The Second Longest Journey: Interview with Ragnar Tornquist
Ragnar Tornquist, Writer/Game Designer
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.
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?
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...
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!
Gamasutra: Is there ever a point in development where you say, "This part of the story is going on a little too long we need to have the player do something here"?
Ragnar: Oh absolutely. Because we start with the story, then we find where the gameplay goes... there was a lot of pruning and editing done. There are still sequences in this game where we have to tell the plot. At this point, we have to explain some things and that's going to take a while and it's going to have characters talking to each other. Again we break that up with long section where there's no dialogue and just playing.
But it's a good question and it's one that's almost impossible to answer, but I've decided what I'm going to do in games is tell stories in new ways. So with the next game I'm going to take whatever lessons I learned from Dreamfall, what people liked and what people didn't like, and build on that. The future of storytelling in games is going to be show more and tell less. Dreamfall shows more and tells less than The Longest Journey which was, you know, a lot of telling. Simply because of the tools at our disposal, when you're dealing with a 3D world you can do a lot more and in the next generation we're going to have more characters and they'll show emotions just by lifting an eyebrow or showing that they're sad or happy... that's kind of hard to do still. Especially on the Xbox because you don't have that many polygons or that many bones at your disposal. So you have words to explain things that could be done with a look or a move. But it's a challenge and we've chosen to make a game that is about the storytelling and let people be the judge of "is the story interesting enough?" and I think they're going to find the balance between watching and playing to be pretty good.
Gamasutra: From the press build the whole world or worlds of the game seem much harsher... visiting Newport was just depressing, Marcuria wasn't in much better shape and there was a point where I had April Ryan break someone's neck!
Ragnar: Our little girl has come far hasn't she? (Laughs) Oh yeah, the infamous "breaking the neck" scene. The fans will love that. (Laughs) Yes it is darker, and it's a very cliché comparison but this is our Empire Strikes Back. But hopefully the next one isn't going to be Return of the Jedi! (Laughs) It's darker. I look at The Longest Journey as a three-part structure, where you have the opening which is sort of naive... actually the comparison I've used is April in the first one is the young inexperienced Frodo, you know? In the second she is more the Aragorn type character and... I'm not going to say more than that, but it does change. The game also matures, I think the first one was lighter. Like you said, it was happier. Although it had an ending that was ambiguous and that probably sent her down the path where she is today, and that's what we want to do to the characters. We want to change them, we want to change the worlds, and hopefully we'll get to make the third chapter of the saga and if we get to do that you'll see that it's going to be completely different from the mood of Dreamfall.
Gamasutra: Is it a planned three-part series definitely?
Ragnar: No, this game ends, it has an ending. I can't say too much but there are going to be story threads left open because I never like to close everything. I like to leave some mystery and some second guessing to the players, but yeah, I have a lot of paper with the story of Dreamfall 2 or Longest Journey 3, or whatever you want to call it, ready. So yeah, if this game is a huge success then I'm ready to go! After my next game of course.
Gamasutra: Speaking more generally, there's a lot of talk about increasing development costs, and putting more emotion into characters means more manpower. How are you going to deal with rising costs?
Ragnar: Just spend more money! (Laughs) I don't know. It's a really good question and one answer is we just opened an office in China. (laughs) Development in China is cheaper than in the west... it is more manpower, but you know what? Tools are getting better and this game is also being made for PC and it has to be said that this game on the PC... it looks like a next-gen game. PC development is all ready next-gen in that sense.
Yes, there will be rising costs, some people exaggerate it, some people play it down a little too much, but it's definitely going to go up. It's gone up consistently from when people started making games. How we deal with that? Funcom just went public a couple of months ago, so there's that. We just, you know, have to spend more money on games. The next game I'm going to do is going to cost a hell of a lot more than this one! It scares the hell out of me too! I think the most important thing is to focus and use the right tools. For example you can't beat EA on budget, they'll always have more money, so there's no point in trying to do that. We try to do something with graphics that stylistically doesn't have to be photo-realistic, but is just a very consistent style that will look beautiful no matter what. I mean this game doesn't look photorealistic, it has a style of it's own, which means that you can get away with things that aren't super, super, super detailed.
But in terms of characters, costs are definitely going to go up, and we see that too. We have in this game about one hundred and fifty characters and we have a lot more detail on them and that's costly, it takes a long time to make them. It's not a completely positive thing because it means fewer and fewer people can afford to make games. But that's why Xbox Live is a great thing, because you have smaller developers making games that aren't about photo-realism and aren't about huge budgets but about fun gameplay. And then leave it to the big guys to make the big games, the expansive games, the games that have to look amazing and have to have hundreds of locations and stuff like that. Hopefully, we'll be one of those players too. That's what we're aiming for: the big games.
Gamasutra: Are adventure games dead?
Ragnar: Adventure games as we knew them are dead, yes. But adventure games as a sort of "focus on the worlds, the characters, the setting" and variety of gameplay, definitely not. I consider games like Shenmue... I consider them adventure games.
Gamasutra: Shenmue didn't do very well commercially...
Ragnar: Damn you and your logic! Damn you! Okay bad example. Silent Hill then. Those are, to me, adventure games because they're about exploring spaces and not necessarily just combat. I think adventure... even in the old days adventure was a name that encompassed a lot of different games... In the early King's Quest games you had direct control, you had combat. In Police Quest games... it eventually became mostly point-and-click with no combat and was very restrictive. A lot of adventure fans are still locked in that mind set but I think they're opening up. I think the community has warmed to Dreamfall and now they're all really excited. So I think there's room for adventure games, it's just not going to be adventure games as we know them. And actually a lot of modern games have adopted characteristcs that were considered "adventure" like RPGs and the Grand Theft Auto games.
Gamasutra: On the production side was everything done in-house?
Ragnar: We outsourced a little bit of it, most of it was in-house. We worked with a studio in China called Virtuous games in Shanghai. We see China as a great breeding ground for game developers, especially graphic artists now, they're fantastic. They're really, really good. It's a great market as well... but most of the stuff on Dreamfall was done in-house. We have a very talented staff of people. When we were finishing Dreamfall I wrote down a list of the dream team, all the people I really had to have on the next project and I got all of them! So I'm really happy to have this sort of solid team of people who really proved their worth on this game. I mean not to say that the designers and programmers haven't but our graphic artists on this game, they really shined. It's some of the best stuff I've seen and I think our art director Christer Sveen is one of the most talented art director's in the industry, it's just really great work. We outsourced some things like some of the music was done by a guy named Leon Willett who works out of Barcelona, he did a couple of things. Mostly in-house though.
Gamasutra: It seemed for a while like Funcom was publishing this themselves.
Ragnar: Our intention was always to find a publishing partner because our main focus as a company is online games, and with The Longest Journey we worked with local partners, and on Anarchy Online we did the same thing. We don't have a distribution network, but what we want to do is find a publisher who understands and who can give attention to the game. We didn't want to just choose somebody where we'd be part of a huge portfolio and just throw the game out there and doesn't really respect it. So from the beginning that made it hard to sign with a big publisher, we might have done that but then they'd screw us. That what a publisher does, they have to make money, that's their business and of course they do that. We don't have as much power as they do. So we wanted to work with somebody we could do a partnership with, a collaboration, and we found that in Aspyr. But it took us a while to find somebody we could work with and trust and feel like we got an equal share.
Gamasutra: Are they handling all territories?
Ragnar: Aspyr? No they're doing North America. In Europe, we have Microapplication and they're doing localized versions of this game for lots of different European countries. They're probably hating our guts right now because we have eight to nine hours of dialogue in this game and they have to translate it into every single language! But it's going to be great... I actually played a little bit in French and in Spanish, and it feels right! Zoe walking around speaking French and Spanish? Yeah, that feels good.
Gamasutra: Are you going to work on the translation for your native language?
Ragnar: We actually have almost finished the Norwegian translation, but I didn't work on that. First off, I'm not as good in Norwegian as I am in English at writing and secondly it's just a huge job. It's like I didn't want anything to do with that!
Gamasutra: SingStar had a Croatian version shipped.
Ragnar: That's the great thing about Europe is you have all these markets, and if you spend time localizing, there's an enormous profit to be made. The Longest Journey was translated into thirteen languages, and that's part of the reason why it sold so well. In Poland, it sold something like 20,000 or 30,000 which you just couldn't do if it was in English. I think a lot of American publishers don't know that or disregard that, they see it as a lot of work, but if you work with local partners, that's actually a smart way of doing it. And the same in Asia too. Something we're going to do with Dreamfall, or at least with our next online game, is to get into Asia and make sure it's localized for every market and tailored for that market because that's where the big business is. I mean America and Europe are huge markets but Asia is enormous in comparison. It's like half of World of Warcraft's six million subscribers are in China, or at least two million are in China. It's just amazing.