Quintin here with a belated update. I’m really glad that Ragnar started off this dev blog with an open and honest tone. I’d like to continue that by going a bit more in depth on how we make the world of Dreamfall, how that’s changed through the episodes based on feedback and our own experiences, and where we want to take this in future episodes.
I remember the early days when we spent late nights in Dag’s living room after our actual day jobs to discuss what kind of game Chapters was going to be. All kinds of ideas were fired off, ranging from a purely conventional point-and-click 2D adventure to an open world experience with full-on rooftop environmental navigation and Eagle Sense.
A ton of things good and bad were left on the cutting room floor, but what we ended up with positioned us quite uniquely as a story driven game with adventure elements, but in a fully explorable 3D world. We sit at some asymmetric intersection of old-school adventure, on-rails narrative experience a la Telltale, and small scale open world game, all the while encompassing both a science fiction and a fantasy setting.
As designers and world builders, this gave us so many possibilities to work with, but at the same time these old questions of what we are as a game keep popping up in every design meeting and after feedback from every episode. Do we make the experience more open or more focused? Do we make puzzles harder or easier? After three books, I think we’re finally settling into a steady direction, but it hasn’t been an easy road.
We started big. Always dream big. The city hubs of Propast and Marcuria were going to be large, living, breathing worlds of a scale and detail that’s never been done in this kind of game before.
I’m really glad we went down this road. I remember vividly that first day when all the elements came together in Propast: Zoë walked past the colours, smells, and sounds of the street vendors in the Bricks, and then looked up at the hundreds of tiny cars lighting up the sky a thousand metres above her. It was really an OMG moment like I’ve not had from a game in a very long time. I still don’t think there’s anything quite like Chapters out there. It was so good to see that many of our players have expressed the same, enjoying every little nook and cranny of the city that we’ve filled out for them.
At the same time though, all of this came at a great cost. We worked on these large city areas for two years before we released Book One. We simply didn’t have that ocean of time for subsequent episodes. As such, much of the gameplay and storytelling was planned from the get go to reuse those locations and assets a lot. After all, there was plenty of space in these cityscapes to put new gameplay. Much of those two years was then also spent creating gameplay (albeit in an alpha state) for the rest of the books.
With Book Two, we continued on this trajectory. If anything, we wanted to go bigger, more open. A lot of people were telling us that despite all the pretties, not much happened in Propast gameplay-wise. So firstly, we aimed to address these concerns, but secondly Book Two was also meant to get more into the meat of the story and gameplay, after the more channeled introductions of Book One was over.
So we launched Book Two, Bigger and Better™. Except that many reviews and players were telling us the opposite, that they really liked what we were doing, but they didn’t like how we were doing it. There were frustrations, boredom, and sometimes stuckage. Pacing and focus were off.
Some of this was a result of bad design decisions on our part, but much of it was also just the nature of the beast. Large sprawling environments and adventure-style gameplay is a tricky marriage.
In a 2D adventure, you click on an exit and fwoosh! you’re transported to another beautifully rendered 2D scene. Your mind fills in the blanks as you’re only shown a condensation of points of interest pulled from an entire world onto a few 2D screens, the rest of it simply filtered away by the ellipsis of the screen transitions.
When you create a large environment and fill in all the nooks and crannies, you give a lot of detail and texture to the world, but this also makes for an awful lot of nooks and crannies that the Next Important Thing could be hiding in. We try to make these objects logical, obvious, or nearby, but as your explorable area increases exponentially, so does the potential of going down the wrong track and getting frustrated.
This was exacerbated by having the double whammy of open gameplay in both Marcuria and Propast in the same Book. Things at times slowed down and got in the way of the story. That’s never a good thing.
So for Book Three we took a long and hard look at the alpha gameplay we already had in place for it. A lot of it was pretty interesting, but we saw that a lot of it also didn’t push the story forward in a meaningful way and instead created distractions and obstacles, slowing things down in moments where the story should really be picking up.
So with all this in mind, together with a super tight deadline, and half the design team (of two) on paternity leave, we went back to the drawing board. We kept the sections that we knew were important and focused on making them better, polishing the gameplay and streamlining the interactions. We axed all the padding and focused on the core experience and story. We still wanted to keep the game what it was, with its explorable world and interactivity rather than just an on-rails choose-your-own-adventure, so it was a tricky balancing act.
Not everything was a complete success, there was still a bit of the old cruft that frustrated players, but overall the episode was tighter, more interesting, and connected better with people.
One of these clean-slate sections was the tunnels and warehouse area under Propast. We wanted to streamline the experience and the lockdown happening in Propast at this point in the story gave us a good opportunity to create a more focused setting. So when building the scene, we took a new approach here compared to what came before in the previous episodes. From the get go, we used basic building blocks to tailor the layout of the scene to the journey through the underground by Abby, Zoë and Hanna.
This gave us a lot more flexibility and control in how we presented this trip through the tunnels. Sections of tunnels were easily extended, reduced, or replaced to fit the exact pacing of the story we wanted to tell. The gameplay and assets in the warehouse were also built around the central focal point of what was happening with Mr. London and his interrogation. With Mr. London’s connection to Hanna and the bots, and his control of the illegal Dreamers, this was a great place to bring everything together in this chapter.
Looking forwards to Books Four and Five, we’d like to continue this trend. Just as well, since we’re finally getting to the heart of the story as things are picking up pace and entire new areas of the world are opening up to us. So what does this mean for how we’re making these chapters?
First off, instead of spending endless months on a single sprawling area, our artists’ limited time is going to be better spent creating a number of more exotic landscapes with a greater focus on the journey through it. And journey is the key word here. With Zoë and Kian in Book Four both leaving Marcuria behind to explore further afield, we want to recapture some of that magic of the journey that made The Longest Journey so memorable for many in the first place.
To this end, we’ll be taking a similar approach to creating these new scenes as we did in Book Three: start with the story, the journey, and build everything around that. How do we make that journey more exciting and memorable? Put our time into that. The difference this time is that we’ll have a lot more exciting landscapes to work from than just some narrow underground tunnels.
Secondly, we’re still sticking to what we are as a game. We want to keep the experience interactive and explorable. As the story picks up, it’s easy to get into the on-rails cinematics-only mode that we see in the Telltale formula and the last quarter of the original Dreamfall. We don’t want that to dominate Book Four. We want the interactivity and player control we’ve had so far in the episodes. We want people to still be able to stop and smell all the flowers, click on all the descriptions (Marcuria is still explorable in this book). But we also want to cut the cruft and padding that just obstructs players without adding much meaning.
So that’s it. I hope this gives a bit of insight into the design process in Chapters and how that’s evolved through the episodes. The scenes we’re working on now are shaping up really well, so expect to get a look at some exciting places from one of our art wizards really soon!