P: In the case of Blackguards, it’s something very new to us, which is always very exciting. In the same spirit as we did Edna and Harvey: Breakout, when we started Blackguards the idea was to take a genre back to a point where we enjoyed it most and try to project forward what would have become of the genre if everything that we really liked from some small aspects of the gameplay that got lost on the way to the present. We took the RPG genre and concentrated on the round- or turn-based battles. We added some things that we’ve never seen in a game before. There have been some round-based RPGish games like Heroes of Might & Magic, which I enjoyed very much. I’m not sure why, but when I’m playing RPGs, I like the technical aspects more than the story aspects. I’m a story guy, for god’s sake. Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon Master; there was a German game series based on a German pen-and-paper license called The Dark Eye. They were very technical games which also felt much more in the spirit of the pen-and-paper game, which was quite a narrative experience as I played it. Of course, you could always concentrate more on the technical aspects, back in my nerd days. I didn’t move much, did I?
Playing computer games, it felt much more like this PNP experience. You have these round-based fights, and playing PNP you always take time to make a decision, you interact with your group, planning the fights. Even back then, you had battle mats and how many fields you can traverse until you lose the ability to shoot at the enemy rather than just hit him. When Daedalic came up with the idea to make a technical turn-based RPG for the very same license, The Dark Eye. I was totally and instantly honored, I said we have to do that. No matter what it takes to bring that project to life, we should go there.
T: That was what, two and a half years ago when they started that concept.
P: The thing that convinced me most was that they chose to make every battle map unlike Heroes of Might & Magic. It’s a very unique, narrative experience on it’s own. Because on every battle map you have certain elements you can interact with that make it very unlike any common dynamic of created battle maps. For example, you are fighting in a cell block with some seats locked behind the cells. you’re fighting the guards, but you have a chance to win over the guards when they open the cells. Another example, you’re fighting in a dungeon and there are insects crawling out of the ground and during the fight you have to close up the holes in the ground. It makes for some very narrative battles. Now, after two and a half years, they have created such an exciting game.
T: Every map is custom-built. The art is astonishing.
P: I would have played this game if it looked shitty. We’ve never done something like this before in the company, dwelling mostly in 2D art. We never had to compete in terms of 3D graphics, which they manage to get to look even better. They do such a great job there, I really don’t know how they do that. I could go into their room and ask questions, but I wouldn’t understand any of it.
T: It was a great task and a great accomplishment.
Q: Last question, what’s your favorite moment in Deponia, within or without?
P: Too many to narrow down. I have a bad habit that I’m able to laugh at my own jokes. I can read them again and again and still laugh. It’s terrible. Maybe I should make a game about that. I think I enjoy the most the moments where the humor gets really dark. There’s a part with this creep in the van...
T: Oh god, the controversy.
P: I thought it was my own private Hitchcock moment. Rufus is inside this dark van and can’t see anything. You’re forced to click at a hot spot, and neither you nor Rufus can see. But, you have your own theory of what this hot spot is. But Rufus makes a point of insisting that what he thought this hot spot was is true. You, the player, have very strong doubts. But nonetheless you have to click on it. There’s not a hint in the game of what it actually is. But it’s disgusting. Most people will get an image in their mind when they click, and they may prefer what Rufus thinks it is. You may have to pause and go wash your hands.
T: For me, I have two. One is in Goodbye Deponia, with the therapist on the couch. The whole dialogue is funny, so amazing. He seems to be speaking very normally, but the therapist, of course, is shocked by what he’s telling and doesn’t think that he means it in the way that it is. When he talks about his “friend”, the therapist Rufus is really talking about himself but he isn’t. The reactions, the dialogue…
P: I have very mixed feelings about this scene, because gameplay-wise, it couldn’t have been longer than I had written it. I couldn’t have put more in, but I also had the feeling that there was so much more potential for funny moments with Rufus on the couch of a therapist. Every time I play that scene, I think we could have done so much more. I think it’s great the way it is, but…
T: My other moment would have to be from the beginning of Chaos on Deponia when you’re in front of Grandma Utz’s house. There’s just some great slapstick humor and you can see how chaotic Rufus really is, but how creative too, always getting these ideas for some weird machines that should get him up to Elysium.