In April of 2000 I installed an adventure game called the The Longest Journey on my puny little Widows 98 laptop and began to play. Almost immediately I was swept into a fully imagined classic fantasy world. Well, two worlds actually. Stark, a futuristic totalitarian place where the few lord it over the many and where magic does not exist. And Arcadia, a sprawling magical land crammed with impossible races and dream-like settings. The Longest Journey was the brain child of Norwegian game developer Ragnar Tornquist. To this day it remains his greatest achievement, the various releases of The Longest Journey selling nearly a million copies worldwide according to Tornquist’s blog. I loved this game and ended up playing it three times in a two year span. This is no small potatoes, folks. This game is immense, spanning thirteen chapters, a prologue and epilogue and taking up 4 CDs. Famous for its long stretches of dialogue and challenging puzzles, The Longest Journey unfolds like a novel, immersing the player in finely observed studies of character and settings, unreeling amazing set piece after amazing set piece.
For those whose tastes lean toward the snappy, wacky and cartoony that, say, LucasArts turned out back in the day, The Longest Journey probably seemed a bit overly talky and meandering. And April Ryan, the main character, no doubt grated on more than a few sensibilities. Still, for those gamers who don’t suffer from Little Cute Cartoon Syndrome, TLJ was a treat. Don’t get me wrong, this editorial is not an exercise in LuscasArts bashing. In fact, I consider Day of the Tentacle to be as near to a perfect adventure game ever created and Grim Fandango, though I have personal issues with it, perhaps the most accomplished. The LucasArts adventure game library is unrivaled for its consistent quality, from Maniac Mansion to Escape From Monkey Island. Still, there is something about TLJ that sets it apart from the typical output. Simply put, it has heart. It has soul. This is a game that adores you. There is no hint of the insidious mocking tone modern day game developers hold so close to their black, shriveled excuse for a blood pump. The Longest Journey was, and for many still is, home and hearth in an increasingly cold, uncaring world. Sniff.
After the first wave of TLJ goodness swept through adventuredom, the clamor for a sequel began to grow. Tornquist, instead of setting to work on a follow-up, turned to developing other games instead. He teased the fans along with bits of information but in the end it would be over six years before the second game in the series was released. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, better known as just plain Dreamfall, finally hit the shelves in April of 2006. I bought it on day one and eagerly installed it. After a few hours of play I sat back with a frown. This was not my TLJ. April was not the main characters but an older and somewhat bitter side character. This was puzzling as April Ryan had been one of the most memorable protagonists ever to emerge from an adventure game, by turns, smart, bewildered, tough and frightened. In contrast, the protagonist in Dreamfall, Zoe Castillo, was mostly just a put-upon rich kid who’s main compulsion was to sort of help her ex-lover, kind of and, sigh, okay, like save the world. It’s like Funcom decided to cast Lindsay Lohan as the lead in the sequel to a movie made famous by Tilda Swinton.
The upshot was that fans of The Longest Journey had to wait six long years for the sequel, Dreamfall and for the most part it wasn’t worth it. Set even further in the future than TLJ, in a time when April Ryan’s struggle to preserve the worlds of Stark and Arcadia were little more than memories, the player felt somehow disoriented. We still have a world threatened by a heartless mega-mega corporation but we don’t really care. There is a spooky little girl who appears to Zoe with puzzling messages but Zoe is so busy mulling the politically correct and way-cool old school fashion tendencies of the denizens of her Casablanca neighborhood that she can hardly be bothered to notice or advance the plot.
The game engine was a mess. The Longest Journey used 3D character in a traditional 2D point and click game world and it worked beautifully. Navigation was a breeze, inventory a joy to use. Dreamfall, by contrast was completely 3D, which in an odd way went a long way toward compensating for the lack of compelling characters but controls were lame. They were a kind of hybrid WASD control scheme that allowed just enough tweaks to make it workable. Even at it’s best though, the controls were loose and a bit wonky. Imagine driving a car with steering lag. Turn the wheel and wait for the car to respond. The controls were much like this. I finally adapted by letting off the mouse and keys to let Zoe sort of drift to a stop or float around a corner. To be fair I got used to this pretty quickly and for the most part it didn’t hinder my game play. Still, if this game engine were a car I wouldn’t buy it.
And then there was the combat system. And it sucked. Really hard.
All this was disheartening as hell because 2006 was already hard times for the adventure gamer. And frankly, it really hasn’t gotten better. Most of us find little if anything to rave about on the adventure game front. Sure, the uber faithful will rattle off new game release after new game release if they can shore up the whole creaking pile by sheer quantity of game titles. And sure, the games continue to come out, recently and most notably on the lovable DS, but rarely is a game good enough to cause much more than a brief stir before sinking into oblivion. This is not to say that there are not good adventure games being released and anyone sincerely interested in the current crop of adventure games could do worse than to refer to Adventure Gamer’s newly minted Aggie Awards, where they present little golden statues to the best of the best. Still, this is the age of the “little adventure game”, the adventure game you can hold in your hand and play at the airport while waiting for your flight to be canceled. After which you will return home and boot up F.E.A.R. 2 or Left 4 Dead or any of a hundred more compelling games with a number in the title.
Anyway, enough with Scout’s gloom and doom take on current adventure gaming. Back to the subject of this editorial. To put it mildly, Dreamfall was keenly anticipated. Then, as news leaked out that April had been relegated to a secondary character, that the game would include combat and stealth, that it would use a 3D engine and that we would advance through multiple player characters, the cries of protest rose. My voice wasn’t among the chorus though. I believed that the adventure game had to evolve or die. It made perfect sense to adopt more immersive game play devices from other genres, especially now that computer hardware could better render hi def images. Sure, a few diehards will never accept anything but hand rendered backgrounds in 2D and more power to them. Those games are still out there, more often than not a labor of love by a few talented fans and they are often surprisingly good. After all, game play is king and the delivery systems should be secondary.
The vast majority of general gamers play 3D games, prefer 3D games and so Funcom was being smart to move their franchise into a more marketable position. Too bad they left most of the quality behind though. The characters in Dreamfall didn’t engage me. The aforementioned combat system was ill-conceived and half-heartedly executed. The ending was an atrocity.
For all this and to its credit, Dreamfall was not a total wash. It had many emotional high points, especially near that abortion of an ending, an ending that promises to leave us hanging for ever more years waiting for Tornquist to finally turn to the last installment. No, it’s not a bad game….it’s just that Dreamfall didn’t come close to rivaling the epic scale, the remarkable characterization, the haunting atmosphere of TLJ, a game that might arguably be called The Last Great Adventure Game.
So finally to the point of this TLJ-esque, overly wordy rant.
Back in the spring of 2007 Tornquist announced that part three of this story would be released at some unannounced future date in serial form via download and titled Dreamfall Chapters. Excitement grew for a while and then quickly ebbed as no more information came out. On March 1 of this year it will have been two years without any substantive updates from the folks at Funcom. Back in June of 2008, Tornquist wrote that he is working on Dreamfall Chapters in spurts between all the big projects Funcom has assigned him, such as Secret World. He says he has some ideas. He hints at some character arcs. But…working on it in spurts? And…when he has the time? He has…some ideas? This sets off sirens in my head and not the wet slippery type either.
Now no one is more aware than Ragnar Tornquist that there is a huge fan base for this franchise, yet he and Funcom continue to relegate the TLJ story to a dead, cold back burner. And I have serious doubts about continuing this game in serial form. The main attraction was the sweeping, epic novelistic format. This was a game you could get lost in for weeks and weeks and I believe that was it’s single greatest strength. In a world of little games it was a leviathan. Chopping it up into bite sized bits just seems wrong. Now, I have nothing against the format itself. Telltale Games have created what is probably the best current adventure game out there, and it’s a serial. The Sam and Max games are based on a comix, and by their very nature perfect for serial release. Telltale understands this. They understand how to fit the game to the distribution method. But serial release is not a panacea for every adventure game franchise and I question whether TLJ world will survive this slice and dice.
Tornquist is a great talent and there is every chance that he will make me eat these words but I just look at the track record and wonder. The further he wanders away from the formula that made TLJ a success, the less compelling it becomes. I’m all for creative advances and the necessity of the artist to experiment and grow but sometimes it’s better to know when to leave well enough alone. TLJ came out as a near perfect thing, an exquisite balance all the elements so many adventure gamers look for and no longer find.
So we wait and wait and wait and while we do, a new generation of gamers has arrived who have never heard of The Longest Journey. Will they even care when this thing called Dreamfall Chapters comes out? Maybe it’s silly to look back with nostalgia at what once was. I rarely do. But in this case I can’t resist a few final ruminations on what once was and may never be again. Here’s hoping I’m proved wrong. After all, Fallout 3 came out after an even longer wait and while it was retooled for a new era of gaming it carried inside it the complete DNA of the originals. Maybe Funcom will redeem the series with Dreamfall Chapters and maybe not. At this point there is so little information no one can even speculate. So I’ll file this under “wait and see”and wait. And wait.