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Dreamfall - GDC 2005 archived preview

"I think this is the next generation of adventure games," claimed a slightly haggard Ragnar Tornquist after showing off his upcoming title Dreamfall to Adventure Gamers at the 2005 Game Developer's Conference. A week of preview appointments and late-night parties did nothing to diminish the noted designer's enthusiasm for his labor of love. Animated as usual, Tornquist played through two sections of the sequel to the acclaimed 1999 adventure The Longest Journey.

The theme stressed most in this particular demonstration was a closer and more natural link between the gameplay and the events of the plot than we tend to see in adventure games, which often have puzzles and cutscenes that seem bolted on to the underlying story. Tornquist voluntarily admitted that The Longest Journey had its share of these pitfalls, but everything we've seen indicates that he's well on his way to crafting a game which puts each aspect of the gameplay--from puzzles to conversation system to the hotly-debated combat--in the service of story and character development. The game has monopolized our Hype-O-Meter for as long as I can remember, and I see no reason for that to change any time soon.

The first scene we were shown is from the game's opening, when the player is introduced to Zoë, the only one of the game's three playable characters in this demo. We find her lying in bed unconscious, as sunlight streams through her blinds onto the sheets, with her distraught and silent father sitting at her side. The scene is almost startling in its beauty, and the lush music (a collaboration between composer Leon Willett and Funcom music director Morten Sorlie) is expressive and fitting; slightly reminiscent of Barrington Pheloung's score for the first two Broken Sword games. Zoë is, for reasons not yet revealed, in a coma. Her mother has already passed away many years ago. In a captioned voiceover, Zoë makes a vague and urgent appeal to the player: something terrible is happening (or has happened) and anybody who can help or even knows that anything is going wrong is dead. This being a videogame, the player is the only one with the power to put things right.

I said that Zoë's message was delivered through a voiceover, but it's worth noting that at this point in time there has been no finalized voice recording. Funcom is doing extensive auditioning and searching to find the best possible actors for the game, and Ragnar noted that the cast will be much more diverse, with a broader range of accents and nationalities than in the previous game.

Rewind a few weeks to a less traumatic time. Much like April at the beginning of The Longest Journey, Zoë is a college-aged girl without much sense of what to do with her life. She was a student at Capetown University studying biotechnology, her father's field, but eventually broke up with her boyfriend and dropped out of school after feeling unfulfilled. Since then she has returned home and is living with her old man in an attractive part of Casablanca (circa 2219), a city made wealthy by the biotechnology industry--gamers familiar with The Longest Journey will remember that Africa has grown to the status of a major world power on the strength of its biotech advances. Also like April, Zoë fills most of her days hanging out with friends and spending time at a local coffee shop.

As the player takes control, Zoë is in the midst of watching a TV news broadcast that is suddenly and inexplicably interrupted by a screen filled with static, over which is juxtaposed disturbing footage of a young girl cryptically imploring the viewer to help. Zoë dismisses the event as a viral marketing scheme and turns off the television. Soon after, her cell phone rings and she heads downstairs, where she encounters her father. He is slightly concerned with her lack of direction, but supportive of her decisions in general. It is a rather blatant but appropriate segment devoted to characterization, and Ragnar stressed the importance of building the player's emotional investment into the game's world and characters.

When Zoë steps outside, the game's usage of full real-time 3D is justified in spades. The town of Casablanca is lovingly detailed and seems designed with a goal of architectural coherence in mind; something lacking from the environmental design of many videogames. Like The Longest Journey, Dreamfall has a fresh take on the future. Rather than the 'Cybertastical Shinymatic 3000 Robotland' approach all too common in the gaming world, Dreamfall's urban city of the future has a much more natural feel, with modern and past Moroccan design sensibilities organically coexisting with more obvious futuristic elements, as well as various other architectural cues. It is both evocative of, and distinct from, the previous game's city of Venice.

All this visual splendor is unsullied by the presence of any kind of interface. Unless the player is actively engaged in a conversation or in the manipulation of inventory items, there are no extraneous elements on the screen. Funcom wants an experience as immersive and cinematic as possible, and removal of a visible interface is a good place to start. We were shown the PC version being controlled by an Xbox gamepad, and so there was not even so much as a cursor on the screen. Ragnar still did not describe how the native PC control scheme would work, but he did say that it is "mouse-only" and will feel completely natural for the game.

Readers of Adventure Gamers will already be familiar with the game's "focus field", the mechanism that Ragnar somewhat jokingly (but also somewhat seriously) referred to as "our revolutionary contribution to gaming". To interact with items, the player will bring up a blue radial stream of light that can be rotated around the character 360 degrees. It will act in a context-sensitive manner, so if the selected item can be interacted with, the character will interact with it; if it can only be examined, the character will examine it. As far as we know, the only other visible interface elements in the game are for conversation and inventory. When needed, your inventory will pop up from the bottom of the screen, and there you are free to examine or use items, as well as combine them with one another. When engaging in conversation, a simple and effective dialogue tree will be presented. The tree will also incorporate physical actions your character can perform. Practical uses of this system were soon presented.

In the next part of the demonstration, Zoë is performing a job for her ex-boyfriend Risa, who seems to be some kind of freelance investigative journalist. She has been instructed to pick up a package from a corporate center, but is told by the receptionist that the person she needs is not available. However, this receptionist is acting awfully strange and defensive, and to make matters even weirder, there is a waving frantic woman on a screen behind the receptionist's desk. In the ensuing conversation, Zoë is not only given the option to pursue various lines of questioning, such as asking what is on the screen, she is also given physical options including "Distract" and "Get Out". Asking what is on the screen causes the receptionist to become alarmed at the events being displayed, upon which she will leap out from behind the desk and initiate--brace yourself--a combat sequence. We were assured, however, that there are other routes that can be taken; fighting is just one option. If you do happen to lose a fight, Ragnar mentioned, you'll never have to play catch up with more than a minute or so of gameplay (during which you can presumably choose a different course of action not requiring a fight), thanks to the game's checkpoint system and save-anytime option on both PC and Xbox. In Zoë's case, it is definitely possible to never have to participate in a fight. Don't forget, Fate of Atlantis did it too.

In fact, there will be consequences for fighting. Zoë, like most of us, is someone who rarely actually trades blows; when she does, she will apparently be very upset about it and will constantly bring it up when talking to other characters. This was something I was very excited to hear. As an adventure gamer, I'm sick of every conversation existing in a vacuum; I look forward to a game in which your actions have some bearing on your character. I don't mean in the grand world-altering Knights of the Old Republic or Fable sort of way where everything you do is a moral choice of paramount importance; I mean in a more realistic day-to-day and minute-to-minute sense. Sure, the galaxy is not going to be forever altered if you punch some guy in the face, but it might have an impact on the way your character carries herself for the next few hours. Ragnar stressed that this kind of consequence system is going to be present throughout the game. It's not just an issue of whether you manage to avoid fighting; the whole game will be full of choice/consequence scenarios.

The game will also feature characters and events which do not necessarily operate on a timetable entirely based around your character. Like in The Last Express, there will sometimes be things to observe that depend on your being in a particular place at a particular time. Unlike in that game, these things will never be essential in Dreamfall, and you'll never (ever) find yourself stuck because you didn't get somewhere in time. They are purely for the purposes of added backstory and setting.

After getting past the receptionist, either through conversation, combat, or stealth, Zoë finds the woman who was on the screen locked in a transparent room as it fills with a lethal gas. An unidentified man plants an EMP charge, disabling the lock mechanism, and runs off. To save the woman, Zoë must climb up above the room and open the pressure valve, relieving the flow of gas and allowing the door to be opened. It is an intuitive puzzle (though Ragnar is reluctant to use the term "puzzles", not liking the cryptic and nonsensical connotations that have built up over the years) and fits perfectly into the context of the scene. You might be relieved to know that despite the time-sensitive nature of a room filling with gas, the scene itself is not actually timed.

All these things are whole-heartedly welcomed by me. Many or even most of the more controversial elements of Dreamfall have in fact been done before by adventure games. Funcom's innovations are in making different types of gameplay, as well as more unique elements such as the consequence system and streamlined interface, directly in the service of the story. The team is asking itself what kind of gameplay or puzzle or conversation or events are most suitable for each given story and character, and constructing the game around them, rather than the traditional method of deciding on gameplay genre and shoehorning everything into it. Ragnar often states that his game defies genre classification; it might not be a traditional adventure in the strictest sense, but it also is hardly an action/adventure. Last year he was calling it a more diplomatic "adventure/action" but these days it seems he has grown understandably weary of the constant arguments over genre names, and has elected simply to let it be whatever it is. However, he does guarantee that adventure fans will find it a worthy successor to the hallowed The Longest Journey name, and having seen it starting to take shape, I for one can't wait to see the final result.


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archived preview