"Good things come to those who wait" - it's an old saying that proves quite relevant to the topic at hand. After all, it's been 7 years since the second instalment in The Longest Journey saga, and during that time series creator Ragnar Tørnquist has asked the fans of the series to deploy a bit of patience in regards to returning to the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia. So, you can expect that fans of the adventure game genre were rather excited when it was officially announced that his new studio, Red Thread Games, was to Kickstart a sequel in Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey. Many of the team responsible for bringing the series to life in the first place have returned, but one fresh face was revealed among them - Martin Bruusgaard. Having previously worked at Funcom on its two recent MMO releases, Tørnquist brought him on-board to act as lead designer for the return of Zoë Castillo.
Taking time out of his busy schedule, I spoke to the beanie-wearing developer about The Longest Journey series, the Kickstarter, and the current development of the game. You can actually hear the interview in its entirety during this week's edition of the PWNCAST (found at around the 25 minute mark) but if you fancy reading instead of listening, this article is just for you.
The Kickstarter craze has seen successful campaigns since its rise to mainstream prominence, but not many have had the surge of initial support that Dreamfall Chapters saw, hitting its intended target of $850,000 within 10 days. Although it was an incredibly welcome and “absolutely mind-blowing” turn of events for Martin and the rest of Red Thread Games, there were still some nerves amongst the team in the run up to the Kickstarter launch to ensure that they could achieve their goal of making the best game they could.
“We’ve been working with this Kickstarter campaign for a while” said Martin, “and a couple of weeks ago, right before we wanted to press the big green button we were so unsure, discussing back and forth what the right target is, what sort of pledge goals we should have, and we didn’t have any sort of insurance whatsoever. So it might be easy to say now that “oh well, of course, they would mean to do well” but we had no idea, and we were really nervous! But once we hit that button and we saw that the money had started rolling in, we were tremendously happy. We’ve just been blown away by all the support and the kind words from everybody. It’s just been absolutely amazing.”
In fairness to all those who have already backed the project, when the previous instalment in the critically-acclaimed adventure series ended on a cliffhanger almost 7 years ago, leaving almost all of the characters’ fates in a precarious state, you can easily see why its fanbase threw money at it at such a rapid pace. Its focus on storytelling and detail of the characters were popular with players and critics alike, especially in terms of connecting and relating with the journeys that they travelled. “It’s about tackling life, I would say” Bruusgaard responded when I asked him what his take on the series’ narrative was, “about life choices, and different challenges that a young girl can meet growing up.”
Although Bruusgaard is no stranger to game development, his previous experience stems from a completely different beast to adventure games – Massively Multiplayer Online, specifically Age of Conan: Hyborian Adventures and The Secret World, both of which were ambitious in their design (and the latter of which I still rate rather highly.) Having been a self-confessed “hardcore MMO-er,” Bruusgaard had previously only cared about skills, statistics, and the mechanics of a game, but it wasn’t until he began work as lead designer of The Secret World with Ragnar Tørnquist and Dag Schaeve that he began to appreciate the importance of storytelling in games. “I was quite surprised to see how well story can be fit into any type of game, and especially The Secret World where it became this big, big thing. If story is done well, I think it can lift any game to complete new… not standards, I’m not sure which words to use, but it can really lift or improve a game tremendously, and that was a wakeup call to me to really acknowledge that story is incredibly important.”
His time developing The Secret World was invaluable in terms of how story can affect and integrate into an interactive experience, something he has utilised in the early stages of development for The Dreamfall Chapters. “…For me personally I’ve learnt how to tell that story, and seeing how these guys are able to establish characters and give them personalities, and how a simple task of giving them certain words or certain expressions or certain characteristics can flip a character completely, and turn a boring character into a tremendously deep character. It’s stuff like that I have huge respect for, and I can’t wait to dive into this pool of… erm… story-ness! (laughs)”
While Martin may be a relative newcomer to the series in terms of its development, many of the people at Red Thread Games comprise of those who had previously brought the series to life, including Ragnar Tørnquist and Dag Schaeve who acted as director and writer respectively. When I asked Martin if they had found it challenging to return to this universe they had created years ago, he responded by saying the exact opposite, going as far as stating that they found it “amusing” to come back to a series that had been kept on ice for several years. “… looking at their faces [you can tell] they are enjoying this tremendously. They’re having great fun reliving the previous games in order to map out the new timeline for the new game. Ragnar’s always had the big lines drawn, like he has always known what he wanted to happen in Dreamfall Chapters, but the granularity of it and all the sort of fine print of it is what we’re working on now, and I can tell that both him and Dag are having great fun with that.”
A topic we have covered many times here on Dealspwn is that of the prominence of the Adventure game genre, and while some may have felt it was dead we have always argued that it never went away in the first place - it only lost its mainstream appeal, leaving it to indie developers to provide (often) excellent experiences. When I asked Martin for his own personal take on why it had drifted out of mainstream appeal, his response was one that focused on the evolution of technology, “…I think it became the grey child of the computer industry, when you had all these 3D flashy shooters and driver games and it lost its sexiness a bit, I think. But then, we lived with all the flashiness and graphics for a while now, and I think people are rediscovering the importance of stories just the way I did, I guess.” His theory doesn’t just stop with graphical presentation though, stating that the rise of development for portable devices such as tablets and smartphones has allowed for a resurgence in the genre’s popularity. “…it’s lowered the threshold of picking up and adventure game when you can have it on your phone or your iPad because you just want that the next bit of the story, and you can carry that story with you in your pocket.” Ultimately though, he feels that adventure games are “a really valuable and beautiful genre that people are missing, I guess, from the current games.”
You could argue that the lack of mainstream appeal for the genre is one of the reasons why back in 2006 Dreamfall: The Longest Journey included combat and mini-games, not only to mix things up, but to provide a way for newcomers to find the game approachable without seeming archaic. The results would end up being somewhat divisive amongst critics, so when I asked Martin if we would see refined versions of these action mechanics it wasn’t too surprising to hear that Red Thread Games had decided to play to their strengths, with them “[going] back to explore what we can do with merging story and puzzles.” Beyond this though, Martin explained that they plan to make the narrative even more involving for the player, with one of their current tasks being finding a way to communicate the character’s inner thoughts. “…like everybody has some sort of first impression when they walk into a room or when they see a character. We want the players to know how the main character feels when she discovered different aspects of this world, and in the game.”
Finding a natural way for players to interact with the world is also an on-going task for the team, with their latest progress shown during a recent Kickstarter update. The combination of third-person freedom with aspects of 2D point-and-click mechanics is the ultimate goal, with Bruusgaard explaining that he loved it when an old adventure game allowed him explore the environment. He used an example of walking up to a table, looking at it, and having an up-close view of said table being presented to the player filled with items or clues. The current prototype managed to show that their progress in fusing these mechanics is on track, but concerns with making it too easy with the prominence of blue dots, indicating where interactive items are, has been voiced by the community.
“First of all I think it’s very important to underline that it’s still a prototype” Martin insisted, “it’s what we’re working on at the moment, but I think it’s possible to… using the example I used earlier, let’s say you have a table, and that the table has a dot on it. That means that there might be something on that table to investigate. When you then go into point-and-click [mode] you might not get any more clues. Then you need to actually figure out that “okay, I need to pour the whiskey into the bottle or glass (laughs) or figure out what to do with that table.”
I would have interjected with my appreciation for whiskey, but I let him continue.
“Like, it can give you pointers to where to go, but not tell you exactly what to do… because what The Longest Journey did so well were the puzzles, I think. They were quite unforgiving but they were clever, and you got them in the end, and we know that a lot of people love these types of puzzles that really, really challenge you to use your brain.” The same couldn’t necessarily be said for Dreamfall, however, as Martin then went on to voice an opinion I agree with – “What I think that was fantastic with Dreamfall was that the story flowed really well, but I think the puzzles were quite simple, or they weren’t challenging enough I would say, and if we can do both, like point people in the right direction but not spoon feed them what they have to do I think we [will have] hit the right mark, so that’s what we’re going for, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.” Martin went to on to point out that nothing was truly set in stone, and that they would be willing to scrap the they had done “if we see that it’s not working,” but for now the team at Red Thread feel confident that they are heading down the right path in terms of interaction.
Besides the puzzles though, what has truly gripped players is the story and, perhaps more directly, the characters that inhabit the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia. Fans of the series have their personal favourites - heroine Zoë Castillo, ‘Sidekick of the Month’ Crow, Theoretically-Blind Bob, the list goes on. Martin had his own picks when I asked him which of the cast stood out in his eyes, Roper Klacks being the first one he went to, “especially in Dreamfall” when the former villain plays a key part in the story, but another character also made his list… but both of us were stumped as to what his name was (and feeling rather sheepish in the process.) Eventually Martin came to the rescue - “Flipper!” he announced excitedly, “… I really liked his language and I can hear so much of Dag [Schaeve] in him (laughs) and he just cracks me up!” I couldn’t blame him, pointing out that with a plot was filled with a rather serious threat against the world(s), having Flipper Burns providing a stark (pun intended) contrast by being borderline nuts made him memorable, something Martin agreed with.
At this point I brought up the community question (submitted by user ‘ethteck’) which asked if the $2,000,000 stretch goal was not met, whether Red Thread Games would still look to complete the mysterious ‘The Longest Journey Home’ project at all. The initial response from Martin was surprisingly straight forward - “yes,” but he made sure to clarify his statement afterwards.
“We certainly hope so," he explained. "It’s something that we would really like to do, but it will require time and effort, and therefore money. It’s not something that we put up there [in the stretch goals] to tempt people and sort of “give us all your money.” It is a new project we would love to do, but we need the funding for it, it won’t develop itself unfortunately. But I know that me and Dag and Ragnar would love to do it, and if it doesn’t happen through Kickstarter we will try to make it happen through other means.”
As per the tradition here at Dealspwn, I closed the interview with a simple question that more often than not provides rather interesting responses – What is the most badass thing about Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey? After composing himself and taking a moment to think, Martin provided a sterling answer, “Well, you get to be a heroine that gets to travel between worlds, and she has a badass Crow as her companion!”
And we couldn’t agree more.
The Kickstarter campaign still has 12 days to go, and while it has managed to break the $1,000,000 mark over the weekend, the hope is to find a last minute surge of pledges to hit some of the further stretch goals. Regardless of what happens, we’ll be sure to keep you posted on the progress of both the crowd-funding campaign and the game’s development going forward.
A huge thank you to Martin at Red Thread Games for taking the time out to talk to us!