Making Of: The Longest Journey

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.]

We have both kind of gameplay. Point AND click.

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.”

This man is Mr Sweary.

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.”

I'm still amazed that they managed to do a game with a scene with the girl in her underwear, and not turn her into a sex object. Seriously, someone, pay attention. Er... I know we normally do gags here, but frankly, this is worth stressing. How are you, by the way? I'm fine..

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.”

She ignored it, but she knew the pointer was still following her. Stalker..

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”.

Am I still glowing?

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.”

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35 Comments »

  1. Phil says:

    I don’t suppose Ragnar dropped any hints as to when he would resolve the ‘worse than halo 2′ plot precipice that was the ending to Dreamfall did he?

    My only issue with the second game was that it rivalled Chinatown for gut-wrenching depression as the end credits came up.

  2. Kieron Gillen says:

    I suspect John can answer better, but it’s clear he has a third part planned.

    KG

  3. Andrew says:

    Was there not word of Dreamfall Episodes being released via Steam?

  4. Aquarion says:

    There is a third part announced, in the form of Dreamfall Chapters (So yes, there are more cliffhangers in the future), but he appears to consider all the threads of Dreamfall’s actual plot to be tied up, despite the views of… ooh… everyone who played it?

    Single most unsatisfying ending of the world, ever.

    Anyway. His blog: http://ragnartornquist.com/

    Dreamfall Chapters Announcement: http://ragnartornquist.com/?p=291#comments

    Although he’s now busy with The Secret World MMO thingy, so not for fscking _ages_ yet :(

  5. Richard says:

    “I don’t suppose Ragnar dropped any hints as to when he would resolve the ‘worse than halo 2′ plot precipice that was the ending to Dreamfall did he?”

    The plan, last I heard, was for an episodic series called Dreamfall Chapters to continue the story, thanks to lots of lovely art grant money. It’s due to start where Dreamfall left off, although not necessarily focusing on Zoe. No release date yet though.

  6. Richard says:

    “Single most unsatisfying ending of the world, ever.”

    Except for Eye of the Beholder and Syndicate. The ending of which still makes me cross, even today.

  7. Kieron Gillen says:

    I’m actually quietly excited by the Secret World MMO. I think it could be something genuinely special.

    KG

  8. Kieron Gillen says:

    There’s probably a Top 10 there in WORST ENDINGS EVER. Christ, Eye of the Beholder’s was hilarious.

    Bard’s Tale was shitty too, wasn’t it?

    KG

  9. Richard says:

    I love the premise. Although I’d love it more if it wasn’t an MMO, and a genre I’m so burrned out on, charcoal would be envious.

  10. Richard says:

    Nngh, Bard’s Tale:

    “Your quest in Skara Brae is now finished! Here’s some useless XP that’s no bloody good to you any more! Now piss off!”

  11. Richard says:

    That said, I think the Hint Book for Bard’s Tale 2 made up for it. An entire in-character thing with a party working through the whole quest via prophecy, only to decide they didn’t actually want to go through with it – hence you.

    Almost as good as Starglider, which came with a novella that not only excused the wireframe graphics, but tried to make out it was high-technology to help your tactics. I found that very helpful, since before I read it, I thought I was in space, and couldn’t work out why I died every time I went down too low. And yes, in retrospect…

  12. MisterBritish says:

    Slightly disappointing that his next project is an MMO, hopefully they can make the game as interesting as the storyline; alternate reality, lovecraftian goodness.

  13. William Garrison says:

    Yeah, Dreamfall had the worst ending of any book, movie, or game ever. I think it’s pretty clear it was a budget problem. The game had so much dialogue, they probably spend their entire budget then realized they were only 49.99% through the game — so some manager probably decided to just randomly kill all the characters, make up a 5 minute ending that didn’t fit the game, then slap it onto store shelves in the hopes of getting a sequel.

    I loved TLJ.
    I loved the first half of Dreamfall.
    But the old adage goes: Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. I won’t buy a sequel to Dreamfall unless they decide to erase the last 10 minutes of the game and pick-up where it should have left off. I even know some people who wrote some fanfics based on Dreamfall, trying to find a way to finish the game without screwing it up so badly.

  14. Robert Seddon says:

    ‘There’s probably a Top 10 there in WORST ENDINGS EVER.’

    I remember a ‘disapponting endings’ article in PCG, and it definitely featured ‘Syndicate’, but I don’t recall it giving a mention to ‘Eye of the Beholder’. That was some years ago though, so I can’t remember properly which games it featured.

  15. Richard says:

    Eye of the Beholder didn’t have an ending. The publisher refused to pay for the extra disk, so when you beat it, it just dumped you to DOS.

    My vote for worst ending ever is split amongst anything that ends on a To Be Continued. Short of putting viruses on the gold master disc, there’s no better way to ensure the series dies there.

    http://www.richardcobbett.co.uk/codex/journal/filingcabinet/to_be_continued/

  16. Brant says:

    I know I’m not contributing anything more to the discussion at this point, but good lord, Dreamfall’s ending was mind-boggling. At first I thought there were multiple endings and was angry that I had somehow triggered the “bad” one from some long-forgotten dialog tree earlier in the game. Now I wish only that I was right.

    Still, as long as the episodes/chapters don’t take too long to arrive, TLJ will be enough to pre-emptively excuse Dreamfall’s mistakes.

  17. Robert Seddon says:

    Refusing to pay for the necessary disc rings a bell, so EotB probably was mentioned somwhere in that article.

  18. malkav11 says:

    I wish Dreamfall had stayed a proper adventure game. I mean, don’t get me wrong, TLJ had a few puzzles that were just criminal, but on the whole it was a lot more pleasing than wandering stiffly through largely uninteractive environments to do some crappy fighting and sneaking with the occasional really really mild puzzle thrown in. Though, there’s a puzzle in the caverns that absolutely baffled me, far worse than anything in TLJ.

    I did really like Dreamfall, but only because I really liked the plot and writing. A lot. Probably not quite as much as TLJ, but I really think there was more TO TLJ. Since April had a snarky comment for pretty much every environmental object. Unlike Zoe.

  19. Krupo says:

    Speaking of horrible endings, what the hell was up with the ending to Ultima IX?

    Ultima VIII, for all its flaws, made you feel excited about the finale… and then it turns out [spoiler-ish-ness ahead]

    you turn into a constellation in the sky with a techno soundtrack.

    WTF?

  20. Richard says:

    Ultima IX is interesting because the plot changed radically (not for the better) during development, but they’d already paid for the incredibly expensive CG movies. So pretty much none of them fit in with the story as it finally emerged.

    (For example, early in the game you get a random vision of Pyros, the Titan of Fire. Originally, this was the Guardian taunting Lord British with all the evil things you did on Pagan – the theme of which was ends supposedly justifying the means, to the point that you destroy a whole world just to return home. Its appearance in the game was mostly a matter of not wasting the money they’d spent)

  21. King Awesome says:

    Dreamfall made me tear up during the (spoliers!) long walk back to Zoe’s home after you’ve discovered what happened to the child in the white house. The song that kicks in there and the complete absence of the ingame objectives combined perfectly to make the aimless wander back across the city really moving. Its an emotional moment you couldn’t have in any other medium in the same way.

    That moment for me, justified entirely the shortcomings in the combat sections and the TBC ending. So rare is it that a game will actually make you cry and generate any emotion beyond a sort of vague tension that I can’t help but include Dreamfall as one of my favourite games ever. Its in my heart.

    It seems that there exists a not insignificant community of players (or is it just RPS’ers?) who hanker after the kind of, don’t make ‘em like they used to, story based games. The tendency now seems to be on less text, less dialogue, less story. Deus Ex seemd to me more textual and packed with a developed background world than the recent Bioshock. Dreamfall has less story and less text than The Longest Journey, Mask of The Betrayer has (I understand) less involved dialogue than Planescape. I wish that things were moving the other way, games *should* be boasting that they have more dialogue than Planescape, more developed backgrounds than Deus Ex and The Longest Journey.

    Of course I’m being selfish and I understand that the money men in suits have looked at the bar charts and concluded that nothing original ever sells any copies, proper adventure games takes too long to make and nothing not made by nintendo will ever sell on the Wii. If something original ever does sell well then everyone suddenly piles in behind with endless me too games which miss the point of why the original thing sold in the first place.

    It sold, despite the low key marketing, *because* it was fresh and new.

    It didn’t sell because all along people had lusted for games to hamfistedly shove cheesy pop tunes and repetitive button mashing/wii-mote waggling together (I’m looking at you ‘Boogie’). It didn’t sell because all along people had really wanted their FPS games set in and around water (I’m guessing some of next years announced FPS titles could have a bit more Bioshockiness about them)

    Anyway, I’m confident that eventually peoples greed for more and more money will ensure that every niche of gaming desire is covered. I await the future with optomism than an epically story driven PC adventure game will sell so any copies EA have to set up a point and click adventure division next to their Sims one. There are only so many copies of Fifa you can sell. Surely.

  22. malkav11 says:

    I think the DS may be doing at least a bit to revitalize the adventure genre. The Phoenix Wright games in particular are none too shabby, and they’re doing well enough that Capcom looks like they’re actually going to translate the whole series, kind of unusual.

    Not that it really makes up for the lack of good point-and-click adventure games for PC.

  23. someone says:

    Yeah, when I finished Bard’s Tale I, I wasn’t sure if the game was over or not. I just kept on wandering around looking for the next objective / win screen.
    The hint book for BT1 was also very good. The thief stole away with the shape keys so the protagonists couldn’t win.
    Also, I didn’t mind the ending to Dreamfall. I felt that it did tell one story from beginning to end. It just also told some other stories that it did not wrap up. But I thought it was a beautiful game.

  24. Ertai says:

    Trivia: In the spanish version of the game, April had the same voice actress as Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, what a coincidence!

  25. Richard says:

    “Also, I didn’t mind the ending to Dreamfall. I felt that it did tell one story from beginning to end. It just also told some other stories that it did not wrap up.”

    I disagree. I felt it told several stories that it didn’t finish, and hurriedly pulled another one out at the last minute, pretending that’s what it had been about all along.

  26. Derick says:

    I highly enjoyed the story to Dreamfall although I felt it was a little thin at times. The ending definitely pissed me off, but it looked like Zoe’s story was over for the most part. There were numerous threads that never got answered though. It definitely felt like they were going for a “oh we got you now! Now you HAVE to buy our next game to find out what happened….muah ha ha ha haaaa” type deal.

    So, okay Ragnar….the undreaming has been released, when do we get to do something about it!?

  27. Aquarion says:

    King Awesome: I agree, in part. Actually, I agree with most of what you said, the end of the game is a very moving bit of gameplay, it is very well structured, the sound track works, the pacing is wonderful. Any game would be proud of it to close off a chapter.

    It’s not an end. It doesn’t close the game, it ends it. “And that’s how she got into a coma”, while being quite literally the question the story answers, does not actually resolve the story, especially because after everything you did your character has still failed.

    It’s an opposite to the Longest Journey ending, where you solved the world’s problems without ever actually solving your own story. In this you close your own story, but the world’s problems continue apace. After tLJ, I wanted another game to continue with what April did next. And now, with the possibility of half a decade more unsatisfying cliffhangers, it looks annoying.

    This doesn’t mean I won’t buy the games like the whining little fanboy I undoubtedly am, but still.

    Er. Something.

  28. complexmath says:

    Dreamfall had puzzles? Really? I remember some badly implemented and painfully easy combat sequences but no puzzles.

    To be honest, the implementation of Dreamfall took me completely by surprise, as I expected a game functionally and structurally similar to TLJ. Dreamfall also lacked the depth of exposition in TLJ, and while a few sequences in TLJ were admittedly a bit long (the storyteller sequence), they also added to the depth of the game world. In summary, I think the design of Dreamfall was conflicted in that the story was written for a mature audience but the gameplay was designed for children. Oh, and did I mention that it was incredibly short?

  29. GyRo567 says:

    I still don’t see why people think the ending was bad. I loved it. Have you no mind for theorizing? It’s one of the most fun parts of the overall gaming experience!

    An ongoing series without theorizing is like sex without foreplay.

  30. Banjooie says:

    Actually, the combat sequences were about perfect difficulty for my mother.

    Who, imagine that, is terrible at combat sequences. And stealth sequences. That’s right. It was really, really useful for the 40-year old not-usually-the-gamer-types.

  31. deebee says:

    The game was definitely rushed. you could feel it in some parts. 1 good example is when you meet Minstrum Magda. She goes on about where to find April, in the ghettos, and then immediately after talking to her you are lead to an ally and taken prisoner and taken to April. It just felt as though they took out a few challenges which lead you to meet April.
    Whatever…I love the game. Played it a few times. TLJ too. I just can’t help but feel it was rushed in some ways.
    The ending is interesting but it’s just not satisfying. Lead me to think ‘is that it? but, but, but….what about….huh?’

  32. ShimmerArc says:

    I cried at the end of both TLJ and Dreamfall. Both really did have quite an emotional impact on me. It changed my life and how I view things. Thank you Ragnar. :’)

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