How the creator of Dreamfall got back to his roots.
Ragnar Tornquist owes a great deal to having a little faith. But ask him where he found the brass to dispense of publisher/developer relations for the first time in his 18-year profession, and he will reel off a list of every hobby and near-career that paved the way to his transition into gaming independence. He's been an armchair programmer, a student of film production, direction and scriptwriting, even a professional author. Tornquist is, even in these moments of change — which, in the games industry, come fast and with regularity — adaptable.
Tornquist flourished in the late '90s, where, against a backdrop of a waning adventure game movement, he became one of the genre's only auteurs. It's only now, at the age of 42, that he's breaking new ground in his career by moving backwards. Today, at a time when the video game industry has largely turned its back on this stuff, he is finding himself at the helm of an old trend.
Tornquist is going back to his roots. He's founded his own independent studio, bypassing the old, awkward dance between developers and their publishers, and is finally revisiting the series that had, perhaps, the biggest effect on his career to date: an adventure game saga called The Longest Journey.
It's a series he describes as an exploration of faith: of losing faith and gaining it, of having too much faith or too little. In reality, the premise isn't all that dissimilar to the long and troublesome development of the saga itself — Tornquist could just as well be speaking of his own story.
Adventure Games, Meet MMOs
"I think people don't realize the impact The Longest Journey and Dreamfall have had and how well they're selling," Tornquist explains. "I don't know if most publishers understand it."
Modern technology moved on. Tornquist's tastes, however, did not: Fueled mostly by novels and relics of that earlier decade, his games could be willfully unorthodox — even his later work, an MMO called The Secret World, carries a whiff of those years to it.
For Tornquist, while the world and its technology changed, his unwillingness to contemporize was a calling. But if the series was to continue to be made by the studio, it would need to evolve.
For a time in the mid-2000s, The Longest Journey was nearly an MMO.
The series was Tornquist's baby: his first major work for Funcom, with dual roles as lead writer and designer. In a single-player narrative, it told the story of a chasm that divided worlds, of strong female characters trying to find their purpose, and gained critical accolades along the way. But Tornquist describes the early stages of the never-realized multiplayer's plot as less focused — the result of the studio's policy changes and shift to online gaming.
The adventure game series was to become a fantasy-type massively multiplayer game, separate to the original series but still within its universe. It would deal with the "War of the Balance," a part of the series' lore describing a battle at an undefined point in the narrative's future. A point, says Tornquist, that would suit a multiplayer game, "where there was a big war and specific characters didn't really matter as much as vast armies of characters."
He notes it would have presented a major shift in his relation to the series, too — from gaming auteur to collaborator. The AAA-games industry, says Tornquist, "is not driven by auteurs. It's driven by marketing and big budgets; it's a business first and foremost."
In 1999, while working on The Longest Journey, Tornquist was at the helm of a small team of young developers who — by his own account — had little industry experience. It was a creative goldmine. In a creative medium, he says, size matters.
"It was easy for the rest of the team to understand I was one who did the story while they focused on the technical side," he says. "Story-wise and universe-wise, it was a game that came from me and they were happy to contribute to other areas.
"But of course as time goes by and teams get bigger and budgets get bigger, it's harder to be auteur-driven. You have to change the way you work in bigger productions," he explains, "which I liked too. But I also found it could be very tough because I believe very strongly in my point of view and my tastes. It's always so subjective. You're not dealing with absolutes or objective truths. You're dealing with a feeling. You're dealing with a feeling of this is right, this is not right. There is no logical argument to it, but logical arguments are sometimes needed to win people over. Especially to technical people who ask, 'Why, why does it have to be like this?' and your answer is, 'Well, it's a feeling.'"
"I like collaborations," he says, "but I also have this very specific story that I want to tell."
He adds: "The MMO never amounted to anything. We did The Secret World instead and we did Age of Conan instead. I don't think it would have been good for the saga to become an MMO."
More than 10 years have passed since The Longest Journey was first available on store shelves, and a conclusion to the story still hasn't come to pass.
At least, not until late 2012, when Tornquist, who at this point had worked under the wing of Funcom for nearly two decades, decided to leave the company to begin his own — a studio called Red Thread Games.
"I've been walking around with this idea for years," he says. "For the last few years wanted to maybe try something on my own. After The Secret World, I sort of felt it was time to get back to another kind of game. Be the director and to run things.
"I went to Funcom very soon after the launch of The Secret World. The answer immediately was 'That sounds great.' We just needed to get the board on board.
"I think everybody realized this was an important universe for Funcom. Funcom was very supportive. They knew nothing would happen with those games without me."
Tornquist was given the rights to the series' universe, with a caveat: The studio would form a revenue-sharing agreement with Funcom as part of its licensing deal with the company through Funcom's ownership of the intellectual property rights for The Longest Journey titles.
But freedom requires money. Tornquist decided against the traditional publishing route in turn for artistic independence. "If we did go through a publisher, they might want to have too much control over the game," he says. "And it's really important for us to have the creative control."
Red Thread Games received partial funding from the Norwegian Film Fund, which brought in roughly 1 million NOK to pre-production. However it wasn't until months later, in February 2013, and with his new studio in tow, that Tornquist began a campaign to fund a conclusion to the Dreamfall narrative.
The game was presented by way of nostalgia. Old characters returned, plotlines were promised their respective endings, then finally, after 30 days of campaigning on the crowd funding website Kickstarter and 10 years of struggling to make it work, Chapters accumulated $1,538,425, nearly $700,000 more than its initial funding goal.
The money was there. Now was the hard part.
Dreamfall Chapters is a reunion of sorts. After a 10 year sojourn in MMO development, Tornquist has hired on a number of his old Funcom colleagues and is back in touch with most of the original voice cast.
Getting the old team together was simply a question of saying, "Hey guys, do you want to work on Dreamfall Chapters?" says Tornquist. As fate would have it, Dreamfall's original artists were located two doors down the hallway from the studio's new office space.
A few of the voice actors, however, still present a challenge.
Ellie Conrad-Leigh, the voice of Dreamfall's protagonist Zoë, emigrated to Australia and has since taken leave from acting, he says, while Louis Aguirre, the voice behind the original Cortez, is now an Emmy Award-winning television anchor for WSVN in Miami, Fla. — although Tornquist is quick to note that Aguirre is more than happy to reprise his role, according to his Twitter feed.
It's voice actress Sarah Hamilton who perhaps makes the biggest surprise return. Hamilton is the voice behind the series' original star — April Ryan. But since her time on the project she's all but disappeared from the games industry's stable of voice actors.
"Why that is?" she says, with a shrug audible over the phone. "I can't tell you.
"I am looking for a new agent," she reveals. The smirk is just as audible.
Hamilton's resume is a hodgepodge of various disconnected acting roles and voice work. She can be heard on commercials, has read for audiobooks and, beyond her time with Tornquist and the team, had a hand in two kiddie games — of the "learn-to-read" variety, she says.
But despite still receiving weekly emails from fans of the games — something she says she's both honored and humbled by — in terms of her career, The Longest Journey has "honestly just been another job. It hasn't added to my career at all."
Today, she lives in New York. Hamilton is, as she ever was, a voice actor. She is also a cancer survivor, a charity founder, a certified life coach and continent-hopper. It was following her work with Funcom that she first moved countries — from the States to England, then back again, all while continuing to work her voice in various facets.
Hamilton is a voice actor, a cancer survivor, a charity founder, a certified life coach and continent-hopper.
But in 2002, her health took a turn for the worse. Hamilton was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Then, just over a year and a half later, it was revealed she had salivary gland cancer.
"During radiation, during the treatment for cancer, I had to stop working for six months," she says. "Because it was all very much in my throat and my mouth, and my doctor was like, 'You've got to stop working.'"
This six-month hiatus was in sharp contrast to her working days. At the start of her career, Hamilton was reading for roughly seven auditions every day. Her initial audition for the part of April Ryan was "just one of the many I did at the time," she says.
"And I literally walked out of the audition thinking, 'Oh well, there goes that one!' I thought I did terrible. It was just bad. I stumbled on words, I flubbed, I mean it was just not one of your better auditions. But Ragnar later said that's probably what they liked about me. 'You were so natural!'"
It was only recently that Tornquist reached out to her. The two have been in contact online and over email since the days of Dreamfall. Now, relapse-free from MS for a "very long time," she's returning to games.
"I believe," she says, "we're here to be of service on this planet. I'm not one who says there's a reason for everything. But I believe there is a reason to be found in everything. So I grab every minute.
"I think I'm part of something really special."
"You do need some space"
It's 2013. Everyone is getting older. When the saga began, it was created by the young and inexperienced. Today, the designers who began their careers with Funcom have 10, 15, 20 years of industry work behind them.
"I think we're all done, us old timers, with bringing back our legacies and asking for money," Tornquist says wryly. It's a statement that's equal parts self-deprecation and an indictment of the Kickstarter culture he's joining — one where nostalgia rules the roost. "We've almost run out of those legacies, so now it's time to stir things up again."
But Tornquist could never have done the series justice had he developed Chapters in the years that followed Dreamfall, he says.
"I don't think I could have done Chapters right after Dreamfall because you do need some space," he explains. "You do need a change of scenery, so to speak, in order to get some perspective.
"It's about characters who are at a point in their lives where things are changing and they need to change and they need to accept that change."
"I've grown a lot since starting Dreamfall in 2003. It's 10 years now since that, and I think I've changed and now my life is about different things. And so have the lives of the other members of the team, and now we want to talk about something else. And that would have been different had we made Chapters in 2007, for example. I have changed as a writer. We approach games depending on what we want to talk about. If made in 2007, the game would have been 'less anchored' — probably not naïve, but it wouldn't have been a game with as much to say. Wouldn't feel as meaningful. The characters would have been different, not as interesting."
His earlier work was about faith. Now, when he describes the story of Dreamfall Chapters, he says:
"It's about really coming into yourself. About growing up and settling down and becoming who you are meant to be and accepting that. It's about turning the page and realizing you're not where you thought you'd be, but be okay with that or to fight against it, make a conscious decision to say, 'This is not where I'm meant to be.' It's about characters who are at a point in their lives where things are changing and they need to change and they need to accept that change."
But he could just as well be talking about his own story.
Image Credits: Alexander Fredriksen, Red Thread, Sarah Hamilton
Layout: Russ Pitts, Warren Schultheis
Editing: Russ Pitts