By Marty Mulrooney
Jan Müller-Michaelis (also known as Poki) is the co-founder of Daedalic Entertainment and designed most of its games. He studied Mass Communication in Hamburg and developed the game Edna & Harvey: The Breakout as his diploma thesis (video games as a non linear narrative medium). The game was published when Daedalic Entertainment was founded in 2007. Since then he has helped to develop The Whispered World, A New Beginning, Harvey’s New Eyes and the Deponia series. He is also the figurehead of the company, since he has appeared in some of its games and often sings the songs in them too. It is therefore with great pleasure that Alternative Magazine Online presents an exclusive online interview with Jan Müller-Michaelis!
Hello Mr Müller-Michaelis, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO!
‘Hello’ to you too and thanks for the opportunity to introduce myself.
Can you tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
The name’s Jan Müller-Michaelis, but I actually prefer my nickname: Poki.
I’m co-founder and creative director of Daedalic Entertainment, a company located in Hamburg Germany. For about six years and counting our focus is on developing and publishing narrative video games (especially classic point & click adventures).
As creative director I creatively supervise the development department, at least in theory. In fact, however, I tend to focus on my very own project where I am writer as well as lead game designer and trust the creative leads of parallel projects to put as much heart and soul into this as I would.
That’s because the tasks within my own project are pretty… consuming: I write the game’s concept, from story to game design, I supervise implementation, take care of texts and dialogues and direct the voice acting. From time to time, I personally pick up the pencils, drawing characters or backgrounds, as I did in ‘The Breakout’ or ‘Harvey’s New Eyes’.
And last but not least, there’s this kind of tradition establishing itself, namely me, singing a song for the game’s soundtrack (also for the English versions, by the way).
Where does the nickname ‘Poki’ come from?
The name ‘Poke’ is a remnant from the early days of my gaming career. While in elementary, we used to play games mainly on the NES; many games didn’t feature more than 4 digits to put your name into the high score.
Of course, we wanted names that kick ass; most of my friends wanted names like ‘Spider’ or ‘Snake’, but eventually were displayed in the score screen as ‘Spid’ and ‘Snak’. So I needed a name with four letters.
In 8-bit times there was a way to modify images with poke-statements during runtime and thus, to cheat. The terms ‘poke’ and ‘cheat’ were basically synonyms in that time and area.
And so I called myself ‘Poke’.
Later, when I had my first pen&paper group, my first character was also called ‘Poke’. In contrast to my friends, I didn’t have any kind of experience in regard of those games and so, in my role as ‘Poke’ I wreaked all kinds of mayhem, making my fellow gamers roll their eyes.
This, however, transcended into ‘real life’ as I was responsible for all kinds of mischief there as well; that again caused my friends to roll their eyes too, groaning ‘Poke!’ reproachfully.
I kinda liked that.
This was also my signature name for my first comics and the alias I chose when joining my first Punk band (you need those if you’re 16 and playing in a Punk band).
At some point, I kind of grew ashamed of the elementary school coolness of that name and I went on with the nicknamed form, ‘Poki’.
That was even less cool, but at least that was on purpose.
When did you first decide that you wanted to make adventure games?
Telling stories was always a great dream of mine.
The medium itself, though, was blank space for me for the longest time.
I tried all different kinds of platforms between school and university graduation: film, theatre, music, cartoon, prose… and also, video games (all of those of course at amateur level).
Since I had difficulties limiting myself to one medium I started studying Mass Communication, where I could deal with all my fields of interest, not in regards of content, but mainly technique.
This way I learned many tricks of the trade and could add a dash of professionalism to my hobbies and passion.
I spent a great deal of time with own projects instead of actual studying until I came to the conclusion, I should graduate as soon as possible and get it over with. The shortest way was through the field of ‘computer generated media’. To keep myself motivated I chose a thesis project complementing my passion for telling stories: video games as a non linear narrative medium.
As the practical part of my project I intended to create just that, a narrative game.
This game turned out to be ‘Edna & Harvey: The Breakout’.
You studied Mass Communication in Hamburg and the topic for you diploma thesis was ‘Videogames as non linear narrative medium’. Is it true that during this time you created Edna & Harvey: The Breakout, mostly by yourself?
That’s indeed correct.
Without the support of certain friends and fellow students, however, I couldn’t have pulled that stunt off.
Right in the beginning, I worked together with a group of roughly 10 people on a demo version, featuring the first three rooms of the game, patched together with an open source adventure engine.
In this phase we also talked about my vision of the complete game and discussed the arc of suspense and ideas thereof.
All in all, we met a couple of times and only retrospectively I understood how precious these meetings had actually been.
Eventually I talked to my professor about the possibility to make the whole game the topic of my thesis. As he agreed, I began to program my own engine based on Java with some people willing to help me out.
The engine’s base concept was the idea of a close friend of mine who studied computer science. A fellow student and very talented programmer also poured a lot of effort and responsibility into this project.
I couldn’t have done this alone for the life of me. Basically, creating my own engine in addition to the game itself was absurdly but appropriately insane and megalomaniac, absolutely in tune with the rest of the project.
Yet, somehow, we managed to tinker around enough to present a working engine right in time when my graduation phase kicked off.
And this is where the most crazy end run started: drawing, coding, animating.
All of that in a window of three or four months.
According to my calculations, I’d have to draw three backgrounds a day if I wanted to hit the deadline.
So I did a pencil sketch, and proper lining afterward, went over it with an eraser to get rid of the pencils, scanned the whole thing and did the colouring with a mouse; I didn’t have a tablet back in those days.
I had roughly three hours per background, since I also needed to crop and feed them to the engine, including walks and scale maps, several objects and overlay layers. If there were features missing in the engine I coded those ad lib. There was no editor for the engine, though, only a text editor for the whole data feed.
I must’ve worked like a madman.
During the final stages of the project I pulled all-nighters every second night, since I also had to write the theoretical part of my thesis.
I still remember how I dozed off for a couple of seconds during proofreading, bolting back up again almost instantly.
When I handed it in, however, you could do a complete playthrough.
You co-founded Daedalic Entertainment in 2007 – how did Edna & Harvey: The Breakout progress from being a student project into a full-blown commercial release?
I first met Carsten Fichtelmann during my oral exam.
He’s been marketing director of one of Hamburg’s big game publishers and my professor invited him over to listen to my presentation.
Afterward, he offered me an internship in his department.
Since I didn’t have time to seriously consider any ‘What happens later?’ scenario during graduation I happily accepted.
At first, I was pretty deflated when I got to work in this industrial branch.
However, Carsten later told me he planned to go freelance with his own company and asked me if I wanted to team up.
Of course I wanted and thus I quit after only six months of employment and we founded Daedalic.
During these months I continued working on texts for ‘Edna & Harvey’. I unconditionally wanted to consider every action of the player to eliminate the dreaded ‘this isn’t possible’ situations from my game.
So, on my computer I’ve always had the business plan and the Edna-text-chart opened simultaneously.
For voice acting I recruited some fellow actors and their friends. I really had a lucky strike, getting my hands on so many talented voice actors who grew to be true experts in regards of voice acting.
Finn Seliger, a fellow student of mine, composed the music and was also already part of the demo-team. He meanwhile had gone freelance with two friends as well and founded the sound studio ‘Periscope’. When ‘The Breakout’ was recorded, there was still a buzz saw in the anteroom…
During our first year, we always introduced the game along with our original adventure project (A New Beginning) to publishers, just to fathom if there was any interest on their side.
Somehow, though, no one dared to believe in this rag tag indie project. We grew ever more reserved until finally BHV had mercy and signed the game in context of a bigger deal.
Admittedly, no one could’ve guessed the tremendous success this game was bound to have.
Edna & Harvey: The Breakout was developed using Java. What were the reasons behind this decision and what challenges did you face along the way?
This decision is based solely on the fact Java was the only code language I learned at least on a basic level. The biggest issue in this regard was actually to get the performance right. Since the whole engine, apart from the framework based on an open source class library, was built from scratch, there were other problems we had to deal with: the pathfinder algorithm for example, or the construction of the data model.
Choosing Java, however, turned out to be a great blessing, due to the fact even with a small amount of modifications we were able to crank out a Mac version already. Also, I learned a lot about the composition and requirements of an adventure engine.
Since 2007, Daedalic Entertainment has grown into one of the most recognisable companies creating modern adventure games today. How many people are now on the team and how has the company’s process of making adventure games developed and matured?
At this point, roughly 100 people are working for Daedalic. There’s still a pretty manageable PR and marketing team, directly supervised by Carsten himself, that never outgrew a count of ten people.
In regards of development, however, we’re currently working on six big titles simultaneously; with two more projects that are in their conceptual phase.
On top of that, we are working on an in-house engine based on ‘Unity’. Then there’s the QA, as well as departments like system administration, accounting, new business and human resources.
The pipeline for adventure game development grew very refined and professional over the past six years. We can manage the main production phase of a point & click adventure in a window of a few months, always assumed the gears run smoothly.
As Daedalic’s Creative Director, you have helped to develop ‘The Whispered World’, ‘A New Beginning’, ‘Harvey’s New Eyes’ and of course the ‘Deponia’ series. Each of these games differs in style and tone – where do your ideas come from?
I think stylistic divergence emerges mainly from the composition of the different teams.
The Whispered World and it’s tone for example carry the mark of Marco Hüllen, who brought this project to the company.
The story’s background and the illustration style were already existing, when I joined the project. Working together with Marco and our Head of Game Design, Sebastian Schmidt, really was a different take on game design compared to A New Beginning, where the subject was Carsten’s suggestion with free reign on my part otherwise.
Later, though, I had to let go of A New Beginning, since I got tangled in other projects. So Kevin Mentz and Franziska Reinhardt contributed a lot and they continued cooperating during ‘Chains of Satinav’.
Big parts of Harvey’s New Eyes’ game design are the result of Rene Anhaus’ hard work, while I was busy doing solitary work for Deponia yet again.
The lead artists working on a game of course have a great deal of influence on how the game feels and looks eventually.
Regarding content, those games are, in fact, more similar than you’d think.
My stories rely heavily on ambivalence: progress and stagnation, egoism and altruism, freedom and conformance… those antonyms hold insolvable conflicts, settled deep within our psyche, always ready to burst during the most trivial everyday situations.
I see that a lot, in myself as well as my surroundings; and admittedly, I enjoy tracing those bursts back to their source.
My stories are basically invitations to reveal these primal conflicts and create an awareness concerning their permanence.
In a way it’s a forgiving thought, to know contradictions exist within us.
Recognising them spares you a lot of stress and trouble, you know?
Which of these games is your favourite and why?
The most recent is also always my favourite.
The reason for that is simple: with every new game you carry along experiences of your last projects, you can incorporate into anything new.
You advance another step.
And of course every new game deals with topics you’re recently engaged in.
Thus, my favourite game right now is ‘Chaos on Deponia’; but I already know the trilogy’s third instalment, ‘Goodbye Deponia’, will be even better.
How difficult is it to balance Daedalic’s trademark humour with its serious storytelling (especially in games such as A New Beginning)? I think achieving this balance is one of the company’s strong points!
The question already has the answer in this case: having gravity without humour is just as shallow as having humour without any gravity.
If you want to review a topic completely you need a certain balance.
I already talked about insolvable contradictions, serving as my source of inspiration for my stories.
The fact those conflicts exist within us holds melancholic as well as comic elements. Tension and catharsis are very close to each other.
And the fashion in which these conflicts blaze their trail into our everyday life only turns into comedy if you are aware of the tragic aspects. I think, in a way, that’s the magic behind a good story, no matter if tragic or comic.
A comic character succeeds, even if he fails over and over, a tragic character fails, even if he did everything right. This again goes full circle with our ambivalent nature.
We want to live, but we ultimately have to die; if you ponder too long about such existential questions, you’re going to end up in a padded cell.
The only thing we can do, is laugh.
In your opinion, what makes a good adventure game?
In contrast to many other genres, even narrative ones, a good adventure should be seen as an interactive story.
That means, story trumps gameplay; gameplay serves to transport the plot.
In most action games for example it’s the other way round: the plot transports the gameplay; like in a tabletop game, where the pieces represent the characters with a sophisticated background. Of course games like ‘Uncharted’, ‘Portal’ or ‘Dragon Age’ have a story. But while playing, there are only variants of the same game mechanics. My favourite game is ‘Ghostbusters: The Video Game’.
Here even the original writers jumped into action and created an elaborate story for the game.
The gaming experience, though, is restricted to busting ghosts with the Ghostbusters. A fact, dealt with in the movies by showing a two minute montage. All other dramatic aspects roll through in-game cutscenes. Thus, film, as a medium, transports the actual plot. As a medium, video games only dared to go hunting for ghosts. This doesn’t make neither the story, nor the game a bad one, though; this only means that the game does not tell the story, but it’s told medium-detached.
A good adventure however utilizes gameplay to tell the story while actually playing and uses gameplay to let you experience plot aspects at their best.
How do feel that Daedalic Entertainment’s adventure games differ from other modern point-and-click adventure games created by other video game companies?
I think the doctrine mentioned above, taking adventure games for interactive dramaturgy and not for games with narrative elements, is making the difference. This, of course, is only possible because our games are writer-directed. Many developers cannot afford that, due to their relationship with publishers; most games are extremely producer-directed. Eventually the optical approach is also a major difference.
When we started, we were literally smiled at by the press, since we actually dared to present our games in 2D.
Ah, right, the ambivalent nature of our games is also something quite unique..already talked about that.
Is it fair to say that classic LucasArts adventure games such as Monkey Island have been a huge influence for Daedalic Entertainment?
If LucasArts wouldn’t have stopped creating top notch games I’d probably never have sparked the idea of creating games myself.
Also, these games provided dramatic standards, just like Eisenstein, Wells or Hitchcock had an impact on picture language of films. And that’s where I’d say the comparison concludes.
Adventures are about content. Constantly seeking comparison to LucasArts would be the same as stating in every review of Tarantino or the Coen Brothers: ‘And they use editing! Just like Hitchcock did!’
How much involvement does Daedalic Entertainment have when its games are translated into English?
We have, in fact, as much control over translations as we wish.
Admittedly, we didn’t make as much use of that as we should sometimes, but that’s mostly due to a lack of time or money.
It’s painfully obvious to me, the translation of ‘The Breakout’ can’t match the original and we even could’ve scored higher with The Whispered World and A New Beginning.
Nowadays I’m happy with our pipeline; we had an amazing translator for Deponia and an awesome studio in London. The perfect translation still is an almost insolvable challenge, but we work hard to improve regarding that direction.
Do you ever feel that certain jokes and plots points can become lost in translation?
I’d even say you can’t prevent that from happening.
I use a lot of puns in my texts and polish the more grave texts towards maximum accuracy.
Tragic moments need punchlines too and those need to hit close to home.
I lack the lingual grasp of a native speaker to properly translate or even judge this stuff for an English version. If you want to translate a novel, the best solution would be to have another professional writer of the creator’s level as a translator.
In terms of adventures, the writer also needs to grasp the whole game, to place hints properly for example… so, in a best case scenario, the writer would also have to be a competent game designer specialised in adventure games.
But there are only a couple of talented adventure writers among the English speaking people and even fewer are able to speak German.
Those are, however, supposed to provide us more games anyway.
In general, adventure games seem to be more popular in Germany today than they are in England and America. Why do you think this is?
I don’t think this is a matter of popularity. The vast amount of DoubleFine adventure backers are not all from Germany, you know? I think it’s more due to the fact that, firstly, we have more developers dedicated to creating adventure games here in Germany resulting in more high quality titles. And secondly it’s also a matter of the platform used.
It’s hardly possible to translate classical adventure gameplay to consoles without undergoing some kind of loss.
Here in Germany, the PC market still outgrows the English market.
Probably the new generation of consoles will tip the scales.
I was delighted to discover that many of the songs in Daedalic Entertainment’s games are sung by you! Do you enjoy singing?
I always liked to play music and actually I’m playing with a small singer/songwriter project here in Hamburg.
I really love the narrative frame of songs: you’ve got roughly four minutes to tell a story. The recurring structures of refrain and verse offer exciting possibilities to build tension. Translating those songs into English was a great time as well.
Just like a thrilling puzzle: you have to find rhymes, bearing the same content and wit the German version does.
My favourite in that regard is:
‘Because close to the bone is where you need cojones.’
For a long time, I wasn’t completely sure if cojones would be well a well known or even common expression, even if the dictionary web page did its best to convince me otherwise; not until I came across it in ‘Breaking Bad’.
I was afraid though, how people would react to the actual performance of the song. You know, anxiety about my German accent and if it would be too present and things like that.
As far as I know, though, all in all my songs scored alright.
Good luck for me, I guess.
What can fans of Deponia expect from the third and final game in the trilogy?
Of course, in ‘Goodbye Deponia’ the story concludes.
You’ll get to know if Rufus manages to get Goal to Elysium, stop the Organon and save Deponia.
We’ll also give answers to the last big questions. Rufus’ origin, for example.
Aside from these epic aspects, we can finally unload the playable switcheroo, already foreshadowed in the predecessors.
So, there’ll be even more chaos and more problems than Rufus could possibly handle.
I don’t want to spoil too much…
Just this: It’s gonna be awesome.
Will there ever be another Edna & Harvey game?
We have some paths open in that direction, a lot of fan demand and I for my part am eager to do another of those games.
So, we have a green light for another instalment. However, it’s still too early to make any promises.
So many games, so little time…
What’s next for you Mr Müller-Michaelis?
To be honest, I still haven’t decided what my next project after Deponia will be.
The titles’ success puts me into the very comfortable position of carefully thinking through what my next move should be.
That’s pure luxury and I’m aware of that; I’m excited what the future holds.
I want to try so much and I really can’t complain about a lack of ideas at all.
Thank you for your time! I’m a huge fan and I can’t wait to play Daedalic Entertainment’s future point-and-click adventure games in years to come!
And cheers to our English fans!