In the heyday of PC adventure gaming in the late 1990’s, gamers were treated to incredible titles like Riven (the sequel to the critically acclaimed Myst), The Journeyman Project series, and Amber: Journey’s Beyond. Another epic story was told to us by The Longest Journey, praised for its strong female protagonist (April Ryan), complex, arcing story line, and high production values. Its sequel, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, released in 2006 was also highly praised for its continuation of the previous story, but intensely criticized for its attempt at combat and stealth mechanics that conspired to spoil the experience.
Now, Norwegian indie developer Red Thread Games, founded by The Longest Journey veteran Ragnar Tørnquist, has released the first “book” of the third installment of The Longest Journey franchise, Dreamfall Chapters: Book One. The game was successfully funded on Kickstarter back in March 2013 by fans of the previous two games that wanted to see a continuation of The Longest Journey universe (Dreamfall ended on something of a cliffhanger), reaching many of its stretches goals for more content.
Dreamfall Chapters, as the name suggests, is an episodic game release, mirroring Telltale Games’ episodic storytelling narrative device where future gameplay evolves based on the choices that you make. While I appreciate the sentiment, the evolving story sees little action in Book One, and though I expect to see more consequences of my choices in future episodes, the lack of any kind of significant consequence so far left me feeling unfulfilled. It’s an appetizer in other words, a perfectly tasty morsel but one which leaves you hungry for a more substantial main course.
This third installment of The Longest Journey follows three protagonists: Zoë Castillo, Kian Alvane (both returning from prior games), and a new character to the mix, Saga – introduced as a young baby in an extremely awkward and uncomfortable scenario.
Chapters opens with Zoë stuck in Dreamtime: a self-induced state of lucid dreaming that has become a kind of legal drug in the modern world. Early on, we learn that she somehow saved the world against the evil corporation making these “dream machines” that bring people into dreamtime (as seen in the previous game), but that no one seemed to care. Now she’s trapped in Dreamtime herself, unable or unwilling to escape. As Zoë wanders through Dreamtime, helping those trapped in dream machines return to the land of the waking, players are bombarded with references to things she’s already done and people she’s already met. Coming to the series with no experience of those games, I found myself utterly and hopelessly confused.
Later, the action switches to Kian Alvane in the land of Arcadia, a magical, ancient place captured in the midst of a war. Kian is awaiting his death sentence at dawn but he’s broken free by the resistance he was fighting against, and escapes his jail tower through a portal opened by sacrificial blood magic. His captors express their frustration at his escape, and mount an effort to find him before he tears down their empire.
Let me dial it back for a moment:
Dreamfall Chapters: Book One relies heavily on your past experience and knowledge of the previous two titles. Heavily. Though I’m a proponent of experiencing media in chronological order (you wouldn’t want to start watching Game of Thrones at the Red Wedding, would you?), there is also something to be said for being able to jump into a direct sequel without any prior knowledge of the previous first installment, but still be able to pick up on past happenings with minimal confusion.
Book One does not achieve this. In fact, if you have no prior knowledge of The Longest Journey, the past trials that Zoë and Kian went through are discussed by characters in lengthy exposition-heavy dialogue that is more akin to watching a Netflix episode or an extended “previously on…” recap than playing a game. Granted, that’s why fans like The Longest Journey so much, but because Dreamfall Chapters assumes that you already know everything there is to know about its surrounding lore, it’s a heavy detriment to those who don’t (like me). I found my attention wandering at many of these lengthy dialogue moments, despite the weighted importance placed on these very points and despite the phenomenal voice acting on the part of Zoë herself. An in-game enclycopaedia might have helped better to fill in the blanks; as it is, having characters spout huge amounts of backstory feels awkward.
There were moments, however, during these lengthy expositions, where I found myself captivated. Not by the dialogue, which is bogged down on a preponderonce with detail and the need to explain what the hell is going on, but by the graphics and effects. Of particular note, once Zoë detaches herself from dreamtime and exists now in the modern world, a dystopian city of Europolis. She’s talking to her therapist regarding what happened to her prior to her coma that left her in dreamtime (basically, the essence of the prior two games), and as I sit back and listen to Zoë try to talk her way through the session, I find myself captivated by the light glare reflected from the windows, watching the sci-fi ships hovercars dart in an out of my field of vision, watching the rain drizzle down the windows and refract off Zoë’s well-rendered face… and then I realize I’ve lost more than half the information I was supposed to be paying attention to. It’s difficult, because in one aspect I was brilliantly captivated by the mood of the place, and yet utterly uninterested in the meat and potatoes facts that I needed to know. I’m not wholly sure what that means exactly, but I’m fairly confident that it was not the developer’s intention. Dreamfall Chapters was built in Unity, an engine which is fast becoming the go-to choice for developers on a budget looking for something that’s easier to use than some of the other market leaders, and Red Thread has managed to achieve some stunning atmospheric environments. Kudos must be given to the art team, and it would be great if Dreamfall Chapters allowed us to look over what must surely have been an extensive array of concept art created through the game’s development.
Gameplay itself takes the form of an over-the-shoulder 3rd person view point, with a minimalist inventory hidden from view to give the player the broadest amount of screen space to enjoy the scenery. There’s nothing remarkable or unremarkable about it as a whole, though I did feel that the running mechanics and mouse-look felt a little stiff and unresponsive. This could have been due to my settings, but frankly I wasn’t interested enough to try and change it.
Graphically, just as the storytelling both attracts and disinterests me at certain points, the character rendering does the same. As with the aforementioned therapy scene, it was visually captivating and set an ambient mood, and Zoë herself is beautiful. Her character model feels like it had so much attention paid to it, and combined with the lens flares and rain reflections, she radiates an incredible aura.
By contrast, Kian looks thrown together, plastic, and hollow – like a beefed up Ken doll staring off toward plastic oblivion. He feels fake, as though his character model didn’t merit as much attention as Zoë’s, and it pulled me out of experiencing the moment, pulled me away from listening to the endless amounts of dialogue I needed to pay attention to, and made it seem as though suddenly I was playing a game released in the early days of 3D rendering. It just doesn’t fit; there seems to be little consistency of presentation values across the game as a whole, almost as though different teams threw together their best bits instead of trying to create a cohesive piece, or – perhaps more realistically – ran out of both time and money to apply the same high standards seen in some areas to the rest of the game as a whole.
Not to say that everything about Dreamfall Chapters isn’t cohesive – not at all. In fact, there were many times where I found myself settled back in my chair, listening to the exposition and taking it all in. Sure, it took a while, and sometimes I just wanted to get on with it, but I didn’t mind the story experience for the most part – what bothered me was the assumption that I had prior knowledge of The Longest Journey. It felt as though I was expected to understand what was going on based on my knowledge of the past but I didn’t and it was immensely frustrating.
In the moments where Dreamfall Chapters managed to lull me into a state of immersion, it broke that spell in the same way that Telltale manages to do it with their narratives. Seeing, “So-and-so will remember that” splashed in abrasive white text across Zoë’s wonderfully rendered face, or seeing “The balance has shifted based on your choice. Your actions will have long lasting consequences” wrench me from a crucial moment in the plot that would otherwise have been heartbreaking. It pulls you out of the experience and reminds you that you’re just playing a game, with a number of different algorithms ticking along underneath the surface. Dreamfall Chapters has so few points where I was engaged enough to forget my other problems with it, and being pulled from these moments by the HUD text was a gut-wrenching disappointment. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: don’t fall into this trap. Don’t use this device if you’re going to tell a narrative, episodic story. Just don’t.
At the end of the day Dreamfall Chapters is good. It doesn’t overly impress all the time but it doesn’t utterly disappoint all the time either; it has high notes, it has low notes, it has an intriguing story that relies too heavily on knowing its past, and it has moments of dull oratory that feel more align with a college classroom than a gaming experience. It has beautifully rendered characters, it has mediocre character renderings. It has moments of intense concentration, it has moments of boring city wandering. It’s not terrible, it’s not incredible. It’s just… okay.
Further episodes have yet to be released, nor have their approximate release dates been confirmed, either (the last announcement was that Book Two is coming “soon” – that was back last November). Perhaps as the story evolves I will become more personally invested in the decisions I have wrought. But at this point, while perfectly competent and a decent first stab at bringing the franchise into the 21st century, what could have been a captivating story failed to grab me enough.