Monday, June 27, 2016

That song-hole in your face? Push air through it!

Wow! Dreamfall Chapters is awesome. It's a fantastic story, one that I'm still chewing on and lingering over. It's also a terrific game: a fully modernized adventure game, with puzzles that are thoughtful and challenging without ever feeling unfair, and following a TWD-style approach to choice and consequences that helps pull you into the narrative.

The story is a highlight, but also necessarily requires spoilers, so I'll handle that later. First off, some thoughts on the technical aspects of the game, starting with the few things that I disliked.

While the sound in the game is terrific overall, there are some spots where the levels are out of whack. For example, when talking with someone, you might not be able to clearly hear what they're saying because the background sound is too loud. On a related note, the audio can overlap in inconvenient ways. Some audio is triggered by proximity, and other by actions; so you might click on a thing to examine it, and then an NPC will start speaking at the same time, and you won't be able to hear either clearly.

Along the same lines: the game looks gorgeous, and has beautiful AAA-quality scene design and camera work. But, they do occasionally go overboard with camera effects, especially lens artifacts. Sometimes they have persistent smudging or rain drops on the "camera lens", which can be distracting.

Finally, and this is just on me: I didn't realize until the very last scene in the entire game that you can walk by pressing the right mouse button! I really wish I'd figured that out earlier, I think the game would feel much more comfortable as an all-mouse thing. I'd been using WASD, which works fine (and may be necessary for running), but isn't the most natural setup for an adventure game.

And next, some of the MANY things that I appreciated:

Pausable cut scenes! I tried to avoid interrupting them, but on the few occasions that I received a phone call or needed to change the laundry, it was fantastic to be able to instantly pause it midway through and pick right back up when I returned. This should have become univeral in games a long time ago.

The voice acting is terrific. I didn't recognize any of the actors' names, they aren't in the normal posse of voice actors who I idolize, but were really talented and universally professional. (To put it in more specific terms: they were, as a whole, better than the VO in Wasteland 2 or Pillars of Eternity, and on par with the Dragon Age franchise). This is, of course, critically important in a story-focused game like this, and I'm glad that they invested so much care in it. It's particularly helpful in pulling off cases where they are presenting characters who seem like bad guys but are actually good guys, or vice versa. Having the "right" tone for something like that really helps pull it off without actively misleading players.

I LOVED the triple-presentation of dialogue. Most old-school RPGs, like Baldur's Gate and Pillars of Eternity, have a voiceless protagonist and will present you with entire lines of dialogue which you can choose between. More modern games with voiced protagonists, like the Telltale Games adventures and BioWare's dialogue wheel games, will typically have brief summaries to select from; after choosing one, you'll hear a longer voiced line that expands on the summary. In Dreamfall, your choice is typically a single word: "Wit", "Angry", "Politics", for example. Hovering over the choice, though, will trigger an inner monologue as your active protagonist mulls over the topic. "Wit is a brilliant engineer. If anyone can solve this problem, it will be him. I'm not sure if I can get through to him, though." Selecting it will speak, but it might be much briefer than the monologue: "What about Wit?" It's brilliant, because it gives you the full context for the dialogue and for the choice that you're making, without requiring your character to be verbose.

I alluded to this a bit before, but the puzzle design is fantastic. For starters, you're typically facing one puzzle at a time (though occasionally you'll have multiple objectives that you can pursue independently). Everything is collocated nicely: if everything you need is in the courtyard, they'll block out the exits, or have your character automatically turn around when you try to leave. It's impossible to ever get stuck, and there's none of that nonsense of "You need to remember to pick up Item A in Scene 1 in order to solve the puzzle in Scene 4." It isn't really possible to lose, either. If something bad does happen, like getting spotted by a guard, then the screen will flash, and you'll quietly return to a few seconds earlier, where you can try again.

Okay, it's almost storytime! (Humor!) I did throw together a couple of albums, which are heavily but not completely captioned. Most of my reaction to the plot proper is included in those, with my ramblings on larger themes and theories below. I captioned these after beating the game, so if you haven't yet played Book Five, you may want to refrain.

Book One (also linked from the end of my previous post)
Book Two
Book Three
Book Four
Book Five

Okay, here are some

MINI SPOILERS (mostly Books Two through Four, not much plot stuff)

Let's start with an easy one: boy, lots of characters have similar names. It took me a little while to properly track Anna, Enu, and Hannah. I don't think the similar names are significant, but they still threw me.

There seem to be a few doppelgangers between worlds. Abby, Hanna's girlfriend, reminded me a lot of one of the non-human Resistance members in Arcadia. I don't think there's any importance to that - based on the lore we get near the end of the game, it seems like Zoe is the only person who can actually cross worlds in that way - but it was an interesting, subtle way to tie them together.

I thought they did a really good job of giving an in-universe explanation for why the player might not recognize certain characters from previous games. That came up for me a couple of times, since I haven't played The Longest Journey or the original Dreamfall, so when some prominent cameos appeared later I could tell that Zoe knew them while I did not. (I'm thinking in particular of meeting  Brian inside Abnaxus's library.) Fortunately, Zoe's coma and memory loss is a major element of the game, and so I could pick "I'm sorry, who are you?" without feeling at all guilty. It reminded me a little of Baldur's Gate 2, another game that extends an earlier story but wanted to allow players to jump immediately in to the sequel, likewise, in that game, you have undergone extreme mental anguish and so the characters around you will sympathetically respond to your lack of comprehension.

All right, let's talk about decision-making! Choice-and-consequences! I think that Dreamfall Chapters might have the best C&C that I've seen in a game. Granted, I just finished the game and am still riding high on it, so take that with a grain of salt. But I think they've managed to outshine even the seminal Walking Dead adventure games in their presentation of branching narrative and contingency.

Let's start with one specific example from fairly early in the game. Kian tracks down an Azadi officer and questions him about the occupation's plans. You have a choice: you can torture him, or just verbally threaten him. Being a decent human being, I chose the latter.

I was delighted to see that, in breaking with the poisonous Hollywood tradition of the past fifteen years, Dreamfall does not reinforce the idea that torture is the best way to gain intelligence. You have plenty of leverage with this person, and learn the information you need: yes, the Azadi are planning to rain Marcuria and drive out the magicals.

However! While the decision to torture or not does not affect the information you uncover, it does affect how others perceive that information. In particular, Likho does not believe it because it was not acquired with violence. And so he refuses to act on the intelligence, and as a result, the rebels are driven from the city (though not before inflicting heavy casualties on the invaders).

That's a case where a choice played out in an unexpected way, although in a way that's still linked to the origin. Other choices have far-reaching consequences that could not possibly be anticipated ahead of time. Who could have predicted that ordering organic sausages would result in a business being destroyed and a relationship breaking up? This sometimes felt frustrating to me.

I'm used to more clearly marked paths, like "Do you want to save Ashley or Kaidan?", or "Do you want to romance Sera or Josephine?" In a lot of games I play, there are choices, but the choices are primarily between outcomes. Surprises can still result - you'll be facing down a Specter's gun in Mass Effect 3, or fighting a duel for Josephine's honor - but you know in advance which path you're heading down. In Dreamfall, though, you aren't picking the outcome, you're picking the choice. That feels much more realistic. The world is filled with unintended consequences: the random minor decisions we make throughout the day might result in meeting a spouse or starting a new business, while our much-contemplated five-year-plans never unfold exactly as planned.

Besides being more realistic, I think it's also more narratively powerful. I felt a deep sense of guilt when a character died due to a series of choices I had made. Crucially, none of those choices was "kill this character" - at each step along the way, I thought I was doing the right thing, and was keeping a strong relationship with that character. And so the death came as a total, gut-punching shock. But, I also knew that the death was totally a result of the choices I had made, so I still felt responsibility. That combination of guilt and shock is powerful! (As a contrast, think of how much more powerful the ending of Dragon Age 2 would have been if that disaster had only happened if you fulfilled Justice's mission. Most players probably do this anyways, so it narratively fits, but knowing that it is inevitable undercuts the player's personal sense of ownership in the outcome.)

I'm definitely going to replay the game later, and am very curious to see how things change. Some of the alternate outcomes seem straightforward - for example, I'm pretty sure how certain things will change if you don't bring Likho along on your mission - but the game also seems to have a lot of contingent choices, so there may be entire sub-plots and sub-choices that I haven't even seen. For example, I had a choice that unlocked an "intimate moment" with Likho on board the airship, but I couldn't have even made that choice if I hadn't previously decided to bring him along. That makes me wonder what other branches lie in store. It's different from, for example, the choice structure I used in Caldecott, where events at point B will play out differently depending on what you did back at point A; instead, you may be facing entirely different points C or D. It's a much more expensive way to build games, since you're spending a lot of time and resources on content that many players will never encounter, but it does pay off in making players believe that their choices matter.

Choice is a huge part of the game, but just as interesting as the things you can change (inadvertently or not) are the things you can't change. One big example of this is Kian's sexual orientation. I took the option to have him kiss Anna in Book Two because, hey, she's a mysterious red-headed stranger and he's a cool dude, why wouldn't they smooch? Then I went "Whoops!" in Book Three once I realized that Kian was gay. You can choose to kiss or not to kiss, but kissing a girl doesn't make him magically straight. As with picking-choices-instead-of-outcomes, this was sometimes frustrating, but ultimately feels much more realistic and significant. We can affect things in our lives, but there are far more things that we cannot change.

I do kind of wonder about Anna. Saga says something like "I don't know who you are, so you must not be important." That makes me curious if she can die and not be present in the end-game. Again, contingencies! I'm glad she stuck around, though... her story is filled with irony, but it's still compelling.

MEGA SPOILERS (mostly Book Five stuff)

The plot gets really complex in Book Five. They introduce a bunch of new characters, including the Prophet and Zoe's parents. Almost everything gets explained, but it felt a little like information overload. There are lots of interlocking factions: there's no one single person or group who's behind everything; instead, everyone is manipulating everyone else, trying to use one another to pursue their own goals. In the end, more of the bad guys are taken out by each other than by the good guys.

I kind of rolled my eyes at Helena Chang's explanation of how Zoe was able to physically manifest in Europolis while dreaming in the lab, thanks to "entangled particles". It's pseudo-scientific babble that reminds me of people using "Dark Matter" and "Chaos Theory" back in the 1990s when they didn't want to just say "magic".

While the quantum mechanics bit seemed silly, though, I loved everything else about the big-picture plot revelation. I really like the idea that dreaming precedes reality. Saga explains (with some exasperation) that what she's doing isn't magic or sorcery. Everything, including magic, exists within the dream. You can reshape the world by shaping the dream. That's what the primary villains were after: Helena wanted to craft a new world by altering the dream; Brian wanted to return home by disrupting the dream; The Six wanted to eliminate magic from the world by removing it from the dream.

The big lore-bombs came in Book Five, but I feel like the big meta-revelation came in Book Four, where you meet Lux, "The First Dreamer". I'm not 100% sure of the following, but I want it to be true: the entire universe exists inside Lux's mind. Everyone we meet in the game is living in a contingent reality. People only have existence for as long as the dream lasts. If Lux ever were to wake up and stop dreaming, everything (in the game's universe) would cease to exist. Nothing has an independent reality outside of Lux's mind.

I'm reminded of Berkeley's philosophy, where he argues (surprisingly persuasively) that there's no such thing as matter. We can have no direct experience of matter: we only know what our senses tell us, mediated through our minds. A thing cannot exist without something perceiving it. In Berkeley's Christian view, the whole of the universe is sustained because God is constantly thinking it. In Dreamfall's view, the universe is sustained because Lux is dreaming it.

This is probably reaching even more, but I'm tempted to draw parallels to gaming as well. In Books One and Two, there's a strong tie between the dream machines and video games: they're isolating devices into which people strap themselves, having vivid virtual experiences disconnected from the real world. Book Four, though, got me thinking: Zoe's adventure in Arcadia is a video game. Specifically, it's "Dreamfall Chapters", the video game that I am playing right now. Zoe, as a character, only exists because I am playing this game and thinking of her. She doesn't have an independent reality outside of the game. Within the context of the game, though, she is a fully-realized, three-dimensional character with her own hopes and fears and actions.

Throughout Book Five, Saga keeps saying "That's how the story is written." Within the context of the game, this means something like, "Fate dictates that events must happen this way." But what Saga is saying is quite literally true. Things are happening this way because Red Thread Games, the developers of Dreamfall, wrote the script that way. They have a climax that requires Saga to bridge Arcadia and Stark, and so she does it, because that's how they made the game. As an adventure game, there are some things that are set in stone (characters, factions, settings, certain required plot beats) and some things that are variable (choices, locations, people living or dying). That seems to line up with how Saga sees the world: there are fixed points that must always happen, and also "unimportant" things that can vary. I love the idea that Saga is aware of this. Much like Vivec in Morrowind, she may be a video game character who has realized that she is in a game, and can use that knowledge to her advantage.

And, to close the circle, it's a fun mental experiment to wonder if we are characters in someone else's video game, characters in someone else's dream. Would we know?  Does it make a difference?

To an extent, this can seem disappointing, especially within the context of the game itself. After all, "It was all just a dream" is the most hacky, cliched ending ever. But, get rid of that "just". And change that "was" to an "is". You suddenly have a much more compelling idea.

Again - all the above is just my own musing, I'm pretty sure it isn't intended by the game. But that says a lot for the quality of the storytelling, that it can create a world that's so vivid and enticing and open-ended that it can bring your thoughts to interesting places.

Speaking of Saga:

Near the end of Book Four, there was some talk of something being "divided into two". Given the context at the time, I thought they were referring to April Ryan, and was curious about what that division was. My first thought was that part of her might live on in Saga, who, after all, we meet after April has died. By the end of Book Five, though, I came to believe that it was referring to the Dreaming and the Undreaming. At first, they were together; then they separated, and the Undreaming caused problems; now they are reunited, and the balance is restored.

That said, I do still like the idea that Saga is a reincarnation of April. That could be very cool and time-twisty: near the very end of the game, we see a very pregnant Zoe; at the moment you see her, a Steam achievement pops up called "Baby Papa" with the descriptive text "We'll never tell." At first, I thought this was just being cheeky about whether Reza was the father or not; however, someone online made the observation that the only character in the whole game who goes by "Papa" is Saga's father. Therefore, it's possible that Saga is Zoe's granddaughter. When April walks away at the end of Storytime, she says "We have a long journey ahead of us." Besides being an awesome self-referential line, it also helps set up the timeline nicely: what if the time it takes her to leave Storytime is also the time until Saga is born?

We know that time in the House Between Worlds is inconsistent; time spent inside its walls can be much longer or shorter than time outside. It does still seem to be linear; there doesn't seem to be any risk of returning to a time before you left. But, given the very end of the game, it seems like it must be circular as well: regardless of whether Saga is April, Saga does meet April at the end, even though we know that the younger Saga helped Zoe after April died. I absolutely adore that looping, Finnegans Wake-esque structure, where the end of the story is its beginning. Yes, it's a paradox for April to meet herself, but it's a lovely paradox.


I've known for a while that I want to go back and play The Longest Journey and Dreamfall, partly because this game is so darn good and also because Rahul recommended it. I feel even more motivated now.  The developers have set up a really clever narrative situation where it can retroactively make sense to play the games in this order, so I won't necessarily feel like I'm backtracking and covering the stuff I'd missed before, but actually extending the end of this wonderful story I've just finished.

Of course, if I do that, I'm certain that I'll also play through Dreamfall Chapters again. There are some very specific things that I want to do differently next time around, and I'm also curious to see how many other things can change based on my actions.

I'm looking forward to that. The more I think about it, the more I like the idea of replaying adventure games (modern, branching-plotline adventure games rather than retro confounding-puzzles adventure games) as opposed to replaying RPGs. The first time you play a good adventure game, a well-designed puzzle might take you twenty minutes or so to solve. You'll walk around, examine the environment, try a bunch of different things, ponder, observe, get inspired, and find the solution. On a replay, of course, you can go straight for the solution, possibly cutting down the time to five minutes or less. So, on a replay, you're focusing more of your time on the stuff you actually care about: learning more about characters, exploring different plot lines, maybe replaying some scenes you particularly liked.

I do enjoy replaying RPGs - I go back every couple of years to Baldur's Gate and Dragon Age - but so much of the time in those games is devoted to fighting and fiddling around with resources. That can be fun as well, especially if you're trying out a new build or taking a new party, but subsequent replays are likely to be just as long of time commitments as the first game, which is a substantial requirement for a role-playing game. As much as I'm curious to see what an evil playthrough of Baldur's Gate looks like, or a Warden ruling Ferelden, I don't often have the luxury of enough time to see it through.

As I grow older, I find myself more and more drawn to games that focus on stories, told in compelling and thought-provoking ways. Dreamfall Chapters is now near the top of that list.

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