By Kieron Gillen on October 19th, 2007 at 5:13 pm.
[While a fun one to do, it’s always a little odd taking on one of someone else’s Totemic Games. It’s a little like having sex with someone else’s wife, I guess. Anyway! Ragnar is, of course, incredibly lovely. Expect a longer interview with Ragnar in the not-too-distant future, from Mr “Future Mrs Tørnquist” Walker. Oh: The interview was done just before Dreamfall hit.]
The Longest Journey is now an established classic. While everyone else was wrapping up the history books of the genre, Ragnar Tørnquist and his team at Funcom were making what would prove to be the bookend of an era. Yes, the Longest Journey, from the start, it was destined to be that last great… er… Platform Game?
“The dark secret is that The Longest Journey began life as a platform game,” reminisces Ragnar, “ Fortunately, that didn’t last long”. Of course, The Longest Journey – the tale of April Ryan and the dual worlds of Starke and Arcadia, was a point-and-click adventure. But the fact it The Longest Journey was a tale is what lead it to the genre. “I wanted to tell a story, a specific story – and that’s why we ended up making an adventure rather than an RPG or an action game,” he explains, “We were all fans of the classic adventures from LucasArts and Sierra, and I’d made a bunch of text adventures on the Commodore 64 back in the day, so the genre was a natural match. But in the end it was all about the story, and finding the gameplay mechanics to suit that.”
Finding and getting the mechanics in a satisfactory state didn’t exactly happen quickly. Development started in 1996 and the game didn’t arrive until 1999 – a particularly long development cycle in those days. “We were a smallish team working on a pretty enormous and ambitious game, and we had to build everything from scratch,” explains Ragnar, “The engine, the tools, the game editor – everything. And we seriously underestimated the time it would take us to finish. Our projected development time when we started was eighteen months. It took almost twice that, and we went way over budget. It was a miracle the game wasn’t canceled, because by that time point-and-click adventures were basically dead, but Funcom stuck with us and supported us. Our problems were mostly of a technical nature: getting the engine to do what we wanted it to do, producing all the assets. The design didn’t change much during development, and neither did the story, which was also the reason why we were so delayed. We couldn’t really make any cuts without seriously compromising the story.”
Not compromising the story was central to the team’s development. In comparison to the majority of games where a story exists only as motivation for who to kill next, trying to create a narrative with a degree of weight is a different challenge. “We wanted to create something different, something fresh and original, something meaningful. Also, I wanted to tell a story that wasn’t simply about saving the world – although there’s that, too,” Ragnar expounds, “I wanted April Ryan to be a real person, someone the player could empathise and identify with, someone with a background, a history, a love life, friends, family…and someone who would go through a transformation during her journey. It definitely wasn’t revolutionary in terms of storytelling, but it certainly felt that way to a lot of players, because games hadn’t really focused on those things before. Since I was a storyteller first and a designer second, that’s why we had that particular focus.”
Perhaps predictably, while most game developers will just list out a selection of defining games in the genre, for the longest journey Ragnar was looking as much to other media. For example, sequential art aka Comics. “Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman – huge influence,” Ragnar, “Anything by Neil Gaiman, really, plus other mid-to-late 90s Vertigo titles like Swamp Thing and Preacher. I was very much into comics and the contemporary fantasy genre at the time – I still am, and my next game will definitely reflect that. Another big influence was Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the TV show, not the movie. Some of April’s dialogue betrays my love affair with the work of Joss Whedon.” Of course, there were game influence. As well as Lucasarts and Sierra, he focuses in on Jane Jensen. “Personally I feel that the first Gabriel Knight was a guiding light, proving there was a real demand for mature stories with real characters,” he adds.
Upon completion, the longest journey wasn’t really over. It suffered a staggered release across dozens of countries. “It was out in Scandinavia a whole year before it was released in North America,” Ragnar explains, “We had a hard time finding local partners in every territory, especially the U.S., because no one there believed in adventures anymore”. The delay did have its advantages, however. “The delayed release allowed us to make a number of changes for the North American version, like additional dialogue, new animations, bugfixes… It actually worked out quite well,” he explains, finding the silver-lining, “And back then, pirating – especially with a game spanning four CDs – wasn’t as big problem as it is today, so I don’t think it hurt sales. On the contrary, I believe the – unintentional – staged release helped build a cult following in Europe, which was reflected in strong sales across the pond.”
Strong sales and a cult-following. Even when The Adventure Was Dead(tm), it was a game that attracted people who were happy to buy into its world and be moved. How does Ragnar believe the game had this effect. “I think it’s pretty simple: it was different,” he argues, “It was a game for a mature audience, with a focus on story and characters. Again, it was by no means revolutionary, but it resonated with players who felt there wasn’t anything for them out there. The game treated them as adults, and the players appreciated that.” Of course, the game wasn’t perfect. There’s much which makes Ragnar rueful. “The pacing was spotty, and there were a couple of really awful puzzles,” he notes, “Some players were stuck for days, weeks, and many just gave up. A number of the dialogues also went on and on. I hadn’t really gotten to grips with the concept of ‘editing’ yet.”
This strange and curious concept was one of the things the team tried to work into the second game. Other changes? “A more evenly paced story,” he answers, “Fewer obscure puzzles; we deliberately made Dreamfall easier based on feedback from players. A shorter game, because the truth is that a lot of people never finished The Longest Journey, and we want everyone to make it to the end of Dreamfall – that’s crucial. You wouldn’t write a book or make a movie if you didn’t think people would bother finishing it. With a game that’s all about story, the point isn’t necessarily to provide a tough challenge: it’s about motivating and guiding the player through the story, and that’s something that Dreamfall does a lot better than The Longest Journey”.
And as a veteran of an adventure and a new-adventure game, what advice would he offer to someone trying to the thankless task of merging narrative and gaming together? “Adventure games are all about story and characters. Start with that, and let the gameplay emerge naturally from the story,” Ragnar argues, “But be willing to make changes if the gameplay demands it later on, and don’t stick with something that doesn’t play well simply because it’s ‘what’s supposed to happen’. You’ll make a better game – and tell a better story – if you allow changes to happen during development.”
Ultimately, the best thing about creating the Longest Journey. The “thankless task” part of the previous paragraph’s just a lie. “I remember getting an e-mail from one guy who told me that the ending made him cry,” Ragnar recalls, “He’d never even cried at a movie before, let alone a computer game. It was a really strong and honest emotional reaction, and that mail made me realise we’d accomplished something valuable. Just touching one person that strongly – it made the whole thing worth it.”