Wednesday, November 06, 2019


It's probably appropriate for such a twisty series like Dreamfall / The Longest Journey that I would finish in the middle. I started by playing the last entry, Dreamfall Chapters, followed that up with the first game, The Longest Journey, and just now wrapped up the connecting piece, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.

I enjoyed it a lot, but it's definitely the roughest entry in the game. That's almost entirely due to the technological limitations of its era: if I'd played it when it was first released in 2006, I probably would have been impressed by its visual design and cut-scenes; seeing it for the first time now, I'm instead mostly focused on the low polygon count and low-resolution textures. I'll complain about the tech for a while, but I should note up top that all of these issues are very easy to get past, and the underlying story and game is still great!

The game was originally released on the Xbox, and I think that drove a lot of the limitations. The game is technically more advanced than The Longest Journey: in particular, the characters are much less blocky-looking and are capable of nuanced facial expressions. The first thing you notice while playing Dreamfall is just how small each zone is, which means lots and lots of loading screens as you move around. On modern hardware, the load times are also very quick, so it isn't too annoying, but it does make the game feel really dated, and also draws more attention to how many of the quests have an annoying back-and-forth cadence: talk to a person, get the quest, go to the place, learn a thing, return to the person, get an item, return to the place, use an item, return to the person, learn a thing, return to the place, do a thing. None of that is hard or puzzle-y, and you'll see several dozen loading screens en route.

The console heritage shows itself in many ways, and Dreamfall feels like a fundamentally different type of game. The Longest Journey used a 3D engine, but was firmly in the legacy of point-and-click adventure games: there was always a fixed camera, often with a fun and unique perspective on the scene, you moved to a destination by clicking on it, and you used your mouse extensively to examine the environment and interact with items. Dreamfall (like Chapters) has a fully 3D environment and uses a behind-the-shoulders third-person camera that follows you around. The setting is still detailed and often beautiful, but does not feel nearly as artistic as TLJ did.

The controls were clearly made with a gamepad in mind, and can feel really awkward for a keyboard-and-mouse player. I had to invert the mouse axes to even make the game playable; I don't remember the last time I played a game with a third-person camera where dragging my mouse left would cause the character to look to the right. You can look up and down, but only like ten or fifteen degrees in each direction; frustratingly, particularly late in the game you're often up high above roaming enemies, and it's literally impossible to pan the camera down and see where they are. The game also has some unusual and obscure controls, like a "look at a distance" mode, which seems superfluous, up until the moment many hours later when it's necessary to proceed with the game.

Probably the most bizarre evolution from TLJ is the addition of a combat mode: every now and then you get a health bar and spar off against a series of attacking enemies. This is not done well: it's clunky and unresponsive, with you often left facing the wrong direction. The principle behind the combat seems to be a perfectly fine rock-paper-scissors design: blocking lets you bypass light attacks, light attack land before a heavy attack, and heavy attacks can break through blocks, but there doesn't seem to be any telegraphing of moves that would make the system compelling. Fortunately, the designers seem to have realized that combat isn't great, so it isn't a major element of the game. There isn't much to start off with, you can bypass much of it by sneaking or dialogue, and when you do get into a fight, it is inevitably kind of easy: just make sure you're facing the enemy and then mash heavy attacks until you win. I'm very glad that they decided to drop this element from the sequel.

The puzzles themselves also felt frustrating. I don't recall ever getting stuck in Chapters, and I only had to look up two or three things in TLJ, but I frequently needed to consult walkthroughs for Dreamfall, despite it being shorter than either of the other games. Oftentimes it turned out that there was some dumb mechanical thing I needed to do, but there were also many times when the actual puzzle was just baffling; some particular offenders included a puzzle that requires you to replicate a melody that you heard once before but can't re-listen-to without reloading a previous save, and a frustrating puzzle built around wheels and statues that I still don't understand even after following a walkthrough.

Let's see, I think that's all I have to complain about. On to the good stuff!

As with TLJ, the character animations seem ahead of their era and more than make up for the technical deficiencies in polygon count. Voice acting is also superb and helps you fall in love with these people. The music is done well, though I do kind of wish there was more of it; I do like how the music is integrated into the storyline and becomes interesting in its own right.

The inventory system is a lot lighter than in TLJ, which was also pretty light in comparison to classic 90s adventure games, which I think is a good thing: there are long stretches of the game where you don't have anything at all in your inventory, so there isn't even the temptation to start randomly combining items and using them on every possible thing in the environment to try to advance. Speaking of combining, I think there are just like one or maybe two times in the whole game when you need to combine inventory items, and it's pretty obvious when you need to do that.

While the combat system is tedious, stealth is pretty good. It's generally sensible, based on you crouching, moving in shadows, staying out of characters' line of sight, and being mindful of loud surfaces like broken glass. I also enjoyed the hacking and lockpicking minigames; these sorts of minigames are never great, but I thought these were better than most, particularly the lockpicking one. Hacking did sometimes get tedious in the later game when the puzzles get long and the timer felt too short, but there's no penalty for failure and eventually you'll get a successful run.

Of course, the big draw of this series isn't the technology or even the gameplay, it's the story and characters.


Here too there are some big changes from TLJ. Instead of playing as a single protagonist for the entire game, you control a variety of people. Slightly more than half of the time you play as Zoe Castillo, a bored but compassionate rich girl who get caught up in a whirl of events. I enjoyed playing as Zoe quite a lot, which I'm sure was helped by having played as her before in Dreamfall Chapters: she's extremely likeable, fairly low-key but determined, honest and resourceful. I don't think she's quite as interesting or compelling as April was; she's slightly more bland, less opinionated, funny but not as sharp as April. Continuing with my eternal mission to compare everything to Life Is Strange, I felt some echoes of the Max->Chloe transition in the April->Zoe transition; Zoe is nothing at all like Chloe personality-wise, but visually they do seem to echo each other, appearing early on in a hoodie, and donning a beanie after coming into their own; both of them are also rather lanky and confident.

We do get to play as April too, which is fun and interesting. Her life has been hard since the end of TLJ, and we're seeing the end of several years of bitterness: she still has the old spark, but is much angrier now, with an unfamiliar ruthless edge replacing her earlier wide-eyed wonder.

We also get to play as Kian Alvane, the Azadi Apostle from Sadir. Here too it was interesting to pick him up at the beginning after seeing his story end in Chapters. It feels intriguing to play as an adversary of another player character, and really compelling to operate from another literal perspective and point of view; this is played off to some great intense effect, particularly in scenes where you alternate control between two foes as they debate one another, or when you witness the same events from multiple sources.

And the last is the first: at the very start of the game's prologue, you get to play as Brian Westhouse, and witness the event that kicked off so much. This is yet another case where knowing the revelations of Chapters adds more tension to what we see in the previous entries, and makes me feel impressed at how much of this far-flung series was planned out at the start.

Several other characters return from the first game, almost all on the Arcadia side: the innkeeper, and even Roeper Klacks, delightfully transformed as a result of his defeat in the first game. It feels really nice to return to Marcuria, even though the section of the city we can now explore seems far smaller than before, and there are far fewer lands beyond the city wall to visit. Politically, the Tyrenese horde that threatened Marcuria in the first game has been defeated by the Azadi, who then set up military occupation of the city and began to proselytize their faith.

The Azadi are really interesting for many reasons. Visually, it's striking that the main Azadi ethnic group from Sadir seem to be dark-skinned, a literal contrast with the lighter-skinned inhabitants of Marcuria. My knee-jerk reaction is to go, "Yikes, you're making the 'bad guys' all black?!" But of course it's more interesting than that. When's the last time that a fantasy race of technologically superior empire-building imperials were depicted with dark skin? (Which, of course, has plenty of precedent in our own world, particularly in places like Egypt and Mali.) And Kian in particular helps us see that the Empire is complex and heterogeneous, with various factions vying against one another and using the resources of the state for good or ill.

The Azadi are also interesting in that they are very pro-religion and simultaneously very anti-magic; I think that in most fantasy those two things are usually depicted as directly correlated. They believe deeply in their goddess and their faith propels and motivates them, but it doesn't, like, give them access to clerical spells to cast lightning at their foes or anything.

The occupation in particular is a very fraught and loaded dilemma. It's impossible for me to hear April chastising Kian without me thinking that this is an allegory of America's occupation of Iraq. Yes, the Azadi defeated an evil oppressor, liberated the people, brought their superior technology and built new infrastructure. But they worship a foreign god(dess), have removed their subjects' sovereignty, and look with disdain on indigenous practices. There's a tension that cuts both ways, with the Azadi feeling that the Marcurians are insufficiently grateful for all that the Azadi have done, while the Marcurians just want the Azadi to leave and let them pursue their own destiny.

There have also been big changes in Stark: Ten years have passed since the first game, which seems to have kicked off what's now known as "The Collapse", a brief period where their equivalent of the Internet went down for some time, there was widespread chaos and death, and then society came back online, now under the firm control of an omnipresent law enforcement group called The Eye. We still have a couple of familiar faces and locations, almost entirely in the Newport neighborhood of Venice. It looks a lot grimmer and grimier now; it never really recovered from the Collapse, and the streets have been claimed by gangs and the drug trade. But it looks really cool, in a down-trodden way, with the sleazy neon signs lending a cyberpunk air to the proceedings.

I was kind of surprised by just how happy I was to see Charlie again; I didn't have strong opinions about him one way or another in TLJ, but in Dreamfall he comes off as such an incredibly good guy, and I was really pleased to see him doing so well for himself. I also had a befuddled and embarrassed reaction when I met Emma: for some reason, I had played through all of TLJ somehow thinking that Emma and Zoe were the same person! Looking back through my old post, I even mis-identified Emma in my writeup. I'm not sure why I thought that; they don't really look alike, but the graphics are different enough between TLJ and DF:C, and I knew from DF:C that Zoe and April had previously met, so my brain somehow wrangled those two together. This had all confused me earlier in DF when Zoe first hears the name "April Ryan" and doesn't seem to know who that is, leading me to speculate whether Zoe's memory had been erased or something. Anyways! Emma isn't all that crucial to the plot, but I deeply enjoyed the conversation the three of them share, and it was nice to get that character-identity problem out of the way.

It feels like a lot of this game is centered in relationships, which are fluid and evolving. It's great to see how quickly and naturally Zoe can build up a rapport with the people she meets, on both sides of the divide. There isn't a whole lot of opportunity to influence how those relationships develop; this game doesn't yet have anything close to DF:C's reactivity when it comes to expressing your feelings and having others respond. Most of the dialogue is much closer to TLJ, a more traditional flat tree where you just exhaust every prompt and then proceed. But there are a few places where you can make more meaningful choices, and while the effects are very limited, it is nice that the game recognizes those choices and offers some reactivity.


The big one I noticed comes near the end, as Kian confronts April on the bridge in the swamp. In my game, I'd had April speak honestly to him during their earlier encounter outside Friar's Keep, and it was neat to hear Kian acknowledge it. I'm sure that events go down more or less the same no matter what tack you take, but just a few lines like that go a long way towards making it feel like your choices have been acknowledged.

As with all of these games, I am left with a lot of questions at the end. A big one is what the deal is with Faith's reported exhortations to "Find April Ryan - save her!" Especially since at the end you're told that you succeeded in doing such, when all the evidence within the game points to the contrary. Narratively and thematically, I think it makes sense that "save her" could mean "redeem her": we aren't meant to protect her body from harm, but to rescue her soul from the bitter and angry path it's on. But... I don't think that happens in the game, she's just as stubborn as ever at the end.

Or, was it all a trap? I do kind of like the idea that the protagonists were manipulated into carrying out their foes' goals while thinking they were doing good, which is something that happens in the other games as well. In trying to find and save April, Zoe brought her out of hiding and into more attention, and indirectly set off the chain of events that led to her being trapped. I don't think we can really ascribe that motivation to Faith, though; she's extremely isolated. Is it possible that Faith was being manipulated, by this "white woman" she references? My immediate thought was that the white woman is the white dragon, which would make sense (the dragon cares for her "sister" and has a great deal of insight); but if it is Helena Chang or someone else, then we might be witnessing multiple layers of manipulation.

Speaking of which: who is Faith? The house she occupies in the lab and in dreamtime reminded me a bit of Saga's house in Chapters, which made me wonder briefly whether they are the same person. I don't think those storylines line up, though.

I remember a lot of Chapters, but it has been over three years since I played it, so my memory is definitely fuzzy; in particular, I'm sure I overlooked some things that would have felt much more significant if I'd had the background of TLJ and Dreamfall while playing it, such as judging Na'ane's betrayal. One particular thing that struck me a lot is near the very end of Dreamfall, when Zoe's subconscious flatly (and ineffectually) warns her father, "That's NOT Reza." That was chilling! I don't remember that being followed up on in Chapters... if I recall, Reza kept watch over Zoe while she was in the coma, and they got back together once she woke up. For years I've been kicking myself for choosing to break up with Reza in Chapters, but now I wonder if I may have extricated Zoe from a tricky situation, and whether I might have missed out on a subplot that would have explained Zoe's warning.

And, casting back to TLJ: The dude at the end of Dreamfall who rescues Brian is Cortez, the guy from the first game who taught April to shift, right? I always thought that he was a "good guy," but given the disruption in the Balance that Brian brings about, maybe he's not.

Speaking of the Balance: the visual design of the Guardian (nee Gordon Holloway) in Dreamfall reminds me a lot of the First Dreamer in Chapters: they're all nude, glowing, and blue with green veining. It is interesting to think about how the Balance is related to the Dreaming. I think that the Balance is contained within the Dreaming, but the Dreaming itself is part of Storytime? I feel like I can piece this together after knowing where Chapters goes. The villains' plot (nearly?) succeeds because the big institutional powers like the Guardian and the White Dragon assume that dreams are natural: dreams are an expected event that links Stark and Arcadia. They overlook this vector, much like the Empire neglected the thermal exhaust port or Khan failed to consider the Y axis. Because they aren't expecting a threat to come from dreams, the forces from Stark are able to infiltrate from there and disrupt the Balance. But, in the end, the dreams of Stark and Arcadia are contingent within the First Dreamer. So, uh, it all works out in the end!


As I speculated / threatened years ago, I think this series works quite well when played out of order. There's a circular, cyclic construction to it, and the events in any given game act as both foreshadowing and resolution to the other two. I do want to press ahead and take another crack at Dreamfall Chapters, hopefully sooner rather than later: it's a technically smoother and more attractive game than Dreamfall, while providing great new illumination of and exploration of the wonderful characters and plots that were lovingly developed over the decades. Dreamfall may be my least favorite single entry in the series, but it's still very lovable in its own right, and made even better as part of the whole.

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