Dreamfall Chapters, the long awaited sequel to the 2006 adventure game Dreamfall, will feature three playable characters whose stories will intertwine throughout the game, including two female protagonists who are yet to be revealed, Red Thread Studios founder Ragnar Tornquist told Polygon in a recent interview.
According to Tornquist, these characters will be joined by a number of familiar faces from the previous two games in the series, including Dreamfall protagonist Zoë who has changed drastically since the previous title.
"Zoë will be back," he tells us. "But she won't be the same Zoë we met in Dreamfall. Like all of our characters, she will have grown and evolved, and Dreamfall Chapters is going to take some daring twists and turns. Birth, life, death — it's about all of those things, and no one is safe from life. Growing up isn't easy, and Zoë will understand this better than most."
'She won't be the same Zoë we met in Dreamfall.'
In November, Red Thread Studios announced it licensed the rights to the game series from Funcom, the developer and publisher of the two earlier titles. The team — which is so far made up of six people and includes several Longest Journey and Dreamfall alumni — has toyed with the story of Chapters since Dreamfall's release. During this initial development stage, the designers planned to launch the new title within the three or four years to follow. "That obviously did not happen," says Tornquist. "I'll take this opportunity to say a heartfelt 'sorry' to everyone affected."
The upcoming title follows a different art style than its predecessors which will reflect a particular narrative and thematic evolution in the game, he says. Its mechanics and combat, however, are an improvement upon what was previously seen in Dreamfall.
"A lot of the combat [in Dreamfall] was awful," says Tornquist. "That's gone. I think the focus field was a misfire. It was supposed to supplant the cursor, but it didn't work very well. It also wasn't used much, which I guess was a good thing. In general, I wasn't happy with the controls in Dreamfall. It felt clunky, particularly on the PC. That's something we're fixing. With Chapters, we're doing something a lot more intuitive. The current prototype already feels a lot better. The first time I sat down to play it, I knew we were on the right path."
While Dreamfall Chapters was originally planned to launch in episodes, this is no longer the case, says Tornquist. Instead, the game will be separated into three "books," themed around a season and phase of life beginning in spring and ending in winter. The game's story will cover the period of just over a year.
"That was originally the plan," he said of the original episodic distribution. "It is no longer the plan. I think our players deserve to get the rest of the story in one big chunk. We've drawn this out enough as it is. And 'Chapters' was always a word with layers. The name still makes a lot of sense, which is why we've kept it."
'Chapters' was always a word with layers.'
Dreamfall Chapters will explore themes of growth and change, says Tornquist. Characters will grow throughout the game, which will affect the title's mechanics, while each book in the game will emphasize different aspects of these themes.
"I'm fascinated by the passage of time," he said, "what it does to us, how people evolve — and how they stay the same — and that's something we'll be exploring with this game. Our characters will grow and change through the game, and so will the player's experience, as seen through the eyes of those characters. This will also, of course, affect the game mechanics. Each book will play and feel a bit different. Everyone grows, everyone changes.
"It's really a game about growing up, growing into your role, into yourself. I think it's a theme we can all relate to. We're going through that, all of us. Learning to be comfortable with who we are and where we're at in life. That's hard to do. I struggle with that myself, and that's why it's an important story to tell, and a theme that will resonate well with everyone playing the game. I believe. I hope."
While this will be the last game in the Dreamfall series, it "probably won't" be the last game in The Longest Journey saga, he adds. The team plans to resolve all — and if not all then most — of the "infuriating cliffhangers" left at the conclusion of Dreamfall, but may still leave some threads unexplored. This includes the question of what happened in the period that takes place between the original Longest Journey and its sequel set a decade later.
"That doesn't mean every scene has been plotted out in detail," he says. "Far from it. We know the structure, we know where things are headed, we know the characters' arcs, their journeys, we know the major beats — but there's a lot of room between those beats to write something fresh and new. There's room to re-invent, to re-imagine. It's been over six years since we wrapped Dreamfall, and we've changed as writers and as designers. We've changed as people. We've grown. This won't be the same game we would have made back then, far from it. But we do owe it to our players, and to ourselves and our characters, to wrap it all up the way we'd planned to wrap it up. There might still be some threads left unexplored, of course, and while Chapters is the final game in the Dreamfall cycle, it may not be the final game in The Longest Journey saga...
"Okay, so, yeah, it probably won't be the final game in the saga. There's the question of what happened in the decade between the end of The Longest Journey and the beginning of Dreamfall, of course, and then there's that whole War of the Balance thing. There's definitely room for more stories and more games in that universe — but Dreamfall Chapters will conclude the story we began in Dreamfall. It'll be a proper end, of sorts. Which is good, because this is a game about endings. And also beginnings. And middles. Let's not forget those middles."
'We expect to have access to most, if not all, of the original voice actors.'
While six years have passed since the release of the last game in the series, Tornquist expects to have access to "most, if not all" of the original voice actors from the series; However, the team may have to re-cast "a few" characters. He declined to reveal whether Sarah Hamilton, the voice behind The Longest Journey protagonist April Ryan, would join the cast.
"We expect to have access to most, if not all, of the original voice actors," he said. "A few may have to be recast, but in those cases we will strive to get the very best actors out there. We have a lot of experience working with voice actors, and we have a long, long list of people we love to work with — and who love to work with us — so even if we can't get everyone back, all the characters will sound great. They'll be voiced by the best people in the industry," he said.
Dreamfall Chapters will be partially funded through crowdfunding website Kickstarter, with a campaign scheduled to begin in early 2013. According to Tornquist, "crowdfunding is probably the only way Dreamfall Chapters is ever going to see the light of day."
The long road to developing Dreamfall Chapters
Prior to launching the new studio, Tornquist was central in the development of Funcom's modern-day MMO The Secret World, which he describes as his "baby." According to Tornquist, The Secret World was one of the primary reasons Chapters took so long to begin developing, in addition to Funcom's online-only games policy which would have affected the game's original design concept.
"The Secret World was definitely a key reason why we didn't start production on Chapters sooner," he says, "but there's also Funcom's focus on online-only games. Dreamfall Chapters doesn't really fit into that, not without turning it into something else entirely. I realized we had to start our own studio before we could start working on Chapters, and that's something that's been in the back of my mind these last couple of years.
"But also, you know, this is such a fantastic time to do what we're doing. This is the perfect time to be an independent developer. I don't think it would have been possible a couple of years ago. We now have a way to speak directly to our core audience, a way to focus on the right platforms, and a way to get funding without selling our souls and assets to a publisher."
The studio members have invested in Red Thread themselves and are seeking additional funding from other sources. A grant from the Norwegian Film Institute allowed the company to set up a studio, rent office space, pay employees and begin creating a prototype; However, even with the current support it is "not nearly enough to make the full game," says Tornquist.
'There aren't a lot of publishers out there willing to bet on a PC adventure game.'
Traditional publishing methods have not been ruled out, but Tornquist believes that route would slow the development of the game and create new complications. He adds: "I'm hoping we won't have to."
"There aren't a lot of publishers out there willing to bet on a PC adventure game, even when it's a sequel to a proven success," he says. "And even if there are, it'd be hard for us to make the game that we want to make. Kickstarter makes it possible for our community of dedicated fans to contribute directly and to see this game come to fruition. It makes it possible for us to wrap this story up the way we want to wrap it up, and not worry too much about appealing to a wider audience across multiple platforms. We're making Chapters for fans of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, for fans of story-driven games and adventures, for PC gamers. That's really not the best pitch to a publisher — but it is the best pitch to our core audience."
By the end of 2013, Red Thread Studios — a play on the term "red herring" and a reference to the thematic thread that will run through the studio's games — will expand to a team of 17 or 18 employees. For Tornquist, a Funcom employee for 18 years, the studio will allow him the creative freedom he has fantasized of.
'It's like starting your own band, writing your own songs. It's punk. It's rock & roll.'
"I think everyone who's ever worked on a big game has fantasized about starting their own studio. There's a romance to it, going back to your roots, making smaller games. Even if you've never done that, even if your roots are big budget, AAA. More so, I'd imagine, if that's your background. It's like starting your own band, writing your own songs. It's punk. It's rock & roll. It's definitely something, something real. So yeah, it's inevitable. When you're working on a project that employs hundreds of people and takes half a decade to make — you wake up some days and think, fuck this, I want to actually make games again, not be another cog in the wheel.
"I really feel the time has come for me to go back to working with smaller teams and the sort of collaboration I enjoyed during my first decade making games. 15, 20 people, tops. Everyone doing a bit of everything. Being able to actually make a contribution instead of spending my days in meetings and putting out fires, and never really connecting with people. Getting to be more hands on. Perhaps also leaving my comfort zone. Well, definitely that."
Images used throughout the article are from Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.