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.
|United States||March 31 2008||Lighthouse Interactive|
|United Kingdom||May 2 2008||Lighthouse Interactive|