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Ragnar Tornquist


By Randy Sluganski

Randy recently had the pleasure to conduct an interview with Ragnar Tornquist, the writer, producer, lead designer, et al. of The Longest Journey, the best game never to be released in North America. Portions of this interview have been edited for legal reasons and at the request of the developer and will be made public when and if the situation dictates.

You may obtain more information by visiting The Longest Journey website or Ragnar's website.

Can you elaborate on the problems finding a distributor in North America?

Oh, boy. Well, the adventure game is dead, isn't it? I mean, who on Earth wants a game without guns, exploding heads, or impossibly slim, big-breasted models in skin-tight leather outfits? Yeah, well, obviously some people do. But with American publishers there really is an unwillingness to take risks, and it's somewhat understandable, because of the cost of marketing and distribution ... but it's frustrating.

In addition, TLJ was quite expensive to make, and we really wanted to get at least some of our development costs back. And because some companies were initially skeptical to TLJ as a full-price product--adventure-games don't sell, blah blah blah--it took time to get a deal signed that worked for everyone. Amazing reviews and solid sales across Europe helped a lot, although most American publishers still couldn't care less what sells in Europe ... as far as they're concerned, it's a totally different market.

What is to be done with some of the more vulgar language for the North American release? As you know, the American public will tolerate violence in their games, but not adult language.

I won't get into an argument about what constitutes "vulgar" language, or how suited it is to an adventure game. From the outset, TLJ was designed for an adult audience--and by that I mean grown-up, and not, um, "dirty"--and I wrote the dialogue with that in mind. April herself doesn't use any bad language; in fact, only a couple of the characters in the game do. I can understand how some people would react to, for example, Zack's colorful name-calling, but then again, he's not a good guy. He's a bad guy. A very bad guy. You're supposed to hate him.

In other words, we're not planning on making any changes for the North American release.

You are relatively unknown to American adventure gamers (though this will soon change!). Can you provide some background on yourself?

I'm a clone, manufactured by Funcom from their stock developer DNA. We are many.

My memory implants indicate that I'm currently twenty-nine years of age. In addition to harboring a lifelong interest in, and passion for, computer and video games--starting with one of those gameplay-packed Atari TV Pong machines in the late 70s, and moving on to the venerable ZX-81 in the early 80s--I also have an education in film and TV from New York University. I started working at Funcom in 1994, right out of school, producing, designing, writing and level-editing the console adaptation of the movie Casper. After that, I contributed bits and pieces to a few other projects before starting work on TLJ in 1996.

At night, I'm connected to a nuclear power-source that reenergizes and rejuvenates my body. They tell me that I can last at least ten years before requiring a complete makeover.

Was The Longest Journey conceived with the intent of it being a continuing series? If so, how many parts do you envision?

Yes and no. We designed TLJ to be a stand-alone product, with a beginning middle, and end, but April's story doesn't conclude with this first game, as I'm sure you know by now. We have the storylines ready for both a prequel and a sequel, and in the tradition of all things George Lucas-y, TLJ was conceived--at least in theory--as a potential trilogy. While the sequel would continue the story--from an interesting perspective--of April as she matures and takes on the role she was born to take, and her true heritage, there are also a lot of unanswered questions from the past, and characters like Brian Westhouse, Cortez, Crow, and Abnaxus whose stories would be told in a prequel ... leading up to a grand and epic conclusion.

That said, I don't know, at this stage, whether or not there will be any more Journeys. It depends a lot on how many copies we sell in North America.

What inspired the storyline for The Longest Journey? What influences from literature, movies, etc.?

Oh, a bunch of stuff. I mean, both my co-designer Didrik Tollefsen and I are fans of JRR Tolkien and his world, as well as the movie Blade Runner, and I'm sure that has influenced us quite a bit--at least, those are the references that people seem to notice the most. Additionally, I've found personal inspiration with material as varied as Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic books, the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show, various novels by Orson Scott Card, and traditional fairy tales. And lots more. This doesn't mean, however, that TLJ is not an original concept--it is, and there's plenty of stuff in there that I can't trace back to any one source of inspiration-- but as writers and artists, we're continuously inspired and influenced by what we see, read, or hear.

Why April? A teenage female character in a marketplace dominated by male figures and purchasers? Were you purposely attempting to reach the predominately female adventure gaming audience?

No, absolutely not. We just wanted to tell a good story, and our story really demanded a female lead. TLJ is an emotional tale, and April's progress through the game is as much about empathy as anything else--she doesn't pick up a gun and fire it, she helps people out, she solves their problems. With a male lead, I think we would've lost some of the heart of the story, the emotional anchor; it could have worked, but it certainly wouldn't have been the same story. So that's why we created April. It just felt right.

Why wasn't the reunification of the worlds addressed by story's end?

Well, wasn't it? Like all good stories, we leave some things to the imagination ... and to the sequel. Besides, since the whole game was structured as a tale told in the past tense by an old woman, we do know that Stark and Arcadia were reunited at some point. But when, exactly, and how? Well, hopefully, I'll be able to tell that story too, some day.

What is your perception of the American gaming marketplace?

It's getting sort of generic, isn't it? There are a lot of very similar games out there, with fewer and fewer original products. But this is not just an American thing: Games are getting more and more expensive to produce, and the entire industry is looking for that sure sell, which, unfortunately, often translates into "same old crap." I do think, however, that there are a lot of great new games out there ... certainly more than I have time to play, so I'm not complaining.

What kind of sales figures in North America would bring a smile to your face?

A smile? Three hundred thousand. A big grin? Five hundred thousand. Maniacal laughter? A million. I hoping for the maniacal laughter, of course, but I'll settle for a smile.

The voice parts in TLJ are excellent--can you tell us a little about the auditions for the characters roles, etc.?

That was a pretty complicated process. We had a casting coordinator working from Norway with two different agencies in New York. We'd send them bits and pieces of the script, together with character bios, and they'd send us their casting suggestions on CD. It went back and forth like that for a good while before we were able to nail down all the 70 or so speaking parts, using around 25 different actors. Early on, we made a conscious decision not to go with "celebrity" voices, concentrating instead on finding the perfect actor for each and every part, regardless of who they were. And, with few exceptions, we did. Most of our actors have extensive theater, radio, and television experience, which was important, because we only had ten days to record more than 12 hours of dialogue, and we really needed to get the lines just right in as few takes as possible.

For the recording process, I went to New York personally to direct the actors, and, if necessary, to do on-site rewrites. Which there were--in fact, some nights I'd be up until 5 a.m. doing rewrites, start printing, and be done just in time to get to the studio by 10 a.m. Unlike a lot of voice-over productions, we chose to have our April, Sarah Hamilton, in the recording studio at all times, which allowed the actors to have actual conversations instead of reading their lines into a vacuum. You can really tell, because the actors were able to play off of each other, and it sounds a lot more "real" that way. Of course, it also put a lot of strain on Sarah, because she'd literally be talking eight hours a day, for ten days straight. I think her voice finally gave in about four minutes after we'd finished recording--she was a great sport about it, no question.

All in all, this was definitely one of my favorite parts of the production, and the game truly came alive when we inserted the voices into the game. It was a revelation.

Are there any extensive marketing campaigns planned for the North American market on a scale similar to Europe, where music videos appeared on television?

I honestly don't know. I would hope so, and we're willing to work with our distributor to make this happen, but it's up to them, really, how much money they're willing to spend on TLJ. I believe we should definitely take advantage of the huge amount of positive press we've been getting, and focusing people's attention on that. As for the TLJ single and music video ... I don't think it'll fly in the US, I'm sorry to say.

Do you envision any spin-off marketing for The Longest Journey? Books, a cartoon series, toys?

Heck, yeah! Towels, breakfast cereals, a long-running TV show, movies, action figures--I want the Gribbler with detachable claws--TLJ-branded liquor, soundtrack CDs, diapers ... I want it all!

There has been some interest in doing spin-offs with novels and a TV show, but I think we'll just have to wait and see what happens. Like I said before, everything will depend on how well the game does on the North American market, so if everyone buys twenty-five copies each, I'm sure something will happen!

Can you provide some background material on TLJ: number of years in production, total artists who worked on it, cost to produce?

We started design work on TLJ back in April 1996--at that point it was just me, my co-designer and Art Director Didrik Tollefsen, and two artists. We spent that whole year working on the visual and story design, while the programmers--who joined the production that June--created a prototype of the game.

Full production began in January 1997, and at that time, I think there were nine people on the team; four artists, three programmers, one musician/sound guy, and myself. The size of our team varied between seventeen at the most--at one point, we had seven or eight artists, and five programmers--and eight or nine, at the very end.

TLJ cost quite a bit to make, mostly because of the length of development, but no more so, I'd guess, than other games of the genre. Adventures are, traditionally, expensive to make, because of the sheer amount of art, animation, sound, and scripting needed; it's all unique, no tiling and little reuse of assets, and with around 160 locations--most of which were made two or three times before we were happy with the results--you can only imagine the amount of work that went into the game. When I think back on it, I still don't understand how we managed to do it.

We finally finished up development the last week of October 1999, and then we spent a few months building different language versions of TLJ, starting with the Norwegian and Swedish versions, and continuing to this date, with rumored versions in Polish and Spanish. Ironically, the version that was finished first--the English-speaking one--was one of the last to go out the door.

What is the purpose of the "Secret Journal," and how can the player access it?

If by Secret Journal you mean the Book of Secrets, then ... um ... it's a secret. Well, okay, it'll unlock once you've finished the game. But there's also another way to unlock it, but I'm not telling.

Are there any "Easter eggs" in the game that you can share with us?

Oh, there's a bunch, mostly in the shape of subtle references to adventure games, movies, other Funcom products--like the upcoming Anarchy Online--as well as the above-mentioned Book of Secrets. There's also a way to see the original TLJ trailer--from 1997, I believe--in-game, through careful pixel-hunting. But to be absolutely honest, we wanted to concentrate on creating content that all players would get to see, and so we didn't really have much time to create a whole lot of Easter eggs.

Among all the accolades, the two most common complaints have been the lengthy dialogues and some minor plot holes. Can you address both of these?

Plot holes are inevitable, simply because there's a whole lot of plot. Someone, somewhere, will find that something's missing--and someone already has, because I recently spent hours trying to explain a number of those "plot holes" on Usenet ... Of course, in doing that, I probably uncovered a large number of new plot holes, but so be it. In a way, it's fun to see people pick apart something you've spent three years making--after all, we try not to take ourselves too seriously--and I do think we've managed to avoid major plot holes at any rate. At least I'm able to explain the majority of them.

As for lengthy dialogues--true, there's a lot of speech, and some conversations do go on for quite a while; Tobias' explanation of the Balance and the Guardian lasts for a good fifteen minutes--but this is also part of what people seem to love about the game. We have a complex story to tell, and we tell it mostly through dialogue. Personally, I think the performances are so good that we manage to pull it off, but more impatient players will probably disagree. It's really a question of taste.

TLJ is the number-one seller on the majority of mail-order lists from Europe. Are you afraid that the majority of hard-core American adventure gamers may have already played and purchased the game by the time it is released in North America and thus have an adverse effect on retail sales that would then lead to further unfounded speculation on the death of the adventure game?

No. Well, yeah, I mean the ideal situation would be that the game was already released in the US, but the situation being what it is, I'm happy that hard-core adventure gamers have had the opportunity to get a hold of the game and play it. That's what matters the most to me. Hopefully, our official North American release will reach people who've never heard of TLJ, or who don't know much about it aside, perhaps, from what they've read in The New York Times or other mainstream or specialist press--people who'd never order online or buy an import. There's a potentially huge audience out there, so I don't think we've spoiled the chance to become a big seller in North America.

A lot of gamers have commented on April's realism. You are obviously not a woman; to what do you attribute your skill at creating such a realistic character of the opposite sex?

Obviously not a woman? Hey! I resent the allegations!

I'm a writer, first and foremost, and like most writers, I observe: At home, on the street, in cafes, restaurants. or stores, I listen to what women say, how they speak, and I watch how they act, and react, and I use that in my writing. However, most of what April says and does I extrapolate from her surroundings, and from the people she interacts with; I don't think men and women are that different, not when faced with the kind of stuff April has to face, or the situations she has to go through.

Additionally, Sarah Hamilton's performance had a great impact on April's realism; she really made her sound like an actual person, so Sarah should get some well-deserved credit here.

Let's have some fun--if TLJ were to be made into a movie, who would you like to portray April, the voice of Crow, etc.?

This is a tough one. Sarah did an amazing job with April's voice, and she's a very good actress. Still, in a potential movie, it'd be fun to see what someone else could do with the character, and I'd love to see April played by Alyson Hannigan, "Willow" on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. She has that perfect blend of teenaged innocence and exuberance and adult wisdom and cynicism. Besides, she kinda looks like April--at least to my eyes--she's very funny, and she's a damn fine actress to boot. So Alyson, if you're reading this, give us a call, okay?

Crow should be Crow. Period. Roger Raines did such an excellent job--Crow is my favorite character, bar none--that it'd be a sin to use anyone else.

McAllen? Jeremy Irons. Heck, why not--he's the perfect villain. Ian McKellen would also be a fine choice.

Cortez is a tough one ... I could see Sean Connery doing this one quite well, although he's not Latin. Antonio Banderas is too young, Danny Trejo is great, but not really the romantic type ... Like I said, it's a tough one, and suggestions would be more than welcome.

In fact, I think TLJ could work well as a big-budget fantasy movie, so I'll be expecting that fax from Dreamworks any day now. Any day.

Who would you envision playing an adult April--Pamela Anderson Lee?

Yeah. You nailed that one right off the bat. Pamela Anderson Lee is, in fact, perfect. More than perfect, she is the personification of the adult April ... with the emphasis on "adult."

Dear God, what a nightmare that would've been. Okay, April all grown up? Sigourney Weaver would be cool. Or Madeleine Stowe, or Sophie Marceau. If you could combine Sophie's looks with Madeleine's voice and Sigourney's attitude, you'd have the perfect older April.

You've bucked the marketplace trends in every manner possible--an adventure game, heavy on the dialogue, and featuring a female teenager--and triumphed. What even made you think you could succeed in today's marketplace?

Sheer bloody-mindedness, for one. Funcom was always very supportive of the project, and they let us do pretty much whatever we wanted, which was great. When we started working on the game, the genre was already on the wane, but in the end, I actually think this helped us; there has been so much focus lately on how the adventure game, as a genre, has died a quiet death, and we've been lucky enough to have been used as an example of how this is not true.

We never really worried too much about whether or not we'd be a huge success--we just wanted to create a great, playable, good-looking, story-oriented adventure game, and we figured that if the fans liked it, the game might cross over to more casual gamers. Which it has.

What time frame are you looking at for the release of The Longest Journey sequel?

Heh. Good question. Well, if there is one--and it'd be fun to do a sequel, although this time I'd probably stick to just writing it--I'd like to see it being released around Christmas 2003. As much as I love the world and the characters, and even though big chunks of the storyline are already fully plotted--both for a sequel and a prequel--I'd like a chance to do something different right now. And I've got something very different in mind, while still staying true to the things I love about adventures ... good story, great characters, puzzles, less action, and more lateral thinking.

Will you attempt a simultaneous world release for the sequel?

It'd be silly not to, at the very least, try to launch the game worldwide at approximately the same time. The problem lies in the translation and voice-recording. TLJ was originally written and recorded in English--contrary to some reports--and consequently, that was the first version to be ready, and almost the last to be released. In other words, we had to wait for the game to be translated, recorded, and released in a number of different languages. Releasing the English-speaking version first would have affected sales in other territories, as stores and customers would have imported the game from England or the US. So part of our contract with the different local distributors stated that they would have a certain period of "exclusivity" before we launched the English-language version.

But I sure hope, if there is a sequel, we'll be able to shorten the time between releases dramatically.