Upon release, The Mystery of the Druids was hard to miss. Not due to its content, or the reputation of the game itself, but because of an attention-grabbing cover featuring a wide-eyed druid screaming wordlessly at the viewer. So striking was this image, in the days when we all still bought games in shops, that it went on to become something of a meme, and acquired a life outside the game.
But there's more to this 2001 point-and-click adventure than its bizarre box-art. The Mystery of the Druids aspired to be a supernatural detective drama in the vein of the Broken Sword series, tasking you with uncovering an ages-old mystical plot. The game typifies turn-of-the-millennium adventure gaming with its sometimes obtuse puzzles and esoteric themes, from long before Telltale gave the genre a much-needed shot in the arm.
It was released to a rather mixed reception: it certainly has its share of issues, including, infamously, a puzzle that has Detective Halligan, your protagonist, drugging a beggar to steal his change. Your colleagues, too, are strangely obstructive, which may have something to do with Halligan's abrasive manner.
Finding out information from a scholar.
And yet it has an odd kind of charm, both as entertaining game in its own right and as a snapshot of the era that spawned it. Real-life druids will be quick to point out that they don't go around eating people, but the game's cannibal-druid conspiracy is treated with such solemnity that it's hard not to get swept along with the madness. It also holds a special place in the heart of Martin Ganteföhr who, with co-creator Tobias Schachte, was responsible for bringing their first adventure game to life.
"When we started out, there were no development tools available, we knew absolutely no-one in the German development scene. Tobias had been spending a considerable part of his late teenage years pursuing the development of his own 2.5D game engine and ... had invented some characters and had penned a charming little story, called The Heirs of the Druids.
"This is how the project was actually born: two guys, experienced and inexperienced at the same time, setting out on an impossible mission; making an adventure game, complete with time-travel, cannibalistic druids and ancient amulets."
Twenty years ago when Ganteföhr and Schachte (aged 28 and 20 respectively) began developing it, getting a game distributed and sold was no easy task. The internet was in its infancy and there was no prospect of paid digital distribution. The pair therefore turned their hand to creating demos of the game that would later become The Mystery of the Druids, with the aim of hooking a publisher. However, there was a sizeable problem.
"Adventure games were dead," explains Ganteföhr, referring to the diminishing popularity of the genre, which reached a nadir in the early 2000s before a later renaissance. So he and Schachte were surprised when, after being turned down or ignored by fifteen publishers, CDV Publishing got back to them and agreed to put the game out.
"Being under contract was a huge change. We were now obliged to make the game! In the following months, we set up a highly unlikely, cutting edge production pipeline," Ganteföhr adds, using the still-primitive internet and the postal system to share code and assets. Ganteföhr and Schachte lived nearly 250 miles apart and, while working remotely is now commonplace, the limited infrastructure that existed back then made it a challenge. Nor was that the only challenge they had to work around.
The protagonist with his unhelpful boss.
"There was an avalanche of things we’d never been confronted with before, design-wise, technically, financially," Ganteföhr notes. "Tobias single-handedly dealt with all technical and software-related things, from questions about the 3D-texturing of the characters to the lip-syncing of their speech output."
Ganteföhr and Schachte also had the primary dilemma of whether to make the game 2D, 3D or something in-between.
"From all we knew about the target audience, it seemed clear adventure gamers just didn’t own the required hardware. They ran old machines with low-end graphics cards, so the thought of further decimating an already tiny audience seemed absurd," says Ganteföhr.
In the end, they settled on using real-time 3D characters superimposed over a 2D pre-rendered background, due to the hardware demands of full 3D. And, to their credit, The Mystery of the Druids was, at the time, visually appealing. Though there was one character who always appeared to be levitating above his chair.
Another problem was how to suitably challenge the player. The Mystery of the Druids was criticised for the sometimes baffling nature of its puzzles, but many adventure games share this issue, sometimes existing in alternate worlds where logic no longer applied. Gabriel Knight 3, for example, featured an oft-mocked example where you drew a false moustache on a passport photograph, then created your own false moustache out of cat hair and maple syrup as if this was the most logical thing in the world (or likely to work at all). Many other games expected similar mental gymnastics from players, which may have been one contributing factor to the then-waning interest in the genre.
Ganteföhr elaborates on The Mystery of the Druids' own puzzles. "I believe many of the game’s bizarre puzzles had their roots in the fundamental lack of clarity about the overall direction of the game. Was MotD going to be an attempt at the comedy genre, or was it meant to be a dark and serious mystery?" This is borne out by the game's discrepancies in tone, sometimes alternating jarringly between comedy and drama. As Detective Halligan, you can be investigating a murder scene and, moments later, berate the attending officer for not leaving his post to help find your wallet.
"We had played Gabriel Knight and Broken Sword, Grim Fandango... and many games more. But that probably confused our design process more than it informed it." Cat Hair Moustache aside, the team noted that many of these games featured bizarre puzzles and yet were lauded by gamers. They approached puzzle design by analysing the plot and deciding where obstacles to progress might be placed.
A sketch of the game's Camors location.
"I think when playing other games, we did feel the importance of an overall rhythm, of context and cohesion of puzzles across a narrative. But ultimately, we couldn’t really derive a clear vision or coherent plan for our own work from any of that," Ganteföhr says.
Ganteföhr says he can't pinpoint exactly when, but suspects the infamous beggar-drugging puzzle was put into the game relatively early on in the design cycle. After the fact, he realised that it called the morality of the main character into question, as well as compromising the player's own morality by forcing the action upon them.
"But it has actually changed the way I look at video game characters, and it has significantly informed some of my later work," says Ganteföhr. "Strangely enough, it has led me to think that a fundamental difference between player intent and character intent can be a great asset for characterisation."
As for that cover? CDV had the final word on not only the game's title but also the packaging and sales of the game. The 'screaming druid' box-art was designed and greenlit in-house by the publisher, with the accurate reasoning that it would stand out.
"It actually worked," Ganteföhr says, "Sales weren’t bad at all!" When the cover became a meme, there were no regrets either. "I feel that, in a way, it’s an appropriate cover for the game, and it’s a wonderful career for it."
Maybe intentional, maybe a translation thing, but double entendres like this are part of the game's ramshackle charm.
Ganteföhr is positive about the game's development process, and has a fondness for it quirks and all. He's since worked on multiple games including the recent cyberpunk thriller, State of Mind, available on the PC, PS4, Xbox One and Nintendo Switch.
"We produced something that I still value," Ganteföhr says. "MotD stands out in some ways we didn’t quite anticipate or intend, obviously. But to me it still exudes a certain weird B-movie charm, mixed with early indie video game spirit and the messiness of a complete do-it-yourself production. MotD laid the foundation for a studio that lasted for twelve years. It laid the groundwork for many friendships (and some enmities) that would last for decades."
House of Tales, the studio founded by Martin Ganteföhr and Tobias Schachte, is no more, but the rights to The Mystery of the Druids (and other properties) were purchased by THQ Nordic who have since made it available on Steam and GOG.com. It's flawed, but it may just grow on you, and just how many games have a protagonist who will happily photocopy his own face?
The final word on The Mystery of the Druids must go to Ganteföhr who, with Schachte and a handful of others, turned their dream into a game - and articulates that feeling in a unique way.
"It's like when you and your friend set out with the crazy plan to build a spaceship in your backyard. Inexplicably, this thing actually takes off, and it takes you to space. Of course... the whole insufficient thing threatens to fall apart around you. But somehow, you survive, and you make it back home alive. You might look at that as a failed mission, but you’d be very wrong to do so. After all, you’re now an astronaut."
Thanks to Martin Ganteföhr for agreeing to the interview, an expanded text of which can be found on his Medium blog.