Dreamfall Feature Preview

By Chris Remo, Mar 15, 2006 10:00pm PST By most accounts, the graphic adventure is not in the best of shape. There are actually a surprisingly high number of traditional adventure games released on a regular basis, believe it or not, but the genre is a far cry from its heyday in the early 90s, when it outsold any other type of game on the PC. Adventure games started to become less dominant in the mid 90s, in a sense inversely corresponding to the rise of realtime 3D in games. The new graphical technology was arguably one reason for the decline in the number of quality adventure games. It posed technical and financial obstacles for the genre, a hallmark of which was a huge amount of varied visual content rather than a reliance on tiled textures and low-polygon models. By the late 90s, the two juggernauts of adventure gaming, LucasArts and Sierra, had largely moved on to other things. Each company had its swansong: Tim Schafer's Grim Fandango from LucasArts in 1998, and Jane Jensen's Gabriel Knight 3: Blood of the Sacred, Blood of the Damned from Sierra in 1999. However, ask a lot of modern gamers, and they'll tell you the last great graphic adventure game was Ragnar Tørnquist's The Longest Journey, from Norweigen developer and publisher Funcom in 2000.

The Longest Journey told the story of heroine April Ryan, who embarked on, appropriately enough, a rather long journey that straddled contrasting worlds of science and magic. The game was released to rave reviews and gained a devoted following. In the years following its release, Funcom has mainly been known for the MMO Anarchy Online. In 2003, however, the developer started working on a followup to The Longest Journey, fully titled Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. Dreamfall is set for release on Xbox and PC this spring. Having seen the game in various stages of development over the last couple years, I recently had the opportunity to pick the brain of designer Ragnar Tørnquist to hear his general thoughts on the game as well as some of the reasoning behind the significant changes between the first installment and its sequel.

Set ten years after the original game, Dreamfall begins with a new protagonist, Zoë Castillo. Zoë, like April at the beginning of the prior story, is a young woman lacking real direction or goals in her life. She lives in Casablanca circa 2219, a locale that is realized in a way that blends what we would recognize as current geographically appropriate architectural and environmental elements along with the series' established vision of the not so far future. Zoë begins seeing strange static interference manifesting in various pieces of technology, and it appears to be a delivery mechanism working to send Zoë an urgent plea. It's not long, of course, before she gets caught up in events that will lead to her own journey, uncovering a conspiracy spanning several worlds and centuries. The magic-infused Arcadia and the science-governed world Stark remain from The Longest Journey, and a mysterious third parallel realm, Winter, is introduced.

In many ways, Dreamfall represents a departure from its predecessor. It retains the focus on strong characters and story, as any adventure game should, but is much more ambitious both in its setting and, rather unusually for the genre, its gameplay. "I never wanted to make a straight sequel to TLJ--not when I first wrote it, and certainly not after it got such positive reviews," said Tørnquist. "Seeing as TLJ told a complete story from beginning to end, we did, in a way, have to start from scratch when writing and designing Dreamfall." This attitude is immediately apparent upon playing the game. The Longest Journey was a strictly traditional graphic adventure, with prerendered environments and a point-and-click interface. Dreamfall cannot be so easily categorized. The game is rendered in full realtime 3D, but it is not simply a 3D version of a graphic adventure; while it has strong adventure elements at its core, the game makes use of direct character control, context-sensitive actions, and even---much to the dismay of hard-lined adventure purists--some combat.

Tørnquist noted that the switch was borne out of necessity with respect to the subject matter, not because there are inherent flaws in the old system. "It allowed us to focus on story and characters instead of mechanics [in The Longest Journey], which was important. Dreamfall's shift to a more multi-genre direction was a consequence of the storyline," he said. "I wouldn't call Dreamfall an 'action-adventure'. Rather, I would call it a 'modern adventure', something that mixes genres in a brand new way--and yes, absolutely, this was a conscious decision." As well as the previously mentioned elements, the game features multiple protagonists and varying degrees of nonlinearity in conversation and when working through situations.

Control between the three playable characters switches in accordance with the game's plot. "It would have been fun to create a game where you could switch freely between characters--and in some scenes you do switch back and forth, although, again, these are scripted changes," explained Tørnquist. "The story is complex enough as it is, and we didn't want to confuse anyone." Coincidentally enough--or perhaps not coincidentally at all?--it turns out Ragnar's favorite adventure game of all time happens to be one featuring three playable characters: LucasArts' Day of the Tentacle, designed by Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman. ("No contest. It's a brilliant, brilliant game.") In Dreamfall, the player controls Zoë, who will be the most prominently featured character; Kian, a man who is dedicated to his faith and to the sword; and April Ryan, who in the years since the events of the first game has become disenchanted and bitter. In addition to allowing the game to seamlessly tell a multi-threaded story, the different characters have an effect on gameplay. For example, Kian, a trained swordsman, is significantly more capable in combat than Zoë, a college-aged girl from Casablanca.

This leads into the game's structured nonlinearity, so to speak. While you won't be unlocking fifteen alternate endings, or determining any overriding plot elements by way of your actions, individual scenes can unfold in radically different ways depending on how you handle the situation. Since Zoë is not particularly well equipped when things come to blows, it may well be in your best interest to attempt to avoid combat altogether when using her. An early scene has Zoë delivering a package to a corporate office and encountering a rather suspicious receptionist. Depending on how the player carries on the conversation and reacts to some surprising events occurring in the background, the scene will play out in one of three ways, one of which is Zoë and the receptionist duking it out, and one of which is Zoë talking her way out of a confrontation. Again, these choices are fairly isolated; beating up an office worker is probably not going to have a butterfly effect on the rest of the game. Tørnquist does suggest that there may still be lasting consequences to player choices at times, but it is not the focus of the game. "Though actions taken--or not taken--in the first chapter may have ramifications in the last, Dreamfall isn't about changing the story: it's about living it, seeing it through the eyes of its three main characters, participating in its telling, and experiencing its twists and turns," he said. "Having multiple endings or a 'choose to be good or evil' type scenario would have detracted from what I believe to be the primary strengths of this game: the story, the characters, and the universe." Still, Tørnquist insists that to truly see all the content the game has to offer, players will have to give the game at least three dedicated playthroughs. Players won't miss anything crucial by not doing so, but it should be good news for those who like some kind of replay value out of their non-multiplayer titles.

Turn the page to learn about the game's control mechanisms, and to get some insight into what makes Ragnar tick.

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Dreamfall controls in an intuitive manner with a third person perspective. When your character is going from location to location, for example through an alleyway or hallway, the game is likely to use a chase camera. In larger environments containing puzzles and NPCs, however, it uses a semi-fixed camera. Adventure games are, after all, largely about exploration and puzzle solving rather than running quickly from point A to point B, so the game attempts to create a cinematic atmosphere where possible. Towards that end, the game has a largely context-sensitive and transparent interface. While walking around the game world, there are no extraneous interface elements on the screen at all. To interact with items or NPCs in the world, the player brings up what's called the "focus field," a radial blue beam of light extending out from the character. This can be rotated around--with either the mouse or an analog stick--to point at the desired target, and the player can perform various actions depending on what is selected. If you've played Grim Fandango, you remember that Manny's head will turn to face interactive objects close to him, at which point the player can perform an interaction. This is similar, except the player is in direct control of where the focus field is pointing, and the visual clue is more obvious. When in a conversation with an NPC, dialogue choices are overlaid onto the screen in an actual tree, indicating the various routes you can attempt to steer the conversation. In addition to dialogue choices, there are also any various physical actions that may be performed; for example, in the receptionist scene noted above, one of Zoë's options in the dialogue tree was "Distract." I have only gotten my hands on the Xbox version of the game, but the PC version is promised to have a wide variety of control configurations. The game can be played with just the mouse, the keyboard and the mouse, or just the keyboard.

I feel the game's soundtrack, or what I've heard of it, deserves a mention. It is the product of a joint effort between composer Leon Willett and Funcom in-house music director Morten Sorlie, a collaboration that seems to be a good match. The score is frequently understated and restrained, but with the grand undertones and eventual crescendos befitting a Longest Journey game, with its themes of exploration and discovery. It's a style frequently utilized in "epic" games, but to me is realized here with more subtlety and development than one sees in most other comparable game soundtracks.

An Explanatory Note

I have deliberately attempted to steer clear of spoiling too much in the way of the game's storyline, so my apologies if this preview has left you with little information on what actually happens in Dreamfall. The game's prologue in particular should have particular resonance with players of the first game, and Tørnquist has expressed frustration on his personal blog that so many players will already know how the game begins after reading the various previews that have surfaced. As per his request, I haven't mentioned anything from that section of Dreamfall.

Xbox 360 Compatibility?

Unfortunately, Funcom does not know whether the game will have an Xbox 360 compatibility patch from Microsoft. As with all other Xbox titles, the decision to release such a patch is entirely at Microsoft's discretion. Ragnar's response: "We'd love to make it 360 compatible, but currently only Microsoft can decide whether or not that will happen. Fingers crossed."

Ragnar Tørnquist

Meeting him in person, one observes that Ragnar Tørnquist is nothing if not passionate about his work. He's one of those designers who truly invests himself in the series he created, to the point where it is fair to call Dreamfall "A Ragnar Tørnquist Game." With that in mind, I asked Tørnquist a few questions whose answers didn't necessarily fit into the fact delivery parts of a preview, but which may be of interest to some readers. And here you go:

As an adventure game designer, Tørnquist has to consider the storytelling and thematic aspects of his games on equal footing with the gameplay. When asked what he intends as the central theme of Dreamfall, he responded thusly: "With Dreamfall, the theme is faith: Having it, losing it, regaining it. Faith in yourself, your future, your religion or your personal philosopy, or in the people around you. Each of our three playable characters--Zoë, April, and Kian--is on a journey of faith, but each has a different relationship with faith. Zoë is losing faith in herself, April has completely lost faith in the world, while Kian follows his faith blindly." On the more general topic of storytelling in games, he believes there is plenty of room in the medium for games that have a strongly directed narrative, as well as games that let the player have more direct control over the experience. "Both can be equally effective; it depends on the game and on the story," he said. "I love playing open-ended games, and I love playing linear ones--and there's certainly room for both. Choice isn't necessarily the be-all or end-all of gaming, and as long as the player feels included, as long as the player is playing rather than just watching the screen, games with strong, linear narratives can work just as well as sandbox type games."

In recent years, Tørnquist has been enjoying various entries in the Grand Theft Auto series, as well as Keita Takahashi's Katamari Damacy (PS2) and its sequel. And in the future? "The thing I'm most looking forward to is the Nintendo Revolution (or whatever they end up calling it). I can't wait to make Mario jump by simply flicking my wrist. I'm all giddy with excitement."

Before that, however, Tørnquist has to ship his own game. At this point, Dreamfall is essentially done, and the team is adding the final touches and subjecting it to testing. "I think Dreamfall: The Longest Journey will surprise everyone," he said. "I can honestly say that I don't know of any game with so much variety in scenery, gameplay, or characters. There's literally something for everyone, and I don't think there's another game like it out there. Okay, so I am the director, and I am supposed to talk up my own games, but give it a try. I think you'll be hooked. I just can't wait to see it out there and to hear what people think. That's the best part of my job. The scariest, yes, but the best."

Dreamfall is currently expected to ship in April or May simultaneously for Xbox and PC.

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