Sunday, November 8, 2009

The Longest Blog

(Some vague spoilers follow)

I've been spending the past few weeks playing The Longest Journey games in preparation for an article. I'd bought Dreamfall for the Xbox when it came out and loved it, even though I only got about 2/3rds of the way through, and only briefly mucked with The Longest Journey (the first game) when I grabbed it from the Target discount section. Honestly, if it weren't for the article and the fact that I was curious to how it fit in with Dreamfall, I probably wouldn't have finished it. I'm generally not a fan of fantasy fiction and that's more or less The Longest Journey in spades. It doesn't help that the plot casually meanders through the first few hours of the game, with a whole ton of extraneous (if well written) dialogue, and then it takes even longer for the ball to actually get rolling.

Still, in the end, I'm glad I stuck with it. Once the story does start, it does get pretty good, especially as it starts to weave in more science fiction elements near the end. It also provided a much more suitable background to Dreamfall. Technically Dreamfall's plot stands alone, but there are a lot of recurring characters that wouldn't make much sense otherwise. One of the coolest things about the game is seeing how locations and characters change in the ten years between the two games. Venice, once a burgeoning, beautiful college town, is nothing more than a rainy depressing trash heap. Charlie and Emma, the friends that we spent a considerable amount of time with during the opening hours of The Longest Journey, only to be more or less abandoned as the story progressed, are still baffled and depressed over the mysterious loss of April. Crow, too, makes a comeback as the wisecracking sidekick and despite having the same personality, more or less, comes off as less annoying. Other characters, including fellow Shifter Brian Westhouse and former nemesis Roper Klacks (now a reformed potion salesman), also make appearances and play minor but welcome roles. And then there's April herself, no longer bubbly and having long grown embittered with her life in Arcadia and the fallout from the ending from the first game. Her arc doesn't have remotely the same impact if you haven't played that one, where she would just comes off as overtly bitter and stand-offish.

I see lots of people still preferring The Longest Journey over Dreamfall. I don't agree, but I can definitely see why. The Longest Journey is a classic hero's journey tale, spanning several lands and cultures through the magical world of Arcadia, and even a few dingy spots in the "real" world of Stark. It's full of funny and outright weird characters, and Dreamfall doesn't quite have that. There's not nearly as much dialogue, and the trees are much simpler, where you pick topics instead of direct lines. There are a few interesting characters, particularly April's Watilla, a robotic gorilla toy which doubles as a personal organizer and talks with an oddly quiet demeanor similar to Teddy from Steven Spielburg's A.I. (He's even voiced by the same voice actor.) There are a couple of other oddball characters throughout, but none of them stand out in the same way that Roper Klacks did in the first game. Most of the best characters are the ones that make recurring appearances. And Zoe, a determined, beautiful heroine with a gorgeous British accent, is a fine heroine, she lacks April's sense of witticisms, and her humor is much more dry.

From a storytelling standpoint, Dreamfall is also far, far different, focusing primarily on Zoe's search for the truth, April's fight against the rebels, Kian's fight against his people, and all three protagonists' search for purpose and a renewal of faith. There's far less of an emphasis on Arcadia - outside of a few brief locations, the setting rarely leaves the city of Marcuria and only mentions about the other races and history in passing. This isn't necessarily a bad change, because there's a mystery driving the player forward, and it's more than just tracking down MacGuffins.

Still, the world of Arcadia is so vast and densely layered that, for as much time as you spent listening about it and exploring it, it still felt like there was more to explore. Certain important events happened off screen, like the invasion of Marcuria by an outside force, because it didn't directly involve April. Dreamfall reels in some of these and expands on the existing mythology, which in turn strengthens the world posed in the first game. Specifically, it even deals with the fallout from said invasion.

At the same time, though, Dreamfall's story rapidly becomes unfocused. With three main characters and multiple threads in most of these, it tosses at lot at you. Sure, all characters are put through journeys of faith, so they have that in common, but from a plot standpoint, it's never entirely clear how it all fits together. And this is further elucidated by the ending, possibly one of the worst cliffhangers in all of video gaming.

We say "worst" not because it was bad or anything. It's not something was rushed through production like the finale of Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II, nor was a victim of crappy writing. It's intentionally set up that way, since Tornquist always envisioned Dreamfall as the second part of a trilogy. If you go into it realizing this, you'll probably be less aggravated, but it's still ends up unsatisfying.

Lots of people compare it to the ending of The Empire Strikes Back, but it's not really fitting, because it's much, much more depressing. Furthermore, out of the half dozen of so story threads introduced through the course of the game, only one of them is really resolved, and the rest left hanging. And then, during the ending, the writers twist the knife even further by introducing more questions for which there are (yet) no explanation. And at least everyone knew thay Return of the Jedi would be coming. Tornqiest has been promising a sequel since Dreamfall came out, but given the reality of game development, it's not a certainty. It could very well go the way of Shenmue, which ended at the second game. But even though Shenmue stopped partway through its overall arc, at least the game told some kind of standalone story, whereas Dreamfall mostly feels like a huge setup.

If nothing else, it helps identify video gaming as a unique medium of storytelling, separate from books or film. At the beginning of Dreamfall, Zoë is in a coma, narrating the story in the form of a flashback. As a player, we're given hope that we can somehow save her from her rather grave condition, but no - by the end of the game, she's still bed-ridden with little hope of ever waking up. Even though there are no alternate paths or endings, it still somehow feels like we, the player, have failed her in some way, making the finale all the more heart breaking.

Still, even if you end up aggravated by the ending, at least it shows how much you care about the worlds of Arcadia and Stark, its story, and its characters. Both games work together brilliantly, and it only makes us hungrier for The Dreamfall Chapters, which is meant to be the second half of Dreamfall.

Tornquist has been largely tightlipped on details, much to everyone's frustration. It doesn't help that Funcom's concentrating on MMOs like Age of Conan and The Secret World instead of making new Dreamfall games. For far, they're mostly likely going to be downloadable episodic content, similar to Telltale's games, and Tornquist is aiming for it to be multi-platform. It's going to pick up directly from where Dreamfall left off, and continue the stories of Zoe, April and Kin, as well as other characters, both new and old. Hopefully Funcom will stop wasting their time and get on with finishing up with Dreamfall.

1 comment:

  1. It's moderately interesting how The Secret World shares a lot of themes with TLJ and Dreamfall - It's one of the few MMOs I'm somewhat interested in.

    Dreamfall has possibly one of the saddest endings I've experienced in a game - especially with the relatively upbeat finale of TLJ. I prefer TLJ but just a tiny bit because of its more expansive nature - Dreamfall just feels short in comparison. Although Dreamfall has that one great moment where you control the dialogue of the two characters talking to each other.