Whether it is a dystopian science fiction thriller that deals with the surveillance state (The Moment of Silence), a complex psychological thriller that focuses on violence (Overclocked) or a thrilling political thriller (15 Days) – Martin Ganteföhr is not afraid to address complex and profound problems in his adventure games. Together with the German game developer and publisher Daedalic Entertainment, Martin Ganteföhr has published State of Mind, a futuristic thriller about transhumanism. Transhumanism is another topic that is bursting with complexity and profundity, since it is a line of thought within philosophical anthropology that seeks to take human evolution to the next level through the use of technology. We spoke to Martin Ganteföhr about the development of State of Mind, transhumanism and the human obligation to progress.
Wall Jump: What The Moment of Silence, Overclocked and 15 Days have in common – beyond the fact that you wrote all of them – is the fact that these games deal with fundamental topics of philosophical anthropology. Does it hurt sometimes when you see a random “hero-rescues-princess”- story breaking all sales records for weeks?
Martin Ganteföhr: No, absolutely not. (thoughtful) Money is not the most important thing here. I’m trying to create stories I’d like to tell, stories I’m interested in finding out something, digging deeper and creating something other people can relate to. But before anyone else, I must like it. I have worked on projects I didn’t like, but rather finished them on demand – those were sad times in my life. It was horrible to overcome this obstacle, to do something you don’t actively want to do. That costs a lot of energy. Of course I want my games to be sold, but I am aware that it’s much more difficult to sell games with philosophical content than to sell some easy-going stuff. But I have to do what I’m interested in – otherwise I’m really bad und become very unhappy. For me, working on these topics is much more relevant (hesitates) and I’m not always doing great! But I’m doing my best and I’m trying to get better, that’s what keeps me going. That sounds far too emotional… but it’s really true. (laughs)
Wall Jump: In fact, a couple of years ago, when asked “How much do you grow as a writer and game designer from game to game?”, you once answered that you would continue to progress and improve, but that you hadn’t made your best game yet. Do you have the feeling that State of Mind is your best game?
Martin Ganteföhr: During the development of State of Mind I did some things I hadn’t done before. It is interesting for me to do something that is a bit too much for me to handle, things that challenge me because I can’t master them completely yet. But the best game… (thinks) – so I hope it will be interesting. But I don’t know if “improve” is the right word… it’s more about doing things that I have inside me and that are interesting for me.
Wall Jump: Is there a great danger of setbacks in such a big project then? Are there days of doubts? Days you are sceptical about the story or its technical practicability?
Martin Ganteföhr: (thinks) I rarely have fundamental doubts. The question “What have I gotten myself into?” is something I ask myself very often. Every day. It’s also painful to realize that there are things that you can’t implement at all or things that you realize you can do better but suddenly don’t have enough time for. But all in all, I think most things are just manageable – and it is rather the things that are completely manageable that depress me – that is much worse. I think to set myself a big task and only manage, I don’t know, only 80 or 70 percent of it … that’s okay. I can’t expect myself to do everything right – but doing something which is merely kind of “formula” – that’s like your own funeral. I don’t want that, so I have to live with a certain risk.
“What have I gotten myself into?” is something I ask myself very often. Every day.Martin Ganteföhr
Wall Jump: The subject of transhumanism conceals numerous philosophical approaches – yes, some of them completely contrary positions. In creating a story based on such a complex topic, there is the danger of triviality. No one expects questions to be answered, but how difficult is it to raise the right questions without ending up in triviality?
Martin Ganteföhr: Of course there’s a great danger, especially with such a complex topic like the transhumanism. The game focuses strongly on the mind upload idea,… and of course, you could go in millions of other directions. There are also other fictional works that focus only on nanotechnology or robotics, the machine creature that wants to be or be recognized as a person. All this exists and I also see that the spectrum is wide and the capacity of such a game, even if it is big, is limited. Of course, it is difficult to limit yourself there,… – and sometimes you want to tell too much! But I’m trying to rely on my instincts here. I always try to link the topics to characters and people, to kind of ground them. As abstract scientific lesson or philosophical discussion, those things are difficult to understand, but if it’s the specific problem of a person, it’s much easier to relate to…
Wall Jump: …and that’s when it can have an impact…
Martin Ganteföhr: …that’s what I hope! But that doesn’t mean that there’s no danger or that I’m not aware of it. And there’s no way I can control this danger. One is always wiser after the event. (laughs)
MARTIN GANTEFÖHR AND JOSHUA HAMPF IN CONVERSATION
Wall Jump: The setting in State of Mind reminded me of Michel Houellebecqs “The Possibility of an Island”. There, it says: “Man is the first species in the known world to create the conditions to replace himself.” Do we have to fear this or how exactly is the gamer confronted with transhumanism in State of Mind?
Martin Ganteföhr: Basically I try to keep it simple and break down to the fact that there could be a virtual world that is really good and where we could be happy. Wouldn’t that be nice? The characters in the game, who live in this virtual world, become aware that it’s different from the world they used to know. Therefore, does this virtual world really have a right to exist? And that’s when the characters start to ask questions… ”Yes, I like this world better – is there anything bad here? What’s good about your world? How you’re sitting there in your “real” world… with all those wars around you… what’s so good about that? What’s so good about being mortal,… dying?” In a way, this virtual world shows that it has a right to exist, too. And this creates even more questions: If there’s a virtual world, who can enter? And why? Are there people who are not allowed to enter? Who decides that?
Wall Jump: Well, in his “Menschenpark”-speech, the philosopher Peter Sloterdjik asks “What tames mankind when humanism fails?” Overcoming homo sapiens is often said to be our revolutionary duty…
Martin Ganteföhr: I have a bad feeling when it comes to transhumanism but I still hope that the game isn’t just about the dystopian point of view in the way “Everything has to be overthrown!” It’s a topic where opposites apparently come together. Followers of the humanistic as well as followers of the transhumanistic idea state that we have to improve mankind. Of course, you could educate and teach him…
Wall Jump: …the old educational ideal…
Martin Ganteföhr: …yes, that he becomes better. And then there are people like Ray Kurzweil, who says: “No! We have to create the technology we need!” after the motto “We can fix all this!” As a “small” game developer, I don’t see myself in the position to say: “Forget about all this rubbish Kurzweil is telling you!” I really have the feeling that it could work. But I also have the feeling that the possibility of failure, and especially the dimension that this failure would mean, is not taken into account. Many people simply see this as deterministic human fate; that’s how it’s supposed to be and it will be fine. But with such a thing you can’t just rely on the cultural history of mankind and say: “But there used to be the mechanic loom… and now there are machines… and now we find new tasks for humans and everything will be great… that’s what we’ve always done… and we just keep on going!” I don’t think this parallel can be drawn that easily here. We can’t deny that there truly is the possibility of total loss of control, I mean real apocalyptic loss of control. And the attitude “eyes closed and everything will work out” just doesn’t work here.
We can’t deny that there truly is the possibility of total loss of control, I mean real apocalyptic loss of control.Martin Ganteföhr
Wall Jump: Those two sides are represented in State of Mind by the two “worlds“ the gamer can switch between. So several narrative perspectives and different characters you can choose from. How do you make sure the gamer is not lost on the way?
Martin Ganteföhr: In the end, I can’t be sure about that. During the development of Overclocked, the whole team didn’t understand how it all fits together anymore and I thought: “Okay, this is extremely difficult now and I have to keep tens of thousands of continuity tables,… but I think it fits together!” And back then my claim was that everything will fit together and feel right when you play it in the end – and the claim hasn’t changed. Moreover, I can demand of the player to put together the narrative elements into their correct places.
Wall Jump: So you prefer fewer starting points instead of a straightforward tutorial?
Martin Ganteföhr: You always have this discussion, but I think this should not be streamlined too much. Although the game is very complex, it’s still very accessible. We tried to minimise the resistance on even more levels in the game so that it’s not turning into a nightmare at some point. Of course we also see the danger, and I know that the game has to be very accessible if it comes along with this complex story. I’m not saying that the development was easy – nor that everything works perfectly.
Joshua Hampf: How much freedom did you have in developing State of Mind?
Martin Ganteföhr: Well, there is a development reality. There is always a team and I also have a fellow author with whom I discuss a lot. All these people help a game. We had to have confidence and say that you can understand it very well – that’s what makes this game so interesting. That it offers this resistance and something has to happen in the players’ minds while they are playing! The players should understand while playing and experience the feeling of progress while understanding. Progress in understanding.
Wall Jump: Thank you for your time and the exciting interview!
Martin Ganteföhr has been working as a designer, author, director and lecturer for interactive media for over two decades. He is best known for his thematically complex adventure games such as The Moment of Silence, Overclocked or State of Mind.
This post is also available in: German