Matthias Manglesdorf and Kevin Mentz

Matthias Manglesdorf and Kevin Mentz, adventure game creators

Two German adventure game designers discuss the pitfalls and epiphanies of writing games for a global audience.

By John Teti • April 2, 2013

Kevin Mentz (pictured above, right) is a writer and lead game designer at Daedalic Entertainment, a German studio whose works are rooted in story and script—games that fall under the increasingly ill-fitting rubric of the “adventure” genre. His colleague, Matthias Manglesdorf (on the left above), is a producer at Daedalic who also serves as the localization manager. As Daedalic grows, the studio faces the challenge of translating its games to a wider audience. That can be tricky on the whole for titles like The Dark Eye: Chains Of Satinav, which is based on a pen-and-paper game popular in Germany. But the studio’s more humorous games, like the wacky junkyard story Deponia 2: Chaos On Deponia, present smaller, more specific challenges, as translators must reinvent wordplay with a whole new set of words. Mentz and Manglesdorf spoke to The Gameological Society about shepherding their German jokes into other languages, the role of writers on a development team, and the fun of watching the internet pick apart your game.

The Gameological Society: Why did you get into games?

Kevin Mentz: I always wanted to make games. I think I played my first adventure game was I five or six years old. I started to copy everything I saw and played. I had this huge piece of old printing paper my father always took from the office. I drew my little Sierra Online graphics and designed my own copies of little adventure and run-and-jump games. All drawn on paper. I always wanted to do that, to be a graphic artist. I didn’t want to write or do anything like that. But then after a while, I lost sight of that. I got more interested in film and literature, and that’s what I studied later on. I started to study film. Aside from that, I made little games on my own with freeware editors and engines you could get online just for the fun of it. And then one day, I saw there was an internship at Daedalic. I thought, “Oh this is what I wanted to do as a little boy. Maybe I could try and do it, and fulfill my childhood dream in a way.” And now I am here, for four years now.

Gameological: Do you ever wish you had studied game design, or do you feel your film and literature background has helped you?

Mentz: Definitely. I had a very strong story design background. Everything I do, every puzzle or game design piece I design, is very focused on what kind of experience or story it conveys to the player at that moment. Every text and everything I write, I always try to make things the player does in the game part of the story he tells. That was always very important to me. Game design—it’s always helpful to study the thing you’re going to do later. I had a lot of game studies and game theory classes at university, but nothing where it got very practical. We would talk a lot about games and how they work and function, and theoretical stuff about interfaces, so that was very helpful.

Gameological: And Matthias, why did you get into games?

Matthias Manglesdorf: Well, I started to play adventure games when I was about eight years old. I was on the Commodore 64 and played games like Maniac Mansion. I think I always played adventure games until I was about 18. When I started to be an editor at Adventure Corner, I also made an internship at DDP, at the PR and marketing department. The PR manager there was Carsten Fichtelmann, who’s the CEO of Daedalic now. When he founded Daedalic, he asked me if I would like to join the team as a producer. I didn’t have to think much about it.

Deponia 2: Chaos On Deponia

Deponia 2: Chaos On Deponia

Gameological: You guys both mentioned that you grew up playing adventure games. You represent the first generation of designers who can say that. How would you say the form is evolving in your generation?

Mentz: It took a while to evolve. After a while it was totally gone, like after the ’90s. I think 1997 was when Grim Fandango came out, and a lot of people in Germany—and Germany is a very important market for adventure games—they wanted to have those games back. And then those people, the generation who grew up with them, started to make those games again. The first wave was very close to how it was back then—it was a lot of, “We want the same thing again. We want nostalgia. We want to go back to the games we played.” And Daedalic did a lot of 2-D animation too, to tap into those nostalgic feelings from back then.

The first wave was a lot of, “We want the same thing again. We want nostalgia.”

But then I think in the last few years, it has really started to change suddenly. Because when nostalgia is done with after a while, and you grow older and grow tired of it, you have those indie games and a huge community that wants to do something new—and has a huge insight on what to do. Then that’s where things changed. That’s where now, like the typical example is The Walking Dead. The Walking Dead is founded in adventure game logic but does different things with that. It has those choices and those action sequences and also has puzzles and dialogues. So it melds with other genres. It’s not only adventure games, it’s things come from other genres, like easy-to-use interfaces. Or those multiple-choice decisions you can make, mostly by BioWare with the role-playing game.

Gameological: It’s less of a rigid genre now, and there’s more borrowing.

Mentz: Like in all genres now. If you look into the independent scene, what the independent game designers do, there’s a lot of blending of different kinds of genres and ideas. It’s not so strict anymore. And that’s where you can make things fresh again, and try things out.

Manglesdorf: It’s getting more and more interesting. The technology to make stories more engaging is also getting better and better.

Harvey's New Eyes

Harvey’s New Eyes

Gameological: I recently played Tomb Raider, which is a game where it seems like the writing staff was detached from the rest of the creative team. You guys place an emphasis on story, so how are your development teams structured?

Mentz: In most cases, the lead game designer and the writer is the same person here. I invent the puzzles and I do the writing for that. It goes hand in hand all the time, but it’s also very, very hard to be the game designer who works with the team on everything, and has the idea of the game design, and has to write all the text. For example, most of our writers go home to write because it’s more calm than here in the office, and when you’re home, you cannot do your job as a game designer that well. It’s a really tough job to do both, but it pays off in the end.

Gameological: Let me talk about localization for a moment, Matthias. In the U.S., we tend to think about localization between Japan and North America, and we don’t think as much about Europe. What don’t we know, as American players, about making games for Europe?

Manglesdorf: I don’t know if it’s too different to make a game for a European market, but in some cases we have topics that are very German. Like one of our last games, The Dark Eye: Chains Of Satinav was based on a German pen and paper role-playing game. I think it’s kind of hard to get to a national audience and get them interested in this kind of fantasy world. Maybe the German humor we are using in our games is just not translatable into English. It’s not so easy to make these games interesting for the rest of the world. We are trying to do our best by not only translating the texts, but [hiring] writers who can write the text equally funny in English as we do in German.

Gameological: You mentioned Chains Of Satinav was based on this German pen-and-paper game. As you’re thinking about broadening your market, does that change the topics and source materials you use for your games? Are you using stuff that, from the beginning, might translate better?

Manglesdorf: In some cases, yes, but in most cases, our creative director, Jan Müller-Michaelis, is writing stories he likes, and I think it’s the best if he just writes the stuff he’s best at—that’s a very bizarre topic and specific kind of humor. If he would start to try to write text which can be translated more easily, I don’t think it would be too good for the text. If the source text is not that good, then the translation won’t be so good either.

Deponia 2: Chaos On Deponia

Deponia 2: Chaos On Deponia

Gameological: Can you give me some examples of jokes that worked in German and didn’t work in English?

Mentz: I remember that in The Whispered World, where I didn’t help write it, but I was working a bit on the localization, that there was a limerick right in the beginning of the game. That was really hard because every little poem or lyric has a special rhythm. It took a while to get that right, and it was even more complicated because in that one scene, it was actually the joke of the scene that Sadwick, the main character, he’s a sad clown, and he’s very depressed. His brother, he tells him to cheer up and be happier. He tells him to tell a funny joke or something. And then Sadwick says this very sad poem, which is very depressing, and his brother takes the whole theme of the poem, the whole idea of it, and changes the rhythm of the thing and the words, and suddenly it becomes a limerick. So that was really hard. That’s one of those things where Jan, the writer, never thought about having to translate that into any other language.

Adventure games in the ’90s were popular because there was no internet.

And oh, yeah, the title of the game is wordplay. “Deponie” is a junkyard. If you would have translated it, it would be called Junkyardia or something very horrible sounding, so we just kept Deponia. And that’s one of those things no one realizes there was a joke, and no one asks about it. It’s okay, this is the plan. It’s called Deponia, but there’s a joke missing. It gets depressing when people realize that there was a bad translation and they were missing out on something. [American] players don’t know. They’re in the dark.

Gameological: The fans, on the internet, can uncover these little Easter eggs for each other. So maybe they do some of your work for you.

Mentz: Yeah, maybe. And talk and tell other people on the forums that the name Deponia actually means “Junkyard.” Basically, we’re helping the community to help each other make it a better experience. [Laughs.]

Gameological: It was all on purpose.

Mentz: It was all on purpose. We would try to leave parts out of the translation so other people can find it. [Laughs.]

Manglesdorf: Just a side note, I think a lot of adventure games in the ’90s were very popular because there was no internet back then, and you had all those puzzles, and they were tough. No one could solve them. A lot of people on the schoolyard started talking about them. Basically, back then in the ’90s, a lot of adventure games were multiplayer games, because people were solving the puzzles together even if only one person was sitting in front of the computer. But since we have the internet, everyone can look for himself what is the solution. So it got to be more of a single-player experience.

Gameological: Do you think the ability for people to go online and look stuff up has changed the way you design the puzzles?

Manglesdorf: I think that’s the reason why puzzles get easier and easier in adventure games. Because no one wants to be blamed that the players had to go on the internet and look up the solution.

Harvey's New Eyes

Harvey’s New Eyes

Gameological: I would have thought it would go the other way. You could make the puzzles harder because people are connected and can interact with each other. But you don’t want to be flamed on a forum, is what you’re saying?

Manglesdorf: A lot of people started playing because of that. They say, “Ah, that was too easy,” but if it gets too hard, they go, “Ah, I had to look at the walkthrough.” And that’s like you failed as a game designer. “I had to look [on] the internet. I had to leave the game to solve the game.”

Gameological: I was looking at a walkthrough the other day, and I thought, “I wonder what it’s like for the designer to look at this walkthrough and have his entire game laid bare.” What does it feel like for you to see people exchange ideas and create these elaborate walkthroughs for your games? Is it fun?

I toyed with the idea of uploading fake walkthroughs for games that I worked on.

Mentz: It’s very cool that people invest so much time into something you created. It’s humbling in a way because you just made this game, and every little detail you have thought of—and it may not be a very good idea, but it ended up in the game. People start to write it down and tell other people how it works. So that’s very nice.

I actually once toyed with the idea to upload fake walkthroughs for games that I worked on so that people would play them and couldn’t solve them, and everything would get very weird. Or put a walkthrough online where only Easter eggs that no one else could ever find were hinted on, and suddenly became a totally different game. But that was just a joke, I never followed up on it.

Gameological: You should totally do that. Do you put Easter eggs in your games? Little obscurities that only the truly diehard will find?

Mentz: Always. A lot. It’s hard to avoid. It’s just something you happen to do when you work on a game. The people on the team, everyone who sees that you put it in is happy. It’s like telling a little in-joke to your team members, and everyone is like, “Is this going to end up in the game? No one will ever realize!”

Gameological: Can you give me an example?

Mentz: Mostly it’s visual puns, like in almost every Daedalic game, there are characters from other games hidden. In Chains Of Satinav, one of our scripters put in a very dirty joke. He’s looking at me right now and laughing, and somebody found it before anyone else on the team realized that it was there. That was interesting. I’m not telling you how I found it. You’ll have to check on it, but thousands of people have probably written about it.

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