Ragnar Tørnquist On… Storytelling

By John Walker on August 18th, 2008 at 10:32 pm.

Zoe had her Readybrek that morning.

A few months back, before the release of Age Of Conan, I took a trip to Funcom to finally meet The Longest Journey creator, Ragnar Tørnquist. Having keenly followed his career since the wondrous The Longest Journey, he’s someone I’ve always wanted to interview. So at last given the chance, we sat down to chat… for over three hours. The results are now to be seen, and in this first part we begin by discussing the nature of MMOs, and then spend a lot of time talking about the role of the Storyteller in gaming, before finding out how Ragnar tried to get swearing into a Spielberg-endorsed kids’ game. (Portions of this interview previously appeared in PC Gamer).

RPS: What lessons have you learned from Anarchy Online?

Ragnar Tørnquist: Ship a finished game! Make sure it’s not broken. So people can actually log in and pay to play. [For those making peculiar conclusions based on this statement, it’s in reference to Anarchy Online. Ragnar did not work on Conan, and as it says above, this took place before the launch of Conan.]

RPS: It seems like a lot of MMOs learn that lesson.

Ragnar: Yeah, everyone seems to have to learn that lesson at least once. Actually, Anarchy Online now – we’re passed that whole thing. I think most people remember AO as a really polished, if niche game. We’ve tried to do a lot of really cool things, like all developers approaching something new, you bite off more than you can chew… Dreamfall? [laughs] I’ve been talking to people about the AO setting and story recently, and even when there were technical problems, I think that stood out. But obviously where AO stumbled is it’s a very hardcore game. That’s fine you know. You’re making it for people who are hardcore. And I think you realise that WoW was a big eye-opener for everybody, seeing what potential the market has beyond the hardcore. And that’s never been AO. I think that’s our key lesson: to make it more approachable. The AO setting was complicated, and I think the way the story appeared in novels, and the animated series we did, and the articles we did, and the actual quests themselves, wasn’t enough connection between the story team and the devs who were implementing it. And I think we see a key to success being to have mechanics that are familiar to people. With MMOs you’re not just making a game in that genre – you’re making a specific kind of game. The reason MMOs look like WoW is that that’s what people are expecting. It’s like making a racing game and not mapping the controllers to steer. That’s not going to work with cars – you don’t break those rules. I think with MMOs you need to adhere to some inherent rules that were established a long long time ago, back in Ultima and so on. I think when you set out to make a first MMO, you’re not going to know what the hell you’re doing, and you’re not going to make a masterpiece. But I think over time you have the chance to iterate, and AO is a fantastic game. Hardcore, but fantastic. That’s our lesson too – taking that iterative process beyond AO, rather than starting fresh each time.

How was AO not a bigger hit with armour like this?!

RPS: Both Conan and The Secret World have a strong emphasis on storytelling, in a way that seems perfunctory in other MMOs. Do you think that’s something that’s been lacking?

Ragnar: Yeah! Obviously it is because if you go to forums, people always do talk about story, in addition to the mechanics. People want it. I think WoW does a pretty good job of it. I’m a big fan of WoW – it’s a very admirable game on many levels, and they do have a story. But it’s not the key emphasis in that game. And we can debate the quality of that story, it is a comic book, cheesy fantasy universe. But I think it works. The conflict is established, and the relationships with the different races. I think from my perspective people who play games love stories, and hunger for storytelling, and I think MMO is a fantastic medium for telling really, really cool stories, but in both traditional ways, and new ways.

RPS: And that presumably is your focus for TSW?

Ragnar: For The Secret World, our background is in adventure games, so… we’re building an immensely detailed world, and we’re going to spread that over a number of years. We’re not necessarily going to have a set storyline that spreads over a number of expansion packs, but we are going to have a story that involves the players. I think that’s something that people really want – they want meaning when they go into these games. Even if it’s a game where you spend 80% of your time killing monsters, they’re still looking for that meaning – what am I doing here? Even on a spiritual level – I think people seek that always. Not everybody’s going to care about it, but if one out of five people – if that’s important for them – well it’s there, and you can dig into it and spend years living inside this world and finding new stuff all the time. That’s the great things about MMOs – it’s not finite, there’s always going to be more, places that you haven’t seen, lore you haven’t learned. And we’re definitely going to build on that.

Girl in her pants, check.

RPS: I’m so fascinated by what you say about it being a spiritual thing. I wrote my dissertation on – well, it was titled, “How do the stories that young people tell and hear affect the ways they perceive the world?” I concluded that we perceive our lives as a narrative. It’s something Bazin said, that we have to tell stories to understand how we relate to our past self. I tried to argue that this is how we relate to the universe. We tell stories because we consider ourselves as stories. If stories are so important, why do you think they are so devalued or underused in games?

Ragnar: Well, it depends what you mean by devalued. Most developers now talk about having a strong storyline. It seems to be one of the first things that people talk about in most genres. Even when they talk about Halo, they talk about the strong story. It’s used in marketing now. So I think everybody realises the value of it, and players’ hunger for the story, and also there’s an incentive with tie-in media: movies, TV, comics and novels. You see more of that emerging from games. Not just adaptations, but also tools to get people into the universe before the game. But I think the games industry does struggle with how to do it. And that’s a challenge we have too. I’ve been working with stories in games for fourteen years now, so I consider myself reasonably well versed in how it’s supposed to function. I understand the mechanics. And it’s still hard. On one level you need to preserve the mechanic of the gameplay. So let’s say you have a quest. Someone has to design that quest – where do you start? With the story or with the mechanics of the quest? You are going to have to come to a compromise unless you have someone who’s really good at both. And there’s very few of those kinds of people. On The Secret World team there are three of those people – but those people are just rare. Even if you know these elements, they’re still very difficult to balance.

RPS: So what goes wrong?

Ragnar: I think a lot of publishers and developers lack the understanding of what makes a good story, and they really should know better. I’m really looking forward to playing Assassin’s Creed, and it has a heavy focus on story, but I’ve seen the opening story, and the way it was presented felt very awkward. If they had gone to somebody who is a TV writer or director, or somebody working in movies, and they could have done that a lot better. And why not do it for the game that cost $25 or $30 million? It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s really cheap to do that. Especially when it comes to presenting something in a linear fashion. It’s harder with quests. But it’s really easy when it comes to present the world, present the characters, get good voice actors, get good dialogue. There’s no excuse for those things. There are a lot of people who can write good dialogue, or tell you how a story should be constructed, how characters should act. And directing and picking voice actors – it’s fascinating how many games just have bad, bad voice acting. In my games I’ve gone and done it myself. There are many people out there who can do a good job at that – there’s a lot of talent out there. Not in the games industry necessarily, but people that the games industry can talk to and learn from.

[It was at this point we took a diversion as I pointed Ragnar toward a couple of my favourite examples of terrible voice acting in games, from the gloriously awful Legacy: Dark Shadows (a game that listed amongst its highlights on the back of the box, “No time travel”). Hear them here. This distraction lasted a while. We then got back on track.]

Flipping crikey, I have a lot of love for this game.

RPS: I think the word to describe you is more Storyteller than Games Developer. You seem to have this passion for story. Is that fair?

Ragnar: Yeah, that’s always been the case. When I was a kid, my parents would go and visit people, I’d hang out with the other kids and tell horror stories. That was my thing. And my parents got complaints from the other parents that I’d been telling these stories and everyone was shit-scared. I’ve read since I was four years old, and had completely devoured the entire Stephen King library by the time I was 12. I read Lovecraft and Poe when I was 13. I remember reading Lord of the Flies when I was 9, and I didn’t understand it and it scared the hell out of me. I remember the freakiest thing in the book was when someone parachuted onto the island and was just hanging in the trees. I didn’t get what that was, but I saw it from the kids’ perspective and I was completely freaked out by it. This weird shape hanging in the trees. So I always loved stories, and I always loved dark stories.

RPS: How does that fit into game design?

Ragnar: I work on all aspects of the game. On The Longest Journey I was working on the design, implementation and everything, and Dreamfall I had a hand in everything. With The Secret World, it’s such a huge game I can’t really do that, so I’ve tried to pull back to where I’m hands-on only with the story. So yes, I am a storyteller. But I do want to be remembered as a game designer too! Although in Dreamfall’s case, it’s sometimes good to be remembered for the story, maybe. Although I’m willing to stand up and defend that game until the day I die. It’s become my mission to do this. I’ll never work on a game that doesn’t have a strong story, and strong characters.

RPS: So why games, when stories are so more easily told in other media?

Ragnar: That’s an interesting question. I made games when I was a kid – I programmed for my first couple of computers. I stopped programming when I got a computer that was the same as everybody else’s, so I could copy games. That’s what we did back in the 80s. But film was my passion. At six years old I wanted to be a film director. So I went to school to do that. But after finishing my education I was doing an internship at a developer in New York and I realised, here’s a chance to do something that very few people are doing: telling a story in a way that hasn’t been done before. With movies you’re going over the same territory. But of course you get to focus on the story, and that’s what’s important, and not on how to tell the story. I doubt that there will be a lot of movies now that will tell a story in a completely new way, unless we start talking about immersive reality. But games are – wow, here’s something that’s evolving from platforming, and waggling joysticks, to something that’s quite interesting. I was working on a storytelling CD ROM game that was never released, and I just happened to stumble into Funcom and realised I could do all that. Our first game was an adaptation of the movie Casper, for the new Playstation, 3DO and Sega Saturn.

Yet another reason you should have bought a Saturn!

RPS: Was it a good game?

Ragnar: It was a decent game. It got middling reviews. It’s my best selling game of all time! Twelve years later – it sold more than twelve million copies. But I think that it was more to do with that it was Casper, and it was a kids’ game in a market where there were only adult games at that time. It was a tiny team of twelve people, eighteen months, and none of us had ever made a game before. We were like, “uhhhhh, how do we do this?” That was an adventure too, it had dialogue. My first piece of censored dialogue was in that game. The publisher told us that, “Casper cannot refer to the ‘crapper’. Steven Spielberg is going to look at this game next week, you have to change…” I’m sure he would have enjoyed the joke!

RPS: You made some comments during the writers’ strike in the United States. And you said that you were against games writers entering the Writers’ Guild. Can you explain a bit about that?

Ragnar: I support the writers in their struggle against the oppressive corporations! America’s a very different country from Norway, obviously. And there is the unfortunate need for unions. I personally find the whole Writers’ Guide and Directors’ Guild extremely scary. I think it’s a huge stumbling block for people trying to get into the industry, unfortunately. I’ve written screenplays myself, I know how it is to get them read by people – it’s very hard. Which is probably why I should stick with game development. But I still try. I understand the need for it, and how it helps people get health benefits and helps people find work, and not get exploited, but it is a group of elite people who control who gets what. I’m concerned that that’s going to be the case in the games industry. It could very well happen, and that would make it hard for us to work with Americans, because suddenly we’d have to deal with the unions. When it comes to voice acting we have to deal with the unions, and it’s a pain. There are so many stipulations and rules. I understand on behalf of the workers, but it just makes it really hard. And I don’t want the games industry to become a place where people are work for hire, and just move from project to project. Because there’s actually something to be said for having a team that’s worked together for a long time, and sticks together. If you have the whole union thing you have a very small core team, and then people come in, work for nine months, and then disappear again to another job. There’s no sense of continuity. I love the fact that there are people on the TSW team who worked on TLJ. It’s just fantastic. We have a language, we understand each other. I worry that unions are going to be an extra barrier for people who want to get into the industry that is already difficult to get into.

In future parts of this interview, we discuss The Longest Journey in incredible depth, as well as arguing over whether I was right to significantly down-mark Dreamfall. There’s also some thoughts on why Ragnar writes female characters, and what difference it makes to games. Later we’re joined by Ragnar’s writing partner, Dag Scheve, and get onto the what Dreamfall Chapters will be about. And finally we get heavily into the nature of faith, and why it’s so key to all of Ragnar’s games.

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34 Comments »

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  1. CrashT says:

    Ragnar… Yay…

    Sorry haven’t even read it yet, I just get over excited at times.

  2. Nimic says:

    You can say a lot about Funcom, but they do love a good story. And they’re usually very good at telling it too.

    I quit AoC (temporarily, I hope) entirely because of gameplay issues. The way the story was presented, and the way the world itself was presented, appealed to me greatly. The areas felt real in a way that WoW areas don’t (though I’ve also had ‘treks’ where I just ride around admiring the areas in WoW).

  3. BrokenSymmetry says:

    How I love Dreamfall, and its story, and its main character! Good stories in games are not universally appreciated, though: it got a 5/10 from eurogamer.

  4. newt says:

    “So people can actually log in and pay.”

    Ouch.

  5. MisterBritish says:

    Excellent stuff.

    BrokenSymmetry: That point will come up in the next installments, since John Walker’s own review was in the 70’s (I think?), and he mentions they discuss the logic.

  6. Erlam says:

    I totally agree with him over the need (or, well, want) for more story. It doesn’t even have to be, literally, a story being told to you. It can be something like Stalker, or the little things left lying around in Deus Ex.

    I’m tired of EA style games where everything is hurled at you. You can be subtle, let gamers create their own stories inside yours. Hell, look at Marathon. The website dedicated to discussing the story in that game is some hundred pages long.

  7. araczynski says:

    good read, and yes, unions blow. just a setup for the top to skim off the hard work of the bottom while throwing them scraps to make them happy for a bit.

  8. Larington says:

    Looking forward to parts 2 & 3, very much so.

  9. Pace says:

    This may be a tad spurious, but I wouldn’t say that there’s “need” for unions in the US. They may have had a use at one point, but now they’re generally just these horrible bloated and useless things whose only purpose is to impede actual productive work. (At least in my experience. (as an American.)) I’d suspect many of the big ones carry on out of historical inertia. And sheer stubbornness. Not out of need. Or usefulness.

    Oh, and nice interview!

  10. Sax says:

    Great, I’m looking forward for the next parts.

    Ragnar is one of the very few good writers for games, though I think his talent is kind of wasted on MMOG’s.

  11. luminosity says:

    Guess I’d better get a move on playing through TLJ, so I can read the rest of the interview. Great stuff, so far.

  12. malkav11 says:

    The point of unions is to advocate on behalf of the worker for things like better pay and working conditions. They are there to protect the average worker from exploitation by the people who run the place. If you honestly think there’s no need to protect workers from exploitation in America these days, you must not be living in the same world I am.

    Whether that’s something they’re actually accomplishing is, of course, another story. I’m a union member and haven’t had any issues with my union (although I really just pay my dues and carry on. I don’t get involved.), but that’s just my anecdotal experience.

  13. El Stevo says:

    (That Legacy voice acting reminds me of Krentz and the Hand of Shame: [1] [2] [3])

  14. Pace says:

    malkav; sorry don’t mind me, I was just being grumpy. At least the Writers Guild of America isn’t exactly the poster child for why unions are a good thing.

  15. Ozzie says:

    You were definitely right in marking down Dreamfall.
    Yeah, the first half was great because the story got you hooked, it seemed intriguing, the art direction was wonderful, there were alternative puzzle solutions.
    Yet, the second part, onward from the part with April and the cave under Macuria, it just got worse and worse. Gameplay vanished, leaving barely more behind than the possibility to walk from one checkpoint to the next.
    The story seemed to get more dull and the storytelling more awkward.

    Man, I repressed the memories about it, but while I would give the first half a 9/10 the second one was significantly worse, so 3/10.

  16. Flint says:

    get onto the what Dreamfall Chapters will be about

    Yay, they still exist!

    BrokenSymmetry:
    How I love Dreamfall, and its story, and its main character! Good stories in games are not universally appreciated, though: it got a 5/10 from eurogamer.

    Dreamfall has an amazing story, it’s one of the few games that have actually affected me emotionally in a heavy way. But as a game it’s weak, clumsy and often feels like an afterthought the player must waddle through before getting to the next lovely plot cutscene. So I think the reason it’s been downrated isn’t so much of plot underappreciation as it is that it’s a pretty weak game gameplay-wise.

  17. malkav11 says:

    Exactly. If they’d married Dreamfall’s story with TLJ’s gameplay, I’d have….resorted to a walkthrough a lot more. But I’d have definitely been happier with the end result. I’m still eagerly awaiting Dreamfall Chapters. How can you not, with a cliffhanger like that one?

  18. Tagert says:

    “Ragnar Tørnquist: Ship a finished game!”
    Obviously not an EA drone! Hallelujah and الحمد لله for common sense and all that jazz.
    On the note of Dreamfall, I have to say I enjoyed it though I never played through to the end. (I have this obsessive compulsion to not finish games, a negative effect I’m trying to dispel!)
    Also, like others, I am enjoying the WAR beta and must say I’m impressed with the story and its interaction. (Then again, I have always been a fan of the Warhammer universe. Though, mostly that was in the future.)

    Better crippled in body than corrupt in mind!

  19. Dogun says:

    I enjoyed most of Dreamfall, but I feel like the end just sort of fell flat in a way that TLJ didn’t. I really wish they had just cut it off about the part where you’re on that bridge in that swamp.

    Tagert, that is the ideal place to stop, if you got about that far. :)

  20. Dorsch says:

    I recently started playing the game and just got finished with the WATIcorp infiltration mission, I’m loving it so far. Is the first one worth playing even if I suck at hard adventure game puzzles and will end up looking it up in a walkthrough more than once?

  21. blacktentacle says:

    Try the demo of that one, Dorsch, and see if you like or dislike the old graphics. (They have not aged very well, i think, so it could be a negative point.) If you can live with them, it’s a wonderful game. Even if you need a walkthrough. … Like me.

  22. Smee says:

    @Dorsch: It depends on your willingness to sit through half-hour long plus conversations. Although it did change my life, so I mean, I recommend it.

  23. GothikX says:

    OMG, I CAN HAZ NEXT PARTS OF INTERVIEW?

    yes, I do get easily excited too when it comes to TLJ, Ragnar and even Funcom.

  24. Flint says:

    Dorsch:

    Most definitely try it. It’s not only a great game with fantastic characters in itself, but you will get even more out of Dreamfall when you can see what the past versions of the characters and places are like.

  25. Bobsy says:

    Dorch: It’s not aged well. TLJ uses low-res 2D backgrounds and ugly low-poly 3D models, 10 years ago. Plus the puzzles are rather Myst-like in places. However it makes Dreamfall make a whole lotta sense, and so long as you don’t let yourself get stuck (bring a walkthrough) it’s worth doing.

  26. John Walker says:

    I’d like to leap in at this point and kill Bobsy with a deathcannon. (But I’m not allowed). TLJ, while featuring some pretty awful puzzles in places, is in NO way “Myst-like”, and I’ll nose-biff any who say otherwise. Bobsy, meet me outside, and bring your about-to-start-crying face.

    But yes, TLJ’s looking old. However, I replayed it not too long ago, and that matters very little. It was always about narrative, and the voice acting is mostly stunning. Although yeah, it’s a shame about some of those puzzles.

  27. KBKarma says:

    I replayed it a few days ago as well. Apart from the constant crashing I didn’t get the first time (I’d borrowed it the first time, and bought the Dreamfall Collector’s Edition so I could play it a second time), it was still as fun as I remembered.

    Dreamfall… Not finished it just yet. In the afore-mentioned cave.

    The main problem is the camera. You have to spin it ALL. THE. TIME. and it doesn’t help. I’ve walked into walls and missed interactions with objects because I couldn’t see them. Took me ten minutes to get into the Hotel, because I didn’t know I had to go to the OTHER side.

    The scenery is nice, though. But… why all the British and Irish voice actors? Japanese people don’t sound like that…

  28. ILR says:

    It seems to me that the high praise for The Longest Journey was more due to the dearth of commercial-grade old skool adventure games back then than the actual merits (or a lack of semi-crippling deficiencies) of the game.

    The animation was too often sub-par and generally the environment was very desolate and empty, as in there being very little to see or interact with except the items that had some use in solving some of the puzzles. For example, the paint shaker stuck out like a sore thumb as one of the few focusable background decorations, until it fulfills its function as the only device in the whole city that is able to shake a soda can. It’s also notable that in order to get to the shaker in question, you needed to cross three empty screens from the metro station. If you wanted to go see Flipper (the only other reason to visit the location), he was a further two (empty) screens ahead. There probably was one wrecked car you could look at while on the way there but that was that.

    Not to mention the absurd rubber-ducky puzzle in the first episode.

    That being said, I still remember the game fondly due to its well-realized dramatic arc, a bit wordy dialoque, and quality voice acting.

  29. John Walker says:

    ILR – While I certainly agree that people often pretend adventure games are of a high quality because they’re so desperate for anything in the genre, I don’t think that was the case here. I’ve spent my career laying into 90% of the adventures I get given to review, yet still desperately hope the next one will be great. In this case, while there are issues with the game, the reason it is so highly praised and so fondly remembered is because of its narrative.

    Puzzles like the policeman’s eyeball are forgiven because the worlds it created were so interesting, and the story so compelling. So while it may have been a barren journey to see Flipper (and don’t forget you could hold down ‘Enter’ and she’d hyper-speed through any scene, making travel very quick), the conversations with Flipper were so fantastically funny that it was always worth it.

    I think the next thing I want to write about TLJ will be reflecting on why when I play it now it doesn’t have the same impact on me as ten years ago. Which will be because I’m ten years older. We discuss this in the next part of the interview, in fact.

  30. Janto says:

    I have to admit that I was very curious about both the Longest Journey and Dreamfall, since I’ll still spin up Grim Fandango every so often for a nice trip trough the land of the dead, but the demo on Steam turned me completely off the game. (Well, not completely, because I wouldn’t be writing here if it had.)

    I can understand why the ship section could be used as a demo, being isolated and revolving around a strong short-time objective, and adveture games must be among the hardest games to demo, but I felt distinctly underwhelmed by the fact that THIS was the moment a game that was really being talked about for having a great story and central character chose to use as its showpiece. What little context was provided for April’s circumstances was fairly generic, all Chosen One this and bad Chaos that, and April herself… again, without context, the actions the game forces you to do, as April, seem awfully selfish and shallow. It really was a problem with context, because all the stuff that’s happened in the game up till then isn’t explained, so you’re not guided to the point where you think ‘the lives of these wretched sailors is a small price to pay for the entire world!’ I was rooting for the captain to just dump April over the side, which isn’t a great way to feel about a game’s main character.

    Also, the fact that the only ‘solution’ seemed to involve killing everyone in a random mistake…

  31. KBKarma says:

    I really didn’t like that Ship section. For precisely that reason: April NEARLY kills everybody on board, as well as wrecking the ship. And the barren areas… I just held Escape until she got there. Which probably caused the constant crashing.

    What I dislike about Dreamfall was death. I went into a room to solve a puzzle. “Oh”, I said, “It’s a sequel to TLJ! I cannot die! Let me… Why am I dead? I CAN DIE?!” Then again, the fact that there’s combat should have been a big hint.

    The mechanics of the game feel clumsy, which shows the 3D engine in a poor light. Unlike with TLJ, I don’t examine everything to hear Zoe’s opinion. And the voice-acting is… Par, I’d say. I’ve heard the same voice several times. There’s a reason TLJ didn’t let you converse with all and sundry, imo.

    Still, the story was pretty good, with some funny points, and Dreamfall… has funny points in Marcuria. Zoe seems… lifeless. None of the humour April used and uses so often. Consider, if you’ve played Dreamfall, the glowing egg. I’ll say no more for those who haven’t got that far. If you have, compare the two opinions offered on the glowing egg if you examine it with Zoe and April.

  32. NoNamePls says:

    Well, can’t blame Walker for scoring Dreamfall lower than TLJ. Trying to make it more mainstream with current generation(back in 2006) games by attempting to insert half baked fighting and stealth scenarios in an already awesome adventure game. They were just repeating the mistakes of Quantic Dream’s Omikron. ANd the sad part is all the enhancements barely made it more visible to it’s targeted audience……the XBOX.

  33. Janto says:

    I actually assumed for ages that, because the demo ended with a sodding sinking ship, in the middle of a storm, and no ‘ta-da! to be continued…’ bit, that I had managed to kill myself. Which sucked quite a bit.

    I am curious though. Compared to Grim Fandango’s superb plot, how does TLJ stack up? Clearly opinions are just that, and I suspect Manny Calevera is just a character that appeals to me more than April ever will.

  34. Flint says:

    You’d be surprised how much you’ll grow to like April during the game – she really grows herself during the game. She really is one of my favourite gaming heroines. I’d say plot-wise Grim Fandango is a much tighter game though, but that’s not to dismiss TLJ’s strengths in its fantastic atmosphere and world.