RPG Vault – 10/05/04

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RPG Vault – 10/05/04

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Although it’s accurate to say the adventure category no longer occupies the dominant market position it once held, it does retain a tremendous appeal for gamers and game makers who favor strong narratives involving distinctive, well developed characters. Since these overlap significantly with aspects of the role-playing genre, many fans of one also enjoy the other. As a result, quite a few of our readers are familiar with Funcom’s exceptional The Longest Journey. Set roughly two centuries from now, it put players in the persona of April Ryan a youthful, seemingly unremarkable art student who find she can shift between two parallel worlds, one founded on science and technology, the other on magic. The natural balance between them is in jeopardy, so she must undertake an epic quest to fulfill her destiny, which is of course to prevent utter chaos.

Released in some parts of the world near the end of 1999 and in North America almost a year later, the title was a critical and commercial success; it captured numerous awards and is thought to have sold in excess of half a million copies. Given these circumstances, many anticipated a sequel would be forthcoming. However, it wasn’t until February of 2003 that the company announced pre-production had begun on the second chapter in saga. After that, it was another 12 months before Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was officially announced. While a few major facts were revealed then, such as a new heroine and the addition of unspecified action elements, we were truly pleased for the chance to question Game Director and Writer Ragnar Tornquist for this first-ever online interview just days before the game debuts at E3.

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How would you describe Dreamfall in terms of an introductory summary for our readers? What kind of gaming experience will it provide, and to what does the title refer?

Dreamfall is an action adventure game in the truest sense of the word, with plenty of action and a whole lot of adventuring. We’ve taken inspiration from a bunch of our favourite games on the PC and consoles including Eternal Darkness, Silent Hill, Resident Evil, Knights of the Old Republic, Shenmue, Prince of Persia – although there really isn’t one game out there that you can point to and say « that’s Dreamfall ». In that sense, it isn’t easily pigeonholed; it’s not a carbon copy of the latest hits out there. It’s an amalgam, I think, of game elements and genres that we love, mixed together into something that feels unique, original, and powerful. That’s hyperbole, of course, but we’re honestly excited about what we have. We think it’s going to turn heads.

As for the title, Dreamfall refers – literally and figuratively – to the fall of dreams… but I can’t get into any specifics yet. We’re keeping the story under tight wraps, although I can promise that you’re in for a very unique and thrilling experience.
How is Dreamfall related to The Longest Journey? Given the name change, it looks like it’s not a direct sequel. Is this an accurate assessment?

It’s not a sequel, but it’s definitely a follow-up. The Longest Journey was a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. In that game – a traditional point and click adventure – you played April Ryan, an 18 year old girl who was suddenly told she was the only one who could save the world, and had to make some huge sacrifices in order to do so. In Dreamfall, which takes place a decade later, you’ll find out what happened to April after she went through this whole ordeal and lost everything, so in that sense it’s a sequel; it continues her story. The game’s main storyline, however, is new, and it follows a new protagonist, Zoe Castillo, as she becomes involved in a huge conspiracy.

Of course, during the course of the story, you’ll meet characters from the first game, and the two games will be linked in a way that will make sense to those who’ve played The Longest Journey, without alienating new players.
The next question is probably pretty obvious. What considerations influenced you to take this direction instead of a straightforward sequel?

Was that a correct decision? I think one thing we decided on very early, right after the first game came out, was that we didn’t want to do a traditional sequel. We didn’t want to do the easy thing and just cash in on our success that way. It actually took a long time before we felt ready to return to the setting and the characters, and since we’re now telling a very different story – the second chapter in a bigger saga – we needed to introduce new game mechanics.

This is a more action-oriented story, there’s more at stake, there are more enemies, it’s a more dangerous world – all of this adds up to a game that really needs action, needs direct control, needs new characters. We couldn’t tell this story in a 2D point and click adventure game, with April Ryan back in the lead, saving the Balance… again. So, we’re taking a risk, sure, but that’s something we had to do. Playing it safe just isn’t an option for us. And I think players will ultimately agree that it was the right decision.
Since Dreamfall is being positioned as an action adventure, what’s the balance between the two? In what ways and to what extent, is this mix changed from before?

Why does ‘action’ exclude ‘adventure’? I don’t necessarily think there’s a dichotomy between the two, and this is something we’re addressing. Adventure games have traditionally been quite static and cerebral, and we’re trying to make something that feels more dynamic, more reactive, more alive – while still preserving the unique feel and atmosphere of The Longest Journey. The adventure elements contain action, and vice versa. The mix also depends a lot on the player, how the player wants to approach a given situation.

That said, the more ‘traditional’ adventuring elements – exploration, conversations, puzzle-solving – are important, but the action bits will be equally important, and by action, I don’t necessarily mean combat. There are scenes where things are going on, what we call ‘set-pieces’, where players need to make quick decisions affecting the outcome. It’s action, but players need to use their brains rather than their reflexes. And there’s not necessarily such a thing as failure; whatever decisions you make, the game may continue, but the outcome of these set-pieces may differ from player to player. If you’re someone who doesn’t necessarily want to fight, well, you mostly won’t have to. We hope we’re building a game that adapts to the player’s wishes and abilities. That’s a difficult thing to pull off, of course, and there will be situations where you’ll be forced to do what you’re ‘supposed’ to do – but I think it’s a big step in the right direction.
What do you see as the qualities that made The Longest Journey special, and how are you planning to build on them in Dreamfall? Conversely, what do you want to add, change and improve?

I believe the elements that made The Longest Journey special to a lot of people were the story, the characters, the graphics, the audio – and not necessarily the gameplay, which was pretty standard point and click adventure. In Dreamfall, we’re definitely focusing on all of that, but this time, we’re also paying a lot of attention to the gameplay; in particular, we’re providing a great deal of variety to players through various types of action adventure gameplay. With the 3D world and direct controls, we’re able to expand and evolve the game beyond what we achieved the last time, and make it even more immersive, emotional and exciting.

We also want to improve on the pacing, which was a little off in The Longest Journey. There were stretches that became a little boring, there was a bit too much talking, and some puzzles were way too hard. We’re actually building a shorter game, because that’s the feedback we’ve been getting; that many didn’t have the time or energy to play for 30 or 40 hours. And we want everyone to be able to play through to the end, because Dreamfall really is all about seeing these threads come together, these relationships and events converging – and I think players will be blown away by some of the events that take place in the game. It’ll definitely be a ride, and so it’s important not to extend that ride for too long. We’re keeping it short and sweet… or at least relatively so. It’ll still be a lengthy affair, just not a tiring one.
Overall, what kind of setting do you want players to experience this time? What are the main locations, how much of the gameworld will be new vs. familiar to those who played The Longest Journey?

The setting is near future science fiction mixed with an original fantasy world. We’re putting together an expansive, epic gameworld – ranging from Casablanca to Japan, from an underground city to a fantasy metropolis, inside high-tech corporations and a floating city – and much, much more. We’re pulling out all the stops in terms of content.

The game world is split, as it was in the first game, between the world of science, Stark, and the world of magic, Arcadia. This time, there’s also a third world called Winter. There will be plenty of new locations in both Stark and Arcadia, and even though a few of the locations will be familiar to those who played The Longest Journey, they’ll have changed so much in the intervening years that it’ll be like exploring brand new places.
How about the story element play out? To what extent will it be open-ended versus linear? To what degree will player actions affect it? And any hints as to the nature of the conspiracy you mentioned?

We know how important the story was to the first game, and we’re not sparing any effort when it comes to writing an equally powerful story for Dreamfall. This time, players will also feel a lot more involved in what’s going on. Instead of lots of non-interactive cinematic sequences, we’re introducing set-pieces where events play out in real-time, and where the player stays in control. We definitely don’t want this to feel like a movie or a book where you’re just sitting back and watching the action. We want you to participate, and we want the story to happen while you’re playing – controlled and paced by your own decisions. There will be a certain amount of linearity, of course, because the linear story is important – and I think players are expecting that – but how you get from A to Z will be more up to you this time around.

We don’t want to reveal too much about the story just yet, but it involves a conspiracy related to dreams, a phenomenon affecting technology with static interference, a ghostly presence linked to a black house, a new and dangerous enemy, the search for April Ryan… and much, much more.
What led to the inclusion multiple player characters, and to Zoe Castillo being the main one? Do you think players can relate as well emotionally to them as they did to just April in The Longest Journey?

Oh, I absolutely believe that we’ll pull that off. In every story, it’s possible to relate emotionally to several protagonists; just look at The Lord of the Rings, for example, or any kind of epic fantasy novel, where readers have to relate to dozens of characters. In Dreamfall, there will be plenty of time to get to know all three playable characters, and their unique perspectives add depth to the story that wouldn’t be possible with just a single protagonist. With three very different points of view, we’re also able to pull of twists and turns that would otherwise be impossible. We can also exploit the three characters’ individual strengths and weaknesses to create more interesting and compelling gameplay.

As for Zoe, she’s the lead because this is primarily her story, her journey, and she’s the only one who can complete it.
What kind of character is Zoe, what’s her situation at the beginning of the game, and how would you compare and contrast her with April at the start of The Longest Journey?

Zoe Castillo is, at first glance, a very normal young woman. She’s living with her father in Casablanca, and she’s recently dropped out of college because she’s begun to question her choices in life. Like a lot of young people, she’s lost faith, and she’s sort of trapped between her past and future selves. She’s a bubbly girl, but someone who’s also very indecisive about what she wants to do with her life, and she’s extremely afraid of committing herself to anything or anyone.

That’s the set-up where you come in and take control over Zoe. She’s living this comfortable life in the big city, and then, suddenly and by chance, she becomes involved in a major conspiracy – and she needs to make some major decisions about what’s important to her, and what she’s willing to risk for the people she loves. It’s a very interesting starting point; instead of having this proactive character with a capital-D Destiny, you’re just playing a normal person who’s in way, way over her head.

With April Ryan in The Longest Journey, you had sort of the same situation, but she was a Shifter, she was the Chosen One. With Zoe, it’s more accident than anything else… although naturally – and cryptically – there are no coincidences.
How much of the game will be spent controlling Zoe? What are you willing to tell us about the other player characters at this time? Will April be one of them?

Zoe is the lead, so you’ll be playing her at least 60 to 70 percent of the time. April will be one of the playable characters, and she’ll also appear as a non-player character. The same goes for Zoe; you’ll be able to interact with her whilst playing the other characters, which opens up some interesting scenarios. April has changed dramatically in the past 10 years, which is perfectly understandable considering what she’s gone through.

As for the third lead, all I can say at this point is that his name is Kian, and he’s a very intriguing man, someone who ties into the saga – both past and future – in a very profound way. We’ll be releasing more information about him soon. I may be biased, but he’s currently my favourite character because he’s just so different from what we’re used to seeing in games. He’s definitely no cookie-cutter hero. Just to give you a clue, one of the words we use to describe him is ‘apostle’.
Shifting to gameplay, to what extent will Dreamfall implement « traditional » adventure elements such as quests and puzzle-solving? Will they have multiple solutions?

Yes, absolutely – multiple solutions is one of the things that’s high on our list. We want to move away from the rigid structure of most adventure games, and incorporate a great variety of gameplay mechanisms. There will be quests and puzzles, but hopefully they’ll be more interesting and dynamic than they were in the first game.
On the action side, what kinds of gameplay can we expect to see? Will there be a significant amount of combat, and to what extent will success depend on player skill and fast reflexes?

There is combat, though I wouldn’t say « significant amount » – it really is up to the player in a lot of cases, because most combat encounters can be avoided, if you so wish. And it may not always be the right decision to pick a fight. Depending on the character you’re controlling, you might be better off finding an alternative solution, like sticking to the shadows and avoiding trouble. Zoe, for instance, may be better off finding alternatives to combat. And there will also be consequences to just going in there and knocking everyone out cold. The combat itself will be easy to learn and intuitive. There will be layers of complexity in the combat and the characters will learn a few new tricks on the way, but you won’t need any fighting game experience to be successful.
In terms of the game’s visual appeal, what graphics engine are you using, and how important is it to the achievement of your art direction objectives?

We’re using a very powerful 3D engine called Shark, which is being developed by Spinor in cooperation with Funcom. It’s allowing us to re-create scenes from the first game in real time and in much greater detail, using tons of cool effects like volumetric fog, full-screen glow, rim lighting, rain, snow, and so on – all the latest and greatest in eye candy. We’re also using a dynamic camera that gives us a great deal of flexibility and control over how the player experiences the game.

While we’re staying true to the look of The Longest Journey, we’re not afraid to change the things we weren’t happy with. The characters in particular are light years beyond what you saw in the first game. I think Dreamfall will be one of the better looking games of next year. It already looks quite stunning, a year and a half away from release, and we’re constantly adding new effects to make it look even sweeter. That said, we’re focusing even more on art direction than on the technical aspects, and I think it shows. Dreamfall has a very unique look that distinguishes itself from other games out there.
The aural aspects of The Longest Journey gained a lot of acclaim, as have those in Anarchy Online. What are your plans this time? Who’s composing the music?

Audio is a priority for us, and it’s something that was done really well in The Longest Journey, so the expectations are pretty high. The sound effects, music and voice acting were all excellent – I’m biased, of course, but the reviews were almost unanimous on this point – and we’re staying the course with Dreamfall. It will have a very different sound to it, of course, since it’s a different experience, but it’ll be no less interesting. We’re working hard to create a unique soundtrack with a fresh and contemporary feel to it. Most of the music will be composed by Morten Sorlie, who contributed to The Longest Journey, and who was responsible for the amazing sound and music in Anarchy Online, but we also intend to utilize other artists, although I can’t say anything about them just yet.
For the voice acting, to what extent do you intend to use professional voice actors? As well, given the controversy over some of the adult dialogue in The Longest Journey, will Dreamfall differ in this regard?

When it comes to the voice acting, we’re sticking with professional actors. We’ll be going through an extensive casting process this autumn to make sure we get the right person for every part, and we’ll be looking for experienced voice-over artists, theatre actors, people with the ability to make these animated characters come to life. Of course, wherever possible, we’ll be bringing back the same actors we used in The Longest Journey.

As for the language, we’ll probably be staying away from the cursing… at least in the US version. We’ve discussed the possibility of making an ‘international’ version where you’d be able to turn on things like adult language and nudity – not to titillate, of course, but in keeping with the overall maturity of the game’s story. We’re creating a realistic fantasy universe, and cursing, sex, violence – that’s an integral part of life. We don’t necessarily want to pull any punches if the story requires it. But ideally, we’d like for everyone to be able to play this game – 13 or 30 – so for ratings reasons, we’ll probably be a bit more conservative this time around.
How will the shift to a more action-oriented style of game and also your stated plans for Dreamfall to be a multi-platform title affect the user interface and controls?

We’re paying a lot of attention to the interface and controls. On the PC, we definitely want something that is playable using just a mouse, to get a real analog feel to the movement of the character. Our design brief is to create something that’s both unique and original, and also immediately intuitive and easy to pick up and play. At E3, we’ll be showing the game using a joypad – which is an alternative control method, as well as the one designed for use on the consoles – simply because the PC controls are more complicated to do, and we want to get it right. Nothing sucks more than lousy controls. Dreamfall works great with a joypad, of course, but most PC gamers will want to use the mouse.
How will key systems like inventory and conversation function? Will you have elements like an auto-journal, mini-map and quick slots? To what extent will controls be user configurable?

As for the inventory, it will be flexible and easy to use, and very visual. You’ll be able to examine, manipulate and use items quickly and intuitively. The conversation system will be keyword-based, and really powerful. It’ll give you lots of options when interacting with non-player characters, and your choices will affect their attitude towards you.

Auto-journal? Yes, definitely; that’s something we did with the first title, and this time around it’ll be even more powerful. I don’t see there being much use for a mini-map, however, since most environments will be easy to navigate around in using visual cues. You’ll always know where you are and where you’re going. Actions and items will be easy to access, easy to use, so in a sense there are ‘quick slots’, but they’re already set up in a way that’s context-sensitive and immediately accessible. I don’t know to what extent players will want to reconfigure the controls, because we’re designing and testing the interface to perfection, but on the PC, there will be two completely different control options, using either the mouse or a joypad.
How many people comprise the team working on Dreamfall, and were very many of you involved in making The Longest Journey?

We have a small team of just over 20 highly experienced developers, many of whom worked on The Longest Journey. The combined industry experience of our four designers, for example, is close to 30 years. Both the programming team and the graphics team consist of some of our most senior people, so while it may not be the biggest team around, that’s by design. We wanted a focused group of highly experienced developers who could each play an important part in putting this game together.
What has the project timeline been from the initial idea up to the present? How long has it been in full development, what will you be showing at E3, and what’s a reasonable target date for release?

The initial idea for the game came about just after The Longest Journey was released, at some point in 2000. We’d drafted up several concepts, and we were really just waiting for the right time, the right mix of people, to make this thing. That opportunity finally came around in early 2003, which is when we started pre-production.

Full development on the title didn’t begin until mid-autumn last year, so what we’ll be showing at E3 is really the result of seven or eight months of work. Specifically, we’ll be showcasing a few sections of the game that illustrate some of the key gameplay in Dreamfall. In terms of percentage, it’s just a tiny, tiny portion of the game, because we don’t want to reveal too much until we’re much closer to release, probably at next year’s E3. But it’ll definitely be enough to whet people’s appetites, I think.

The game is scheduled for release in the latter half of 2005, and we are quite comfortable with that deadline.
Why do you believe Dreamfall will stand out from other adventure games of its generation? To whom will it appeal most, and why should someone who didn’t play The Longest Journey be interested?

First off, Dreamfall isn’t a traditional adventure game. I think it’ll be very unique in mixing adventure and action, and it really is a brand new and original experience in that sense, something players haven’t seen before. If you appreciate strong characters, varied gameplay, the scope of the game worlds, and the fact that there’s a really complex and involving storyline, you’ll probably enjoy playing this game. It’ll also be really easy to pick up and play, which makes it ideal for more casual, or less hardcore, gamers – although, from experience, hardcore gamers ought to enjoy Dreamfall for the variety, the graphics and audio, the solid gameplay and the story.
Is there anything else you’d like to tell our readers at the moment, or perhaps something you might want to ask them?

We’re launching the official website for the game today, at www.dreamfall.com, and we’ll be updating the site regularly with exclusive content like screenshots, concept art, videos, music, voice samples, character profiles and more. It’s definitely worth checking out!
While we are grateful indeed to Ragnar Tornquist for the considerable amount of information he has been kind enough to provide, it has also served to make us even keener to know more. As a consequence, we will definitely be checking out the site on a regular basis, and also tracking development in general. In the meantime, as we look forward to our scheduled demo at E3 later this week, our thanks to him and Funcom for this exceptionally interesting and enlightening first online interview.

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27 janvier 2013