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Deponia creator, Daedalic co-founder Poki looks back on making a cult classic

Jan Baumann, also known as "Poki" explains how Deponia was born out Narrenfreiheit: the German word for "freedom of the jester."

Priya Sridhar

September 14, 2023

6 Min Read
A screenshot from Deponia Doomsday showing player character Rufus and his two travelling companions.

Point-and-click games have never been stranger or curiouser than when Daedalic Games, a German company, developed and released Deponia. The game was brainchild of studio co-founder Jan Baumann (formerly Jan Müller-Michaelis), who would lead development on three sequels before departing the company in 2019.

Baumann, who also goes by the creative alias “Poki,” found himself in a sincere case of life imitating art. Like Rufus, the hero of Deponia, he had to let go of his lifelong dream to do the right thing. His daughter had been born the same year, and he wanted to balance fatherhood with his other creative ventures.

His main new interest is in music—but his other job now is recreating his work after his daughter deletes it from the computer screen.

We wanted to chat with Baumann about his experience creating oddball point-and-click adventure games, and hear his thoughts about Daedalic’s decision to cease internal game development. (Daedalic is working on a fifth game called Surviving Deponia, developed in partnership with AtomicTorch Studio).

Baumann said he owed his success to an unusual creative background and the joy of "Narrenfreiheit"—a medieval German phrase meaning "freedom of the jester."

How did Baumann start his career in game development?

Baumann began his career studying media technology in Hamburg. While studying, he made short films, recorded his first album, and did freelance art for web design. The work slowed down his studies, and he faced a choice—drop out, or sprint through his remaining courses.

He chose the sprint. Baumann’s program included a "computer-generated media" discipline. He decided to make a computer game for his thesis project. That game became Edna and Harvey: The Breakout.

“I joke that you can see every single coffee I had, because I had little sleep and lots of coffee while finishing the game,” he says.

A screenshot from Edna & Harvey: The Breakout - Anniversary Edition. Edna stands in a lab with some kind of mind-reading chair.

Baumann's creative influence on the project stretched across different departments. He wrote the story, contributed to coding, composed and performed the score, and designed gameplay features.

Finishing Edna and Harvey gave Baumann his first taste of Narrenfreiheit. The phrase is often used to describe utter creative freedom—specifically the freedom jesters had to criticize kings without the risk of being beheaded. "They would have free reign and could tell any joke possible. That's exactly what I was aiming for in my creations," he said.

Baumann's professor introduced him to Carsten Fichtlmann—then a marketing director at DTP. Fichtlmann would later invite Baumann to join him in co-founding Daedalic.

What Inspired Deponia?

Fresh off Edna and Harvey’s success, Baumann received permission to complete a new project on his terms. Baumann considered a new theme—how something as simple as junk furniture can reflect who you are as a person.

"I was looking around my mess of a student flat that I still lived in at the time, and was thinking about how I was working on multiple projects and doing long hours," he explains. "Yet I still had the same mess now while founding a company."

"'Okay, I thought. Here's something. Maybe there is a conflict hidden inside of the clutter.'" He laughed at this. "I was just sitting, eyeing my sideboard which reflected the mess. Meanwhile, I'm not at the point where I want to decide what furniture I want in my finished flat."

A screenshot from Deponia showing off the titular junk planet.

"If I was to remove the old furniture, ten-euro Ikea pieces that had been there since I had moved out from home, what would that say about my character? What would I live with, that I would be okay with using as replacements? And how long would I live with the next one?"

He remembered thinking that disposing of the sideboard would be a step toward realizing what his "finished life" would be like. But Baumann felt conflicted—he didn’t want his life to be "finished." "I don’t see a process taking me to that one moment in time where anything is solved and resolved, where I can stand still, look down and say 'I did it, I’m finished.'"

Baumann said this was a "character trait" of his, and he wanted to "take it to court, to test it in the gaming field.” “That is still what Deponia is to me,” he said emphatically. "It's about…the conflict of changing or not changing. Would you stop being who you are if you reached your goals and got everything you wanted?"

He called the idea a "sad thought." "Deponia is about the necessity of making peace with not getting what you want," he said, saying players would not be "satisfied" by the end of the game. But players don’t necessarily want to play games with heavy themes, so he still found time to emphasize the fun. He focused on giving players time to explore and mess around on the junk world of Deponia.

Deponia plays out as a Greek tragedy with this theme. Rufus getting what he wants—a ticket off the trash planet—consistently endangers his neighbors and the woman he pursues. Baumann understands that comedy and tragedy are two sides of the same coin. It’s an idea that makes a players laugh and cry at the same time. Players empathize with Rufus and his internal conflict.

What does Baumann think of Daedalic after his departure?

Baumann was not involved in the decision to make a fifth Deponia game—and thus chooses to not have strong feelings about it. "To have an opinion feels strange," he said with a laugh. "I don't think I have one because it's just too complex and complicated to ponder all the implications."

He said it’s "strange" to see the world he crafted live without him. He seemed relieved at least that Surviving Deponia isn’t being called Deponia 5, and is a survival game instead of a point-and-click adventure game.

"That would have made me really nervous…the worst part of [Daedalic] making Deponia 5 would be if they tried replicating my sense of humor…and if they succeeded. I'm very glad they’re not even trying."

Baumann’s personal ties and inspiration from Deponia give him the best perspective to discuss the spinoff game, as well as Daedalic Games' transition from game development to publishing. His cautious optimism reflects a deep love for his most successful project, and hope for the future.

Surviving Deponia will not continue Rufus’s story but rather provide unique experiences for players. Another generation can make their mark on the trash planet and on Baumann’s legacy. Yet it is no longer his game or his humor. Instead, it is his world, continuing without him. When Baumann laughs, it is with family and song.

But he no longer laughs at Rufus, or with him. He has traveled to another world, in search of more adventures.

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