Ragnar Tørnquist: Storytelling and World Building in The Secret World

The Secret World director/producer Ragnar Tornquist on storytelling and world building in the MMO genre. My first glimpse of The Secret World came in a darkened hotel suite on the second day of GDC. Groups of reporters were ushered inside three at a time, seated before a widescreen monitor, and treated to a brief overview from Ragnar Tørnquist, the game’s producer and creative director.

“Get ready to write fast!” a woman from the prior group warned us, and I soon found out why: The video we were shown consisted of various maps, concept art, and rendered scenes, overlaid with ever-shifting catch phrases designed to invoke myths and conspiracies from the world over.

I surreptitiously tried to take pictures of the screen when some of the better lines flashed up-not an easy thing to do when you have a full-size SLR-but was quickly chastised by Erling, Funcom’s product manager, that there were to be “No photos!”

A few of the lines that stuck out to me the most were, “Bees are the Key,” “The Great Eye is Watching,” and “The New World Order is Old.”

If those aren’t cryptic enough for you, try “EVERYTHING IS TRUE” on for size.

I’m sure that at least one of the people who sat through it managed to take down the entire laundry list, so if you’re so inclined, just search for any of those on Google and it should come up.

I won’t get into too much detail on what was discussed during the overview. When covering MMOs I find it’s best to abide by the old adage of “Believe nothing you hear, and only half of what you see.” I haven’t seen anything of the actual game, yet.

But, afterward, we each got to take turns interrogating Ragnar himself.

As he told us up front that they weren’t yet at the point of giving concrete details, I wasn’t going to waste our time trying to get him to come up with two dozen variations on the phrase “We are not prepared to discuss that.”

Instead, looking back on his career as a storyteller, I decided to delve into some often-neglected subjects in the MMO world…

The MMO Gamer: First of all, for those among our readers who may be unfamiliar, could you please introduce yourself to us and tell us a little bit about what it is you do at Funcom.

Ragnar Tørnquist: My name is Ragnar. I am both the creative director at Funcom, and the producer/director of The Secret World.

The MMO Gamer: Now, The Secret World you’re not ready to reveal too many details about yet, so I’ll spare us both and try to talk about a subject that hopefully we can get into.

It’s a subject that’s very near and dear to my heart, and I’m sure it’s one very near and dear to yours as well: Storytelling and world-building in games.

As a general overview to start us off, what would you say the state of storytelling in MMOs is in the present day?

Ragnar Tørnquist: I think most MMO games disregard the story, or see the story as just a way to explain quests.

I don’t think the genre has matured on the storytelling side-or I should say the MMO genre, in particular, because I do think that storytelling in games in general has become very strong and very interesting.

A lot of good stuff is happening with single player games, and everybody is putting a lot of focus on it. That hasn’t been true for MMOs.

I personally think that Age of Conan did a really good job on that in the early parts of the game. I think they put a good emphasis on it.

Of course, they still had the old symptom of the player being “The Chosen One” who is trusted to save the world.

The MMO Gamer: Well, that’s been true of most RPGs through the years.

Ragnar Tørnquist: It’s always particularly hard to get around that in an MMO, because of course that’s the natural way to create the game. To say, “You are the one. You have to go out and save the world. It’s all on you.”

But, in an MMO you can’t do that without it seeming a bit silly.

I play a lot of MMOs, and I always feel slightly embarrassed when the quest-giver greets me at the end and says, “You saved us, you saved us all! You are the chosen one! You are the one that’s going to set things right!” And then I see another guy behind me, I know he’s going to get the same greeting.

That doesn’t sit well with me.

The MMO Gamer: How do you go about addressing that problem, then?

Ragnar Tørnquist: I think we address it by constantly keeping it in mind. We don’t make the player out to be the hero, we just made the player a hero, part of the army.

We always acknowledge the status quo that is an inherent part of MMOs, and it’s a huge challenge.

Because what happens after you’re done, when you finish a mission or you’re through with part of the game? It sort of goes back to way it was, doesn’t it? We’re acknowledging that.

At the same time too, we hope to be able to do things in the long run which changes the world. I’m not making any promises here about that, but after launch I do want to make sure that the game feels like it’s evolving, that the world does change, that the story does progress.

Continued on next page…

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Comments

  1. Ragnar Tørnquist: Storytelling and World Building in The Secret World http://bit.ly/v6Sah

  2. Definitely keeping an eye on this one. It'll be interesting to see if they can deliver.

  3. Andrew Knight says:

    Ragnar is always a fascinating character with some really innovative ideas. Unfortunately I don't think he's ever managed to truely realise these ideas in an MMO. It'd be good if he managed it with this, he's certainly got the potential, you just need to play The Longest Journey to see that.

  4. http://tinyurl.com/dxlvy7 Cool Ragnar interview

  5. Andrew: You say that he hasn't managed to realize his idea in any MMO yet. Remember that he only has worked on one MMO before, Anarchy Online. He didn't work on Age of Conan, it was at least not much. You may know this, but you make it sound like he has made a handfull of MMO's that he hasn't suceeded with yet, so I just wanted to say that.

  6. Dwyn, It's a fair point and I should have been clearer.

    To re-emphasize though I do think that he is one of a very select few true visionaries in the game industry, with a real penchant for story telling. I do wonder though if there is a mainstream market for proper story telling in MMOs though. By it's nature that generally means increased dialogue, it tends to make the gameplay flow a lot more ponderous. Again, The Longest Journey is a good example, it's a great game, but it's not precisely fast paced. Which for me is fine, however in this day and age I think most people are looking for instant gratification with their gaming hence the apparently unstoppable rise of casual gaming.

  7. I am a huge fan of Anarchy Online and am really excited about TSW. I cannot wait until it is released :)

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