By John Walker on August 20th, 2008 at 5:30 pm.
In this final part of our interview with Ragnar Tørnquist, we begin by discussing why he writes female characters for the leads in his games. Then we move on to get to grips with the story behind Dreamfall, the problems with the game, and eventually the roll of faith in Ragnar’s games. We finish by discussing the potential for Dreamfall Chapters. It’s been a while, but just in case the below contains complete spoilers for both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall.
Before we begin, I want to get sappy for a moment. It was a dream come true for me to discuss TLJ and Dreamfall like this. Both games had their flaws, but I will argue until death that barely any other game parallels their storytelling. As the faith model below should show, Ragnar and his team care about story in a way that should embarrass the crap out of most developers. Story matters to me, and I tip my hat to Ragnar and Funcom for letting it matter so much to them.
- Female Characters
RPS: I want to ask about writing women. Why do you write female protagonists?
Ragnar: I’m extremely fascinated by women. I’m surrounded by them. My wife, my baby girl. My cat is female. I find women fascinating – I love women! On every level! I dunno – there are just more options when it comes to female characters. On an emotional, spiritual level. Which is very unfair to men.
RPS: I was just about to say. You have those thoughts! So men are clearly capable of them.
Ragnar: And people make fun of me all the time. Because my best characters are female. I always make female characters when I play MMOs, but I’m not a cross-dresser…
RPS: No, no. I’m the same. I have a theory about that.
RPS: People’s constant complaint about videogames is that there are no good female characters – obviously there are tons – but people say women are all big busted and scantily clad. But then I think, hang on – what do men have? Huge big buff scantily clad men!
Ragnar: That’s very much so.
RPS: I don’t want to play that kind of character. This is embarrassing, but the closest I can get to me in a game is to be a girl.
Ragnar: I agree, and that’s a good point. I feel there are more options for the female character. And because there are so few female characters, for me it’s become a mission. But you’re absolutely right – nobody’s done a layered, interesting male character that reflects the people playing the games. Because the people playing aren’t these macho, gun-wielding guys, they’re guys with… female aspects to them! Like us!
RPS: And proud of it!
Ragnar: I find you can get away from the clichés. That down-to-earth, not macho male – I think that’s more difficult to get into. I think people would have a harder time accepting that than playing a girl. And there’s also something to be said for the fact that it’s role-playing – it’s being somebody you’re not. Even though there’s a lot of me in April, she’s also somebody I’m not. She has different concerns in her life, and I enjoy the exercise of writing somebody I’m not. But I actually do it quite well, which is something my wife makes fun of me for. April talks and feels like a woman. So I don’t know, maybe it’s all those strong females in my life, or just the fact that I find women fascinating. I listen to how they talk, and I love to talk and listen to women, because to me their way of thinking is really interesting.
RPS: Do you think it’s because it’s ‘other’?
Ragnar: Well, men and women are quite different in how they think. But for us men, it’s in our DNA to try and get into the heads of women, and for them to like us. It’s just something we do. No matter how happy a relationship we have, if we talk to an attractive woman, we still want to feel like that person likes us. So seeing it from the other side, trying to work out how they’re thinking, is an interesting exercise. I’m pretty good at listening to people, and drawing dialogue from that, and then channelling that into a character. It’s just more fun. Writing a guy is a little bit like writing myself. Writing a woman is a little a bit like writing myself, but with breasts.
RPS: You could argue that there’s an idealisation of women in the TLJ games.
Ragnar: Yeah, there definitely is. But that probably reflects me as well. I think in TLJ and Dreamfall there was a concerted effort to say, okay, let’s make the really strong and cool characters be women.
RPS: With Kian in Dreamfall, as the only male lead in the games, he was very mysterious and under-explained. Did you find a male character more difficult to write?
Ragnar: No, absolutely not. He was actually one of my favourite characters, and it was such a great relief to write a male protagonist! We had to cut some stuff with him, simply because we didn’t have time. I wish we’d had the opportunity to have his sacrifices and changes last longer. If we ever did a director’s cut, I would definitely put back in the things I had written and we had planned to do with him. From the very first scene with Kian there’s sacrifice, with his trainer. Then he sees how his people treat the magicals in Marcuria, and then he meets April and sees somebody who is on the other side, and there are some blank spots where we don’t see what happens to him, but obviously he has some more experiences that shape his opinion. I loved writing that character, and I love the character, and he’s a major and important character in Dreamfall Chapters, and he’s a huge, huge element in the whole saga. Up there with April. I wish we’d had more room for him. He’ll be in Dreamfall Chapters.
- Dreamfall and Faith
Ragnar: I was reading on Rock, Paper, Shotgun that you’d said in your review of Dreamfall that you were overmarking it because you loved the game, but you advised people not to buy the game!
RPS: No! It was a caveat… Well, I’m not going to be polite. As an interactive experience, it just didn’t work. I felt uninvolved for so long, just listening to conversations. That every single one of those conversations is beautiful, and joy to listen to, is why it survives. But it didn’t form together in a coherent game for me.
Ragnar: I respect that opinion. I don’t have a problem with critical reviews so long as they’re well argued, with at least a certain element of understanding what we were trying to do. I don’t agree with you, but what I do agree with is that the game did not succeed with all the things we tried to do. Obviously with combat, because we struggled with it, and the way it ended up was something last-minute, and not how we wanted to do it. Looking back I would have done it very differently. I would have done it in a more adventure-type way. In a way that didn’t require reflexes. How you respond is the most important thing. But I do think the game is better than some people give it credit for. Obviously the story is the key there, and that’s the thing: the story has to work, the dialogue has to work, and the characters have to work. And everything else is gravy.
RPS: And that did work. It’s a story that moved me so much.
Ragnar: And that’s why I think it deserved a higher mark. So, the game isn’t the most interactive game out there, the game doesn’t meet all the requirements that people have of certain genres. Well screw that. This is a game that is about the story. And that’s interesting in itself.
RPS: But the puzzles – they felt so flagged, and so over-easy.
Ragnar: That’s true. On the difficulty level, our goal was to make the game very simple. Because, in our analysis, half the people who played TLJ stopped at a certain point during the game because it was quite difficult, and it was quite long. So we said, let’s make it short, let’s make it easy. Let’s make the focus of this to tell the story, so people should get through it in ten hours and have fun with it and never have to struggle with anything. Obviously that’s going to piss gamers off, especially if you really are looking for that adventure of trying to figure things out. There aren’t any big stumbling blocks in Dreamfall, other than being frustrating in terms of trying to sneak around. But that was intentional. And I’m willing to stand by that decision. There could have been more interactivity, but then I feel like one of the faults of TLJ was the puzzles were sometimes just puzzles. I wanted to get away from that. So we tried to make every single puzzle integrated into the storyline, so you keep moving forward at all times. And doing that is harder than you’d think, especially when you’re grappling with completely new technology, a completely new platform, making a PC and Xbox game at the same time with a completely new engine, and a fresh team. Very tough.
RPS: I would love to have not had to put a score at the end of the review. Let the text speak for itself. But then that’s a constant lament.
Ragnar: Yes. And that was a review I was happy with. I was happy with the Edge review, 7/10. I heard the same from them – they really loved the experience, but they couldn’t mark it higher than 7. But 7 from Edge? That’s pretty good. I was very disappointed by Eurogamer’s score – 5/10.
RPS: So how do you feel looking back on it?
Ragnar: In retrospect there’s lots of things that we would have done differently, tons of things. There were some really great parts cut. We cut a lot of gameplay that was supposed to be there because we couldn’t pull it off, or didn’t have time. It could have been better, and Dreamfall Chapters is going to be better – much, much better. But I totally respect that people don’t think it was such a great game, but realise that it’s about the story, and enjoying an interactive experience.
RPS: A lot of people were upset with the April storyline, that she starts off upset, becomes more miserable, and then essentially dies. No one was expecting her storyline to start low, and then go down further. I found it really interesting – it went against expectations, it wasn’t about being heroic, and I really enjoyed that. I became angry with her for being so depressed, wanting to shout at her to snap out of it. It was such an honest response. At the end of TLJ she learns she’s not the most important, she’s not taking over control of the Balance, but I still wanted to yell at her, “You did amazing stuff! You changed the world! You did your part! That’s good enough.” Was there a greater commentary to this?
Ragnar: Yeah, absolutely. The greater commentary in Dreamfall was about one thing: it’s about faith. Obviously it has commentary on the real world, in terms of occupation of one nation by another and justifying that, and other undertones… well, overtones! But faith was the whole package. April sacrificed so much in TLJ, and at the end realised she’s not who she thought she would be. Actually, in her situation she should have been happy. You don’t have to sit in a tower for a thousand years. Go and live your life – you did a great thing! But after she did that, nobody knew, nobody remembered. Not being recognised, that can be a real blow to people. April was a strong person, but she was also immature. She was 18 years old, and to have something like that happen to you, and then be thrown back into normal life, and a normal life that has pretty much gone to hell… There’s so much I wish I could tell you, because there’s so much I know, that I don’t want to say until I know for sure that nothing’s going to happen, or if I get to tell the whole story – which is probably what’s going to happen. What happened to April right after TLJ is very important. Obviously she didn’t return to her home, and that has something to do with fear as well, which is another aspect of Dreamfall: having too much fear of something, and not being able to move on in life. She has lost faith in herself, in her world, in her friends, and she stayed in Arcadia.
RPS: Faith seems to keep coming up.
Ragnar: Every single character in Dreamfall goes through a journey of faith. April started having a lack of faith, and descended into complete hopelessness. We wanted people to yell at April, want her to realise that she has people who care about her, she has a great life, and she did a wonderful thing. But she didn’t. And then because of that she had to die. Or “die”. Or die.
This final part was accompanied by lots of airquotes, with Ragnar teasing me about April’s apparent death at the end of Dreamfall
Ragnar: We had all these characters who were on a journey of faith, and we said how can we ensure that this theme is carried through, and have a clear view of how their journeys happen. So we said, every single major character had to fit into this model. Everybody starts out at the top. Faith can be anything – it can be religion, it can be a belief in yourself, in your abilities, in the work you do. As we face challenge, there’s a process where we have loss of faith. It can be a minor thing: thinking one day, “God, I suck at what I do. I can’t do this.” And a lot of people after that point turn themselves around, face those problems, challenge them and they conquer them, and they say, “Screw that, I am good at what I do.” I think most happy people live in this loop.
At this point Ragnar hooked up his office PC to the big screen in the room we were in, and found the file in which this chart was drawn out. Below is my wobbly rendition.
Ragnar: If loss of faith continues, you descend into disillusionment. “My job sucks, it’s never going to get better. Another girl left me. Why bother trying anything?.” At that point, you still have the opportunity to turn yourself around. “Yeah, I’m a great catch! Let’s go out tonight! Woo!” You’re back in the game. Obviously for the characters in Dreamfall it was much deeper than that. Then the next step is hopelessness. If you don’t pull yourself out of hopelessness, then you are going to end up in what we call spiritual death. This can lead to actual death. Which is what happened to April – she entered spiritual death, and that was reflected in her actual death. Or “actual death”. Or actual death.
Or there’s a transformation that can happen, making yourself into a completely new person. There are two ways to change. You can either remake yourself as a positive person and go back to faith, or you can refuse to accept the situation and let your spiritual death turn into an obsession. I’m not saying this is a psychological model that can be easily transferred.
RPS: Do you think it could be?
Ragnar: When we came up with it we thought, cool, this could actually work, we can get rich on this! We have moments when we think, “We’re brilliant!” The most important thing with it is we could say, Zoe is here, April is here, Kian is here. And they all travelled. Zoe never went to hopelessness, but she reached disillusionment. But through the act of destroying Faith, she regained faith. Kian also went to disillusionment, to a sort of spiritual death, and then transformation – he skipped hopelessness. While April just fell down.
RPS: On a bigger scale, what do you consider faith to be?
Ragnar: It is whatever you want it to be. It’s a game where you have to think, how does this apply to you? It could be faith in yourself, faith in love, faith in God – we didn’t want to restrict that. It’s optimism in a way. Or at least acceptance. Accepting how things are and being able to live with that. Obviously what we’re advocating is: have faith.
Dag Sheve: I think we’re also advocating that it’s healthy to go through some of these steps, and keep transforming yourself back to faith. You continuously want to improve yourself. There should be a small transformation box for each step.
Ragnar: You should have something to say. With Dreamfall we had a lot to say. And it was extremely important. You have to be quite blatant about it. We were discussing what to call Faith one day, and then suddenly we thought, “Wait a second – she is the whole core of the story. She is Faith.”
RPS: The death of Faith is such a beautiful theme, and a beautiful scene. Did Faith create The Winter? [The Winter was a third world introduced in Dreamfall, distinct from Stark and Arcadia]
Ragnar: I don’t know how much to say… Yeah, yeah she did. In a way. She created what you see of The Winter. The Winter itself – no. But she created this place.
RPS: The dollhouse.
Ragnar: Yeah, and it links to this place, The Storytime. [A fourth, and entirely unexplained world]
RPS: One of my favourite scenes was the Russian laboratory. You can see her drawings. That’s such a powerful scene, and such an excellent use of adventure gaming. The first time you go into that room you explore, and you look at everything, and you get these very dry, very analytical responses. Then you see the recorded footage of the girl’s death, and then if you go back into that room – I don’t know why I’m telling you, because you made it…
Ragnar: Actually, these things I don’t remember, I’m very happy to hear about it!
RPS: When you look at them after, the responses are heart-breaking. She’s on the verge of tears as she explains each of the pictures. It made me cry.
Dag [Turning to Ragnar]: We are brilliant.
Ragnar [Looking back at Dag]: We are brilliant!
RPS: That’s an exceptional scene in terms of moving the player.
Ragnar: That’s why I love adventure games. Or at least that aspect of it.
Dag: That’s also my favourite part of the actress that played Zoe. Just in really small nuances of her voice she just made the character.
Ragnar: She was Zoe, you know. She was perfect. She got the whole idea. We recorded it quite sequentially, so she got the whole idea. She was the perfect actress – she was an empty vessel…
[laughter from all]
Ragnar: Not like that! She wasn’t like Zoe at all in real life. She was able to get into that character.
RPS: It’s Zoe that talks Faith into dying. Can you explain a bit about that. Why does the one protagonist who seems to be clinging onto hope in the game choose to kill Faith?
Ragnar: Well, there are two reasons for it. First it’s to save herself. Faith has gone into a place where she’s stuck – she’s waiting for transformation. She’s clinging onto life, and refusing to transform. Obviously an eight year-old girl is going to have trouble accepting the reality of things. But her refusal to transform is actually screwing up the whole world. It’s actually the one thing in Dreamfall that I’m really disappointed with – we didn’t manage to really explain what’s going on in the world, and how Faith clinging on affects the whole world. It comes through in dialogue, but it should have been much bigger than that.
Faith is clinging on to faith, because she’s clinging on to herself, and the concept of having faith that she’s still existing, while she’s obviously not existing. She’s dead, and she’s trapped inside the machines. That is destroying the world, but it’s also destroying this little girl. In order to save faith, you have to kill Faith. You have to destroy the past. Faith vanishes, and where she goes we never said. If that’s her spirit, then she goes to a better place. If that’s it, if you believe that’s the end, then it’s really kind of bleak. But it’s bleak in a way that has to be. You have to accept that transformation, and if that transformation is the end of everything, then that’s what you have to accept.
RPS: I think that’s my favourite part of the story. That Zoe has to kill somebody who’s not only a little girl, not only her sister, but also the representation of faith in the entire game. It’s three whammies there.
Ragnar: For me, I think Dreamfall has a better story than TLJ.
RPS: Another scene in Dreamfall I want to discuss is April re-visiting the Guardian. That seems like it’s going to be the scene that offers hope. You go here, and finally you’re going to get some answers, and you’re going to get some direction for your life. And you don’t get any. In fact, it gets worse for April. What were the motivations for that?
Ragnar: It’s a marrying of the scene in TLJ where everything is laid out, and you get all the answers to everything. And that’s what April seeks. She seeks the easy answers. She accepts that that’s what she’s going to do, and she’s not going to do anything else. She’s not going to commit herself to anything. So she goes there, and she gets no answers.
Dag: She does get answers. That’s the point. She gets the answer that you can’t take the easy way out.
Ragnar: Yeah, this is you, and this is what you’ve got to do. It is probably a scene that frustrates people. It’s a cool scene. Especially as the person playing the Guardian is a fantastic actor.
Dag: Brian Bloom.
Ragnar: Yeah, Brian Bloom. He was in the TV series Drive. He played the bad guy who gets chained in the bathroom. But yes, it was a scene that said there are no easy answers. It’s a lot more complicated than that. And that it’s about you, April. This time you have to dig inside yourself.
RPS: Do you think you’re demanding more of your audience than the average game?
Ragnar: Yeah. Absolutely. But I think most games don’t demand enough of the audience. They always underestimate the players’ intelligence. At the same time that you have to be very concise and clear, and repeat things. You have an audience that is much more intelligent that people give them credit for, but at the same time you have to be aware of how the game is played, and so you have to make certain things very obvious, like the themes, and repeating the things that people have to do.
Zoe has this really good conversation with Damien [her new boyfriend] while she’s in his apartment, where she realises why she’s on this journey, and what she’s doing. And she repeats it three times. You have to get it in there. Especially in a story that’s much more complex than I think people are used to. But people get it, and you can be obtuse – people are required to think.
RPS: I’ve always used the “mystery is important” quote when writing about TLJ. It sums up the games for me.
Ragnar: Oh yes. Those are the words we started with on Dreamfall. We know the answers, we have all the answers – well, most of them, but even for the writers there should be some mystery – but the mystery has to be there. You don’t explain everything. Leave some things to be obscure, that’s fine. The stories that do that well, like Battlestar Galactica, are fantastic. They’re also saying mystery is important. I hope they don’t explain everything by the end, because I think that would ruin it.
RPS: There’s an interesting movement in Christianity at the moment, that’s not about naivity, nor about blind acceptance, but accepting that there is mystery, and enjoying not understanding.
Ragnar: That’s sort of my approach to everything. Who would want to know everything. I believe there’s a lot more to life and to the world than what is evident. But it doesn’t have to be in your face. It doesn’t have to be explained. All the greatest stories ever, when it comes to genre fiction, are about not having all the answers.
RPS: Is Dreamfall Chapters a certainty?
Ragnar: Well, knock on… plastic, it is.
RPS: So what part does April play?
Ragnar: Well, I’m not going to say whether April is alive. But her influence isn’t fully played out. It is her story, all the way through. But Kian has a part and Zoe has a part. Their parts are very important.
RPS: Do you have it all planned out?
Ragnar: I’m not sure what to say. Yeah, I have a story. I think there’s only one other person in the world who knows it. I have it written down. I know what the ending is, for the first time in my life. The final, final ending to the whole saga. Whether that happens in Dreamfall Chapters, or we stretch it out like Robert Jordan…
RPS: You’ll be on your deathbed, coding the last game.
Ragnar: The whole thing is a circle. It ends where it begins.
RPS: Of course, because at the beginning of TLJ you see elderly April reading a story…
Ragnar: Or an elderly woman.
RPS: It’s obviously April! It has to be!
Dag: She’s DEAD!
RPS: Oh, of course, I forgot…
Ragnar: It’s not “obviously” April!
RPS: Of course it is!
Ragnar: Actually, in the German version, without any kind of consent on our part, they had somebody calling her April, which they were not supposed to.
RPS: Crow’s in the room with her!
Dag: Actually, it’s a lot more complex than you think. Let me leave it at that.
Ragnar: So yeah, there is a circle. And not just there. In other parts of TLJ as well. That whole story wasn’t worked out when I wrote TLJ – it came up in the interval between that and Dreamfall, and then more clearly during the development of Dreamfall, and then by the end of that I knew exactly where we were going to continue.
RPS: So why chapters? In a genre that’s not selling huge numbers, by doing chapters are you not increasing your risk of never getting to finish the story?
Ragnar: Oh yes… Heh, no. I’ve said that if we don’t get to finish the story in games, then we’ll do it in books or a comic book. I’d love to do a comic book actually. I’ve been talking to a friend of mine about a comic taking place in the ten years between the first two games. But yes, there is that danger. But as a company that focuses on online distribution, and online payment models, for us we have to create something from which we can get online revenue, so we don’t have to go to publishers and get screwed all over again, by people who don’t understand what we’re doing. The best way of doing that, and hedging our bets, is to do it in a way that uses pay-for content on a regular basis. But in addition to those practical concerns, there’s the more intriguing nature of doing it that way. I love TV, and think storytelling in TV is such a fascinating thing, especially how you’re able to respond to what people are saying. TV shows today are written as they’re broadcast, and they take feedback into consideration – write out characters that aren’t working, or change their plans based on what happens. So while the storyline for Dreamfall Chapters – we know where it’s going to go – but all the stuff in between? That can change. Being in that kind of organic format is very interesting for a writer. To be on a team where you did episodes would be an amazing experience. Taking feedback, it’s sort of like running an MMO.
RPS: So is it real? Does it exist?
Ragnar: Right now where we’re at is evolving the technology. The Dreamfall team is very busy with The Secret World right now, so we don’t know how we’re going to pull this off. But if and when it does come out, we’ll be committed to at least doing a story arc, and completing that, and answering the unanswered questions in Dreamfall. Because there are a few!
RPS: People were annoyed by that ending.
Ragnar: Dreamfall is a full story. It’s the story of Faith.
RPS: I argue this! I argue that it had a definitive and set ending, and the idea that it’s only open ended is complete crap. But a lot of people are really angry, saying it didn’t finish. So how do you respond to that?
Ragnar: We say, “Let’s make Dreamfall Chapters!” I said this on my website, and I said this in interviews, “Sorry, you’re wrong. It has a definite ending.” Not you of course. You’re right! It’s the story of not just Faith the character, but faith – the whole theme. Probably, again one thing I felt disappointed with was the impact Faith had on the world was underplayed in the game. I think that was a mistake. We knew it, but we didn’t visualise it well enough. But I think if you get that, then you also get that the story ends, Faith dies, the character completes her journey. April goes into actual death, and Kian, he makes sacrifices and goes into transformation. And Zoe, she also makes sacrifices. So everybody has completed their journey. But it’s not over, obviously. We were a little bit cruel at the end of Dreamfall I think by putting some things in there which were like, “What the fuck?!” Especially the story with Reza [Zoe’s ex-boyfriend], and Zoe knowing there was something off there, and not saying what that was. And obviously the whole Storytime thing. The vagabond character. We threw in some extra stuff at the end… We could have cut that stuff out and said, “Let’s complete this,” but we wanted to leave some threads hanging. But there aren’t as many as some people say.
RPS: You leave room for imagination.
Ragnar: I love stories that are open. And if you read the official boards for Dreamfall, people are still speculating, which means they may hate it, but at least they’re talking about it, they have theories. And I read a lot of these theories, and actually of a lot of them have come very close, and there are also things that have made me go, “Yeah, let me make a note of that, I didn’t think of that.”
RPS: And what if Chapters never happens?
Ragnar: Even if it never continues, I think it would be satisfactory. Except a couple of things that you wish would be explained, like Brian Westhouse, the white dragon…