Ragnar Tørnquist On… Dreamfall & Faith

By John Walker on August 20th, 2008 at 5:30 pm.

He's basically her ventrilloquism puppet.

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.

Ragnar: Ok.

Still the best female character in gaming history

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.

There was a guy in the game?

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.

A faith encounter

    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.

Crow!

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.

Smokey eye-liner - win.

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.

Not every interview requires diagrams.

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.”

Weep.

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.

Presumably Chapters will see Kian in his pants.

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.

No penises this time. Just manbutt.

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.

Arcadia got more colourful this time out.

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.

Dead? Or

    Dreamfall Chapters

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: Obviously?!

Ragnar: Obviously?!

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.

How could we have never gotten around to discussing Wonkers? A terrible oversight. Best. Voice. Ever.

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…

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75 Comments »

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  1. FP says:

    Great interview. I’m a little disappointed to find out Chapters is still so far away though, I’d kind of assumed it was at the almost done stage by now.

  2. Buemba says:

    Though I consider Dreamfall a terrible game, it’s one of my favorite (For lack of a better term) interactive experiences. The fact that Zoe was going through a very similar stage in her life as I was when I played it probably contributed greatly to it, but she’s easily my favorite videogame character ever.

    TLJ may be a better game, but Dreamfall has a better story and characters in my opinion. Hopefully Dreamfall Chapters will get rid of the crappy stealth and fight sequences that marred the previous game so much.

  3. Dire says:

    Very interesting interview, makes me want to reinstall TLJ & Dreamfall and do a total rerun of both games.

  4. matte_k says:

    Awesome stuff, Mr. Walker. Looking forward with renewed interest to Dreamfall Chapters, count me as one on board for the whole Journey!

  5. Steve says:

    Excellent interview.

    It’s very rare that a developer can succeed in getting players emotionally involved with a story and for that i think Ragnar’s work deserves a hell of a lot more respect than the typical macho stereotype garbage mass produced by the majority of publishers.

    I don’t know about the pessimism towards ‘male’ characters though.

    Maybe it could be that normal males are such a rarity given the entire stereotype strewn litterscape that is the gaming norm they may now be considered effectively out of reach in the minds of the gaming public.

    After all, strong female leads weren’t in too great an abundance when TLJ was produced and to a large degree still aren’t.

    Possibly just another symptom of gamings general lack of perceived maturity… or I could just be drunk already.

    Honestly though, the combat in Dreamfall, whilst initially annoying did not worry me too much after a little while.
    It simply lagged the game and became something to get through, which in a way was distracting but not detracting since it was the story i was interested in.

    P.s.
    Ragnar..
    Do a Robert Jordan and I keeeelll you!

  6. lukasz says:

    i loved dreamfall. i didn’t mind at all that it wasn’t a proper true game. I love the characters, the world, the story.

    I can’t wait for Chapters. Hope they will be on Steam.

  7. someone says:

    Good interview. But…
    1. It doesn’t help us to understand any of the loose ends any better. And despite what Ragnar says here, there were/are a lot of ends left untied. It sounds as if Ragnar himself may not even have the story worked out all the way to the end.
    2. Also, it doesn’t give us any insight into what will be in Dreamfall chapters, or even when it will be. Actually it even sounds like if it will be at all is far from certain.
    3. Why episodic content? Is this the appropriate medium for the subject matter? According to Ragnar, it is mostly about the money and not whether it fits.
    In spite of all my comments, Dreamfall is still one of the best *games* I ever played. Did you catch the air quotes there?

  8. Ragnar says:

    The problem with Dreamfall wasn’t at all that the game was too easy. It was that it lets you think it is easy. A really good story-driven game should always keep pushing you in the right direction, but without doing it obviously, making the player think that they have done something really difficult.

    Oh, and Dreamfall would have gained a lot if you could just examine a lot more things and get more varied responses from the protagonists.

  9. Flint says:

    I just wanted to say that this three-part series has been one of my favourite game interviews ever. Wonderful work from all participants.

  10. mcwizardry says:

    Excellent Interview ! I think the Dreamfall Bundle on Steam just got a sales boost as a result, it’s in third place for adventure games.

  11. Con Carne says:

    I’m probably the only person here who thinks this, but the writing for the protagonist in TLJ felt very much like what a young man might imagine a young woman to sound like. Clichés, no matter how loudly the protest is otherwise.

  12. Richard says:

    (Edit, actually, nah. Done to death)

  13. MisterBritish says:

    Am I the only one who prefered breezing through the ‘puzzles’ as opposed to getting horribly stuck 3 or 4 times during the game? As a method for delivering the story it was much better suited.

  14. Tikey says:

    My experience with Dreamfall was like watching a great movie while arbitrarily clicking the mouse button.
    It was an amazing story, touching and profound but I never felt it was I who was moving it forward.
    I should play it again, but although I found it’s story amazing I must admit that I got a bit bored over the end.
    I could never forgive it that.

  15. Alex says:

    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.

    This is an interesting position mr. Tørnquist takes. I personally didn’t have any problems with the game, but I agree with mr. Walker that it isn’t much of a game, exactly because it isn’t very interactive. And basically, that is what a game is about – interactivity. It does make me wonder if mr. Tørnquist just chose the wrong medium to tell his story – not because such a story can’t be told in an interactive way, because I think it could, but simply because he chose not to tell it that way.

    So I think people are quite right to criticise the game for not being much of an actual game and those criticisms are a direct effect of mr. Tørnquist’s design choices. It isn’t actually a “game that is about story”, but a story that he has built a sort of game around.

    I’m sounding very negative here, but like I said, it wasn’t a problem for me personally, I enjoyed the game as it is a lot.

    Regarding the ending – this is where the uncertainty of sequels becomes important. You spend quite a lot of time playing the game, getting involved with the characters and then the game ends in a way that to a lot of people feels unsatisfactory. Not much of a problem if you know this is part 2 in a trilogy and you have a pretty good idea when the third part is actually coming. In the case of Dreamfall you had no idea. There were 6 or 7 years between TLJ and DF, who knows how long it would be before the third part would appear, if indeed the third part would appear at all. And although I do think Dreamfall Chapters will happen, I still have no idea when. I think that’s quite a lot of faith (hargh, sorry..) to expect from your audience.

  16. CrashT says:

    Dreamfall might not be “much of a game” but what else is it? It’s clearly not a film and it’s not a book, so frankly “gaming” has as much claim to it as anything else.

    I’m actually glad they didn’t feel a need to make it more game like by introducing pointless gameplay sections between story elements *Cough*Metal Gear Solid*Cough*.

    The interactivity that is present is the interactivity that’s required to tell the story they wanted to tell, that’s good enough.

    I think game is a highly flawed term for something like Dreamfall and because of it we expect gameplay when maybe there shouldn’t be any. Dreamfall is an interactive entertainment product (Or whatever else you want to call it) and I think we need to actually except that and not judge it as something it isn’t.

    This entire preoccupation that every interactive entertainment product must feature gameplay, frustrates me, it’s why Edge couldn’t give Dreamfall higher than a 7 and it’s why we’ll be unlikely to see the true potential of non-game like interactive experiences until we stop trying to judge them as something they are not. I’m interested in every possible use of the interactive medium to entertain and forcing all such works to be “games” is going to severely limit their potential.

    Or something….

  17. antonymous says:

    Ragnar and the cardboard chick are going to chase me in my nightmares

  18. JulianP says:

    Damn, I was so hoping that he’d ditch Kian. I cringed everytime he came on screen. A horribly uninteresting character.

  19. RotBot says:

    It’s a shame you didn’t throw in a Then! during the elderly woman debate.

  20. Bhlaab says:

    Here’s the thing, I could understand having no traditional gameplay if the story was guided by interactivity, but as it stands it begs the question why they included the interactivity at all… what’s the point?

    I’m actually glad they didn’t feel a need to make it more game like by introducing pointless gameplay sections between story elements *Cough*Metal Gear Solid*Cough*.

    I hope you realize you have the exact opposite position of pretty much everyone else who played MGS 4.
    Not me, of course, I like MGS for it’s full package. Relating to the point at hand, I like how it manages to mix a purely linear story with interactive elements such as calling up support on your codec to learn more information given the relative context of the current situation. And in Snake Eater, when the character is forced to kill his former mentor the game throws control back at the player, though disables everything besides the trigger button forcing you to do something fairly unsavoury. I think those are hints to the real future of interactive storytelling, albeit the games come nowhere close to fully “there” yet.

    Dreamfall, on the other hand, seems to give the message “This is MY show, you’re just tagging along working the curtains” which is going to be frustrating for anybody.

  21. Steve says:

    That’s a good point CrashT.

    ‘Computer Game’ becomes something of a catch all term to describe everything that can be done with the medium in the same way that one could say ‘the printed word’ describes everything put to paper….

    Our own assumptions and stereotypes again with the added confusion of something which may not fit into the classic view.

    I’m beginning to wonder what the inclusion of additional interactivity which being effectively superfluous to the story would have helped more people accept it as a their ideas of a more appropriate ‘Game’.

  22. CrashT says:

    “Dreamfall, on the other hand, seems to give the message “This is MY show, you’re just tagging along working the curtains” which is going to be frustrating for anybody.”

    Funny that’s the impression I get from Metal Gear Solid, Kojima saying “This is my show, but I’m going to make you do this and this and this in order to actually see it.”

    I never got stuck or frustrated playing Dreamfall so I never felt there were obstacles in the way of my enjoyment. Metal Gear Solid is nothing but obstacles for me; that makes it feel disjointed and difficult to appreciate.

  23. Esha says:

    I always did love Ragnar’s work but he always did have a glaring problem which is defined perfectly well in this interview.

    Female characters aren’t the only ones who’re stuffed into bad stereotypes, often I find myself offended by the mindless male brutes whose locomotion seems entirely powered by hormones and little else. And it’s a shame that Ragnar chooses a female over a male for his characters, simply to take the easy way out.

    Here’s the clincher, though; in taking the easy way out like that, it’s just creating another stereotype. We have a few of those in regards to females in gaming now, we have the sex bomb victim, we have the strong leading female character who’s also a sex bomb and engages in wholly impossible acrobatic feats, then we have the wholly spiritual Girlfriend stereotype. None of them are any more real than the next.

    In fact, one of my favourite RPGs of all time is Neverwinter Nights 2: Mask of the Betrayer. I know it wasn’t released all that long ago but the things it did quickly shot it up through the ranks, even past Planescape: Torment and Gothic, and it was almost completely because of the characters, characters which merrily broke stereotypes left, right, and center.

    We had Gannyev, for starters. Gann was a spiritualist, a thespian, utterly flaming, and yet amazingly charismatic and clever. In other words, Gann was an actor, and the kind of man that dribbling internetizens would scream “ghey” at these days. He was the first male character in a long time whom I hadn’t felt completely insulted by, and he was unequivocal proof that a male character an be all the things that he was and that the RPG audience at the very least could accept that.

    Then there was Kaelyn, whom I loved dearly aswell. Kaelyn wasn’t at all sassy, and despite being powerful she never came off as “strong”, her personality is hard to explain but it’s both underwhelming and overwhelming at the same time. The Dove was a character who was unafraid of her vulnerability, she’d been struck down too often in the past to uphold the illusion of being the undefeatable combat-chick we generally see in games. And Kaelyn was unusually quiet, at that. Most female characters are amazingly loud, both in their own heads and vocally, but it took some effort to get anything out of Kaelyn.

    And Mask of the Betrayer continued to break stereotypes left and right, in fact I thouroughly embraced this by playing through the experience as a Dwarven Bard, which was just that little bit more crazy than the Halfling Druid I played the original Neverwinter Nights 2 with.

    And that’s the problem, really.

    I find that characters like April Ryan have been all too done in the general media, time and again. Smart, sassy, and spiritual, the three S’s of the stereotypical female lead. Just once I’d like to see an introverted female, or an openly flamboyant and not at all hormonal male character again. Perhaps the next expansion for Neverwinter Nights 2 will provide me with that, or perhaps it’ll be in Obsidian’s next time. I don’t really know.

    I am disappointed by Ragnar’s approach though, and I really don’t think that a female is needed to uphold those values, simply for the virtue of having a female in there to… what, I don’t know, look pretty and be a sales point? Characters like Kaelyn and Gann continue to prove to me that we can escape from stereotypes within games, we just have to want to.

  24. Esha says:

    Correction: In Obsidian’s next game is what I meant. Oops.

  25. Andrew says:

    This is the most interesting of the interviews with Ragnar so far. Very good piece.

  26. Larington says:

    To be honest, I suspect that the whole story might never have even started if it had been made by more established methods such as TV/film/radio.

    Personally, I think theres just enough interactivity there to keep it going and give it a pace, but also let you walk up to random characters that can help give a stronger feel to the experience. You can never do that in film, but in adventure games, you can. Yes, it had its flaws, particularly in combat, I’m pretty sure many of these mistakes won’t be made in Dreamfall Chapters, I just wish it was coming out SOONER.

    As for the question for why there is such a focus on an online distribution model, I understand it has something to do with development trying to find a way of solving the p-word issue and they figure an online deployment might be the best way to go (For day 0 piracy in particular).

  27. MisterBritish says:

    What? Crafting a (imo) well-written, believeable, unexploited female lead was the easy, steriotypical way out? Are you sure you can name that many other lead characters -in games- which fall into that category?

    My only gripe is the lack of meaningful choices. In regards to storytelling, games’ primary advantage over film and TV is their interactive nature and very little has been made of this in the series. Dreamfall began to bring in a bit of that; sections were negotiable via stealth, combat or diplomacy but the net result was largely the same.

    At the same time I recognise the need for player constraint in order to tell the best story possible. It’s a bit of a tightrope walk, but I’m hoping Chapters will have a few more choices, and show everyone what can be done with interactive narrative.

  28. CLLMM says:

    By mentioning Robert Jordan, my respect for him has increased twofold.

  29. John Walker says:

    Esha – I think you make a really interesting point. I think that’s what I was getting at when I asked if he thought his characters were overly idealised. April in TLJ, and Zoe in DF, are both in that Joss Whedon place. I’m going to clumsily try and capture how my male brain perceives them. It’s a sort of: Wow, she’s great – she’s funny, and self-deriding, and honest, and a bit broken, and pretty too. It’s the other sort of “perfect girl”. On one side there’s the “perfect” big titted, blonde, sexpot. On the other there’s the girl in the bookstore with the wicked sense of humour and geek t-shirt. Both are stereotypes, both idolised by different groups of men. I think Whedon’s as guilty of what you describe as Ragnar. And I say all this absolutely loving those characters, because, well, that’s the sort of girl I’d want to be with.

    However, a couple of things. I think first, April in DF meets your criteria for what you’d like to see. She’s no longer bright, witty, and full of sass. She’s broken, miserable and dour. She’s introverted, and ruined by a complete loss of self-understanding. She’s spiritually dead. I think that’s fascinating, and very unique.

    The other thing I disagree with is your final paragraph. I think Ragnar is being honest when he says he writes female characters because he finds them more interesting to write, rather than to improve sales. I’m really sure that’s not his approach at all. I understand this – I always write female characters, because… when I try to write men it becomes this self-indulgent, self-loathing experience, where I find myself trying to point out how most men are awful because my guy isn’t. It’s not pretty. But writing a girl, I feel like I can express my thoughts without some idiotic need to fight against my own male guilt. I don’t know if this is making any sense, but I’m being ludicrously honest.

    I’m reluctant to say, “At least Ragnar’s characters aren’t big-titted vapid blondes with penile guns,” because while every fibre of my being wants to express that, I see the point that they’re idealised versions of women in that other direction. But still: At least they’re not the blonde-tit-penis-gun ladies!

    I think what the games industry desperately needs is female writers. It’s ridiculous that the business is dependent on really awesome guys like Ragnar to write the better female characters, like we’re a 16th century Shakespeare company trying to cast our Juliet without ever considering a woman.

  30. Man Raised By Puffins says:

    Probably, again one thing I felt disappointed with was the impact Faith had on the world was underplayed in the game.

    I think that’s the crux of why I found the ending less than satisfying. While the Faith plot thread got neatly tied up, for much of the game it felt like a side issue and plot-lines which seemed to have more prominence were left hanging. Or at least that’s the way it seemed, its been a while since I last played it.

    Cheers for the interviews, John. Some good nuggets in there.

  31. Bhlaab says:

    Funny that’s the impression I get from Metal Gear Solid, Kojima saying “This is my show, but I’m going to make you do this and this and this in order to actually see it.”

    I never got stuck or frustrated playing Dreamfall so I never felt there were obstacles in the way of my enjoyment. Metal Gear Solid is nothing but obstacles for me; that makes it feel disjointed and difficult to appreciate.

    It’s the obstacles that make things interesting, and it’s the interaction with these obstacles that drives the medium, and in my opinion should drive the plot.

    Dreamfall did the same thing as Metal Gear Solid by blocking story progression with puzzles and combat, except Dreamfall’s obstacles were ridiculously easy and poorly executed, and I’ll be damned if I give it good credit for that.

    My point is that as an interactive medium, it shouldn’t feel like a story is being told at you. The character’s successes should be the player’s as well, same with the tragedies and all of the grey areas in between. If all the parts I’m in control of are shoehorned in awkwardly, why is it on an interactive medium? Wouldn’t the whole thing be a much stronger experience without me?

  32. brog says:

    Dreamfall puzzles easy? I got stuck on some stupid bit where you had to get into some building, and you had to hack through a lock to get into the back yard, sneak past a dog, get an axe from the shed, and then go back out of the yard to find a window you could smash with the axe. I had to look up spoilers to get past it, and I’m not ashamed to admit it because the puzzle simply did not make sense – why do you need to go through all the effort of breaking into the yard if all you’re going to do there is get a common household item you could have picked up anywhere? Not to mention that the dog regularly slaughters you as you explore the yard for the hundredth time trying to find where you can get in (like maybe the damn DOOR, for example).

    Bloody ‘adventure’ games.

    Loved the story though. Just a pity they chose to make it into a game. Perhaps a movie would have been better.. which would have the added bonus that I could feel a lot less dirty about lusting over Zoe if she wasn’t rendered in polygons.

  33. Newblade says:

    For me, there was a sense of closure for Zoë, but not for April and Kian. Both of them acomplish nothing.

    Besides, the Dreamtime plot was left hanging. And it was more than just a subplot. Sometimes it was the driving force of the game, even when its relation to Faith wasn’t so clear.

  34. John Walker says:

    I’m not agreeing with this notion that it would have worked better were it not a game. I think it would have worked better were it a better game.

    The scene we discuss above in the Russian laboratory – that’s uniquely game. That moment of exploring the scene, then learning of the child’s death, then re-exploring the scene. There’s no other medium that could do that. In a film it would be some tragically corner reprise of what we’ve seen before with the weight of knowledge, and smug, swooshy noises. Being able to re-examine – that’s something only games can do, and Dreamfall uses it to wonderful effect. Also, something like Wonkers. You could have that character in a movie, certainly. It would be the fun, cartoon character who would make cheery, or profound remarks, and be very likeable. But to interact with it, to nick its battery, to put it back together and talk again – it’s a deeper connection, and a valuable one.

  35. CrashT says:

    When I say I don’t think it should be considered a game that doesn’t mean I think you should take our the interactive elements.

    I just think we should be willing to accept interactive titles that aren’t strictly games, ala that don’t contain explicty game mechanics. We can still embrace interactivity and the ability to navigate through a virtual world but we don’t need to “mark them down” for not being more like traditional games.

    Being able to explore somewhere is powerful on it’s own without requiring that you somehow have to “win” to progress.

  36. Trezoristo says:

    The problem with Dreamfall wasn’t at all that the game was too easy. It was that it lets you think it is easy. A really good story-driven game should always keep pushing you in the right direction, but without doing it obviously, making the player think that they have done something really difficult.

    I think that’s something a lot of gamedevelopers don’t seem to consider. I remember someone from Valve saying something similar regarding the Half Life series, probably in one of their excelent developer commentaries. He remarked that on one hand the player wants to feel challenged, but on the other the actual act of dying in a game isn’t any fun for him. So their challenge was to make it so that every player, regardless of skill, comes out of a confrontation feeling they saved their skin by only an inch.

    I’d really like to see if it’s possible to draw this to the extreme: to create a game that gives the player the feeling he’s in total control but which is in reality following a tight script: A story that claims and feels interactive, but really isn’t.

  37. CryingMinotaur says:

    Congrats, you’ve been mentioned on Slashdot and on their main page, too (although fortunately, you haven’t been slashdotted yet).

    Was just happy to see my fave gaming site featured at the mighty Slashdot and wanted to share the moment!

    (Now I’ll have to get back to actually reading the interview…)

  38. Caiman says:

    I remember completing TLJ with mixed feelings. On the one hand I found the game lacked any real challenge, yet on the other hand I was emotionally affected by it. It remained in my memory for several years to come, which is more than can be said for most interactive forms of entertainment. The creation of a positive memory, a positive emotion, was the achievement of TLJ.

  39. The Hammer says:

    It’s a shame you didn’t throw in a Then! during the elderly woman debate.

    NOTHING COMPARED TO MONKEY ISLAND!

  40. Noc says:

    On the “Gaming as a medium for narrative” end, I think games have something that only comics really share, and that’s the player’s control over pacing. In most games, even these, you don’t have too much meaningful control over the plot; you’re just going through the motions of getting things done, while the important things happen on their own.

    But what games offer is a chance to say “Whoah, slow down. I want to look at this area some more.” You can’t really do that in books, because you’re presented all of the information in one go. You can’t in movies, beyond clumsily freeze-framing and trying to pick out things in the background. You can in comics, however. You can choose to be carried along by the story, or you can take a slower, more measured pace, taking note of all that’s going on in the background, looking at the characters and trying to see what you can pull from their facial expression, even flipping back to earlier pages to reference things you see new light cast on.

    I think adventure games come close to letting you do this. RPGs tend to more, I think; in adventure games, you tend to need to follow all lines of dialog to their conclusion to be able to progress, and the interactivity with the environment tends to be limited to solving puzzles. RPGs let you talk to nonecritical NPCs, look into their lives, go through their stuff, etc.

    But the level of interactivity in a game, even if the level of meaningful decision making is low, does let the player control the pacing. It lets the player interface with the story. Not interact; whether the story changes because of the player is another issue. But interface: connect with, and draw information from. Find out what happens next, and look at what people are doing in the environment, and watch the characters. Forget interactivity: simply putting those methods of information-gathering in the player’s hands helps them interface better, and brings them so much closer to the story.

    I finished reading House of Leaves a month or two ago, and there’s a part in the book – a rather tense, suspenseful part – where there is only a sentence or a phrase on each page. This sounds like a gimmick, but what it does is it keeps you turning the pages; it has you manually going through each step of finding out what happens next. Eventually it gets down to a single word on each page and you’re just feverishly turning the pages. The tension is immense. The tension is immense because of the pacing choices, the rationing of narrative . . . but what makes it work is that it involves the reader actively in the process. If it was a movie, or a comic, it would be a sort of subdued, introspective moment: drawing the narrative out would just give it time to be pondered over, time to sink in.

    But when you give the reader control over things, put the reader – or the player – in charge of gathering information, of advancing the story, the story can become more powerful. House of Leaves does this in other ways: halfway through the book, I became convinced that the narrator was pulling anecdotes out of his ass. I became actively searching through the story, trying to find contradictions and signs of subterfuge. Large sections of the book are structured like a critical essay; large stretches of text punctuated with references and footnotes. Reading through the book felt like research. It felt like I was uncovering something.

    This is a powerful thing, and I don’t think it’s something that game designers have quite figured out, yet.

    I need to finish playing TLJ, and play Dreamfall, before I comment further. I’m trying to hop and skip through the articles, avoiding spoilers as I come across them and skimming for theory content.

    But I think this theory stuff, about making the player responsible for the narrative, is important. Because I think its what’s at the heart of this whole “Good game/bad game/not a game” thing.

    I need to finish playing. This discussion’ll probably have blown over by then, but you never know.

  41. Ozzie says:

    You may delete my post above. It’s basically the same, but with worse english and more exclamation marks. ;)

    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.

    Oh Ragnar……this attitude is jointly responsible for the whole problem with the game. Maybe he thinks the story was so complex and twisted that there was no room to spare for interactivity. Well, I would recomend Planescape: Torment, Outcast or Deus Ex for some inspiration then.
    All very open-ended games, and while Outcast doesn’t have a complex story, the rest of those have, and even more, believable characters and a lively world.
    And yet, lots of interactivity and choice!
    Or he should just take a closer look at one of his main inspirations for TLJ, the adventure Gabriel Knight.
    The story there is similarly complex to the one in Dreamfall, yet you have always something to do and feel involved. Of course, sometimes it was too hard and got a bit silly, but still, it was a much more compelling game.

    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.

    This sounds like he thinks that a high interactive density leads to difficulty. I guess I misunderstood him there. Still, I want to point out that just trivial actions like popping a coin into a soda machine to get a coke can make you feel more involved. Again, Deus Ex is a good example for this, it has a high density of such trivial actions.

    But my complaint doesn’t even adress so much the lack of interactivity. I loved Shadows of Memories/Destiny, played it through in one session, despite it having even less interactivity and easier puzzles!
    There are cutscenes in this game which are ten minutes long, but it didn’t bother me.
    I think there are two things that make Shadow of Memories a much better game. It may be a bit hard to formulate my thoughts since some time passed since I played Dreamfall, but I try.

    First, the writing is better. Ragnar says that you shouldn’t underestimate the audience and yet it’s what he did. Of course, the designer should make sure that the gamer knows what his goals are when necessary. For one, it’s not really that necessary in Dreamfall since it is so linear that you are definitely able to progress without knowing what you’re doing. Secondly, there are other possibilities to let the player know what he has to do without telling him the same thing over and over again. Like the diary in TLJ. Yep, what a great idea! Okay, I can understand that Ragnar didn’t want to let every player character write his own diary, it would have got pretty silly. But if not diaries then task lists.
    Or nothing of the above since the repeated mentions weren’t necessary anyway, since I already understood what was going on the first time around. It’s not like they were talking about cryptic or hard to follow stuff.
    An example of annoying repetitions in the dialogues is the constant whining of Zoe about her failure to do something with her life. The problem isn’t that she complains or talks about her fears, but that it is constantly the same!

    “Oh, I don’t know what to do with my life!”
    “Man, I’m so apathetic!”
    “Uh, I still don’t know what to do!”
    “Do you know that I still don’t know what I should do?”

    Yeah, it’s okay Ragnar, I got it! I know that it’s an important part of the game and the story, but sometimes a bit subtlety wouldn’t hurt. Actually, you can handle it pretty good when something interests the player, like with the Prophet and Brian, the Tower in Marcuria and the connection with Stark (don’t remember the details there anymore), the murder of the White (?) Dragon, who’s really Zoe’s mother, Aprils death, Rezas disappearance and his……..”not being the same anymore” at the end,……
    Man I hoped the whole game long to get a definite resolution on Reza’s disappearance. For me the game was all about finding Reza. I see that this wasn’t Ragnars intention. The quest which Reza gave to Zoe was just there to get you started in the game and to sloppily throw you into the real story. For me the story was never so much about Faith, I mean, it was just a part of it. While TLJ left some things hanging (like what happened to April’s friends, in what sense is April the daughter of the dragon,…) it still had a definite conclusion that haunted you for some time. Not so with Dreamfall which just made you think “WTF!” and “Great, wasted money!”.

    Phew…..I got a bit off-track there.
    So, Shadow of Memories dialogues are more straight to the point and don’t hammer everything in your mind. Even better, there aren’t any multiple-choice dialogues unless you really have a choice.
    In Dreamfall it mostly amounts to choosing the order of topics. You don’t feel in charge of the situation, yet you have to click at certain points to move the whole thing forward. Watching one continuous cutscene would have been more fun.

    Actually, that’s pretty much the second point in which Shadow of Memories is so much better. It just gives you interactivity when it is of relevance. Not only does Dreamfall have dialogues full of “empty” interactivity, even the rest in the second half does barely amount to more than “walk from A to B”.
    If there’s something you have to do then often you’re told exactly what it should be, like, get a sandwich so you can get into the prison. Which was also an insultingly easy sequence. When this is such a hyper secure prison then how is it possible to get in and out so easily!?

    Ugh…..

    Okay, the ending of Shadow of Memories is also much better, since it is definite. But I’ll stop the comparison now.

    Generally, like I already said, the ending of Dreamfall is weak. If the game is really so much about Faith, then why does the game tease you with so many other things? How comes that the story of Faith is only a third of the whole game yet the only story thread that gets a resolution? Ragnar, I don’t care what you thought the game was about, I had a different impression and I wasn’t the only one there.

    After playing through Dreamfall I understood the disappointment that people felt after playing through Monkey Island 2. Actually, it’s a very similar case, the main difference being that MI2 was released one year after MI1, not six, so the expectations didn’t rise to such a high level. But else?
    When MI2 was released it wasn’t clear that there would ever be a sequel, in fact Ron Gilbert left LucasArts shortly after release which made a continuation unlikely. Still, a sequel arrived after 6 long years (and it didn’t explain anything properly, but that’s another story…).
    The ending of Monkey Island 2 is infamous. I love and hate it at the same time, so it gets more love from me than the one in Dreamfall. The love results from the fact that it is wonderfully surreal and that everything to this point was pretty straightforward. The whole game didn’t tease you with things that would never get resolved. There’s hate for it because the sudden twist in the story isn’t explained in the slightest and however you look at it it doesn’t make much sense. Every fan theory stands in contradiction with some facets of the game.
    And while the ending of Dreamfall is logical, it doesn’t explain much, like the one in MI2. Was it a trick of LeChuck to lure Guybrush into an alternate dimension or was it young Guybrushs imagination? Who knows??

    No, an ending shouldn’t explain everything, definitely, since “mystery is important”. But this statement isn’t an excuse to not offer even the slightest of a resolution.

    Phew. Enough already. ;)

  42. Noc says:

    Ozzie: Complexity doesn’t mean tossing out interactivity. But intention does.

    In a well-written story, everything happens for a reason. Characters are plotted along specific journeys; events happen to reinforce specific themes, and tell of specific dynamics. In PS:T, the Nameless One is a non-character; he’s a blank slate, and given no personality beyond what the player puts into him. He’s not a character, he’s an avatar for the player’s involvement. In a way that’s what makes it so effective, because with him as an avatar, what happens to him happens to you.

    But in this system you cannot, can-not, develop that character, because any attempt you make to change him involves wresting control away from the player in a way the player might not agree with. Like in Mass Effect, where you try and be nice but Sheperd comes across as a rightious dick. “I didn’t mean to say that.” Or in Bioshock, where the ending judges the player’s actions and extrapolates from them in a way that the player never thought about or intended. Your character needs to be a Gordon Freeman: if not entirely silent, at least completely ambiguous.

    But that level of involvement comes at the cost of the story. Yes, it’s possible to create true interaction, with the player determining through his actions how the events play out. But that comes at the expense of any truly deep story. The problem isn’t the player killing NPC X when NPC X needs to push the plot along later; the problem is the player killing NPC X, which prevents NPC X from coming to grips with his place in the world, which in turn prevents that plot thread from commenting on the player character’s dilemma.

    There are multiple ways to end any story, but there’s a reason authors tend to chose only one. They tend to do this for very specific reasons, because in a well-written story, everything that happens to the character is intended to push him towards that one climax, and that one change. That’s where depth is. Depth isn’t complexity. Depth is looking at a story, and then looking closer, and seeing how it all ties in properly. Foreshadowing is the obvious example, but there’s more. Relationships between characters: parallel and divergent development, how what happens to one character comments upon what happens to another.

    And that’s the difference between a “story” and a sequence of events. The story has a purpose. And a story is interesting in itself not because it’s got a hundred and two plot twists, but because there’s more there the closer you look.

    ALSO, none of the interaction in an adventure game tends to be meaningful. So it’s not a matter of interactive density; it’s a matter of puzzle nonintuitiveness. “Interactive density” means that you can interact with lots of things, but in an adventure game, you can only do one thing with each item, and you have to do them in the proper sequence to progress. The level of interactive depth is extremely shallow.

    Unless by “density” you mean “Impenetrability.” In which case, yes, more impenetrable puzzles DOES mean higher difficulty. Almost by definition.

    The rest of that post is half-coherent [Edit: Considerably more coherent] objecting to a string of plot points. Again, I’m going to finish the game before commenting on that. And I’m not objecting to the judgment of the game: if people dislike it, then clearly something was done wrong, and there’s probably a reason. I just think that these specific objections are silly. There is probably a grain of truth in there, and it’s probably the “Failed to make the player feel properly involved” bit. But there’s a lot of silliness wrapped around that.

    Oh, man, I’ve done a lot of talking today.

  43. malkav11 says:

    I’m comfortable with limited amounts of interaction. I’m quite fond of Metal Gear Solid (well, watching it – I’ve never been much good at it as a game) and Xenosaga (episode I. II was a horrible misstep, never played III.), both games with a heavy amount of dialogue and cutscenes. Dreamfall isn’t much of a game because the game elements it does have are in many respects broken or unfun. Combat and stealth in particular, but the adventure game aspects are largely perfunctory except for one incredibly annoying tonal puzzle. I can’t do those.

  44. Lan says:

    I don’t have that much theory and opinion to say after skimming through the ‘article’ by Ozzie, but I would just like to say thank you John for the great interview.

    It is fun to play through games by yourself and try to grasp on the themes and hidden meanings, but with the developers talking about how and why they did this and that really step the whole thing up a notch for me. At least now I know some parts are in the game because they are intentional, not just the result of monkeys with typewriters.

    And Dreamfall is definately a complete story on its own. Who said that a good story need an end, defined by “all characters are given a purpose and left on their own until the next installment comes out”? Dreamfall plays it out like in real life, where you don’t expect a wrap-up ending and the story getting more complicated as you reach the so called ‘end’. I think we’ve been influenced heavily by other games and maybe movies with complete endings that we fail to see the art of Dreamfall’s ending.

    That all been said, modern adventure games are close to dead. Ozzie listed a few excellent games such as Deux Ex and Torment, but they are ancient games. I’m not saying games like Oblivion and NWN2 don’t have good stories, but their gameplay, combat and open-worldedness do everything to dilute the story. For me, the story in NWN2 unfolds slowly once every hour, after I’m done sorting out my inventories, selling the junks, customising my quickbar, managing the henchmen and reading slabs of information on spells. By the time I talk to the next story NPC, I’ve forgotten my main purpose in the game. And don’t even get me started on Oblivion. Thus for Dreamfall, I’m happy to give it a high rating because of its powerful story and the way it delivers it fast, even if it doesn’t do what other games do better.

  45. Ozzie says:

    @Noc: Wow, you didn’t understand me at all!
    Is my english so terrible? :/

    I didn’t mean that high complexity of the story leads to low interactivity, quite the opposite, I suspected that Ragnar might think so.

    And I distinguish between interactivity (basically actions which don’t affect the plot/story, relationships to characters,…) and choices (which just do that. They may have only a short-term effect like a different dialogue branch, an angry reply of a NPC or the triggering of an extra scene, but not necessarily an effect on the ending. But of course, it may also effect it).
    Like my soda machine example, put a coin in the automat and you get a coke. It may give you some health points, but it doesn’t affect the story or anything else in the game world.
    I guess our misunderstanding here is mainly down to semantics.


    ALSO, none of the interaction in an adventure game tends to be meaningful. So it’s not a matter of interactive density; it’s a matter of puzzle nonintuitiveness. “Interactive density” means that you can interact with lots of things, but in an adventure game, you can only do one thing with each item, and you have to do them in the proper sequence to progress. The level of interactive depth is extremely shallow.

    Aha. So this is by genre definition or what? I don’t see how it makes sense to apply such an artificial limit just by arguing “it’s an adventure, it always was like that and it has to stay like that”.


    In a well-written story, everything happens for a reason. Characters are plotted along specific journeys; events happen to reinforce specific themes, and tell of specific dynamics. In PS:T, the Nameless One is a non-character; he’s a blank slate, and given no personality beyond what the player puts into him. He’s not a character, he’s an avatar for the player’s involvement. In a way that’s what makes it so effective, because with him as an avatar, what happens to him happens to you.
    But in this system you cannot, can-not, develop that character, because any attempt you make to change him involves wresting control away from the player in a way the player might not agree with. Like in Mass Effect, where you try and be nice but Sheperd comes across as a rightious dick. “I didn’t mean to say that.” Or in Bioshock, where the ending judges the player’s actions and extrapolates from them in a way that the player never thought about or intended. Your character needs to be a Gordon Freeman: if not entirely silent, at least completely ambiguous.

    Of course, you can’t fully decide the course of the game when your player character already defines the area of possible actions. For example, you couldn’t imagine Zoe on a killing spree with a chainsaw in her hands, so that would be a reason to not allow it.

    While I like it when games offer multple endings and alternative solutions I didn’t complain about the lack of it. Honestly, I ask myself if you read my post from beginning to end.

  46. Noc says:

    “I didn’t mean that high complexity of the story leads to low interactivity, quite the opposite, I suspected that Ragnar might think so.”

    Ragnar said: “This is a game that is about the story. And that’s interesting in itself.”

    And you said: “Maybe he thinks the story was so complex and twisted that there was no room to spare for interactivity.”

    So I was, perhaps erroneously, speaking on Ragnar’s behalf, because I think I understood what he was getting at. Consequentially the reason that there’d be no room for interactivity, from his perspective, wouldn’t be the complexity. It would be the intention involved.

    The point I’m trying to make isn’t that there are things that the character shouldn’t be allowed to do because it’s out-of-character. The point I’m making is that the specific things the character does can be very important. And that the more choice you allow the player to make on the character’s behalf, the more indistinct the character becomes.

    The less distinct the character becomes, the less meaningful that character’s resulting story is. I was saying this to help illustrate how interactivity could harm a story, and why Ragnar would be justified in curtailing interactivity for the sake of keeping the story cohesive.

    You didn’t specifically bemoan the lack of multiple endings, but you said that the lack of interactivity was a problem and that open-ended games (Specifically PS:T and Deus Ex, which give the player character exactly this kind of freedom) were able to solve this problem and give the player plenty of interactivity while still presenting a complex story. I was saying that this isn’t really true, and that that interactivity comes at the expense of storytelling.

    And yes, I tried skimming over the parts of your post that objected to specific plot points and character actions. Since, as I’ve mentioned, I haven’t finished either game yet and an a) not in a position to comment on them and b) want to approach the games with as clear a mind as I can.

    Am I making more sense?

  47. Bhlaab says:

    The scene we discuss above in the Russian laboratory – that’s uniquely game. That moment of exploring the scene, then learning of the child’s death, then re-exploring the scene. There’s no other medium that could do that. In a film it would be some tragically corner reprise of what we’ve seen before with the weight of knowledge, and smug, swooshy noises. Being able to re-examine – that’s something only games can do, and Dreamfall uses it to wonderful effect. Also, something like Wonkers. You could have that character in a movie, certainly. It would be the fun, cartoon character who would make cheery, or profound remarks, and be very likeable. But to interact with it, to nick its battery, to put it back together and talk again – it’s a deeper connection, and a valuable one.

    You know, I have to agree with you there. I only vaguely remember the game, but that is a perfect example of how I think story should be presented in games. However, one thing I do remember from the game is a whole lot of being carted from long conversation to long conversation with little substance in between.

    I’m not agreeing with this notion that it would have worked better were it not a game. I think it would have worked better were it a better game.

    That’s a bit like what I was getting at, only I was doing it in a snarky, passive-aggressive way by saying it’s not “really” a game. Of course it is, just like a charred lump of rotten meat is technically a pot roast. Okay, I’m still being snarky and passive aggressive.

    But in this system you cannot, can-not, develop that character, because any attempt you make to change him involves wresting control away from the player in a way the player might not agree with. Like in Mass Effect, where you try and be nice but Sheperd comes across as a rightious dick. “I didn’t mean to say that.” Or in Bioshock, where the ending judges the player’s actions and extrapolates from them in a way that the player never thought about or intended. Your character needs to be a Gordon Freeman: if not entirely silent, at least completely ambiguous.

    That’s not true at all, Bioshock was just a very clumsy game in some respects, most of which was its completely black and white morality system.

    I also disagree that interactive storylines require a blank slate. You don’t need to give the player 100% free reign over what happens, just have them be involved. For a bad example, all the times in Half Life 2 where you’re just standing around while people talk at you. For a good example, the part in the beginning of Half Life 2 where you’re asked to help operate the teleport device, making you physically have to plug it in, etc. It’s a really small detail, and only goes far, but it goes somewhere.

    Plus you have to understand that the player’s actions when playing are a story in and of itself. You know, “Gordon was walking through the warehouse. He hopped on the crates. He hit a crate with his crowbar and picked up health. Then he spun around for no reason and shot at the wall!” I think that once someone figures out how to reel stuff like that in and make it all character driven and remove all the silly stuff that doesn’t mean much character-wise, games will have fully matured as a storytelling artform. But good luck with that.

  48. Ozzie says:

    @Lan: I didn’t want to reply, but then I thought a bit more about your post and pondered when I would have been happy with the ending of Dreamfall. I came to the conclusion that I wouldn’t complain if the fate of Reza would have been wrapped up.
    Well, why was the fate of Reza so important to me?
    Because I had the feeling that it was my goal to find out what happened to him. His disappearance gives you the first great aim in the game and yet Ragnar didn’t feel like resolving this story thread.

    [edit]
    Now I’m not sure if this would’ve mattered. I remember not caring for Reza’s fate anymore after meeting…….this fat man, just before fleeing from the twins. I think at that point I realized that the game didn’t bother to clear up Reza’s fate. How right I was! But probably I still wanted to know.
    [/edit]


    Dreamfall plays it out like in real life, where you don’t expect a wrap-up ending and the story getting more complicated as you reach the so called ‘end’.

    This actually reminded me of an excellent yet flawed freeware adventure game called Prodigal. The game starts with the mysterious disappearance of your brother and it ends with finding him, yet the conclusion is totally unexpected.
    Yet, while it was shocking, it was a definite conclusion. Not everything was resolved, the cult of the Demelzas remained unexplained. But you reached your goal and therein lies a conclusion.
    In TLJ your goal was to rebuild the balance of the worlds. You reached it, yet, again, things didn’t work at as expected. Many things were left unexplained, but you reached your goal.
    Of course, in some stories the goal that was set out may be unreachable, but then a real ending would make that clear.

    I never reached the goal of the story in Dreamfall, and that’s the problem. Reza may be alive, but he isn’t Reza. His sudden appearance at the end may have changed my perception of it if Zoe hadn’t uttered that he isn’t the same.


    I think we’ve been influenced heavily by other games and maybe movies with complete endings that we fail to see the art of Dreamfall’s ending.

    I can’t see how there’s art in splitting a game in two halves and releasing those at intervals of several years.
    Sure, the end sequence was beautiful, just as much as it was frustrating.

  49. Alex says:

    I’m not agreeing with this notion that it would have worked better were it not a game. I think it would have worked better were it a better game.

    I agree. I think the exact same story (well.. more or less..) could be told within a much more interactive framework of a game.

    Who said that a good story need an end, defined by “all characters are given a purpose and left on their own until the next installment comes out”? Dreamfall plays it out like in real life, where you don’t expect a wrap-up ending and the story getting more complicated as you reach the so called ‘end’.

    Sorry, I don’t buy this. Here we have a story that tries to make all kinds of connections, is filled with metaphor, in fact it’s “all about telling a story”, yet at the end of the second part it suddenly goes all “realistic” on us.

    I mean, it’s true that it’s how life works, but it’s also an easy way out of creating an actual functioning ending to a narrative, which is at best a representation of real life, but is still in the end an artifact. Stylistically it just doesn’t gel, as far as I’m concerned.

  50. Ozzie says:

    @Noc:

    The point I’m trying to make isn’t that there are things that the character shouldn’t be allowed to do because it’s out-of-character. The point I’m making is that the specific things the character does can be very important. And that the more choice you allow the player to make on the character’s behalf, the more indistinct the character becomes.

    Okay, but practically there’s not much of a difference. It just determines how big your area of choice is. And if there are important decisions for the player character to make than the game will stop player intervention anyway.

    Not to forget, not every character is always the same. Every character has multiple facets and may be in different moods, and through choices you could be able to adopt them.
    It’s not like it isn’t possible in Dreamfall itself. For example this japanese guy outside of the museum, it’s possible to be pretty mean to him. Or nice and helpful. You have the choice right there.
    So, just something more to do despite running around and listen to dialogue with some clicking here and there should be possible, shouldn’t it? I know many games which were able to that. Hey, even TLJ could! Oh, and the already mentioned Outcast (which also has only one conclusion). All the trivial stuff you can do in Deus Ex shouldn’t affect the ending either. And countless other adventures.
    Whatever, you haven’t played Dreamfall yet, so you can’t know. ;)

    The less distinct the character becomes, the less meaningful that character’s resulting story is.

    The question is of course if the character’s story actually matters.
    Still, I thought it mattered pretty much in Indy 4.


    You didn’t specifically bemoan the lack of multiple endings, but you said that the lack of interactivity was a problem and that open-ended games (Specifically PS:T and Deus Ex, which give the player character exactly this kind of freedom) were able to solve this problem and give the player plenty of interactivity while still presenting a complex story.

    And I mentioned Gabriel Knight, but there’s more: Discworld Noir, Tex Murphy, Grim Fandango,…


    And yes, I tried skimming over the parts of your post that objected to specific plot points and character actions. Since, as I’ve mentioned, I haven’t finished either game yet and an a) not in a position to comment on them and b) want to approach the games with as clear a mind as I can.

    You probably also skipped my comments about Shadow of Memories where I stated that it has even less interactivity than Dreamfall, though I loved it nonetheless.