I had just spent the last twenty or so minutes watching Dreamfall Chapters Book One: Reborn in action, seeing locations like Europolis brought to life and how the player would interact with the world. As a fan of the series, I was excited. In fact, seeing that the game was so close to a finished state only made me want it sooner. If you haven’t already (and don’t mind a few light spoilers – nothing big, I promise you!) then be sure to check out the gameplay presentation on our YouTube channel. Or watch the embed above. Because convenience.
Once it was over, Creative Director Ragnar Tørnquist & Lead Writer Dag Scheve took some time to discuss a number of topics, such as development, the PS4 announcement, and both the good & bad sides of fandom. Before we get going though, a quick confession – I had originally planned for this to be a video interview, but technological failings on my part meant that we would have to do things the hard way. What this means is that I’ve robbed you of yet another glorious moment of Tørnquist & Scheve posing with Toby the Dealspwny. For that, I am deeply sorry.
The joys of JourneyCon, & disappointments of ‘controversy’
2013 was a big year for Red Thread Games. The Kickstarter was a success and development even hit its Alpha milestone on time before the year’s end, but to me the most notable part of the year was JourneyCon. With fans from 17 different countries attending the inaugural event, it was quite the achievement for the Norwegian developers. “It happened!” exclaimed Dag, when I asked how successful they had felt it had been. “We sold out, yeah,” Ragnar began. “That was our prime goal, I think! That and that it was a good event, and it was fun. It was amazing [to learn] where people came from. There was one guy from Oregon [in the US], there was people traveling from all over Europe, there was one guy from New York! People just came in from across the world, and that was great.” Despite this, Ragnar admitted that it was a draining experience “not because of the fans, but because the amount of work it was.” With Book One emerging in the very near future, it’s no wonder he confirmed there wouldn’t be one this year, was hopeful that they would do it again in the future.
When I asked if they had any personal highlights from JourneyCon, both of them were quick to name the quiz, although Ragnar pointed out how dancing with the fans at the end of the night was another fond memory. “…for me it was standing in front of that room full of people who’d played the game and hearing the applause when we played Friar’s Keep and making choice with them. It was just amazing. Amazing connection!”
However, not every experience with the community has been a cheerful one. Earlier in the year Red Thread Games made a wonderful gesture towards the Euro Pride events happening at the time, releasing a picture of Zoë wearing a t-shirt supporting it. Unfortunately the move created a rather strange backlash towards the time, and I brought up how, along with the team at RTG, the responses caught me off guard. “That made me so sad,” Ragnar began. “Like, on Facebook to see people saying ‘oh, you shouldn’t take a stand on this, it’s a controversial issue,’ and I’m like ‘It’s controversial? To say that you’re in support of the rights of gay people? I’m sorry – how is that controversial?’ It really pissed me off, especially as companies such as Disney & Apple are all out in support of gay rights. It’s a normal thing to do, and to see that there are people that had played Dreamfall & The Longest Journey, and who still thought that way – did... did you actually play those games?!” I mentioned that, considering how two important characters to heroine April Ryan in The Longest Journey are in a homosexual relationship – a fact brought up within the first hour of the game – for fans to make an issue out of a kind real-world gesture was truly baffling. Ragnar agreed by reiterating his original point – “Yeah, that made me so, so sad.”
Consoles & TV shows
However, it was time to move on from depressing viewpoints, and onto the joys of the game itself. I changed the subject to the news that Dreamfall Chapters was coming to the PlayStation 4, which caused a cheer from both Tørnquist and Scheve. Having previously stated how the Remote Play feature would be a great fit for the game, I asked if that meant that the feature would be supported when the console version was released. “Yeah, you’ll be able to play this game on the Vita in bed through the [Remote Play functionality of the] PlayStation 4,” Ragnar confirmed, although he was quick to ensure I knew that was as far as it went.
“We’re not creating a Vita version because the Vita, while fantastic – it’s my favourite handheld – in terms of power it’s still quite a few years behind [current-gen] consoles,” he continued. “This game is very memory intensive. We need the PlayStation 4 in order to do this properly, but yeah, I can’t wait to play it via the Vita through the PlayStation 4! It’ll be awesome!” As I pointed out to him, I can already see players staying up until three in the morning, eager to make the next choice.
Ragnar then told me something I wasn’t expecting. “PlayStation players will be able to see the choices made by PC, Mac & Linux players as well, so they will be in the same world.” I commended the move on the basis that in most cases these sort of features are platform specific. “No-no, they will address the same global database,” he replied, “and you’ll still be able to connect to Facebook if you want to do that, and see your Facebook friends.”
I then brought up how during the Sony Press Conference the words “coming to console first on PS4” were used in regards to Dreamfall Chapters. To that end, I had to ask – does this mean RTG are still looking to get the game on the Xbox One at some point, or were talks ongoing? To illustrate his point, Ragnar explained how the entire process went down. “Sony approached us very early on – a long time ago – and we’ve been talking to Sony since the Kickstarter, since March 2013,” he began. “[Regarding Xbox], we have Xbox dev kits but obviously with the game being a timed exclusive on PlayStation it makes it harder right now. Microsoft doesn’t accept games that have been exclusive to another platform first, so if they change that we’d be happy to take it to Xbox later on. If they don’t then, well, we’re still talking to Microsoft, we’re still developing on Xbox One.”
“We’re part of the [email protected] program, and the Xbox One is still a fantastic platform” he continued. “There’s tons of interesting stuff there, but for Dreamfall it made sense to go with PlayStation. We got Unity earlier on the PlayStation, we got dev kits earlier. We’ve had the dev kits since last spring, so we’ve had them for a very long time, so it was a natural choice. It’s not about Microsoft not doing something, it was more about Sony being very proactive with the game.”
The conversation segued into the nature of adventure games and where they draw inspiration from in mainstream media. “I think they recognised that there aren’t any games like this on PlayStation,” Ragnar explained, “and that there’s an audience for it, and that the game works really well sitting on a couch with the controller, sharing with girlfriend or boyfriend, mom, dad, kids, and experiencing the story. It’s a living room game. It’s a HBO game!” At this point Ragnar turned to Dag for confirmation. “Or is it? Is it STARS? Is it AMC?” “Oh, it’s HBO” was the reply from Dag – something I agreed with before Ragnar continued with his point. “But that’s really what we’re trying to do with the episodic releases – create something that is like a TV series [in terms of] depth of character, complexity, length, scope, and we are big fans of TV shows!” He closed the topic by pointing out how, in terms of length, video games had more in common with television shows than movies. “Very few games are two hours long, most movies are two hours long. So games have a lot more to learn about storytelling from TV than movies.”
Pushing Unity, & fine-tuning gameplay
When I spoke to the pair last year, I asked how they were getting on with using the Unity Engine for Dreamfall Chapters. They were happy with their progress at the time, but since then its popularity has jumped significantly thanks to the power and versatility it offers. To that end, I asked if the team had seen any benefits from this, be if from the development community or from direct changes to Unity itself? “Yeah, definitely. The game looks a lot better than it did a year ago,” Ragnar replied. “There’s a lot of shaders [that have been added] and stuff like that [but we’re] still on the 4.X versions of Unity. Unity 5 is coming out quite soon, I think, and that’s going to bring in a whole lot of visual improvements. Unfortunately we’re not going to get those for Dreamfall. Maybe for future games, but yeah, Unity keeps improving all the time.”
He continued by stating that he felt the team were pushing Unity to its limits with what they were doing. “I don’t think there has ever been a scene as complicated and large as this one [pointing to the Europolis level on the monitor] in the Unity engine, so we’ve actually had a whole bunch of problems that isn’t Unity’s fault, but has been more sort of… we’ve been trying to do things with it that the engine wasn’t even made to do. So that’s been a challenge, but we actually had the Unity guys in here [early that day], showed them the game and they love it. They even have Zoë’s face on the wall inside the Unity booth, so they’re obviously fans, and that’s great!”
In earlier builds of the game the team had opted for rather obvious blue orbs to indicate an interactive element in-game. These have since been removed, which will no doubt please those who thought their inclusion would make the game too easy, so I asked Ragnar & Dag if the decision to take them out had been done to encourage players to explore, or if there was an option to turn them back on if the player needed assistance. “That’s actually a good question,” replied Ragnar. “We have been tweaking those because, you’re right – if you see the circles above all the stuff you can interact with in the world then it becomes more a question of you’re not even seeing the world, you’re just seeing the UI, so we’ve actually been tweaking the distance when they pop up and we’ve tweaked them individually so it really depends on object in question. Some will be visible from a distance while others you need to go close up to it.”
“It’s more that the cursor snaps to it,” Dag interjected. “The sparkle [that was there previously] has gone. This led to laughter from Ragnar, proclaiming “The sparkle has gone!” to which Dag responded “The magic is still there, but the sparkle has gone!” “No, you’re very right,” Ragnar continued. “It’s very conscious, and right now there are going to be more things to interact with in the world but it will often be that you have to walk closer to things to interact with them [and see them highlighted.]”
The politics of Europolis, & meaningful choice
The topic then changed to that of the story, specifically the political situation in Europolis. During the course of the game an election with four rather different candidates will be on-going, with Zoë being involved with one of the more neutral parties. I asked how the team went about melding this element into the game, and what their inspirations were in developing it. “We looked a lot to the world, what’s going on,” explained Ragnar. “In Dreamfall, the previous game, it was about an imperialistic power that came and enforced their own religion and laws on the people, driven by the religion and the belief in one goddess and one truth. We tried to say something about the role of an occupational force – the good parts of it, the bad parts of it…
“[It was about] the right to enforce your own view on other people,” Dag added, “the imperialism and religious conflict. That was very much in the news back then – still is, I suppose – but now [with DC] it’s a lot about the political situation in Europolis.” While it seems obvious considering what we had learned about the game so far, I asked the pair if the player would be able to directly influence the outcome of the election in some way. Ragnar confirmed that would be the case, but was understandably light on details. “The political stuff is going to be happening throughout the game, yes, and you will be able to have an impact on what’s going on. I don’t want to say too much, but it definitely has an important role to play.
At this point we had to wrap up the session because the next appointment was there, so I quickly asked them both what they felt was the most exciting aspect about Book One: Reborn. “I think the fans are really going to appreciate the choice & consequence mechanic,” Ragnar replied, “when they can really sort of affect the story in a meaningful way, share those choices with others, and really feel like they are having an impact on the characters and their journeys. I think that’s fresh, that’s new, it’s different, and it’s something that players might be skeptical about now but once they sit down and play it they’re going to love it.”
“It’s hard to come up with a different one that that because that is such a big focus of this title,” Dag admitted. “The way that we are trying to evolve narrative experiences in games, I think that’s the most driving mechanic. Trying to get inside the main character’s heads, I think that is something people will be excited about, what we’re doing there to give context and perspective to the story we’re telling.” I was honest with them – I was surprised neither of them said Crow, which drew a laugh from them, but then Ragnar dealt a blow to fans of that Crowmance. “Not for Book One! He is coming back, but not for Book One.” We’ll be waiting for you, oh feathered sidekick extraordinaire.
A huge thanks to Ragnar & Dag for taking the time to chat to me at this year’s Gamescom! Be sure to stay tuned to the site for more on Dreamfall Chapters Book One: Reborn on the run up to its release in the next few months.