GDC 2014 - Dreamfall Chapters preview
I’m leaving soon—but I’m not afraid. If death is the end, I know that our dreams remain behind. So whoever you are, whatever you plan to do, good luck. I’m sure you’ll need it.
Nearly eight years after a comatose Zoë Castillo imparted these words near the end of Dreamfall, we can finally breathe easy. Zoë isn’t dead.
For a long time, any return to the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia—first introduced in 1999’s The Longest Journey and later expanded upon in 2006’s Dreamfall—seemed like a pipe dream. Then in November 2012, series creator Ragnar Tørnquist broke away from Funcom and took the IP with him, securing the rights to make a Dreamfall sequel through a licensing deal with his former employer. A $1.5M Kickstarter campaign followed, and as Ragnar and co-writer Dag Scheve showed us recently at the Game Developers Conference, the sequel first teased in 2007 is finally being realized.
Dreamfall Chapters teaser
[Though the sequence described below occurs at the very beginning of the game, Ragnar suggested we mark this section of the preview with a SPOILER WARNING for those players who want to discover Zoë’s fate themselves.]
Zoë’s story picks up where it left off: in a hospital room in Casablanca and an eerie, snowy landscape known as the Storytime. At the end of Dreamfall, a machine named The Dreamer was brought to market, turning dreams into an addictive form of entertainment. These dreams are now being used to reshape reality. For about a year, Zoë’s mind has been trapped between life and death in the place “where all stories begin and end” while her body lies in a coma. (To refresh your memory on Dreamfall’s story, look back at our 4-star review.)
As the camera pans around Zoë’s serene, sleeping form, much as it did in Dreamfall’s opening scene, it’s clear that Dreamfall Chapters’ art direction is in good hands. The 3D graphics look as good as I remember Dreamfall’s looking when I first saw it in 2005—which is to say, in step with today’s technology. Unfortunately, a demo on a laptop in a crowded convention center hallway wasn’t the best venue for savoring the game’s aesthetic, but what I saw looked absolutely beautiful, and the game’s only in the alpha stage.
The scene shifts from Zoë’s bedside to the Storytime, where she has thankfully acquired some warm clothing to cover up those white undies we last saw her in. Coma Zoë is here too, in her hospital bed, and you can examine her and the keepsakes around her to get some background about her character and the story so far. “This is basically how the game starts. You’re introduced to Zoë, to her existence now,” Ragnar explained. “Part of her job here is to save dreaming spirits—a lot of people are trapped in nightmares.” He walked Zoë away from the hospital bed and onto a ledge blanketed in snow. Moments later a woman, silhouetted in a white glow, fell past screaming.
“We can help this person get out of their dream. Super simple puzzle: try to grab onto her as she falls past,” Ragnar said, clicking to grab the woman’s wrist as her falling body lined up with Zoë’s. Unlike in Dreamfall, “There’s no action in the game—there’s no combat—but there will be points that require a little bit more observation and reacting to things on the screen. But there will never be a death scenario. [If you miss], you’ll get another shot at it.”
By helping these dreaming spirits, Zoë will learn about the people trapped in their nightmares and the situation in Stark. “This is something to do with the dream machine, how it’s affecting the world now,” Ragnar explained. “That is basically the core of the story—it plays out in a lot of different ways, but it is the core of the story. Dreamfall Chapters is the second and concluding part of the dreamer cycle; it’s about the Dream Machine and the nature of dreams and Zoë’s role in this.”
Zoë’s fate wasn’t the only thread left hanging at the end of Dreamfall—the game’s other protagonists, Azadi assassin Kian Alvane and freedom fighter April Ryan, were in dire straits too. To catch us up on Kian’s situation, Ragnar and Dag showed a section set in Arcadia about 45 minutes into the game. Kian has spent the past year in Mercuria’s Friar’s Keep prison awaiting execution for treason. An earlier-in-development version of this scene can be viewed in the video below; the version we saw at GDC was farther along in terms of interface and graphics, but the basic gameplay is the same.
Earlier version of Friar's Keep playthrough
As the scene opened with Kian sitting dejected in his cell, Ragnar explained the importance of dialogue and the protagonists’ internal monologue in Dreamfall Chapters: “In a lot of games, when you choose [dialogue] you see the line the character’s going to say, or there’s a key word with no indication of what the character’s going to say.” Noting that the latter often removes players’ control over their character’s words—you pick an option thinking you know what they’ll say, and turn out to be wrong—Red Thread is trying to solve the problem by “giving you access to the character’s thoughts.”
Their method for doing this became apparent when the warden entered and two topics appeared on screen: Kian could either remain silent or ask why the warden had come. When Ragnar moved the cursor over each of these options, Kian expressed his thoughts in voiceover, letting the player in on how either dialogue choice would play out. “In a lot of adventure games and in our previous games, the character has to go and say a lot of weird stuff out loud because that’s the only way to tell the player what that person’s thinking,” Ragnar said, opting to play Kian as the strong, silent type. “This feels very natural.”
During a largely one-sided conversation between the warden and a stoic Kian, Ragnar explained how dialogue figures into Dreamfall Chapters’ gameplay: “We want people to pay attention, listen. Don’t just skip because you want to get to the gameplay, this is the gameplay. Half the game is dialogue. We have huge dialogue trees, you can talk to characters about everything, but you also have to listen to what they say. Everything that the warden says in this scene will be important in fifteen minutes when you get to a dialogue puzzle. In this case the warden is revealing aspects of his personality that you can use against him later on.”
Though some dialogue, like this conversation with the warden, will be critical to story progression, up to two-thirds of the game’s script is optional. Who you decide to talk to and what you say to them will personalize your experience. “A lot of what you say in dialogues affects the characters and their relationships,” Ragnar added. “If you’re not listening you could say the wrong thing and that character would do something to you later on. That won’t destroy your experience or majorly change the storyline, but it will affect your journey through the game.”Continued on the next page...