Ragnar Tørnquist On The Secret World: Part 2

By John Walker on July 7th, 2011 at 1:30 pm.

Seriously, he pops up everywhere.

Yesterday we spoke to The Secret World‘s project lead, Ragnar Tørnquist about the game’s factions, mythologies and more peculiar ideas. Today we get a bit deeper, and dig into the motivations behind it all. Why the recurring themes in Tørnquist’s work? Does he have an agenda? And why does most of gaming not? We have a good argument about the nature of truth, and ask where games are falling short. And then somehow again return to the topic of Ragnar’s death.

RPS: There seems to be this repeating pattern in all the stuff you’ve done, where there’s the regular world, and then this hidden world, whether it’s…

Ragnar: Whether it’s Arcadia, or just in the shadows…

RPS: So what is that? Is the real world just not okay with you?

Ragnar: I was thinking about this recently. My family has always had a cabin in the Norwegian mountains, and I’ve always loved going up there because when you’re up there you look at the massive, monumental mountains, and you feel small. And you know that behind there there’s just mountains, and you can walk for days, and there’s nothing there. There’s this sense that what we perceive is such a tiny proportion of what’s out there, and once you go out there you feel very small, underneath a massive sky with massive mountains around you. So I grew up feeling… I guess feeling that there are just an enormous number of mysteries in the world. There’s an enormous amount of things to discover, things we don’t know about, and I just love the idea… I love that feeling. And I just want to share that feeling. Of the joy of discovery and exploration, and again of mystery. And I think it’s so sad when that sense of mystery vanishes, when we feel like we know everything, we’ve seen everything.

RPS: Why do you think that happens?

Ragnar: It’s a good question. I think a lot of people feel that they can live without mystery, the fear of the unknown, maybe? For me the unknown is nothing to feared, it’s something to be embraced. I don’t know if people have lost it – I think people actually crave it. But in our daily lives there’s very little mystery. We go from our safe homes to our safe commute to our safe jobs and live in a safe environment. Of course we face things like death and disease, poverty and crime, but that’s really not about a sense of mystery. That’s just a sense of fear. I think we’re so closed in by the routines of our normal lives that mystery becomes something abstract that we don’t crave any more. When something kindles that sense of mystery in us, I think that’s very intriguing.

RPS: So…

Ragnar: I also think that the Western world has lost the sense of religious mystery too. People knew there was something bigger, but they didn’t question it. Now we question everything, and everything has been reduced to facts or data. What we’re doing with this game, and what I do with all my stories, is to reintroduce that mystery. That sense that you don’t have to know, you don’t have to get all the answers. And that’s frustrating too. I think the end of Dreamfall is about making people understand that you don’t have to understand everything.

RPS: But people didn’t understand that! People are furious about the end of Dreamfall! But the ending’s brilliant – don’t they get it?

Ragnar: It’s about maintaining mystery. One of my favourite TV shows of recent years – and I know a lot of people were disappointed with it – was Lost. Lost was absolutely brilliant, and you can argue about the final season, especially the last episode, to death. And people are going to be furious about that too. What it managed to maintain until the very end was the sense of mystery, that not everything has to be explained. And that means people talk about it. We discuss our stories ourselves. We don’t agree on what the answer is to everything, or what the truth is, because there are multiple truths. I know the “answer”, but it can be interpreted, and that’s important. You can discuss it, you can theorise, discuss on forums. And that’s what we want – we want the community to come together and talk about the story. We’re creating a lot of hooks that people can build their own stories from, their own theories. And then we’ll answer some of them, but maybe not all of them.

RPS: You’re taking that Barthesian philosophy that says the answers are in the interpretation, with a Death Of The Author argument, but at the same time you’re saying that you have the core ideas and the right answers. If the interpretation swells in one direction, do you think you’ll acknowledge that? Maybe even change your own interpretation.

Ragnar [laughing]: That’s a dangerous question. A dangerous thing to answer. [sighs] For the things that are really important, of course not. They’re not going to be swayed by what people think. But I want people to talk about it…

RPS: So when…

Ragnar: …they might all be wrong, but when it comes to things that are always going to be left to interpretation, then we might take cues from the discussions, because some things aren’t necessarily either this way or that way – they might be somewhere between those two things. And if people discuss it, they might of course provide… It’s difficult to answer! It’s not like we’re going to let the community write the story for us, but what we always do is listen to people to see what they’re most interested in hearing more about. So if people latch onto a couple of points in the story, something we thought we were never going to explore, then of course we might explore that piece of the story more. So that might influence it. But at the end of the day, there’s a very clear vision behind this.

RPS: So when you say there are multiple truths, that’s not true. There is only one truth.

Ragnar: Puh… Things can’t… [sighs].

[We both laugh.]

Ragnar: In a way, yes. But yesterday, Dag [Ragnar’s co-writer] and I were discussing whether something in the story was one way or the other. For that specific thing I have an opinion, and Dag has an opposite opinion, and I’ll still believe that my opinion is true, but it’s not something we’re ever going to land on. It’s in the structure of the story that it’s left up to interpretation in that way.

RPS: But I would say that’s an interpretation surrounding a central core truth, that you say is not going to change.

Ragnar: Yes, that’s probably right. It’s something I have in my head, and written down. But it’s not something that’ll ever be spoken of or written in a form that anybody else will see it. And the same goes for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. There are certain things that I know, that will never be spoken about.

RPS: Do you think they’re therefore irrelevant?

Ragnar: No, definitely not.

RPS: So if they’re never going to be spoken of – I know they’re a driving force, a seed from which these things grow – but if no one’s ever going to hear them but you, are they ever…

Ragnar: They’re relevant for the writing. For us to discuss and to base everything we do on. We’re very much bottom up when it comes to all that story writing. For us to write anything, the top layer that you see in the game – the cinematics, the lore, the names of items, all the stuff that goes into the game – that’s the tip of the iceberg. We have to know everything below the surface. Without knowing that, we won’t have all the – not only information – but the whole soul of the game. We have to swim in it. I’m mixing a lot of metaphors. We need to think about that in order to get the writing at the very top right. Everything we write, every sentence is informed by years of research and lore and depth. Even if all someone does is listen to the cinematics in the game, or talk to characters to get the dialogue, you’ll still feel that there’s depth there. We carry that around, and we delve into it. But it’s not important for the player to know everything.

RPS: I think people struggle with that. Especially with Dreamfall. Because one day you’re going to die, and therefore it’s going to die with you.

Ragnar: The Dreamfall/Longest Journey stuff is actually written down.

RPS: So in forty or fifty years, when your time is up, will your will…

Ragnar: Forty, fifty years?! I’m going to live way past that! Wait… shit, no, I am actually forty.

RPS: You won’t want to live much past that! But in your will, will you say to publish this document?

Ragnar: We’re never going to finish these stories before then?

RPS: But you won’t, you’ll always hold something back.

Ragnar: But holding back is the mystery. And that won’t ever be talked about. There are certain things in those stories and The Secret World that will never be talked about or explained. We’ll burn things before The Secret World concludes! In twenty-five years from now.

RPS: I thought it was thirty?

Ragnar: Thirty years from now. Easily. Why would people want that? Why would you want the foundation of everything? It’s like the Tolkein estate publishing all his little notes and everything. It just gets to the point where it ruins the mystery.

RPS: I want it as much as I don’t want it.

Ragnar: Once it’s there you want it, so don’t put it there.

RPS: But my acceptance of Barthesian philosophy just falls apart at this point because I think, yes, I get it, yes, my interpretation is this. But in the end I go, no, bullshit! I just want to know what the guy thought.

Ragnar: I think there is that feeling too. It’s infuriating when everything’s left up in the air. And it’s wonderful in a way, because… it’s annoying if they get together at the end. You see the characters meet, and you fade to black. Are they going to get together? Are they going to get married and have kids and live happily ever after? You want to know that, right? But I think the very idea that the creators will never tell you what they intended, or they don’t even know themselves, I think that’s wonderful. I know, because I have to know for my own sake, but I’m never going to tell you what happens.

RPS: In Dreamfall, Zoe gives this speech from her deathbed, which I think is the most overt you’ve ever been. She says, get off your bums, find mystery, care about this stuff. She’s talking within the context of the game, but obviously about outside of it. And somehow it escapes being corny – she’s kind of turning to camera and saying, “Hi, I’m Zoe Castillo, and I’m here to say…” Did that come from a sense of frustration?

Ragnar: I think we wanted to be really clear with the Dreamfall story, because I don’t think people expect that subtlety and layers and subtext and themes from games. So we said, yup, this is going to be corny. We’re going to talk about faith, and we’re going to have a character called Faith, and Faith’s going to die – that’s what the whole thing’s going to be about. And I think we realised that was a good thing, because it made people pick up on it. It wouldn’t work in another medium, because it would be over-the-top. But if you really want people to understand something, be clear about it.

RPS: That sense of an agenda – is that something that’s going to influence The Secret World?

Ragnar: Agenda is a…

RPS: I know, it sounds a negative word, but I think that’s the core of it.

Ragnar: We’re going to push themes… Yeah! We have an agenda. In a way. I think we always want our games to mean more than what’s on the surface. It’s not intended to interfere with the enjoyment of the game itself, and even more so in The Secret World I think the themes we have there – if you’re not thinking about it it’s just a guy talking about some stuff that turns into the mission. But if you sit and think about it, and listen to what they’re saying, then you’ll get what our agenda is with those specific missions. Yes – we want to talk about something. We don’t want it to be empty, we don’t want it to be pointless. We want to have a theme in mind. We want to have an agenda.

RPS: Why do you think that’s so unusual in the industry? I mean, it’s not unusual in cinema or in books, or any other medium.

Ragnar: I think people are scared of being perceived as preachy. Or to take themselves too seriously. Or to alienate the audience. But the fact is, you don’t alienate the audience. The audience is used to it. Everybody watches TV and movies and read books, and they know that they’re political or religious or there are themes that carry through in even the most pulpy TV or literature, because talking about something is inherently more interesting than talking about nothing. Why aren’t people doing it? Well, game writing is reasonably fresh. And you can create interesting stories without having a lot of subtext. You should have a message, but it doesn’t have to be a very strong message. It could be “love conquers all”.

RPS: But how unusual is that in gaming too! We are the strangest medium, we just avoid all the norms of every other form.

Ragnar: We do. Which is why I like games for storytelling. Before I started my career in gaming I wanted to tell stories in film, but I think games are the most powerful medium to tell stories in. I think MMO is the most amazing medium for getting people involved in a story. We just haven’t explored the potential, and people haven’t dared to push the boundaries.

RPS: What are the boundaries, then? What should we be pushing at now?

Ragnar: Very few stories are about family. Where’s family in games? Friendship, family, love, tragedy. There are lots of areas that games need to push themselves. We create great conspiracies, and great dramatic retellings of epic wars, but we’re still missing that core, intimate, personal, family – that part of storytelling. Giving players a family is really interesting. To build a life for you as a player. But that’s hard in an MMO, because you’re creating your own character. But we do have an origin story that shows you how you became who you are. But we don’t have a family for you. We don’t have that dense background that all of us in the real world have – that is a blank space in MMOs and RPGs.

RPS: Korea increasingly has faux-relationships in their MMOs, marriages, and so on, but it’s always so facile.

Ragnar: I would love for an MMO to make you design your entire family in character creation, relationships, mother, father, grandparents, children. That’s a frontier we need to cross.

RPS: But we’re thirty, forty years into gaming, and we still don’t have an All Quiet On The Western Front, we’re still running around shooting things. No one’s saying, “Why are we shooting things?” “Who are they?”

Ragnar: It’s difficult. You can’t sacrifice fun. But then of course the idea of fun is ambiguous. Does it always have to be fun? Can’t it be painful too?

RPS: Have you played Tale Of Tales’ The Graveyard? Where you play an old woman who walks through a graveyard, sits down, and then dies?

Ragnar: I played that. I think those experiments are fantastic, and that’s what we need to do. Independent games will show us the way, in a lot of ways, because they’ll try daring new ideas that aren’t strictly fun, or not fun at all, but they’re engaging on some emotional level. I think we’ll see the bigger commercial games take the best of that.

RPS: Thanks for your time.

Make sure to read our preview of The Secret World, here.

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63 Comments »

  1. fallingmagpie says:

    I would like to go the pub with Ragnar for a few hours and have a chat and a few beers. Maybe some pork scratchings. Or pickled herring if we were in Norway.

  2. Choca says:

    Not featured on this picture is the fact that Ragnar Tørnquist is a freaking giant.

    • sasayan says:

      I’m slightly sad that despite his name, Ragnar Tørnquist does not have a massive viking beard.

    • Grygus says:

      Perhaps his beard is simply too mighty to be captured by our puny human photographic technology. Maybe the camera, terrified, rendered a less imposing version to comfort its traumatized lens.

  3. Nick says:

    “I think MMO is the most amazing medium for getting people involved in a story.”

    I.. what? But.. no?

    • coespost says:

      Yeah, I also don’t think MMOs have approached story too well. Principally, story-telling is really difficult to do well for many players given the nature of just how large MMOs are, so I’m kind of curious whether he’ll be able to be effective with the medium.

      Single-player for sure if much easier to develop story, but multiplayer is so player-centric by design that it is hard to maintain a story that can hit all players equally well.

    • DeathHamsterDude says:

      I think what he means is that MMO’s have the most POTENTIAL for getting people involved, because they mirror the real world so much, and the closer MMO’s get to the real world, the better they will be. Right now, of course MMO’s have pretty terrible stories, and tell those stories rather terribly. In a few years, MMO’s could really become something special. I totally believe that. And this is coming from a guy who has picked up a bunch of different MMO’s and gotten bored after a week or two in nearly all of them. But I think I’m bored of them because they’re in their infancy. I’m not sure The Secret World will live up to it’s potential, although I desperately want it to, but I’m pretty sure that it’s at least moving in the right direction.

    • kurige says:

      It makes sense if you read that as: “I think MMO is the most amazing medium for getting multiple people involved in a story at once.”

      Which I completely agree with.

      Otherwise I think single-players have a much higher potential for great story telling, but it doesn’t scale.

    • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

      “I.. what? But.. no?”

      And that, right there, is why it isn’t, at least currently. People don’t think it’s possible, or at least think it’s too difficult to do well, so they don’t even really bother to try, whether it actually is possible or not. Thankfully, Ragnar and his team don’t agree with that assessment. Hopefully, they will be successful.

    • Nick says:

      But nothing ruins atmosphere like other players. Especially those in the vast majority of MMOs. It literally only takes one person to drag everyone nearby out of it.

      Akin to someone chatting loudly in the cinema ruining the experience.

    • afarrell says:

      I’m not convinced that the real world is a good way to get people into a story either…

  4. Inigo says:

    You can’t sacrifice fun.

    HA. FUCKING. HA.

    • ankh says:

      Apparently im not on a “registered domain” so i cant see :(

    • DeathHamsterDude says:

      Is that a render of the altar from The Fifth Element? How is that relevant to fun in gaming? Awe me with your theories!

    • MadMinstrel says:

      That’s actually one of the puzzles from The Longest Journey. Oh come on. I can only imagine that not being fun if you got stuck on it. I can’t remember how long it took me to solve, but I don’t remember it being that bad.

    • Xercies says:

      If you were going to pick out a puzzle which wasn’t fun I would have picked out the duck fishing rod puzzle thing…god that was so fucking bizarre and I highly doubt anyone was able to get that without looking at a walkthrough.

    • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

      I don’t get it. OP is a non sequitur.

    • DeathHamsterDude says:

      Ah yes. I only gave it a onceover and assumed it was from The Fifth Element. I remember that puzzle. I don’t remember getting irate over that one though. If I was to pick one I’d have to agree with Xercies. The duck thing SHOULDN’T have been a tough puzzle, except for the fact that, as far as I can remember, the subway area you are in solving it was from an odd perspective. I’m pretty damn sure I had to use a walkthrough in the end for that one, and once I did I didn’t go, ‘ah, damn, yeah, should’ve noticed that one’, instead I went, ‘a fucking duck and a fishing rod to get a key? What were you guys smoking when you came up with that puzzle?’ and Ragnar said, ‘actually we were eating rotisserie chicken . . .’.

  5. McDan says:

    I like this man and his ideas, the games is sounding very good! Mhm!

  6. Jams O'Donnell says:

    Ragnar Tørnquist is a magical man whose appearance is not affected by different lighting conditions.

  7. Marar Patrunjica says:

    Just bought the TLJ and Dreamfall pack cheap on Steam, didn’t expect there to be any spoilers in this interview :(. Good thing I stopped myself short from reading the entire question, there really should be a law against these sorts of spoilers given without warning

    • Calabi says:

      Personally I’m not bothered about spoilers. When I play games or read books for me its not about being surprised its about the journey and the experience.

    • Consumatopia says:

      Wouldn’t foreknowledge of the plot change your journey and experience? It would change mine. Especially if we’re talking about games where mystery is a core theme.

  8. The Pink Ninja says:

    Jesus, he looks realy good for 40

    That picture looks late 20s to me

    • ankh says:

      That’s often the case with Norwegians. I’m not sure if this comment is racist. If it is I apologise.

    • Chizu says:

      I don’t think being told you look good for your age is a particularly negative thing.

      Positive racism!

    • ankh says:

      I didn’t compliment anyone I just made a generalization based on very little anecdotal evidence. At least it was a positive generalization. :)

    • Donjonson says:

      They banned Christmas, IT’S P.C. GONE MAD.

    • DeathHamsterDude says:

      I too have always thought that Norwegians and a lot of the other Northern European countries aged well. There’s probably something to it. Maybe the climate. Maybe they have thicker skin because of being in the cold, so they show less wrinkles. That’s the case with men anyway. Men have an extra layer of skin, and that’s why we age better than women do.

      Another, slightly-possibly-racist-but-not-really-racist-because-it’s-complimentary-but-that’s-still-racist-I-suppose-in-an-odd-way-thing is that black people often age well too. There are a few fifty-sixty year old black women near where I live, and you would think they were in their mid-thirties at most.

    • Hematite says:

      @DeathHamsterDude: I believe the answer is that more melanin in your skin -> less wrinkles. Basically, nobody looks as old as old white people.

      Of course that wouldn’t explain youthful looking Norwegians. I’d put it down to the blood of Thor flowing in their veins.

    • DeathHamsterDude says:

      Yup, that’d make sense! If I’d given any time at all to thinking about it, I think I’d have come up with that. Thor is a possibility, although maybe it’s because Norwegians never smile, laugh, frown, scowl, or furrow their brows, because they are, of course, robots.

      Or maybe it’s because they’re actually robots.

      Don’t kill me Nordmenn! I like you! Robots are cool. ;)

  9. Chizu says:

    Whatever happened to Dreamfall Chapters :(
    Secret World does look interesting, but I do hope once they have this one sorted out, they can put some time into Chapters, rather than going onto something else.

    • symuun says:

      Yeah, definitely agree there. I think I’d be much more excited for this game if I wasn’t so hung up on knowing what happens next in Dreamfall.

      Superb interview, though. Ragnar Tørnquist really is a minor god, isn’t he?

  10. coespost says:

    What a fantastic interview. This game reminds me a lot of the intent behind the creation of the X-Files and some of Lost. Popular games for the past 10 years have been so heavily “reduced to facts or data”, as Tørnquist puts it, that people are only interested in what *is* rather than what *could be*. As a result, people play games not to discover, explore, or even think, but to get another kill or to get more XP in a hyper sense of self-realization through moment-by-moment emotional highs.

    It will be interesting to see the effect of a nearly mainstream game such as this has on the art of games. Indie games have been exploring and creating for a while now in comparison to the stagnant mainstream, but a mainstream game to do this will be certainly interesting to watch, if not be part of.

  11. Dawngreeter says:

    I thought this game was going to be a lot of hogwash. Saying “we want to fuck with the players a bit” is just about what I imagine a foundation for a perfect MMO might be. But you see MMOs making bold proclamations all the time and they all look exactly the same in the end. There’s no way anyone follows through with what they promised The Secret World will be.

    …but it seems they did follow through. I’m quite happy with this. This is shaping up to be awesome. I want in.

  12. lowprices says:

    John, tell Ragnar to stop talking about The Longest Journey like it still exists. He’s going to make me cry.

  13. jellydonut says:

    I would be happy if someone started making compelling games where you didn’t shoot things.

    Portal is one of those games. Except, okay, you kinda shoot things. You know what I mean.

    How about a Mirror’s Edge type game, not based on combat? Something else?

    • Donjonson says:

      Maybe another way to interact with the reality that you’re presented with? Maybe that’s one of the reasons Minecraft is so popular, creation in contrast to the usual destruction.. I imagine a more realistic creation/interaction engine, there were some mini-games in L.A. Noir that were like this- I had to put some parts of a machine together to solve a puzzle… I’d like to see this kind of thing realised on a larger, more versatile scale. Although we’re just talking FPS here, there are many other mechanics and perspectives to play though.

    • DeathHamsterDude says:

      And speaking of Mirror’s Edge, maybe we’d be getting a sequel if they absolutely did away with the shooting, and made you focus on escaping a bit more. That game had so much potential, and I loved it in lost of ways. If they’d been given the go-ahead for a sequel I really feel like they would have hit their stride. ;(

      But yeah, I’m sick of shooty-shooty games. One of the reasons I’m looking forward to Deus Ex is so I can play the game with the minimum of human casualties possilbe. It may not be altogether doing away with shootiness, but at least it’s given you the chance, and maybe making people think about the moral repercussions of going in guns blazing all the time. Sorry, going off on a bit of a tangent here, but I’d love if they released data about Deus Ex the way Bioware did with Mass Effect 2. I’d be really interested in seeing the different approaches on consoles compared to PCs. I’d think PC players might sway towards being less gung-ho about the game. It’d be interesting to see anyway. I loved that ME2 infographic.

    • Consumatopia says:

      Yeah, especially when the game is called “The Secret World”, it seems like there should be more emphasis on stealth than on fighting. Being a member of a secret cabal is (I’m guessing) more about keeping secrets and manipulating information than it is about standing ten feet away from a giant monster and shooting it in the face with a machine gun, but the gameplay trailer from a few months ago seemed to focus on the latter.

      When in the previous interview he said “The 1920s were awesome because the world was still a mystery”, this game suddenly made sense to me. The gameplay feels like its in a 1920s adventure story. You just travel to some deserted spot with your party of adventures and fight a giant monster. You don’t have to worry about bystanders jumping out with cell phone cameras uploading you to YouTube.

    • Dawngreeter says:

      This is something that tabletop RPGs have been struggling with for a long time as well. All games are based in conflict, this is how things go. Physical conflict, especially small-scale, appeals the most to us. It is very hands-on, usually featured most prominently in other entertainment media and simply what people expect to find.

      Tabletop RPGs will usually have a unified task and/or conflict resolution system for the entire game, and then have a completely separate combat system which will hopefully relate to the core of the system in some capacity. Though the relationship is usually quite loose as combat is generally a game unto itself. Sometimes there will be more than one combat system (Exalted 2nd Ed. has three). Sometimes there will only be the combat system (D&D for the most part).

      The problem with approaching things differently is that players will have no idea how to handle it built in any other way. Introduce conflict resolution for combat that works the same as, say, computer hacking, riddle solving or lock picking and what happens is people lose their minds. You make one die roll, the result shows someone wins the combat and that’s it. Traditionally, if combat occurs it’s about 50% of game time taken up. When you take that out people feel cheated, they don’t know what to do with themselves. Even people who wanted a game with less granular combat. I’m speaking from experience here. You have no default footing to fall back on, it’s highly uncomfortable and takes a lot of getting used to. More than you’d think.

      Present a traditional player with, say, Dogs in the Vineyard and you can see their mind explode right in front of you. I’m waiting to see a computer game accomplish something like that.

    • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

      This is getting off-topic, but yeah, I’d also like to see more games that don’t deal with the pew pew all the time. I’d prefer more games in the vein of The Sims. Well, not exactly like that, but definitely something that doesn’t necessarily involve life-or-death struggle all the time, regardless of whether you’re fighting it or running away from it or whatever. And yet, also something that has some actual meaning, and isn’t just mostly mindless repetition like Farmville or, yes, even The Sims. (I like The Sims well enough for what it is, but it gets pretty tedious after a while.)

  14. ecat says:

    Phew, many thanks for a brilliant interview, certainly cleared a few thing up.

    Without faith he is nothing so I’ll side with Roland on this one: Hang on in there Zoe, April will pull through and Wonka has a plan. \o/

  15. LordCiego says:

    Its sad seeing this interviews and the mentallity behind the game, his writing, lore etc, and knowing that, fisrt players aside, lots of people arent going to not give a fuck and search all the answer in a Secret World Wiki.

  16. Consumatopia says:

    I like mysterious, incomprehensible fiction. I hate Lost.

    Here is the explanation for everything in Lost. The writers made it up as they went along. Whatever maximized the momentary intrigue and was most likely to entice the viewer to watch the next episode, that’s what they wrote.

    It’s not the reality that there’s no “real” explanation that irks me about Lost. Compare it to Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris or the Yuki Urushibara’s Mushishi. In both of those works I think it’s clear from fairly early on that the respective authors didn’t have a “real” explanation in mind when they wrote it, but the explanation is completely besides the point–the mysteries themselves are beautiful and somewhat reflective of human experience.

    In Lost, seeing what piece of the mystery is revealed next is the whole point. Some big new monkey wrench gets thrown into the works and the viewer thinks “wow how the heck are the writers gonna fit all this together?!” Well, they don’t. There’s nothing behind the curtain but a bunch of cynical tailors patching together the next episode’s curtain.

    An unknowable or ambiguous mystery can have beauty or wonder. A mystery that reveals itself in a surprising way can be exciting. But an indefinite, years long striptease that reveals nothing but more layers of clothing is just boring.

    • the.celt says:

      Totally glad to hear these anti-Lost sentiments. And very well said.
      When X-files ended the smell of “make it up as we go along” was heavy in the air, enough for me to remember it when Lost began doing its thing. I didn’t even see an episode of Lost, I just heard people describing what was happening, and recognized the smell. Then my family started watching it and I declined. Over time, I read interviews with the creators of the show and they’d confirm in bits and pieces that they were making it up, responding to corporate pressures, and responding to ratings. When the show ended, my family was like “what the hell?”. I asked if they could go back in time, and not start watching it, would they? After a long pause, they all said they wish they hadn’t started.

    • Arglebargle says:

      Yeah, LOST being cobbled together without any sort of coherent vision, or secret core, is what made the ending so unfulfilling imo. I, too, avoided it because of the ‘stench’ of them faking it. Hardcore fans can come up with all sorts of convuluted excuses to justify their years of commitment though.

    • Xercies says:

      Eh i realised they were kind of making it up as they went along but I still thought the story and the themes they were playing around with were strong stuff so I kept on going with it not kind of bothering with the whole mysterious island business thing which actually gave me a new appriciation of Lost. The whole Season 6 storyline some say is pointless but i feel that there is a lot of important elements in that and its pretty good to see all those characters kind of have a happy ending at the end.

      All in all the mystery is what kept me going in the first bit of Lost, it then dawned on me that it was the characters that kept me going after that. Lost had some fantastic characters and some fantastic storylines with those characters. I still kind of weep with Desmonds storylines, and still feel that tragic edge with John Lockes.

    • Sic says:

      Lumping Lost together with The X-Files is just something you don’t do.

      One is a horrible mess, the other is a sci-fi horror masterpiece.
      Carter did have a backstory, it just wasn’t longer than 4-5 seasons. Fox decided that the series made too much money to cancel, so each season, instead of informing the crew and the creative team beforehand, they threw them another season, even though they always said the present one would be the last. They were forever writing the end of the series from the fourth season onwards.

      It’s not the fault of the writers nor Carter.

      I mean, come on. The X-Files was brilliant, the cast and crew changed for the last three seasons, where it was on creative life-support. You can’t blame one of the series that invented quality American prime time story arcs (in a serial format) over several seasons for being wobbly at the end. Give me a god damn break. The revisionism involved is plain silly.

    • the.celt says:

      @Sic
      Your passion for the show asks for a whole lot of reality to be ignored. You say that Mr. Carter had a plan for 4 or 5 seasons (which I think is stretching it, it’s closer to 3, but I’ll go with it). The show ran for 9 seasons. That classifies the last half of its existence or more as “unplanned” (which is to put it very nicely).
      And besides, my point was that various pressures including ratings, corporate non-creatives, and lack of writer skill can lead to some nightmarish dreck. I don’t think it’s revisionist *at all* to say that X-files is still a poster child for the disease. There’s no way i could imagine referring to X-files (that’s 9 seasons) as a Sci-Fi Horror Masterpiece. It had tremendous promise which it screwed, punched in the mouth, and threw out on the highway.

    • Sic says:

      First of all, the overall plot structure and back story didn’t change until the seventh season. Up until then the basis for the writers had been utterly coherent. When I said 4 or 5 seasons, that was an understatement. Revising it to something entirely different just to get to say that half the series was bad is just bad rhetoric.

      Secondly, no, The X-Files did not deliver a coherent story arc from beginning to end, but it did deliver something much better, which is the premise of the mysterious universe based in actual science (or an approximation to a scientific way of looking at things that affected the perception of the universe). It sported a creator and writers that were literate and did tons of research, in addition to spectacular production values (at the time). It was and still is the pinnacle of the mystery-horror TV series, without a doubt. It stands together with the greats. It very much was a poster child for the disease in question, but the point is that it was a prototype. It wasn’t a perfect creation, but it was a far cry from Lost. This whole discussion revolves around how Lost made things up on the fly, and did so only to reveal the next tidbit of the back story. The X-Files didn’t do that at all. If it was up to Carter, the back story would have been kept as long away from the audience for as long as possible, and to a certain extent, it was.

  17. Xercies says:

    I loved Lost for that to, I really wish Ragnor was making mroe games because i do love his games, and his opinions on things and he is an artist that I agree with a lot. Also i want the ending to Dreamfall so bad, I think it didn’t have an ending, because there are quite a few plot points that don’t end in that game. Like the dragon lady getting kidnapped(or did she die? I can’t remember it was quite a while ago i played the game)

    • FataMorganaPseudonym says:

      Yeah, I think Dreamfall had an ending in the same way that Star Wars: Empire Strikes Back had an ending. Now, take the previous sentence and replace ESB with Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest. Or both Shenmue I and Shenmue II. Or Gabriel Knight III. Or any other story which ends with unresolved story threads and an obvious cliffhanger/sequel hook like that.

      Such things are very frustrating, especially if it’s not entirely a certainty that the story will actually be continued at some point (or, worse, if it’s a near certainty that the story won’t ever be continued, ala Shenmue and Gabriel Knight).

      *spoilers for Dreamfall and TLJ follows*

      We don’t know what happened to Kian, except that he’s been captured as a traitor. We don’t know what happened to April, except that she got stabbed and fell into the water. We don’t have even the slightest clue what’s going on with Zoe at the end there with the Vagabond (who’d previously met Brian Westhouse as well) and the whole Storytime thing. Speaking of Westhouse, we don’t really know what was up with him and the White of the Kin, or what happened to the White. There’s the fact that the old woman in the first game was called the Lady Alvane (who was pretty much revealed to be an old April at the end), combined with the fact that Kian’s last name is Alvane, and the fact that Kian and April obviously didn’t hook up during Dreamfall at all (though hints were given that the possibility of such in the future was definitely there). There’s the fake(?) Reza at the end. And there was that bit after the credits with Cortez and Westhouse in Tibet in 1933.

      It’s one thing to end a story on an ambiguous note, and it’s another thing entirely to end it with a big fat “TUNE IN NEXT TIME, KIDS!”

  18. lumenadducere says:

    Fantastic interview from one of my favorite sites with one of my favorite people in the game industry. Thank you, RPS, for making my day that much brighter.

    Although it’s going to be absolutely maddening not knowing things. I like knowledge, I like discovery, and I like having questions answered. The Secret World is going to take me to untold levels of frustration. And yet somehow I’m incredibly excited for it.

  19. mortimasIV says:

    Where’s family in games?

    The ending of Red Dead Redemption.

    • alice says:

      Also all of Dragon Quest V which is arguably the best in the series and one of the best JRPGs in terms of a story that draws you in and then hits home.

  20. mda says:

    I give this interview a standing ovulation!

    edit – err… ovation, too >_<

  21. Multiheaded says:

    RPS: So when you say there are multiple truths, that’s not true. There is only one truth.

    Ragnar: Puh… Things can’t… [sighs].

    Good job RPS. I hate that meaningless, anti-logical crap that people have been spouting for the last few centuries. Understanding a thing you like doesn’t take any enjoyment away if you aren’t brainwashed by an anti-intellectual culture!
    “There are mysterious questions but a mysterious answer is a contradiction in terms” (whoever recognizes this gets 50 geek points)

  22. SpiritBoy says:

    I never though I’d accept Dreamfall’s ending as it is.
    But honestly, you two made me realize how brilliant it is. How many people who played Dreamfall are waiting for chapters? How many of them spoke to someone about how annoying the ending is?
    It’s a brilliant cliffhanger.

  23. daphne says:

    Fantastic interview — this is probably the best feature I’ve read on RPS, though I’ve only been reading since summer 2010…

  24. Grayvern says:

    ‘People knew there was something bigger, but they didn’t question it’ well that’s just well sickening, the type of sentiment that lead(s) to oppression and suffering.
    Religion and Science are about power and explanation, both discourses created by and engendering a power elite of knowledge holders that enable people to think less.

    Not all mysteries are the same, there are solvable and unsolvable mysteries and a sense of mystery comes from the latter while the former just indicate laziness in the potential learner, not bothering to turn the torch on in the dark. By extension a mystery may not create a magical sense of mystery it may just lead to people not caring and moving on, a mystery with no emotional resonance, is not good fiction.

    This is symptomatic of the fact that mystery only exists within the conscious without a mind to wonder there is no mystery simply mindless unknowing.

    Lost was not a mystery created carefully, a story wrapped around a void of unknowing the writers never filled, it was a terribly scripted show that created mysteries by accident and lack of skill and this key differance is what makes it crappy.

    I also agree with some of the other postings about dreamfall, there is a difference between a story that has been told to a conclusion that leaves a mystery stretching ahead and one that has simply been left on a cliffhanger. Honestly when a story ends on a cliffhanger as a literary trick to create anticipation for conclusion, which has no promise of being resolved, or at least not for a long time, after a while I simply stop caring because the writer has created a bad and lazy mystery.

  25. Kaldor says:

    “It’s like the Tolkein [sic!] estate publishing all his little notes and everything. It just gets to the point where it ruins the mystery.”

    Oh noe, Ragnar is one of those “The LotR is better without reading the Silmarillion” types? I didn’t read all the scholarly volumes of the History of Middle-Earth but I do like the extensive mythology and etymology. After all, it’s part of Tolkien’s whole process as a philologist. And there’s some of his most beautiful and best material, too, as it so happens. There are many who prefer something from his mythology or some random text scrap over his major novels. You would never guess how serious and sublime some of his writing was when you only read the Hobbit, for example.
    I’m actually not a fan-boy or Tolkien-geek, I just really like some of the stuff.

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