Interview: Guido Henkel On Deathfire: Ruins Of Nethermore

By John Walker on November 13th, 2013 at 1:00 pm.

Hey, get your feet off our couch.

We’ve already seen some promising in-game footage of the grid-based first-person RPG with the most fantasy name of all time, Deathfire: Ruins Of Nethermore. Harking back to the likes of Dungeon Master and Wizardry, but with promises of something a lot more involved, it sounds like something we’d like to press play upon. But who is behind these claims? Who is Realms Of Arkania co-creator Guido Henkel? Well, he’s the co-creator of… oh, I ruined that. Setting out to find out if he’s more than just the box cover model for Planescape: Torment, I stepped forward, sidestepped left, stepped forward again, and used the potion of Interview on Henkel. Find out how Legends Of Grimrock made him realise the project was even possible, why they’re sticking to the tiles, and why being a producer on Planescape: Torment isn’t as glamorous as it sounds.

RPS: For German readers, and certainly for a lot of RPG fans, the words “Realms Of Arkania” certainly cause people to pay attention. Can you explain for those who weren’t there at the time what they were, and why people still remember them so fondly?

Guido Henkel: I think, one of the reasons these games are so memorable has to do with the level at which they engaged the player. Many of today’s games are like fast-food. They are slick, simple, fast and pretty, but they have very little substance. The moment you finished your burger, you forget about it.

Games like the “Realms of Arkania” trilogy operated on a different level, partially because they were very unforgiving and because they forced you to pay attention. It’s not that the games were unfairly harsh, but if you made a bad decision, you would suffer the consequences eventually. If you did not pay attention to detail, you would potentially lose your companions because they starved, got sick or because they were simply ill-prepared for what was ahead of them.

The concept in those games has been to simulate a real tabletop roleplaying game session in the computer with all of its intricacies. Sadly, a lot of technical limitations, such as processing power, speed and storage limitations, held us back in those days, but that’s exactly where we want to jump in with my new project, “Deathfire: Ruins of Nethermore.” We want to recapture that kind of gameplay and atmosphere, and then go beyond the technical limitations of yesteryear and enhance the experience with what modern computers and their computing power can offer. Deeper characters, multi-layered storylines and plots, more reactive environments, independent opponents, and so forth.

RPS: To the rest of the world, you’re probably most famous for being a producer on “Planescape: Torment.” As well as being the face on the box, of course! The role of producer is a mysterious one to most, I think – can you explain a bit more what it means, and what your role was on the game?

Guido Henkel: It is so mysterious, in fact, that even I was taken by surprise when I started on Planescape: Torment. Titles used to have very little meaning when I first began. They were often simply a moniker to show who was involved in a project and in roughly what capacity that person’s focus was. I think in the “Realms of Arkania” games I’m credited as the producer as well, while in fact, I programmed, designed, created art, did the music and a million other things. It would have appeared as excessively self-serving to add my name to each category, so we decided early on not to do that and instead pick one and leave it at that.

When I signed on with Interplay to produce Planescape I was imagining to see the same kind of work environment, in which everyone is helping everyone to the best of their abilities, in order to build the products. I found very quickly, however, that there was a much stronger separation than I had anticipated.

As a result my primary responsibilities on that project were primarily administrative in nature. While I did some work on some of the technical design aspects of the game, I was mostly the guy who was crunching the numbers and maintained the project plans to make sure everyone knew what they were supposed to do, and got it done in time. It was also my job to shield the team from the many corporate issues that surround a project, that may simply be distracting the team from the creative aspects. It is neither a fun, nor a glorious job.

RPS: Deathfire: Ruins Of Nethermore, as well as being about the most RPG name of all time, looks like a return to classic late ’80s role-playing games. What was it about that era that made you want to head back there? Did the success of Grimrock have any part in that?

Guido Henkel: I looked at Legends of Grimrock and it made me realise that I had never considered what our classic games could look like if you gave them a modern day presentation. I always thought they were simply outdated as a whole, without realizing that at the core there is still an absolutely valid game core that was every bit as engaging now as it was 25 years ago. It only needed to be packaged properly. I really have to thank the guys at Almost Human to open my eyes to those possibilities.

Once that thought had broken, very quickly the desire grew inside me to conjure up the real role-playing magic of games like the Realms of Arkania trilogy and bring them to today’s players. Thus the concept of Deathfire: Ruins of Nethermore was born, and from the first moment it was clear to me, that it would be a real throwback to the classic games. After all, who better to build a traditionally inspired game like this, than the guys who built the traditional games to begin with? This is exactly our field of expertise. Old-school games by old-school guys!

RPS: I’ve seen people asking why the grid-based format? What is it about this format that appeals to you, makes you want to stick to the pre-Ultima Underworld universe?

Guido Henkel: It is a personal preference, really, and it has to do with my memories of tabletop, pen & paper games, I suppose. There is something magical about that for me, because to me it somehow defines the space better and gives the player better control of that space in a strategic sense.

We were extremely mindful, however to make sure that despite being grid based, the game does not necessarily look that way. You can see very well in our outdoor screenshots that we broke up the geometry to create a look and feel that completely hides the underlying grid and creates an environment that is every bit as crooked and angled as it is in other 3D games.

Depending on the environment, we do the same thing in dungeons, though some dungeons are by their very definition fairly straight tunnels and do not benefit at all from too much deviation.

So, on the whole, it is an artistic and nostalgic decision, and since we know that it may not be everybody’s cup of tea, we make amends by also offering full mouselook capabilities and the ability to turn off things, such as the little bounce in each step. That way it is possible to move through the world in a fashion that easily lets you forget that you’re moving along a grid in a stepwise fashion.

RPS: I can imagine that developing an old-school RPG might come with some challenges based on expectations. People at once want something that reminds them of their favourite games, but also want something original. But at the same time others will react negatively to the original, because it doesn’t remind them of their favourite games! Is finding that balance tricky?

Guido Henkel: I am not sure at this point. Time will tell, I presume. All that we can do is make the game we feel is the best we can make. I look at features of my old games and try to determine which ones were valuable and which ones weren’t. The other day, for example, I began playing Shadows over Riva, the third of the Realms of Arkania games, and was shocked at how unfriendly the experience was in terms of usability. So I made notes how to improve that. I also found that it had an excessively slow start from a narrative point of view. So I made notes of that as well, and made respective plans not to repeat the same mistake in “Deathfire.” I will start with a bang and set players on the right path straight away, giving them something to do.

The perception of any game is highly subjective. I often see people flock to a certain game on troves, and when I check it out for myself, I just can’t see the appeal oftentimes. And vice versa.

Every player has his own preferences and projects his own expectations in a game. We cannot control this – and think we shouldn’t – and the best thing we can do, really, is to make the kind of game we would love to play. That way it will always be earnest and genuine, without becoming a product made purely for commercial appeal.

RPS: So, go on, what will we see from this game that will take us by surprise?

Guido Henkel: Many players who have not really played through the heyday of classic computer role-playing games may find that the experience is a very different one from what passes for role-playing these days. It is a much more engaging and diverse experience that is not limited to repetitive combat and level grinding. Instead, it is much more focused on story and character development, getting the player invested on a completely different level, adding facets to the overall experience.

At the same time, I believe the biggest surprise that players will find is the story itself. At this point Deathfire may seem like it is a bit generic, traditional high fantasy – and that’s the image we are creating for it, including the title – but there’s a whole lot more going on in the story.

There is a good reason why we picked a Nethermancer and not a Necromancer as the antagonist. A Nethermancer has very different abilities that go way beyond raising the dead or some arcane magic. A Nethermancer can bridge dimensions… I’ll let your imagination fill in the rest.

RPS: Thank you for your time.

Deathfire: Ruins Of Nethermore is currently Kickstarting, looking for $390,000 to see the dawn. It’s aiming to be out by Christmas 2014.

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30 Comments »

  1. Jekhar says:

    “For German readers, and certainly for a lot of RPG fans, the words “Realms Of Arkania” certainly cause people to pay attention.”
    If you want german players to pay attention you would have much more luck namedropping “Die Nordlandtrilogie” and “Das Schwarze Auge”. Just FYI.

    • yusefsmith says:

      That, or he could begin with a lead that meant something to 90% of his audience, rather than 10%

    • John Walker says:

      I’ll probably carry on writing the site in English for now.

      • Volcanu says:

        Lazy schweinhund…

      • Jekhar says:

        Bollocks to that! ;-)

      • TillEulenspiegel says:

        The question did strike me as a bit funny, because those words would mean absolutely nothing to a German who wasn’t aware of the English translation of the game.

        Even the word “Arkania” was invented for English speaking audiences, and bears only slight resemblance to the original “Aventurien”, which does not appear in the German titles of these games.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      Das Schwarze Auge would not have translated well, if it was done literally. It certainly wouldn’t have been something you’d ask your father to give you for Christmas.

      • KDR_11k says:

        Which is why it’s translated as The Dark Eye instead. Odd that that license is getting more games than D&D lately.

  2. TillEulenspiegel says:

    I think, one of the reasons these games are so memorable has to do with the level at which they engaged the player. Many of today’s games are like fast-food. They are slick, simple, fast and pretty, but they have very little substance.

    I will continue to throw Kickstarter money at developers who express this kind of sentiment. Because even if they don’t succeed, at least they’re trying. Most refuse to even acknowledge the problem, so have no hope of solving it.

  3. Turkey says:

    If I had a sweet name like Guido Henkel I’d Sid Meier all over that title.

    • guygodbois00 says:

      There’s nothing wrong with “Turkey’s Deathfire: Ruins Of Nethermore”

  4. disperse says:

    Needs ‘staring eyes’ tag.

  5. Enkinan says:

    As much as I loved the old grid based dungeon crawlers such as Wizardry, Eye of the Beholder, etc, and thought Grimrock was also pretty darn good, I hope this one makes the combat a bit more engaging.

    Has anyone tried a hex variation of this format? I feel like it would give you more tactical options.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I think it would make navigation and puzzle design extremely annoying. Imagine 3 turns to do a 180 and no way to move at right angles to your current facing (no side-stepping, or two different kinds of side-stepping… what keys do I press for that?) I don’t think you can have everything. Where Grimrock went wrong for me was in attaching a skill tree to the class/leveling system and enabling you to waste points on skills that really had little effect on the way combat plays out in these games. Because these systems are so endemic in RPGs today this encouraged people to see the combat itself, and not the skill tree, as the thing that was broken.

      • JamesTheNumberless says:

        Tactical combat in real time grid based games, is just necessarily a different beast from tactical combat in a turn based grid based game, the most important factor is that the combat is part of the level design. A monster in a 4×4 room is just sword fodder but a monster in a tight corridor or a room full of pits and switches is something else. As is a monster that’s much quicker at turning/moving than you are or one that you just can’t kill by normal means. Grimrock is still a bit conflicted between being faithful to DM and EoB which were puzzle games first, hack & slash games second – and the expectations of a generation of combat centric action RPGs or more tactical story driven RPGs with pausing or turn based combat that have inconsequential environments (pretty backdrops mostly) where the combat focus is in levelling your characters and managing their equipment.

        This was never really the case in DM, you were never told which weapons or armour were better, it was up to your preference and your intuition. You also didn’t have a concept of character classes but had skill based progression through as many of the 4 “arts” as you chose to practice. The real hardcore DM experience is not re-incarnating a lone champion and grinding him up to archmaster everything, but resurrecting 4 and guiding them through the game without resorting to mob farming.

    • MellowKrogoth says:

      They’re doing real-time movement but turn-based combat. So from what I understand you’ll be able to evade enemies like in Grimrock, but once you get locked in combat it’ll be more like the Wizardry series combat (which for me is GREAT news, fighting with your 6-character party in those games was really engaging).

  6. Michael Fogg says:

    I will probably get under fire for this, but Realms of Arkania games were a mess. A very ambitious mess, but still a mess. Uncomparable to a compact masterpiece like Eye of the Beholder. Arkania was broken into first person exploration and isometric combat, conveyed most of its story moments through uninteractive click-through text windows, offered very little clues which forced you to perform tedious house-to-house searches and questioning everybody like you were the constable looking for a burglar. It was really that kind of hardcore RPG that is better relegated to the memory.

    • JamesTheNumberless says:

      I sort of agree, although I loved RoA – Star Trail and each of the three perspectives (tactical combat, world map, 1st person dungeons) had their own charm for me, it never felt as solid a game as the likes of EoB or even the Might and Magic series. I found the game late, on a CD of cracked games I got some time around 96 which included the older Might and Magic games too (4 & 5) from the good ol’ Barras market in Glasgow. I love text in games so that wasn’t really the issue for me but I did find it all too easy to completely break the game so that it became unwinnable without you really realising it until too late. The only other RPGs I can really compare it to in this regard are Daggerfall and the Ishar series. However, there are few other RPGs in which I really felt like I was leading a party of real, imperfect and quite mortal, adventurers, on a perilous quest that was a little out of their depth… I guess I can compare it to Ultima 6 in this regard.

    • Oozo says:

      No fire, no. I would even agree with most of your criticism… I mean, the trilogy probably was overambitious, overcomplicated, and obviously underfunded.

      That said, I honestly do wonder if the following can really be held against it: “It conveyed most of its story moments through uninteractive click-through text windows…” I don’t remember that being an exception for the time… maybe I’m wrong? What other/better examples are you thinking of from that time?

      I actually think that using “simple” tools like text, numbers and maps are what made the games powerful, and it’s why a lot of people still remember them fondly. The other, less messy side of the coin, if you will. It was a mess, but because it tried something new, and difficult.

      The “RoA”-games where, in a way, simulations. Heroic Medieval Fantasy Strolling Around-simulations, with characters that were extremely complex, from a mechanical point of view. (They were creatures made purely of numbers, I admit, but made of A LOT of numbers.)

      It’s a game (the only game?) where it mattered that you bought good shoes and warm sleeping bags when going to a trip in the mountains, where you had to hunt for food when in the wilderness and often would end up with nothing, a game where you had a dozen of illnesses that you could catch when you did not pay attention to your surroundings and your equipment. And of course, there were talents and skills that were almost never used, but the fact that there were skills for dancing, being afraid of heights, controlling your body and mind, knowing languages both ancient and new, knowing religious history and so on… it made the characters believable, in a highly abstract way.

      So yeah, you had tons of micromanagement, and the danger of putting your points in useless talents — that’s probably not good design. Somebody put all the wheels and cogs into place to build one hell of an engine, but, well, there was not much time for optimizing it. Still, a hell of an engine.

      So, it was a mess for all the right reasons. (And it was not always a mess… in fact, it often was exciting. Things like having to find another way around an abyss because one of your party members is afraid of heights (or having to decide if you split up and go separate ways until you reunite again), having to hurry back to a town to find a healer because you are carrying a dying person around… it might not sound like much, but the ToA-games sometimes where able to create emergent situations that felt just right, with people that felt… vulnerable. Like people.)

      I don’t know… thinking of those games always carries with it a regret for fact that game was surpassed in a lot of aspects by a lot of games, but sadly, what the game tried and almost succeeded at, being a simulation instead of just a tale… that aspect was left to history. You can only imagine what somebody could do with that idea and the possibilities you have nowadays.

  7. I Got Pineapples says:

    That is an oddly…..erotic photograph right there.

  8. drvoke says:

    Not once did I ever consider a game like Might And Magic or Wizardry to be the height of characterization and plot. Realms of Arkania had a bit more to it in that regard, granted, but when i look back to 80s and 90s first person crpg dungeon crawlers, deep plot and characterization is not what stands out. Battles (and tough as nails at that, especially RoA and Wizardry) are what stand out as the main parts of the game.

    • malkav11 says:

      Yeah. I’m not denying that there’s been some losses in recent years, particularly as regards the mandate that everything must be fully voice acted (thus dramatically restricting the amount of dialogue and other writing that can be employed and preventing it from easily being altered), but classic 80s and (early) 90s RPGs were mostly the “story” games only in the sense that most of the other genres weren’t even trying to tell stories, not in the sense that that was a heavy emphasis. I mean, we’re talking about games that had to offload most of the story they did have to paragraph books because the tech couldn’t support much actual text.

  9. noodlecake says:

    Isn’t that a young Bill Murray?

  10. Xyth says:

    I came to this thread specifically to read witty comments about the photo. I’m surprised there are so few. It reminds me of the video cover David Brent (Ricky Gervais) did in The Office of “If you don’t know me by now.” See link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=riOZoc8vyFQ