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Keep The Faith: Dreamfall Chapters Interview

Journey onward

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Sometimes it takes a while to turn the page. Ragnar Tørnquist announced today that his new company, Red Thread Games, will be developing and publishing Dreamfall Chapters, finally continuing the story that began with The Longest Journey. I wanted to know more about the timing, the return to adventure games and what this means for The Secret World, so I spoke to Ragnar about how far along development has already come, psychological RPGs, storytelling and singleplayer social gaming (not what you might think).

Note: Spoilers for The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. All images are from previous/current games.

RPS: Hello! Dreamfall Chapters is the game but before that, Red Thread is the name of the studio, right? Is it going to operate completely independently?

Tørnquist: Yes, it is. Competely independent of Funcom, but of course we will have a very good working relationship with Funcom and I am remaining with Funcom as creative director on TSW. Although, of course, Joel Bylos has taken over most of my responsibilities. The new studio is completely independent and we’ll be developing, producing and funding Dreamfall Chapters independently of Funcom.

RPS: When you say ‘independently funding’, I recall that we spoke a while ago and you did mention that the Kickstarter explosion had got your attention? Is crowdfunding something you’re still considering?

Tørnquist: Yes it is. We will be doing a Kickstarter. Not right now, but we will be doing it in the near future, simply because although we received a grant from the Norwegian Film Institute, which was announced today, that is only for the preproduction phase. That allows us to get started on a prototype but in order to fully develop Dreamfall Chapters we’re going to need more money and we will be going to Kickstarter.

RPS: In terms of where the game is at the moment – you’ve been working on the writing for some time already, right?

Tørnquist: Yes, since Dreamfall came out we’ve been tinkering with the story, the characters and the setup. We have a document that outlines exactly where the story is going to go, not only in Dreamfall Chapters but beyond that as well.

Now that we’re putting the studio together and a team that story is going to change and adapt. The core storyline, the end goal, will remain the same. I know where all this is going, but the details are going to change as we get more people on the project and everybody contributes.

RPS: The fact that Joel has taken over the main creative role on TSW now highlights the collaborative aspect. When you have the head of a game, especially a writer, there’s a sense of the auteur, particularly when their name is known. People tend to brush over the fact that it’s such a strongly collaborative process, with so many people involved.

Tørnquist: Looking at TSW now, it’s a result of so many peoples’ input. It changed so much over the years and right now everyone on that team knows exactly what that game is, what the universe is, so they can contribute in the best way possible. The balance has been set by a completely collaborative effort.

The same will go for Dreamfall chapters – it will be made by a bunch of really talented people, people who have worked together for a long time. People who respect each other sitting around a table and saying what do we want to communicate with this game, how do we want to make players feel, how are we going to accomplish this?

Everybody is respectful of the story at the foundation of it but we’re open to changing anything we need to change to make the best game possible.

RPS: And do you have that team in place already? Have people known about it for a while and you’ve built a team behind the scenes or are you still recruiting?

Tørnquist: We’re still in the process of getting the team together. This has been a process with Funcom for a while now and while Redthread is independent of Funcom, it’s definitely a collaboration because they own the IP and we’re licensing it. There’s a revenue share model in place so any collaboration we can pull off, we will.

In terms of what that means for the team we’re not taking any Funcom employees…

RPS: That was my next question!

Tørnquist: (laughs) There’s no poaching going on, definitely not! But we are talking to a lot of people. We have a small core team in place and we’re recruiting for the full team at this point. That’s going to take a while, but we’re still in preproduction and we want to keep the team small now. Within the next six months the team will grow, definitely.

RPS: You said it was important to be open to peoples’ input when they join the team, but that it’s in service of the story. Obviously, people have been waiting for the continuation of this story for a long time, but in a broader sense of story being the foundation of the game – that seems to be true of TSW as well and the disconnect between the MMO mechanics and the story has been criticised. Going back to what is presumably going to be a traditional adventure game, do you feel that story is served better by that structure?

Tørnquist: Dreamfall and Longest Journey are built around story – that’s the anchor. You’re learning about the character as you play, not bulding them or evolving them, but discovering them. Everything serves the story. That’s how adventure games work, there’s no secret – you play them to see what happens next.

When you play Dreamfall you’re not developing Zoe’s powers, you’re just unravelling all these plot details as you move through the story, so the adventure is the natural genre for these stories to develop.

Having said that, I’m super-proud of what we’ve established with storytelling in TSW. I think it’s quite groundbreaking.

RPS: TSW feels like an experimentation in storytelling and MMO design, whereas an adventure game doesn’t necessarily have that same scope to experiment with the way a story is told. Is it just a way of telling a good story?

Tørnquist: Yeah, maybe. But having said that, Dreamfall Chapters will do some new and interesting things on the story side as well. We’re toying with some hopefully interesting ideas. It’s going to be an adventure game, it’s a going to be all about the story – there won’t be any twitch combat or button mashing or anything like that.

RPS: What about crate pushing?

Tørnquist: You can’t have a game without pushing crates. We haven’t worked out the crate angle yet. But we’ll definitely be looking to bring in more focus on game mechanics in order to make a game that IS a game and not just a story.

I think were Dreamfall sometimes fell a bit short was in the mechanics. It didn’t really always present a challenge or enough intereaction between the player and the characters. That’s hopefully something we’ll be able to address in Chapters.

RPS: My feeling would be that TLJ didn’t try to introduce new mechanics to adventuring. It was conversation and puzzles.

Tørnquist: I’ve learned a lot in my twenty years making games. TLJ was one of my first games, and it did lean a lot on slightly obscure adventure point and click mechanics at that point. But at least it had a lot of it.

It was in some ways a very mechanical game. It had a lot of adventure mechanics. Dreamfall went away from that quite a bit, and that’s both good and bad. Chapters will hopefully unite the two, have enough of a challenge and enough interesting puzzles and mechanics to keep players engaged, but making sure that the story keeps moving, with momentum and drama.

RPS: I’m assuming you don’t want to give anything about the story away, but is it a direct continuation?

Tørnquist: It will carry straight on. As we’ve acquired the license to do other titles in that universe as well, and while I just want to talk about Chapters now that doesn’t mean that’s the only story.
It carries on basically from the moment Dreamfall ends, continuing and wrapping up the loose threads that we left players with in that game.

RPS: The word ‘chapters’ suggests episodic – or is that for another reason, because it’s part of a bigger story.

Tørnquist: More the latter. The theme of Dreamfall was faith, having faith and losing faith. Almost heavy-handedly illustrated with a character called Faith. The theme in Dreamfall Chapters Is more about the cpahters of life, of life being a story. That’s where the title comes in. It’s also the first chapter of something else in a way though.

RPS: Faith seems to run through a lot of your work. TSW has a lot about belief – everything is real, anything that can be believed. In a tighter story about faith, it can often be about what isn’t possible and what isn’t real. Do you know where you’re heading in terms of the broader sweep?

Tørnquist: Yes. (laughs) In a lot of work I’ve done, faith and belief have been important. There’s always been a spiritual element in my stories and that will continue.

The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are games about storytelling as well though, about being part of a story that may take interesting turns. April thought she was the hero, the protagonist, of her story and at the end it turns out she wasn’t.

RPS: That seems to be another current that runs throuhg a lot of your writing – the idea of the hero. When you look at that in terms of a game where there is a controlled protagonist who may not necessarily be the hero.

Tørnquist: Absolutely and I think that’s something that we’ll continue to pursue. There was April who found her role at the end of the story and wasn’t who she thought she was. Same goes for Zoe who was searching for her role.

Having characters and protagonists who are more human and perhaps more lost than most heroes in games is more interesting and something that we’ll continue in Dreamfall Chapters.

RPS: One of the other things I associate with TLJ and Dreamfall is that they’re quite rare among games in not just having a character with known qualities but concentrating on growth. Even some of the classics are very genre-based, a comedy game or a mystery game, and that sometimes necessitate or at least leads to a certain type of protagonist. Even though TLJ and Dreamfall have strong elements of genre fiction in them, they feel like they’re very much about characters, and the arcs and growth of the character.

Tørnquist: Absolutely and that’s where the ‘journey’ aspect comes in. We’re really underlining that word now. The fact that this is a continuation of that journey, both internal and external. The journey is about travelling through multiple worlds and encountering all of these grand events, but it’s also about a personal journey. Even more, I think, it’s about a personal journey.

And that’s something Dreamfal Chapters will emphasise. We’ll see a lot more of that. Both TLJ and Dreamfall did it, and I think some people felt that maybe Zoe, for example, in Dreamfall didn’t change enough. It took a long while for her to change and that’s something I sort of agree with, although she needed to go through all of those events in order to change.

In Chapters we’re going to see that a lot more. People on the cusp of change and that’s what the Chapters thing is about as well, when you abandon one chapter of life and move on to the next. Everything might change and that’s basically what the game is about.

We’re going to be seeing that through illustrated some familiar characters and some new ones, and we’ll see that point really driven home. That people do change, at least on some levels. To play characters like that is a lot more interesting, I think.

It’s something that roleplaying games do well, because there your characters do change. But they change usually in terms of abilities, they don’t change psychologically. That’s something we’re going to be doing, so you could call this a blend between an adventure game and a psychological RPG. You change and gain new abilities on a psychological level…on a spiritual level.

RPS: Obviously it’s been a while since Dreamfall…how many years?

Tørnquist: It’s six years.

RPS: In terms of the landscape of gaming, or even personally, what has changed? Why now? Is it something you chose to wait for or is it that you are personally and professionally capable of doing now?

Tørnquist: All of the above! It was important for me to get TSW out and to focus entirely on that, and to leave it in capable hands. Even though I’m still very much involved, the creative ownership has been taken over. I’m not putting that behind me but I needed to take a deep breath and jump over to Chapters. I’ve wanted to do it since Dreamfall came out, obviously, to be able to continue it.

Also, I think you’re right, it’s the right time. I think with the way the – ’ll use a boring word – market is going, people are looking toward more meaningful games maybe. Games that aren’t necessarily huge and massive and expensive, games that are more personal, more emotional, more spiritual. Games that have soul.

Also, games that can be independently funded. This is the right time to do that as well, to make a smaller, cheaper game. To do that using crowdfunding and in our case also getting funding from the Norwegian Film Institue, which will help to get us started. It’s time to make exactly the game that we want to make.

It will be the result of a bunch of talented people sitting around a table and saying ‘what do we want to make’ and ‘what do our players and fans want’. This is the time to be completely independent, this is the time to make something that is so personal. Not necessarily super-small but so focused.

We’re going to make a game that is just about being Dreamfall Chapters. It’s not about being a media phenomenon or a huge marketing event or anything like that. It’s a story we want to tell and a game we want to play, and this is definitely the right time to do that, yes.

RPS: Do you have any thoughts on why people might be looking for that kind of game now, particularly the emotional and spiritual aspects? Bearing in mind that TLJ, Dreamfall and others were already that sort of thing, do you think that the industry is maturing. Or do you think it’s related to the time we’re living in?

Tørnquist: I think it’s both. I’m not going to berate the big games. I buy them myself. I just started playing Assassin’s Creed III for example, and that’s probably the prime example of a massive AAA title and there’s nothing wrong with that. But I think people are ready for games that provide something else as well. A good story, interesting characters, new mechanics.

The way distribution models have changed and platforms have changed. There’s so much room now for invention. I think people play and appreciate differently than they did a few years ago. Whether it’s on PC and Mac or mobile platforms, gaming hours are spent very differently, and games have to change as well.

There’s still room for Halo 4, but it’s a very traditional way of sitting on the couch with a controller in your hand. A lot of people don’t necessarily play games like that anymore. What we also found is that Dreamfall and TLJ are games that people played together. They’re not multiplayer but people play them as couples…

RPS: That’s something that I find very interesting. Social gaming that is single player. I grew up passing a controller back and forth with a friend or a sibling. Singleplayer games, but we experienced them together. It’s something that’s much more common spoken of in film. We go to a cinema and watch a film together, almost a community of minds, and talk about it in a bar afterwards. We don’t talk about that aspect of gaming enough.

Tørnquist: You hit the nail on the head. That’s something I’ve been trying to turn into words for the last few months now. Dreamfall Chapters is a game for couples, or any people playing together. Social singleplayer games. You don’t have to actually control the characters on the screen to enjoy participating because it’s the story, the characters, the dialogue, the puzzles. It’s about saying ‘hey, why don’t we look over there’ and not needing to be the one with the mouse and the keyboard to have input. You can come up with suggestions.

A lot of people who played Dreamfall and TSJ did so with parents, or with significant others or with their siblings. They sat there and they might have controlled or just offered suggestions. It’s the pace that allows for that, the story, the room to breathe and room to talk about it. And, yeah, being able to go down to the pub afterwards and talk about your experience. Finding a way to relate it to your own life like you do with a good movie or book. It’s something that’s we want to accomplish and that’s hard to put into a bulletpoint form but that’s what we want to communicate as well. This is a game you can play together.

RPS: Do you think that some of those thoughts tie back into your interest in MMOs? Are you exploring ways that people interact and share a world together?

Tørnquist: Yes. Sharing an experience makes it so much more significant. It’s always the case, when you’re playing a game and you see something wondrous or beautiful, not having someone to share it with diminishes it slightly. Being able to share that, whether with a player on the screen or somebody next to you – any significant event you experience becomes more significant, so much bigger, when it’s shared.

That’s definitely something we want to explore in Chapters. Dreamfall will never be a multiplayer game but it will definitely be a social game in that sense.

RPS: I think a lot of people are going to be happy that you just said ‘Dreamfall will never be a multiplayer game’. You mentioned handheld devices earlier – will Chapters be taking the leap?

Tørnquist: Right now we’re only saying the game will be on PC and Mac. Thjat’s our primary focus and that’s where our core audience is. We’re looking at other options but it’s PC and Mac right now.

RPS: Obviously things are a long way from completion, even the team, but do you have a window when you’ll have more to show?

Tørnquist: We’ll be talking more about the game in the next couple of weeks and then we’ll get down to business and design things. Get moving on preproduction. Sometime early next year we’ll have more to show.

We intend to be extremely open with production. We don’t plan on hiding away and pushing out the occasional screenshot. We want to be completely transparent and open, let people know where we’re at. We’re also not going to be talking about it relentlessly though or there won’t be anything left to talk about after release.

In a couple of weeks we’ll go completely silent and re-emerge early next year with a lot more to show hopefully.

RPS: And in the meantime, TSW continues as it is?

Tørnquist: Yes. I’ll still be contributing a lot to the story side, advising Joel and the team. I’m working on the master story document at the moment, making sure all the threads are coming together and we know where we’re at. I want to make sure the team are as independent as possible but I have no plans to leave. TSW is very dear to me and I plan to stay on as long as possible.

RPS: We’ll catch up you with in a couple of weeks to pry about the details that are released between now and then. Thanks for your time!

A great deal of that conversation is about the ‘why’ and the ‘how’, whether ‘why now’ or ‘how will you fund the game independently’. In a couple of weeks, once a few more details are known, we’ll talk in depth and more specifically about what Chapters is going to be.

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