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.
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.