Ragnar Tornquist


Posted by Philip Jong.
First posted on 04 November 2006. Last updated on 06 April 2012.
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Ragnar Tornquist
Ragnar Tornquist is a game designer and the creator of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall.
Ragnar Tornquist
Ragnar Tornquist
Ragnar Tornquist
Ragnar Tornquist

All images are courtesy of Funcom © 2006.

The successes of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall have firmly established Ragnar Tornquist as among the elite adventure game designers of his generation. Born in 1970, he studied art, history, philosophy, and language at St. Clare's and University of Oslo before attending Tisch School of the Arts at New York University for film and television. After returning to Oslo, Norway in 1994, he joined Funcom where he began his career as a game designer. Now, he holds the titles of designer, writer, director, and producer at Funcom. We are privileged to have this exclusive interview with the talented young game designer. In the interview, Tornquist shares his afterthoughts on The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, his trials and tribulations as a game designer, the latest development news on the sequel to Dreamfall, and what holds for him in the future.

Check out our gallery of rare concept art from Dreamfall!

Who has most influenced you as a game designer? In what ways have your games reflected these influences?

The answer's a bit complicated, because in regards to the games I've worked on, there's design and then there's story, and while those are very much intertwined, my influences are not.

With TLJ, I believe that Neil Gaiman - and specifically his work on Sandman and Books of Magic - was a huge influence, together with Joss Whedon's Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Contemporary magic, mythology, strong female character, snappy dialog - those are the elements I brought with me on the story side.

On the gameplay side, I don't think there's one specific designer, but rather a series of games. The old LucasArts crew - Day of the Tentacle, Monkey Island, Full Throttle... And definitely Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers. Those were the games that gave birth to TLJ. And I hope it shows.

Dreamfall? Again, Neil Gaiman on the story side. Joss Whedon - once again. I kneel before those guys. On the design side... No specific person or designer, but games like Silent Hill and Shenmue were definite influences.

Of course, as a designer, I'm obligated by law to worship at the altar of Will Wright, Sid Meier, Shigeru Miyamoto - but I can't honestly say that I've brought much of their teachings into any of the games I've worked on. In fact, with my next game, I'll be focusing a lot more on the gameplay elements than I was able to do with Dreamfall - and I hope to learn a lot from it.

How do you describe the religious and philosophical undertone that is deeply seeded in both The Longest Journey and Dreamfall?

It's definitely there. I would argue with the word 'religious' and say 'spiritual' instead - but yeah, it's definitely there.

To me, personally, any epic journey needs to be grounded in spiritual and philosophical ideas - that goes for literature, movies...and games. With both TLJ and Dreamfall, we wanted to say something more than just "go save the world" - we wanted the games to be about something. Sure, it's entertainment first and foremost, but there are layers to the stories - if you look for these layers, you'll find them. If you care about the themes, you'll pick up on that and get something out of it. If not? Well, we never wanted to force anything on the players. So yeah, there are strong undertones - spiritual, philosophical, political, religious - to both games, but we were always careful to never have these overshadow the basic storyline and the gameplay.

Notwithstanding feedbacks from fans and critics, what aspects of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall are you most proud?

It may sound banal, but the fact that we managed to finish the games and get them out the door and onto store shelves across the world. That still amazes me, with every project I work on - you never really think it's going to happen, and then...it does. Miraculously.

Aside from that, I think the aspects I'm most proud of are the visuals and the sound - in both games. I'm really lucky to have worked with some of the most talented artists in the industry - twice now. We had some TLJ veterans on Dreamfall, but also a lot of new people, and everyone did a fantastic job. Both games look and sound so unique and magical. We've also been really lucky with the actors who've brought the characters to life. I can still get joy from playing the games just by listening to the characters talk.

What has surprised you most in the responses (both good and bad) from gamers who have played either The Longest Journey or Dreamfall?

I think the emotional response - the fact that these games have made people cry, made them happy, angry, confused... The discussions going on at the official Dreamfall forums are simply fantastic, filled with passion, and it's so exciting to read all of that. I saw one forum post from a woman who had a religious awakening from playing Dreamfall. I mean, that's amazing! To affect and change people's lives, to make them feel something so strongly - both positively and negatively - to make them sit down and write us e-mails, to spend hours on forums, to visit my website... That, to me, is such a surprising and wonderful thing, and it justifies all the hard work, all the long hours - everything.

Creatively speaking, what elements in The Longest Journey and Dreamfall would you have wanted to further develop or expand in retrospect?

Good question. I think with TLJ... You know, it's so far back in time that it's hard to say, but in some ways - and I don't want to come across as self-congratulatory, because I definitely believe the game has plenty of flaws - but in some ways, TLJ turned out exactly the way it was supposed to turn out. It was a story-driven, traditional point-and-click, puzzle-heavy adventure game; no more, no less. We kept our ambitions in check and focused on the things we knew how to do well. Of course, maybe the difficulty curve was a bit wonky, the character art a bit rough, and perhaps a few of the puzzles were too abstract - but seven years later, I'm still quite happy with the game.

Now, Dreamfall... You know, it's only been six months since we finished the game, and it's still a bit too fresh in my mind for me to be completely objective - but, sure, there are things we would have liked to develop further. Much further. Building a new engine and tools from the ground up at the same time as you're developing a game using that engine and those tools - well, that's not an ideal situation, and it was a lot more difficult than we'd hoped or planned for. We simply didn't have enough time to do everything we wanted, to tweak every element in the game, or to add all the polish. I would've loved to have another nine months of production, but that wasn't feasible - and maybe it wouldn't have made the game better. The best kind of feedback is the feedback you get only when you release the game, read the reviews, the comments, the forums.

In retrospect, with what we know today of the technology and the gameplay, we could have built a better Dreamfall, no doubt. Which is why I'm very fond of sequels. You get to build on what you've done well, and change what didn't work. The thing is, Dreamfall wasn't really a sequel: it was a whole other beast, built from scratch. So I'd love to make a Dreamfall sequel - a proper sequel, using the same engine and the same tools - and build a better game.

That said, and I want to make this very clear: I'm happy with how the game turned out, and I'm also happy with the reviews - for the most part - and the feedback from players.

What was a typical workday for you at Funcom during the peak development period? What was the most memorable personal moment for you during the entire development period?

During the peak development period? Oh man... Long, long days. For a long, long time. I don't think there was such a thing as a typical workday, but there was lots of running around talking to various team members, lots of writing, scripting, lots of meetings...and lots and lots of progress reviews. I don't know how many times I've played the game, but there were countless days where we started playing in the morning and continued through to late evening. Non-stop playing, writing down bugs, things we wanted to change, polish, tweak...everything.

I was both fortunate and unfortunate enough to be involved on pretty much every level of development - from being the game director and the voice director, to manually moving cameras around in dialogs and fixing bugs in AI scripts. It kept me incredibly busy, and while it also made every day unique and exciting, I'm never doing that again. On my next project, I'm leaving the real work to other people.

The most memorable personal moment? There were many... During studio sessions, hearing the words spring to life through our excellent actors - particularly those who worked on TLJ. That was both exciting and very emotional.

I think the greatest joy came from seeing all the different elements suddenly coming together - the animations, the voices, the scripts, the controls, the music, the cinematography... Moving from design into actuality, into a polished, near-finished game - that's always powerful, and there's always this one moment when it clicks, when it becomes more than just a collection of things, and it turns into something living, breathing - a game. There's nothing else like it.

Funcom is a small development company in comparison to other top tiered developers. How big were the teams that worked on The Longest Journey and Dreamfall? How long (in man hours) were the development times for these titles?

I can't give you the exact numbers, but the Dreamfall team was pretty large by the end. We started off with a small team in the summer of 2003 - maybe seven or eight people - and by the end - winter and early spring 2006 - we had over thirty. Plus a team in Shanghai doing some graphical assets for us; characters, props - that kind of stuff.

TLJ, by contrast, had around twenty or twenty-five people at the most, and that game also took around three years. So they weren't low budget, either of them.

You know, Funcom is actually quite large - we're over 200 people right now, working on three different projects, and we're growing rapidly, with offices in Oslo, North Carolina, and Beijing. So I definitely wouldn't say we're a small company.

Despite critical acclaims and strong sales in Europe, signing a publisher in North America for The Longest Journey was a major challenge for Funcom. What lessons have you learned about marketing an adventure game oversea? How has this experience changed how Dreamfall is marketed internationally?

We didn't do much marketing ourselves, only PR. Marketing's been handled by our partners - MicroApplication in Europe, Aspyr in North America.

Yeah, it was a challenge signing both TLJ and Dreamfall for the North American market. We talked to everyone, and most publishers liked what they saw, and applauded our intentions, but they don't like the genre. They see it as very niche, a very small market. And, for the most part, they're right. We wanted to break out, but it was hard convincing anyone that we'd be able to do that.

You coined the term "modern adventure" (as opposed to "action adventure") to describe Dreamfall. How do you define "modern adventure"? What is your vision of how the adventure genre must evolve in relation to this definition?

I don't know if I coined the term, but I definitely ended up using it quite a lot.

I've said it before, and I still stand by it: the classic point-and-click 'graphical adventure' is dead. Yes, there's still the odd game popping up from time to time, but they don't make much of an impact.

We really need to allow the genre to evolve, much like every other gaming genre has evolved. Do RPGs play the same today as they did ten years ago? Sports games? Shooters? No, they've all changed because the technology has changed, and technology still drives game design - to a large degree.

You can argue that there are still similarities between, say, Fallout and Oblivion, but the differences are major. The way you experience and interact with the world has changed. Yes, you still walk around in a virtual representation of an imaginary world, fight monsters, pick up loot, earn experience points, and buy better weapons - but the way you do it has changed completely. So why do people expect adventure games to play the same today as they did ten or fifteen years ago? It doesn't make sense. It's fine to replay Monkey Island - retro gaming is huge, and people still play Pac-Man - but we need modern adventures to drive the genre forward, to inform and build an audience, and to sell more copies. That's the only way publishers are going to want to pay for these games. Adventure games can't afford to just be niche - they're too expensive for that. They need to be mainstream.

Sure, there's still room for smaller independent games, and there's still room for the odd point-and-clicker, but those games aren't going to make an impact, they're not going to get noticed beyond the core segment - and the core segment is small, and getting smaller.

The point of the 'modern adventure', as I see it, is to bring adventure gaming back into the mainstream, and to use technology and gameplay advances to bring the genre forward into the 'next generation'. You can argue whether or not Dreamfall succeeded at that, but we did get noticed - people did pay attention, and I also hope we've created a few new adventure fans in the process. Now I'm just hoping someone else will jump on the bandwagon and develop a true next generation 'modern adventure'.

Unlike The Longest Journey, Dreamfall was developed for both the PC and Xbox. What were the challenges in developing for the console platform? What were the major differences between the PC and Xbox version of the game?

When you're doing two versions of the same game using the same team, the same assets, and the same deadlines - that's hard. You have to make compromises. The Xbox only has 64MB of memory; that's quite restrictive. Which meant that we had to cut the game up into smaller chunks than we'd originally planned. We also had to make our characters and the scenery less complex than we wanted. On the PC, we could easily have had characters twice or three times as detailed, but we needed to share models between the two versions, so we had to optimise them with the lowest common denominator in mind. In addition to that, we had to design a common interface that would work for both platforms - and that was a huge, albeit interesting, challenge.

The only major difference between the two versions, therefore, is the textures - which are much, much higher resolution on the PC, and consequently make the game look a lot better.

But I honestly think the Xbox version looks fantastic. We pushed the hardware as far as we could, and our Xbox programmers managed to squeeze a hell of a lot into very little space. They were tearing their hair out by the end and cursing my name, but they pulled it off.

On your personal weblog at www.ragnartornquist.com you frequently posted development updates and news about Dreamfall. Why do you choose to write a blog? How worry are you that your competitors may spy on your blog or that dissatisfied gamers may sabotage your blog to unfairly criticize your work?

It hasn't happened yet, but now you've got me worried!

First off, to be honest, I think our players are a well-behaved lot. They may voice their concerns and criticisms, but they've never been rude about it. I welcome both positive and negative feedback on my blog, and I hope and believe that our players value that, and that they also appreciate the opportunity to communicate directly with one of the people behind the games they play.

Secondly, I'd be very happy if our competitors 'spied' on my blog - I'd take it as a compliment! Game development is all about learning from what everyone else is doing. It takes so long to make a game these days that you simply don't have the luxury to learn solely from your own mistakes and successes. And 'stealing' other people's ideas - where would this industry be if we didn't do that? So I think we need to share our ideas about what makes games fun, about how we produce them - our little development secrets - and if my blog can contribute to that in any way, I'm a happy man.

We are aware that official details about the sequel to Dreamfall are scant at present. Having this said, what is the anticipated development timeline (in other words, do we need to wait another 7 years?) for the sequel to Dreamfall? On what gaming platforms is the next sequel to be developed?

I'll begin with that last one: PC is a certainty. We're working on next-generation hardware right now - for a totally unrelated project - and I'd love to see Dreamfall on the Xbox 360 and the PS3 and the Wii. Eventually.

But I really can't tell you anything more than that. We are looking into things as we speak, and we're moving forward with some ideas and approaches - some very interesting ideas - but it's too early to tell what's going to happen, and when, and even if. I am confident that we'll make the sequel at some point - and I don't think it'll be another seven years - but that's all I can say right now. Have faith!

What can fans expect from the next sequel, and presumably final chapter, in this series?

Ah, this one's a bit sneaky. Of course, I know the answer, and I'd love to talk about it at length - but I can't. Questions, big ones, will be answered, seemingly unconnected threads will be woven together into the tapestry of the saga, and the characters - the most important ones - will complete their journeys. In some way or another.

But all the questions players may have will not be answered, and all the journeys won't be completed. These games are built on mysteries, and I don't want to take any of that away.

And I don't think I ever said that the next sequel is the final chapter of the saga - did I?

What career advice do you have for game designers interested in making adventure games in today's marketplace?

Be inventive, think fresh, don't get stuck doing the same things everyone else has done a hundred times over. The adventure genre is incredibly flexible, and there's so much that hasn't been accomplished. Just try to keep in mind what it is that makes a game an adventure: it's not the interface, it's not the visuals; it's the story, the gameplay, the characters, the interactions, the challenges. If you can subvert an FPS into an adventure, you've done good.

What can we expect from Ragnar Tornquist in the next 5 years?

Definitely a new online game - that one's already well underway, and it's the most exciting thing I've ever worked on. The technology's up-and-running, and we already have a playable level. It's looking absolutely awesome.

Also, hopefully, a continuation - and eventually the conclusion - to Dreamfall and the TLJ saga.

There's some other stuff as well, but it's way, way too early to be talking about that. I'd love to branch out a little from games and write another novel or a comic-book or a screenplay, but there are no concrete plans for any of that. Yet. I'm just too busy.

Thank you so much for this interview, Ragnar. We look forward to hearing more about the sequel to Dreamfall and your future endeavors.

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