By Adam Smith on February 11th, 2013 at 12:00 pm.
The first part was the starter. This is the main course. The conversation continues, as Ragnar Tørnquist, Martin Bruusgaard and Dag Scheve go into detail on the plots and plans at the heart of Dreamfall Chapters. There is a huge amount to read, so sit back and eat your lunch at your desk, or relax with a glass of wine or cup of tea. Thought-topics covered include the magic of the mundane, the origins of storytelling, conflict, maturity, and pointing, clicking and other mechanics.
RPS: When I first played TLJ, which was a few months after it came out, the beginning of the game felt very relatable. The blend of apprehension, ennui and mystery that comes with growing up and being on the verge of something new. I wonder how you keep that personal aspect now that the lore is becoming more and more complex. The balancing act between the personal and the fantastic.
Tørnquist: That’s something we’ve been discussing a hell of a lot recently and a question that’s been running around my for a while. From the moment we started working on Dreamfall Chapters, we said we want to bring back the magic, and I don’t mean ‘zap, fireballs’, I mean the magic of The Longest Journey, which includes the mundane, right? It includes the feeling of being this 18 year old girl who is stuck in a brand new place and is trying to grow up and explore the world, and how do we bring that back?
We felt that we lost that a tiny bit in Dreamfall. It was a different story but it had to build on this expansive lore and epic saga and maybe lost some of the magic in the process. So it is something that we are working really hard to address and there’s a couple of things we are doing. First of all, we are far more conscious of the magic of the mundane and of the fact that the TLJ series is about living these lives and stepping into the reality of these lives.
You’ll see that with Zoe. At least part way into the Chapters you will be able to step into her life again. We actually jump in time a couple of places in Chapters – I’m not going to say too much, but at the beginning Zoe is still in a coma and the first part of her journey is to wake up again, to be reborn into the world. But after that you will actually move forward in time and join Zoe at a pivotal time in her life, which is still pretty mundane, pretty normal. Again, I don’t want to say too much…
Scheve: Careful now!
Tørnquist: Well, she’s establishing herself and she is, again, a person we will spend some time relating to. And second, we also know that Longest Journey is about seeing this magical world of Arcadia through the eyes of somebody who is a normal person and we will do that. We are introducing some new elements for that reason and this time you’ll also be playing as three characters. Again, I won’t say who they are, other than Zoe, but there will be opportunities to see these worlds through fresh eyes and to experience them in a whole new way.
Scheve: The theme that we’ve selected for this game also brings back the personal aspect – the chapters of life.
Tørnquist: Transitioning from one point to another in your life is something we’re all going through. Regardless of how old you are, you’re settling down or you’re breaking up, or moving on with your life, or finding peace with who you are, or peace with the ending of something.
Scheve: And all of these characters are on different stages of their journeys, and I think that will bring back the wonder of, not just growing up, but the whole life cycle.
Tørnquist: These stories will be personal and we will strive to make them personally relatable to us as well. We are making these games about us. We are the people we know, so we make them about us and the people around us, and so they are relatable in that way. I think I’ve answered a question about TLJ before where I said that it’s uncomfortable for me to play TLJ now. I was watching Kevin VanOrd from Gamespot do a livesteam of TLJ from about a month ago and I found it incredibly hard to sit and watch him playing. It’s like reading my diary. April isn’t me but there’s so much of me in April and the characters there that it’s like opening the diary I wrote sixteen years ago and it’s scary.
Dreamfall is the same, except that there it’s a shared diary. (laughs) It’s less personal for one person and a little bit broader. With Chapters, it’ll be the same thing; it will be personal but it’ll also be personal for several people on the team who will bring their own lives into it.
RPS: You used the word ‘cycle’ before and you describe this as the Dreaming Cycle. So, if there’s one named cycle, presumably you’d like to make more?
Tørnquist and Scheve: Yeah!
Tørnquist: We’re very clear on the fact that Chapters is the final part in the story that began in Dreamfall, Zoe’s story, Zoe’s cycle is part of the story. But the saga is not over after Chapters, so of course we’d like to make more games, or tell stories at least, in that universe. It’s not over but Zoe’s story will end.
RPS: The second word I picked up on that you use a lot, on the Kickstarter page and in conversation, is ‘soul’. This is a broad question – what does that word mean to you?
Tørnquist: (pause) I don’t want to talk about games that are soulless because it’s not my place to do that.
RPS: That’s sometimes my job.
Tørnquist: (laughs) There are a lot of games that are soulless and that’s fine, it doesn’t always matter, a lot of them are polished and super-fun. They’re not games made by individuals, they are made by massive teams and marketing departments. Those games are often soulless. It doesn’t mean they’re bad games, it means you’re not left with anything afterwards. You think, ‘wow, that kicked ass’, and that’s it. A game with a soul has some depth, it has something to say. It’s a game with flaws, with edges, sharp ones, and unpolished surfaces. TLJ and Dreamfall were both games with tons of unpolished surfaces and sharp edges, they were games that could annoy you, but they also made you feel. Anyone who played those games felt something.
Scheve: It’s alive. It has that beautiful core.
Tørnquist: I think TSW is definitely a game that had a soul. The same with all the games we worked on. I think Funcom is good at making games with soul, with a life of their own and personality. Flaws, yes, but flaws that can compliment the game.
Scheve: They mean something to people.
Tørnquist: How was that for an answer?
RPS: It’s a good answer. I’d like to talk about another thing that came to mind while reading the Kickstarter page – influences. We’ve talked at length in the past about influences on TSW, but we’ve never talked Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Partly it’s the Dreaming but also that at the core of your mythology, at its base, is the idea of story and dream, which is something that comics have tackled very well in recent decades, not least with Gaiman. It seems to be a recurring theme in your work, the idea of a manifestation of the idea of story within story.
Tørnquist: You’re spot on. That’s what TLJ is about. It’s about how stories are told and about how you live in stories. Like, April lives through a story in TLJ until she reaches the point where she realises that it wasn’t her story at all. She was peripheral – key, but peripheral.
Scheve: And it’s about how people react to that.
Tørnquist: But you’re right about Gaiman. My key inspiration working on TLJ was Neil Gaiman, or rather Vertigo comics in general – Alan Moore, Swamp Thing, Constantine, Hellblazer. That was a universe that inspired me greatly. That and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (laughs)
RPS: We’ve talked about that quite a lot.
Tørnquist: You’re absolutely right in that the core of this saga, and all of our games, is that they are stories about stories. About dreams and what they mean and how they manifest and become physical. That’s what we’re about.
RPS: Any thoughts on where that came from originally, when you developed that interest? Can you trace it back to a moment in education, or a specific book or film?
Tørnquist: As far as I’m concerned, and I can’t answer for the other guys, for me it goes back to my dad. He read to me when I was a kid and taught me to read very early. I read books when I was four years old – I read Lord of the Flies when I was six years old and it scared the shit out of me. Stories have always been such a huge part of my life and I started writing very early. Stories have always been more real to me than reality in a way. For me, personally, it’s always been a huge interest. How stories can come to life and how stories provide meaning. We treat everything like a story – we can pretend that we don’t but we do. Our lives are stories and we think of them in that way.
RPS: We often create or superimpose a narrative to make sense of things that are happening to us.
Tørnquist: Yes. And I believe that when you get past that, existence is based on a story that has made itself reality.
Scheve: I was more interested in history than story, but I found that when I worked with Ragnar it became easy to see how they are practically one and the same. Especially for TSW, I used history a lot as a background to find myths and these things that are in our past and tie things together. I think it works really well for me and Ragnar to work together because we have slightly different viewpoints as to the origins of these stories.
Tørnquist: But they come from the same place. And that’s what we explore in Chapters. We explore the origin of stories; there is a place called Storytime, which is where we start in Chapters and where we ended in Dreamfall. Storytime is the place where stories become reality.
Scheve: Heavily borrowed from aboriginal mythology.
Tørnquist: In that mythology, there is an idea of a time before physical reality where everything was dreamed ‘true’.
RPS: We could talk about this all day but then I wouldn’t get to ask you if April is dead or not. Another key phrase, tied into the idea of story, is the line from Dreamfall – “Mystery is important”. Without accusing you of being shy of endings – there is something about the idea of tying up all the threads that is difficult.
Tørnquist: Well, it’s not that it’s necessarily difficult, it’s that you shouldn’t do it. It actually goes back to TSW – when we discussed the story for that game, there were some things we were specifically uncertain about, where Dag and I had very different ideas about what the truth is and never wanted to make it concrete. The same goes for the TLJ and Dreamfall stories. We have ideas about the truth but it’s not something we’ll ever put down on paper because once you do that, you break that mystery.
So when we say we will wrap up the story from Dreamfall, we will wrap up the plot and the cliffhangers, but we will leave tons of mysteries unanswered. That doesn’t mean that we can’t answer them or that we don’t know how, it means we have interpretations and ideas and want to leave the player to find their own.
Scheve: It’s like that suitcase in Pulp Fiction. You never know what’s inside.
Tørnquist: Or the whisper at the end of Lost in Translation. Some mysteries are better left unknown.
RPS: How important is uncertainty from the perspective of the writing team rather than the players. Do you think it’s good to have that uncertainty and to be able to surprise one another?
Tørnquist: Yes, it’s great to have that. It’s great to be able to debate it. Once you can sit down and debate your story, loudly, after the fact, over five beers, that’s a good thing. If years after writing something you can still argue about what it meant, that’s fantastic. It can mean you’ve done sloppy work, but it can also mean you’ve left things open to interpretation and to be absolutely honest I think that’s why TLJ and Dreamfall have survived. Not just because they are good games that gave people an emotional reaction, but because they can be debated and talked about. What did happen to April?
Scheve: And what does it mean?
RPS: Well, that’s the big question. You say on the Kickstarter page “Is April Ryan dead?” but the more important question is “what does it mean?”. Either way!
Tørnquist: Yes, that is the more important question. We put the obvious question there but what matters is the meaning. It’s always the most important question.
RPS: And the one that never has an answer.
Tørnquist: Because that’s up to the individual. IT means different things to different people, so we don’t want to say out loud what it means. We will leave room for interpretation but there will be hooks for people to hang their interpretations on.
Scheve: I love looking at forums where people debate the ending of Dreamfall. There’s so many good suggestions there.
RPS: Let’s move on to mechanics quickly. As far as I understand, it’s going to be a third person adventure rather than a point and click game…
Tørnquist: It is both a point and click and a third person game. We are currently in a prototype phase, looking at how to do the controls and interactions. We are definitely going to make it as much of a point and click game as we can using this perspective.
RPS: I don’t know if you’ve played Ron Gilbert’s new game, The Cave?
Tørnquist: I haven’t, no.
RPS: The approach seemed to be an attempt to keep the adventure elements but to make navigating the world more interesting than in a point and click game…
Tørnquist: You can do both! That’s what we’re doing.
Bruusgaard: I’ve always been a fan of point and click games. Whenever I play them, it’s like the screen is a table and I’m searching for something on it, watching my hands – in a sense, the mouse is your hand. I like fiddling around on the screen, watching my hands as if I’m searching for something. I don’t think it’s true that if you keep that you can’t have different movement styles and 3D, for example. In the prototype we have now, there’s a very good hybrid of the two. I don’t think that one excludes the other.
Tørnquist: They can compliment each other, which is what we’re doing right now. We tend to get a new iteration of the UI every few days and when I sat down and played last night, there is the movement of the character from Dreamfall, albeit a lot better than it was there, and it’s together with a really good point and click interface in a 3D setting, which allows that kind of detailed exploration of a scene, and to look at things and visualise line of sight and touch in the world. It feels really good and we’re close to something there.
RPS: Heavy Rain, for all its problems, did some interesting things with object and environmental manipulation. Will you have anything along those lines?
Tørnquist: I really like Heavy Rain. I didn’t like all of the design choices but I like a lot of it. We’re not going to be like Heavy Rain but it is a game we’re looking at and taking inspiration from. I think that we’re more traditional in our interface but also more…I don’t know…revolutionary.
Tørnquist: Well, I don’t want to pat our own backs because obviously people have to see this for themselves, but it feels like we allowing for complete player freedom and at the same time giving adventure players a revised and improved point and click interface.
Bruusgaard: It’s also worth mentioning that we are still working on a prototype and a lot of the discussions that we have end with us experimenting with something new. We haven’t yet sewn everything together. We’re trying out different things. That’s what prototyping should be about.
RPS: Do the three playable characters play differently, or is the same approach for all of them? Or are there different skills and perceptions?
Tørnquist: The easiest answer is ‘yes’, but there’s a much more complex answer. There will be differences between the characters but this all ties back to what Martin has said about prototyping. Our intent is to make the characters feel and play differently. Not giving them a character sheet or anything like that. It’s more adventure-y.
RPS: None of them have a gun.
RPS: There is no combat at all, right?
Tørnquist: There is no traditional combat of any type no, and no button-bashing combat.
RPS: You use the word ‘mature’ to describe the storytelling. That’s a word with a popular false meaning – ‘mature’ can mean lots of sex and violence.
Tørnquist: Oh, we have lots of sex and violence! But it’s complex.
Scheve: And we have mature language!
Tørnquist: ‘Mature’ is challenging though. Thematically and emotionally.
RPS: There’s a great challenge, particularly in gaming I think, of presenting conflict without violence. It’s getting better, but conflict is still so often violent.
Tørnquist: Correct! Next question. (laughs) I think a large part of it is because games are still largely for men and for men conflict resolution traditionally is violent. IT’s the easy fallback. It’s easier to implement shooting somebody than to have a real, adult argument.
Bruusgaard: Use your words! Shoot your words at them!
Tørnquist: I think it’s a combination of those two things – the traditional, masculine way of handling an argument is to punish somebody, but it’s also satisfying to play violent games. I have to admit, I like shooting games. But you’re right that in TLJ we had conflict without violence and in Dreamfall we had both. Conflict with violence that probably wasn’t as good as the conflict without violence, and we want danger and conflict in Chapters, but we don’t want a punch button. We want to give the players other tools to resolve conflict in non-violent, non-traditional ways.
Bruusgaard: I really like the comparison with the way Dishonored did it. You can be brutal or sneaky and smart, and I think they struck that balance correctly.
Tørnquist: It was good but we’re not doing that exactly.
Bruusgaard: No, I was just appreciating it.
Tørnquist: It is certainly possible to give that choice to the players.
RPS: Spec Ops caused some interesting discussion of violence in games last year.
Tørnquist: Yeah, I want to play it because I’ve heard that it’s a lot more than what it seems on the surface. It seems like another man-shooter…
Bruusgaard: (incredulous) Manshooter?
Tørnquist: It’s an RPS term!
RPS: If man-shooter describes a certain type of game, what should be the RPS term for the kind of game Red Thread hope to make?
Tørnquist: A feeling-shooter…no…soul-game.
RPS: We should wrap up because I’m sure I’ve kept you longer than you expected.
Tørnquist: We’re used to interviews with you taking a long, long, long time. We were prepared.
RPS: OK, so finally, I think this may be the first Kickstarter page I’ve seen that has spoiler warnings. Are you only aiming at an existing audience or can people jump straight in at Chapters? Or do you hope they’ll follow the links that you’ve helpfully placed to buy the previous games?
Tørnquist: (laughs) The answer is ‘yes’ to everything. Yes, they can play the game straight away. There will be a wrap-up of the story so far, but people who have experienced the first two games will have a big advantage and feel a lot more. It will stroke their souls a lot more, and faster. (laughs) I don’t think it’s fair to assume that people are going to pick up the first two games and spend twenty four, thirty hours playing those games before Chapters. But we hope that the game is interesting enough that new players give it a chance and get into the story quickly, because we’ll ease them into it. At the same time the Kickstarter is aimed at fans and the whole video is ‘in your face nostalgia’. It’s no-holds barred, hardcore nostalgia. Once the original fans are on board we can spread the word.
RPS: TLJ was very good at putting players in a strange situation and allowing them to understand it gradually rather than hitting them with an info-dump right at the beginning.
Tørnquist: Dag and I have discussed that for years, the fact that some people wanted us to explain everything but to me, I think it’s better to have a complex world that you don’t fully understand – people talk about myths and events that you don’t know about and that makes you curious.
Scheve: We did have to fight for that a lot. I really think it makes the world feel more like an actual world.
Tørnquist: Yes, because people have their own histories. Listen to two people talking on the bus behind you and you have no idea about the context of their story, but you know that it is there.
Scheve: I do that all the time.
Tørnquist: Also, I have binoculars at home and I spend a lot of time at the window.
RPS: Stroking your soul.
Tørnquist: (laughs) But I do think that people enjoy being able to discover things at a different pace.
Scheve: A lot of people underestimate the players’ thought capacity and ability to understand.
RPS: The film critic Mark Kermode constantly bangs on about the fact that big studio films often assume that audiences are dumb but films like Nolan’s recent blockbusters prove that you can make hundreds of millions of dollars without assuming that audiences need everything to be explained, or to be one dimensional. People want to be treated like intelligent adults.
Tørnquist: TV is so much better than movies for this. I started watching the new House of Cards and the first episode is so dense with information that you feel like you’re dropped into the third season of a show. Every character knows every other character, they don’t introduce themselves, and people want that. That’s what I want in the work on TLJ and Dreamfall, for people to be able to learn and discover as they move through the game.
RPS: And you don’t have to fight a publisher to be able to do that now.
Tørnquist: Well, now we can fight each other!
RPS: And long may that continue. Thanks for your time.
Dreamfall Chapters is live on Kickstarter now. In the body of the text, all except the first three images and the final one are from the Dreamfall Chapters Kickstarter page. Other pictures are from earlier moments in the Cycle.