Ragnar Tornquist is the designer of the award-winning and critically-acclaimed game, The Longest Journey. Its sequel, Dreamfall, is expected to ship in April on both Xbox and PC. Gamasutra sat down with Ragnar at last week's GDC to discuss his views on linear storytelling in games, the importance of good localization and what to expect in the next generation of game development.
Gamasutra: How big was the staff working on Dreamfall overall?
Ragnar: It varied, but I think we consistently had around twenty-five people throughout the production. That's pretty unusual because what you usually do is staff up a lot towards the end, but we prefer to have a solid-size team the whole time in order to make sure the people on the project... they know how the game is supposed to look and supposed to feel like. So we had about twenty-five people for two and a half years. The first six months was just pre-production with a small team of about eight or ten people. At the end now we've got thirty-five people on the project, borrowing other people from other projects, just a couple of people, in order to finish it completely. But that's a relatively small team in today's game developer environment. The difference is we worked for a long time, I mean most games don't have a team on for that long.
|Ragnar Tornquist, Writer/Game Designer|
Gamasutra: How long has it been exactly?
Ragnar: It's been three years from the time I started working on it until, you know, today. So for the first six months we were a small team, then we started staffing up. And basically from the last two years it's been a pretty big team.
Gamasutra: Can you discuss budget at all?
Ragnar: The budget is definitely up there (laughs). The math should be pretty easy. Norway can be an expensive country. We have done some work in China, Funcom actually has a Chinese office but they're working on other games. But we do some outsourcing in China; art stuff, character stuff. But the budget is pretty high... but if I give you exact numbers, my PR guy might just bash me over the head or something. It's definitely a AAA-title in terms of both budget and, hopefully, finished product.
Gamasutra: What were specific ideas you had in mind going from 2D traditional point-and-click adventure into what could actually be categorized as 3D action adventure game?
|The Longest Journey|
Ragnar: We actually call it a modern adventure. In the beginning we said action/adventure because we were afraid... you know for a publisher, "adventure" is like garlic to a vampire; it's just really bad mojo. And we really wanted to make sure that we didn't close all the doors immediately. I mean, we were always making an adventure game but there were action elements in it. So we tried on the action/adventure term but it didn't work really well so now we're calling it an adventure game, a modern adventure, and Aspyr managed to actually understand what we are all about after talking to pretty much everybody in the industry. After having everybody be really enthusiastic about the game, Aspyr were the ones willing to say "This is great, let's work together." So I mean it's been a struggle in that sense, but back to your question (laughs).
After doing The Longest Journey which was very traditional point-and-click 2D, I want to do something new, so when the issue of a sequel was brought up, I always said,"Okay it's gotta be full 3D, it's gotta be a console title as well as PC title, it's gotta have other gameplay elements like stealth, like some combat, some action"... cause I really wanted to... first off I don't believe that a traditional adventure can survive anymore. At least not on a big scale and we make big games, we don't make small niche products we make the big AAA titles. We want to reach as many people as possible. Point-and click-games are very, very niche unfortunately. There's lots of people that still enjoy them and that's fine but...
Gamasutra: Some very vocal people.
Ragnar: Some very vocal people, yeah! (Laughs) We heard a lot from them in the beginning but we said "okay we don't want to do that" but we do want to keep what's great about adventure games so in that sense we didn't stray that far from the path. I mean it's still a game about exploration, about story, about strong characters, about dialogue, about puzzles, all those things are still intact and the very feel of The Longest Journey universe which I feel was the core of that game, that's why people like the game I think. It's not specifically because of the gameplay, because that was very sort of classic and didn't try to do anything new. But it's about the world and the characters and the whole sort of emotional/spiritual feel of it, and that was something we said, "Okay we gotta keep that, that's the important part."
So the transition was us basically sitting down and saying "okay what kind of game do we want to make?" and we were very lucky in that sense. At the time, I played a lot of Eternal Darkness and the way you switch between characters and the story is fantastic, so you know I wanted to do something that maybe had a little bit of a similar feel to that. I've always been a fan of Silent Hill games, which I feel are adventure games, and we wanted to do something that maybe had that and also I'm a big fan of Final Fantasy in the way they have these sprawling epic stories with lots of characters and all those things were inspirational sources. So in the beginning we sat down and got all these ideas together and then after a couple of months we start throwing things out again, and we then started narrow it in.
We felt we preserved everything that was great about adventures, but we brought it forward in time into something more modern and commercial. Commercial is a word that sort of has bad connotations but I feel it's important for us as game developers to make a game that people want to play. You want to reach as many people as possible simply because that's what it's all about; it's about entertaining people. So I mean, that was a challenge, to find the gameplay mechanisms that would work with the requirements of the universe, as well as in the modern market. So that's a roundabout way of saying "yeah." Does that answer your question? (Laughs)
Gamasutra: So when did you decide to expand the scope of the narrative through three playable characters?
Ragnar: Day one. Or day zero. That was from the very beginning. Actually before we even started Dreamfall I knew what the story was going to be because it's all part of a longer saga. People will see that, people who played The Longest Journey will sit down and play Dreamfall and realize that it's all related, especially the opening bits of the game, Longest Journey fans will be like "I know exactly what this is and what that is" and there are threads that go back into that game and uh.... what the hell was your question again? (Laughs) I realized when I was sitting down, "Holy crap I don't remember what you were asking me!"
Gamasutra: Why three characters this time?
Ragnar: Because of the story. That's the simple answer. Everything in this game had to be because of the story. This is not a game that starts with the gameplay mechanics, this a game that starts with the story. That's why I started talking about threads going back... the bigger saga, I remember now! There was a point to it, because we are just serving the story. I mean, games can be a storytelling medium as well, a lot of people think that's wrong, that games are about total freedom, sandboxes, and being able to do anything. I don't agree, I think games are entertainment first and foremost and people can be as easily entertained by a linear story-based game as by Katamari Damacy or Grand Theft Auto, it's just a question of what you're in the mood for. There's not just one type of novel or one type of movie, it's the same thing with games.
Dreamfall is driven by story, the story needed to be told from different perspectives, we really needed to get in the heads of all these different characters. There is a strong theme in Dreamfall that we worked on from the very beginning and the theme is faith; having faith, losing faith, regaining faith, and all of these characters are on different points in the whole journey of faith:
Zoe is someone who just recently dropped out of college, dumped her boyfriend and moved in with her dad. She doesn't know what to do with her life, she's lost faith in herself.
April is somebody who saved the world ten years ago, and has lost complete faith in everything. She thinks everything sucks because she sacrificed everything and received nothing in return.
The most interesting character, the third playable character, Kian is a person completely driven by faith. He's a holy assassin, an apostle, a missionary, he lives and dies by the sword. He's a man who sort of follows his faith blindly.
And all these three characters will progress from a point on this whole "faith graph" to another point... it's funny we actually created this huge chart which plots people on a faith graph. It sounds really strange, but it's the way I work with stories, especially with themes. Make sure every character changes, goes on a journey, that's what The Longest Journey is about: going on a journey that's both physical and emotional and spiritual. To do that we had to say, "Okay, this person lost faith. This person regains faith" and everybody, all the major characters of the game, relates to that in some level. So the theme of faith... it's gonna be obvious when you play the game, especially when you get to the end. That's what the game is all about and we needed these different characters to show what it's about from different perspectives. So yeah, that's a real long-winded way of saying we needed three characters cause they're all very different.
Gamasutra: How do you find the right balance between telling the story, having player sit there and watch, and having them go and do something?
Ragnar: That's the eternal question! That's a good question, because I think that's what a lot of people get wrong. Especially when games starting going to CD-ROM and you suddenly had all these games doing voices and it just went completely nuts. I think the first Longest Journey was too much storytelling and too little playing. There were some sequences where you had to sit through twenty minutes of dialogue and just listen to it...
Gamasutra: Like when you first explain...
Ragnar: The story of the balance! Yeah. Twenty damn minutes! And the guy only has two animations! That's all we could afford for it! I know, I know. He was a good actor though, that was the only thing that saved that sequence.
Gamasutra: And I thought in the sequel, I caught just a small touch of camera angles in the longer scenes...
|Dreamfall Concept Art|
Ragnar: It's just breaks it up so much and that's the big difference from the build you guys played and the build we have now, is that we have a lot more camera stuff and a lot more facial animations and emotions. Because they were all stone-faced and now they actually do stuff.
When you make a game you always want three more months, six more months, and if I had three more months or six more months I would put a lot more of that stuff in but I think we have enough now to make it flow a lot better. So what's the balance? I think as long as the story is intriguing and you feel like you're taking a part in it, that's fine, but there's no like clear marker there... games that are supposed to be more gameplay... well take Metal Gear Solid 2, infamous for having the longest cinematic sequences in the world! And half the game, you just sat there, and for me, I didn't even find the story interesting so that game became torture! I think it just depends on the story you're having... again it's about being entertained. It's a medium like any other, it can be used in any way possible, who's to say a game has to be a certain way or that a game has to have this much gameplay and this much storytelling? Who makes those rules? Nobody makes those rules damn it!