As Ragnar Tørnquist and I sat down to chat at GDC in San Francisco about his upcoming game Draugen, I got the feeling he’s had to explain himself a lot lately.
“This is a departure for us,” he warned. “It’s obviously a first-person game, and we like to call it an adventure game, but I’ve had this argument with people—it sort of comes down to, do you consider Firewatch to be an adventure game? Do you consider [What Remains of] Edith Finch or [The Vanishing of] Ethan Carter to be an adventure game? [Draugen is] not a game about puzzles. It is a game about exploration, dialogue, solving a mystery.”
Set in 1923, Draugen is the story of an older man named Edward and his companion, a young woman named Lissie, on a search for Edward’s missing sister. “We sort of invented a genre called Fjord Noir; it mixes a gothic detective story with the fjords and mountains of western Norway,” Tørnquist explained. “You don’t know the relationship between [Edward and Lissie] as the game begins. It’s obviously not romantic—she’s young, he’s much older; they have more of a father/daughter kind of thing. But she might not be his daughter either, and that’s part of the mystery.”
The game will open with Edward and Lissie’s arrival in the same tiny fishing village in western Norway where Edward’s sister, a journalist, visited before her disappearance. You soon reach a house where you’re supposed to be staying, but nobody’s there. Which, of course, means it’s time to snoop: “You start to peek into these people’s lives a little bit, and to learn about this environment, but it’s filled with that overhanging feeling that something is wrong, and that grows over the six days you spend here.”
Extensive dialogue has always been a hallmark of Tørnquist’s games, and Draugen looks to continue that tradition. He cited the teen drama Oxenfree as an influence, particularly the way the characters are “engaged in dialogue on a continuous basis … what we’re trying to do is create the sort of overlapping dialogues that people [have] in real life.” Like in Dreamfall Chapters, as you choose from Edward’s dialogue options, you’ll get a glimpse of his motivation for making that statement or asking that question, so you won’t be caught off guard by the words that come out of his mouth.
“The cool thing about this game, instead of a character that talks to himself and that feels a bit artificial, he’s always talking to Lissie,” Tørnquist explained of the dynamic between Edward and his companion. “When he’s describing things, when he’s investigating—there are constant conversations going on all the time, if you want. Or you can not interact with Lissie and wander off and keep silent. There’s so much of the story here that’s hidden; it’s there to find but it’s not there to be pushed onto you. You can go through the entire game and not have learned half of what the story is about.”
Draugen is “not really a branching game, but the things you say matter and are picked up on later.” When talking to Lissie, you get to choose when and how to interject, whether to interrupt or let her finish talking, which thread to pursue. Or you don’t have to answer—you can stay quiet while Lissie carries on a one-sided conversation. “It’s definitely the most important mechanic in the game, how you interact with Lissie,” Tørnquist said, adding that what starts as a light, bantering relationship between the two of them will shift and change as the story gets more serious.
But while it promises to be a dialogue-heavy game, Draugen is mainly about exploring the environment and investigating the mystery. “And there are two mysteries here, or three: the mystery of where’s Edward’s sister; where’s she gone to? She’s a journalist, she traveled to Norway some months ago and he hasn’t heard from her. There’s also the mystery of this village that appears to be completely deserted; what happened here? And then it all ties together with the relationship between these two characters.”
While you’re exploring, Lissie is only a key or button press away. “It works depending on distance and what the situation is; it’s either a way to sort of converse with her, interact with her, or to call out to her, to find out where she is,” Tørnquist explained. “It can even be a guidance through the world: instead of having an arrow that tells you where to go, you can call her and then you find out where she is. And we play with that mechanic over time. She’s mostly there, but then sometimes she’s not, and then the button changes behavior, and that affects a lot of what the story is about.”
I was surprised to hear Draugen will be out in May—that’s soon! Conceptually, Red Thread has been planning this game for years, but it’s only been in active production for less than a year. The playtime will reflect this abbreviated schedule, with Draugen clocking in at around three hours. “It’s a mood piece more than anything,” Ragnar said. “It’s all about these two characters, who they are, and being inside the head of this strange man and trying to decipher who Lissie is and what their relationship is.”
Read on for more insights into Draugen, Ragnar Tørnquist’s feelings about Dreamfall Chapters a few years later, and what’s next for Red Thread Games.
Emily Morganti: It seems like you keep having to explain, “This really is an adventure game!”
Ragnar Tørnquist: In terms of the adventure thing, it always feels like … I don’t want to call it gatekeeping, but there seems to be an idea of what an adventure game is sometimes, very specifically. We’ve been called out on that: Dreamfall Chapters was not an adventure game, or Dreamfall wasn’t an adventure game—
Emily: Yeah, you’ve been bucking that for a long time.
Ragnar: It’s not because we [don’t want to] make traditional adventure games, it’s just that I like telling stories with new mechanics. To me a game that’s about conversation and character interaction and exploration, that is an adventure game. Puzzles are not what define an adventure game. And there are light puzzles here; it’s more sort of about figuring out where to go and when to go there, in a way. But, you know, traditional puzzles, we didn’t want that to get in the way of the story. This is not a puzzle game. It’s not Myst. It’s a story.
Emily: How did you come to that decision? Was it when you were working on Dreamfall Chapters? At what point did you say, ‘I want to try something totally different?’
Ragnar: We sort of always want to try something different, but with Dreamfall Chapters we sort of—you know, that was a long hard struggle, and we did something that we’re pretty proud of, even though it has its ups and downs, but we definitely didn’t want to do the same thing again, or even stay in the same universe. So Draugen actually was born early on in development of Dreamfall Chapters, just to give us something to look forward to, to work on after we finished that, but it’s changed a lot over the years. And it used to have more puzzles, but I think every time we implemented something that felt puzzle-like, we felt, ‘This gets in the way of the story; it just stops it.’ And with this game we want everybody to get through it, we want people to get through it in one, two, three sittings, and just enjoy the story, and not to have any barriers. So it’s not a game that I think anybody’s going to struggle to complete; it’s more, does the story grab you?
Emily: How do you think the Dreamfall audience will react to that?
Ragnar: They’ve already been sort of conditioned that we don’t necessarily make traditional puzzle-driven adventure games. The first-person thing might throw some people off, but you don’t have to have fast reactions or anything like that.
Emily: Why did you decide to do first-person?
Ragnar: Because you’re inside the head of a character, it’s very different. You’re experiencing sort of this person’s inner life. And the focus is on this other character, Lissie, in the world. If you’re doing third-person you’re removed a little bit from the character, and the companion character becomes even further removed; you’re two steps away instead of one step away. And also I’m a fan of a lot of these first-person narrative games and how that genre’s evolved from, you know, Gone Home, which is very simple and simplistic these days—you go back to that and you’re like, it doesn’t have a lot, it just has a really great atmosphere and a great story. And then you look at something like Edith Finch, which is pushing that in a completely new direction. But I think [Draugen] is closer to Firewatch, mixed with a bit of Edgar Allan Poe and fjords and mountains.Continued on the next page...