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Interview: Guido Henkel On Deathfire: Ruins Of Nethermore

Interviewfire: Answers To Questionsmore

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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