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First Look: Investigating The Horror Of Draugen

Nordic nightmares

Ragnar Tørnquist describes Draugen as the game at the heart of Red Thread Studios. That’s something of a surprise, considering that a script and concept for Dreamfall Chapters have existed in his mind (and on various hard drives) for more than a decade now. The Nordic horror/mystery will be his new team’s second release and, as he explained to me during a recent visit to Oslo, it’s the game they were founded to create.

The move from Funcom to a new independence seems intrinsically linked to Dreamfall and the desire to continue the saga that began more than fifteen years ago, but the story isn’t that simple. For one thing, Red Thread have licensed the rights to the series from Funcom. “Everytime somebody buys the previous games to catch up on the story before playing Chapters, we’re still making sales for Funcom!” Tørnquist is amused by the idea that Dreamfall is his series.

“Dreamfall belongs to Funcom, it belongs to my youth, it belongs to the fans. It’s become their story rather than ours, and not everybody here worked on The Longest Journey or Dreamfall. Some of the team are young and new. Draugen will be our game.”

There’s a slight weariness at times when he talks about Dreamfall. I suspect that’s a combination of the long hours already being spent on the game as well as the weight of expectation. He wants to do Chapters right because so many people have waited for so long but that doesn’t mean the team haven’t left themselves room for a little experimentation. It would have been easy to go back to a familiar well but my experience with the game’s opening hours showed signs of fresh dowsing.

Draugen is looking farther afield. The mystery-horror game is seeking entirely new seas and the weird shores that they lap against.

Partly due to the limited group of texts and authors from which we expect popular culture to draw, and partly due to the trailer’s voiceover and use of the sea, Draugen has already slotted into the Lovecraft section of many minds. Sure enough, it’s a tale of isolation, investigation and madness but the catalyst for collapse is human rather than cosmic. If Red Thread’s game is Lovecraftian, it’ll most likely have more in common with The Terrible Old Man than The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Tørnquist concedes that the trailer leaned too close to doom-laden noises, suggesting a more traditional scare 'em up.

“The story is about the horrors that a small community can inflict on itself. It’s a tragedy as well as a horror story.” As is true of most writers, Tørnquist enjoys words, sometimes for their sound as much as their meaning. Since first meeting him a couple of years ago, I've noticed that has a habit of fixating on a certain word during interviews and conversations. As I watched him walk through the desolate landscape of Draugen’s 1920s Norwegian fishing village, I mentioned that it was more melancholy than menacing. “Melancholy is a good word. It begins with the victim of a terrible event and as the story continues we learn about the protagonist and his own past.”

The protagonist in question is Edward, an American who has come to Norway’s beautifully desolate West coast to visit the family of a comrade from the war. Having survived the conflict, the friend relocated to America but passed away while still a young man. The player character, a keen entomologist and photographer, travels to Norway to meet the family that were left behind, to pass on their son’s final respects and perhaps to provide a link to the life he chose away from his native home.

Cut off from the world outside, the village is almost impossible to reach overland. Arriving by boat, the player has seven days to explore and investigate the life and death of the village. When the week is up – and not before – the boat will return to collect him but until then he’s on his own. Literally. The village is abandoned, and one of the first tasks is to set up a shelter and base of investigations in one of the empty houses. With that done, the player is free to look for clues as to how and why the place came to be deserted.

Like an off-the-grid noir detective in a run-down motel, Edward sets about pinning clues to his wall, connecting them with a thread. The thread is red, a sly confirmation of the game’s importance to the studio and also the kind of narrative mechanics they’re interested in exploring. The phrase ‘narrative mechanics’ interests me, as do conversations with Martin Bruusgaard who will be the chap chiefly responsible for designing interactive spaces and processes through which to tell the story.

The last time I spoke to him he was building combat and skill systems for The Secret World. “It’s a very different challenge. TSW was about balance this is about…” he gestures, looking for the words. They’re hard to find because Red Thread aren’t working from a template this time around. Dreamfall Chapters will, I think, surprise many people with its moments of quiet experimentation but if Draugen comes to fruition without shedding some of its ambition along the way it might cause far greater ripples.

During the seven days that the player is stranded in the village, there are also seven nights. The precise length of the cycle hasn’t been decided yet but the lighting effects are in place and they’re magnificent. Red Thread don’t have a huge budget or team, but they’re making what they do have go a long way by concentrating on the things that matter the most. Here, in Draugen, light is important. It creates atmosphere and, as with everything else, it adds to the story.

“I can’t say too much about what happens at night but there is a direct threat to the player.” I asked if there is a supernatural element to that threat, seeing as the settlement’s mysteries seem to be social and personal, based around prejudice and misunderstanding rather than eldritch beasties. “We draw from Norse mythology and local legends but we’re not necessarily making every part of the folklore real. Superstition and belief are important as well.”

Tørnquist and Bruusgaard aren't for telling whether the Draugen themselves play a part in the game or whether all of the hauntings are metaphorical, although there is definitely something lurking in the night. As well as dealing with the emotional and possibly spiritual fallout of a community that may have cannibalised itself, the poor sap who takes the role of intrepid investigator has problems of his own.

During the days, he provides commentary on events in the guise of letters to a special somebody back home in America. Through the letters, it becomes clear that he’s about as repressed and inhibited as a Victorian country vicar. Exposed to cruelty and terror, he’s as likely to respond by attempting to categorise the trauma and victims as if they were botanical or entomological samples. He’s a bit of a fuddy-duddy, which would be a fine alternate UK title for the game.

In fact, we have a tradition here in England of conservative-minded tinkerers meddling in affairs that overtake them. Not the Carry On films but our own brand of weird literature, best-exemplified by the ghost stories of M R James. The quiet moments of exploration and shifting landscape of the night are reminiscent of the splendidly and absurdly terrifying BBC adaptation, Whistle And I'll Come To You. The setting and design of Draugen capture the primeval world that lurks behind and around human accomplishments, waiting to claim every patch of grass and jagged rock back as soon as we slip out of view for a moment.

The sea, whispering and seemingly endless, is a perfect natural elemental centre for the supernatural. It holds creatures that are alien to us in its depths, it is unknowable and claims lives, and yet it can be a source of great comfort and protection. The Draugen of myth emerge, corporeal and corpse-like, from watery graves. In the game there are strong indications that the beginning of the end came when somebody fell into the sea, or was pushed. A drowning, retribution, an exodus, a plague of gossip and superstition – the village is certainly haunted in one way or another.

In his attempts to rationalise terrible occurrences that may be the result of unscientific processes, or may simply have the irrationality of human nature at their root, Draugen’s protagonist will become haunted as well. He is prone to hallucinations, caused by visual impairment in what may be a form of Charles Bonnet Syndrome. Indeed, his short-sightedness is a key feature of the game.

“This is what happens when people who wear glasses design their own game.” Tornquist claims the glasses will play a significant role, particularly during the long dark nights of the soul. “They can be cracked and sometimes you will need to remove them and clean them so that your view isn’t blurred or obscured.” And then there are the hallucinations. “I’ve never experienced them myself but we have done our research.”

At present, the glasses and the red connecting thread are the only mechanical parts of the game that the team are discussing, and the implementation isn’t locked down yet. When Dreamfall ships, the focus will be on Draugen and a lot of the work taking place at present is preliminary and experimental. "

Conversation turned to Dear Esther and Gone Home, the latter a game that Tornquist particularly admires, and I put forward my theory that Fullbright’s debut might be remembered like the early days of 3d graphics. Wonderful work for the time but swiftly dated. I feel that some developers are feeling around the edges of what is possible with narrative design that doesn’t rely on the punctuation of puzzles or heavy loads of text.

With Draugen, Red Thread are taking on board the methods that other designers are using and looking for ways to add something new. It’s impossible to say whether the experiment will pay off but I’m glad that it’s taking place. Draugen’s announcement came at a strange time, while Dreamfall Chapters was still enjoying the limelight, but it’s far from being ‘Red Thread’s Other Game’ in any slighting sense. Free from the restraints of a long-running series and the demands of a publisher, Draugen may be the first game to enjoy the full benefits of the team’s newfound independence.

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