The Longest Journey fans are a patient bunch.
The classic adventure game was released in 2000; its sequel, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, followed six years later. Dreamfall left us hanging, deliberating the fates of its sharply-drawn, empathetic characters for another half-dozen years. Finally, a new chapter is in development: Dreamfall Chapters. Series creator Ragnar Tørnquist is again taking the helm, though with a new studio created specifically to bring heroines Zoë Castillo and April Ryan back to our monitors.
That new studio is Red Thread Games--and like many independent developers, it has no lack of great ideas and creative drive. What it doesn't have, however, is the funding for a full game. And where else but Kickstarter would such a studio turn for support? Today, Tørnquist and team have announced their crowdfunding program for Dreamfall Chapters, outlining an $850,000 goal, as well as their vision for the game, its characters, and its world.
I got in touch with Tørnquist to clarify that vision. Dreamfall Chapters has a storied legacy to live up to, and I asked him why he thinks The Longest Journey and Dreamfall have attracted such passionate fans.
"They're very personal games, almost intimately so," he responds. "And while they're not perfect by any means, I think they're broken in just the right ways. They don't feel mass produced. There are still sharp edges and rough surfaces, unpolished and handcrafted. They feel honest, alive and real. They both have, as I'm so fond of saying, a soul."
"Tooting our own horn a bit, I also think both games feature very strong characters that players feel something for and care about, and good stories that really engage. Everyone who plays TLJ and Dreamfall has a strong emotional reaction to the games--both positive and negative--and those feelings linger and are remembered years after playing. I don't think you can play our games and not feel anything."
The lovely worlds also have a lot to do with the series' success, and Tørnquist admits that Dreamfall stumbled a bit in that regard, at least in comparison with its richly conceived predecessor. Expect to see that richness return in Dreamfall Chapters. "There will be more interactivity, more spaces to explore, more things to look at and to dig into. Scenery, characters, books, documents, strange creatures, sights and sounds… We want to bring back the magic from TLJ, that unique and special feeling of being in a place rich with history and lore. A place that's lived in, with living characters who live real lives, with families and friends, ups and downs. Worlds that exist beyond the confines of the screen."
One of the strengths of the series is how its people, places, and story beats live on in the minds of its players. It's hard to forget April Ryan's avian sidekick Crow, who delights in his womanizing ways. Or Burns Flipper, foul-mouthed hacker extraordinaire. Or indeed the worlds of both Stark and Arcadia, the former acting as the technology-focused yin to the other's magical yang. Dreamfall and The Longest Journey can wriggle into your psyche and remain there for good. The games didn't just make a mark on their players, however: they made a mark on Tørnquist, too.
"There's so much of myself in April Ryan, Zoë, Kian--Crow, definitely--and TLJ was the most personal and intimate story I have ever told," he says. "It's so close to my heart, such a big part of what I was back then, and even now. It's almost uncomfortably revealing, and it's a bit hard for me to sit down and play that game without feeling exposed."
"So yeah, I don't think I could go on making games without first making Dreamfall Chapters, and being able to conclude Zoë's story and the Dreamer Cycle. It's really, really important to me, and to all of us on the team."
The memories are fondly recalled, but that was the past. What, pray tell, does the future bring for Zoë, April, Brian Westhouse, and their contemporaries? (Caution: Spoilers ahead!) Dreamfall ended with one of its main characters presumed dead, and the other in a coma. It's hard to imagine a newcomer jumping head first into the continuing story and making much sense of it, and Tørnquist admits that if you haven't played Dreamfall, you might be a little lost. However, the team is aiming to shepherd new players into the universe without boring returning fans. But what about returning fans? What events will usher us back into the ongoing drama? (Caution, once more: spoilers for Dreamfall ahead!)
Says Tørnquist: "So Zoë is lost in this place called the Storytime. She's still in a coma, it's a year later, and the doctors are losing hope that she'll ever wake up. But Gabriel, her dad, still has faith. After all, that's what Dreamfall was all about--faith--and that's not lost on any of us. Players will have to help Zoë escape Storytime, wake up, be reborn, and confront who she was and who she's turning into. It's about growing up, growing into yourself, becoming who you're meant to me, or who other people need you to be--and to be okay with that, to be comfortable with your role in this world."
"And the worlds have changed quite a bit, too. With WatiCorp's Dreamer released--think game console that allows you to dream lucid, realistic dreams, where you are in control of what you see and feel and experience--the world has become completely addicted, and society is crumbling. People are hooked up at home or in opium den-like Dream Factories that have popped up everywhere, and they're not going to work or taking care of their loved ones or doing anything at all. So the world is just falling apart."
You'll experience the story from three different perspectives--no surprise, given that Dreamfall took on the same structure. But Zoë is still the main character, and Dreamfall Chapters will bring her story to a conclusion. Adds Tørnquist, "Dreamfall Chapters is a game about changes. About life. About the chapters of existence--growing, learning, adapting. And time will pass in the game, from early spring through to winter, as our characters continue their journeys."
Curiously, developer/publisher Funcom is not backing this particular project. Tørnquist's Red Thread Studios is comprised of the same individuals who brought the previous games to life, but the Norwegian company that published The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, not to mention online role-playing games like Anarchy Online, Age of Conan, and The Secret World isn't part of this equation. The big question: why not?
Tørnquist answers: "Funcom's focus since before the launch of Dreamfall in 2006 has been on the online space, and I don't think they were ever able to reconcile that with continuing The Longest Journey saga, or to find a way to bring TLJ or Dreamfall into the online realm. Sure, there were Discussions. Ideas. Pitches. But it never really worked out, and The Secret World grabbed all the time and all the people for many, many years. There really was no room to do both, to be honest, particularly since they couldn't really do another Dreamfall without me and the core team."
"Part of me also didn't want to jump straight into Chapters after finishing Dreamfall," he continues. "I needed to do something else, and The Secret World was another labour of love for me, a game, story and universe I was deeply passionate about. We actually started working on that one before Dreamfall, so I was eager to get back to, and finish, TSW. I just didn't count on it taking six years…"
I asked Tørnquist if he was burnt out on massively multiplayer games--and his answer isn't that surprising, considering he's devoted so many years to them. "I love The Secret World dearly," he responds. "I am extremely happy with my time on that project, and with what we managed to accomplish. I'm extremely happy to see the game doing well, and being taken care of by a passionate and dedicated team. But it was time to move on, both from TSW and from MMOs. I spent six years of my life working day and night on that game, and yeah, I did miss single-player games, I missed adventure games, and I missed the characters and worlds of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall."
'We know where this story is going, we know where it's destined to end.'
Tørnquist plans to pursue other projects with Red Thread Games, but for now, the focus is Dreamfall Chapters. With Funcom out of the picture, the team can exert full creative control over the game--and that's where Kickstarter comes in. The team was awarded a $175,000 grant from the Norwegian Film Institute, which is enough to create a working prototype, and design multiple characters and environments. It's not enough, however, to make an entire game. Tørnquist seeks $850,000 more in crowdfunding, which is no small sum. He says he's equally excited and terrified by the process. Or, in his own word, "terrifited." But what happens to Dreamfall Chapters if the Kickstarter is unsuccessful?
"[…] we're putting everything we have into this Kickstarter and the project, and while it's not do-or-die for Red Thread Games, I think we're going to have a difficult time making Dreamfall Chapters happen without the Kickstarter cash. If the Kickstarter fails, we'll roll with the punches and get back on our feet, for sure. Red Thread Games will survive. We're passionate about this, and we aren't going to give up easily. We will finish the Dreamfall Chapters prototype and then jump onto other projects in order to keep our heads above water. Hopefully, we can get back to Chapters some day soon, but it will definitely take a lot longer and be a lot more uncertain without the Kickstarter funds."
Presuming Red Thread Games gets the funding they need, however, then you should expect to see Dreamfall Chapters arrive in November of 2014. It's hard not to wonder, though: is the strength of player nostalgia, and that of the Longest Journey/Dreamfall brand, enough to drive the Kickstarter's success? Says Tørnquist, "I think the strength of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall name will get us started, and I think the desire to see the story continue will definitely give us some traction, but it won't be enough. We're prepared to do a lot of work to get noticed, to spread the word, to show even non-fans that we're working on something really exciting, really beautiful, really important. After all, with Dreamfall Chapters, we're not just continuing The Longest Journey saga and wrapping up the Dreamer Cycle, we're making what we hope will be a great adventure game--one that all PC gamers should check out and play."
And what will playing that game be like? While The Longest Journey was a pure point-and-click adventure, Dreamfall took a different tack, adding gameplay elements like combat and stealth, and not always to the game's benefit. It's also hard to ignore inroads made by other adventure games, such as Telltale's The Walking Dead series, where choice is a major element. Tørnquist says that player choice is important to Dreamfall Chapters, though, he says, "I would use the word 'freedom' instead of 'choice'. Not that we won't have the latter, but the story is set and you're moving through it, discovering it at your own pace, seeing it from different vantage points and perspectives. You have the freedom to experience the story the way you want to experience it. To me, adventure games are about characters, worlds and plots--in that order. We want players to be able to explore the characters and the worlds freely and without artificial barriers and time limits."
He continues: "Movement in the game world will be similar to Dreamfall, albeit with a different control scheme and GUI, but interactivity will be handled a bit differently. We're doing a lot of work to bring point-and-click into a 3D setting, and I think we've succeeded with that. We'll show off our work-in-progress prototype during the Kickstarter campaign, and hopefully explain a bit more about how it works. But I think adventure gamers will be very pleased."
'Dreamfall Chapters is a game about changes. About life. About the chapters of existence.'
Tørnquist is clearly thrilled to return to the universe first described in The Longest Journey, and that excitement is likely to be shared by the series' passionate followers. "Recreating our characters, beginning with Zoë, and making her look so much more human, so much more expressive and animated, really excites me. (And no, not in THAT way.) The way we tell our stories changes completely when we can let the eyes and facial expressions tell part of the story. I can't wait to write for the new Zoë; it really is a revolution in storytelling for us."
"And in addition to the technical side of things, being able to finally continue and conclude the story we began in Dreamfall--that is, of course, incredibly exciting, incredibly inspiring," says Tørnquist. "That makes me jump out of bed every morning. We know where this story is going, we know where it's destined to end, and now it's just a question of giving life to our characters and worlds, to write the words and to fill in the blanks. That's a great feeling. We can sit down and flesh all of this out and do our best work ever. We've learned so much since TLJ and Dreamfall, and all of that is going into Chapters."