Presents a new argument of how far story can go in games.
Usually when you pop into some gaming message board, you eventually hit the same “graphics vs. gameplay” argument. Story, for the most part gets left out of the picture. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey makes an outstanding case to present how far story can go in games, going beyond gameplay and graphics to give you an experience that can surpass satisfying the other two sides.
Dreamfall for those who don’t know is a sequel to an adventure game Funcom made by designer Ragnar Tornquist, called The Longest Journey. The Longest Journey was a very well received for it’s expertly presented story, realistic personalities, and unique use of setting. Dreamfall lives up to all the qualities of its predecessor and is a worthy sequel as one of the best adventure games of all time, if not one of the best games of all time.
In the past, you played a character named April Ryan, who started the game as an every day collage teenager who wants to make it in art school. She was a very standard teenager, and that’s probably the biggest strengths of the character in the last game. In a world where Lara Craft was the symbol and itemization of woman, it was entirely refreshing to those who played The Longest Journey to find a girl who worked at a coffee shop, concerned with relations of other people, popularity stances, and getting invited to parties, and as well as marks for tests. You know… like real people. It made her a totally likable and relatable character, and it really helped to connect with the character when the twist happens that she learns about an alternate world, not one dominated by computer and machines, but by magic. She would then go on an adventure to save what is called “The Balance” between the worlds, one of ours which is dominated by science and technology, and theirs which is dominated by magic and mystery.
When she saved the two worlds in The Longest Journey, all seemed well. However in Dreamfall, she has become a much more apathetic and darker person. She wished to stay in which was the world of magic, and she trapped herself afterwards by forgetting the ability to “shift” between the world of , and the world of science and technology which she came from called Stark. She now leads a fight against a military and religious occupation of her-now hometown as a “freedom fighter” and “terrorist.” Making a character darker usually means a downward spiral for character development in your stories, but Dreamfall successfully accomplishes this challenge, by not making the character darker for the sake of being cooler, but to make her darker to explore the cynical side of her adventure. You see, in The Longest Journey she was told to be destined to become the Guardian of The Balance, but an unusual turn of events in the story made someone else the Guardian for better or for worse. As a result she tries to scoff anyone telling her about destiny or fate, but can’t shake the feeling of the desire to explore her purpose in this world, which becomes some of the primary themes of Dreamfall.
It seems like you need to know a lot of background knowledge of The Longest Journey, but you don’t really need to as the primary character of Dreamfall has no relation to April Ryan or any character for that matter in The Longest Journey. Dreamfall starts with a very similar girl to April Ryan, named Zoë Castillo. Zoë is young woman, which dropped out of collage not because she wasn’t smart, but because she can’t find anything that she loves doing. Her schedule is a blank slate except for a small Martial Arts session that her instructor says she “lacks commitment.” Zoë is likeable for the same reasons why April Ryan was, she is believable, likeable, and most importantly relatable. This is probably achieved by an ingenious use of pacing in the story. For the first couple of minutes, you don’t actually begin the journey of her life. You spend the few minutes just talking to her father, and her friends as well as exploring the small little areas that Zoë has commentary on, so that you can explore what a normal day in life is for Zoë. It really helps to connect the player to the character on a more personal level that games rarely do. Soon enough though, the “adventure” in this adventure game happens. This actually starts at the beginning when Zoë is watching TV, and a “Grudge” or “The Ring” style little girl starts talking to her from the futuristic television saying “Find her, Save April Ryan,” Which because Zoë has no idea who April Ryan is, takes this with a grain of salt and rationalizes that it’s just static or some viral marketing campaign. As this continues, it starts to build up to what will be the start of Zoë’s Longest Journey. I could drone on and on about the characters, but not only is that something that you should find out the rest for yourself, but every episode of this game that goes through these characters unfolds new meaning and new relations between each and every character in the game. The pacing of the story and the development of the characters really help shape out the characters into more 3 dimensional, and that’s something that very few games accomplish to do, and Dreamfall executes it with the daftest touch and utmost precision. Nothing of the story feels rushed or forced, and all of it flows elegantly from the humble beginnings to the intimate ending.
The entire story is backed up by possibly the best dialog and voice acting rivaling the best in the industry such as Bioware. Everyone just sounds totally natural. The voice acting never sounds like someone is overreacting or not reacting enough to the situation; they tread the fine line of the tone and successfully create realistic sounding characters. You can tell that the developers and writers of the game didn’t much care for ESRB ratings because of the use of profanity in the game. Not to mean that there is a lot of profanity, it’s quite the opposite. The use of profanity is very light but very proper in many cases to make it feel as natural as possible. While they could have shaved a few “fucks” and “shits” to get a T rating, the writers just wanted the most realistic dialog as possible, and as such they included it without going overboard as most games do when they are given M-rated dialog options.
The music is just fantastic, the composer Leon Willet took the right direction for the music and the tracks have a wide variety of tones to reflect the large amounts of settings in the game. Whether it is the upbeat electro to go with the most luxurious bar in the world, or the orchestral flutes and xylophones reflecting on the mysterious and magical world of Arcadia, everything just fits. The whole soundtrack uses synthesized music but you could swear that this was done by a live orchestra, while it is unfortunate that it isn’t, the talent of this composer makes the matter of fact irrelevant. There are also some license tracks from a Norwegian singer Magnet which perfectly fit with the overall mood of Zoë and her adventure, which is a somewhat romantic and warm feeling.
The graphics are somewhat double sided. On one hand, the facial animation and character modeling is slightly lacking in 2009 for this 2005 game. At the very beginning, it’s very easy to get that uncanny valley feel from the characters with Zoë having somewhat incorrect proportions to her face, and this can prevent you from feeling connected to the game initially. The facial animation is by no means bad, the characters will have expressions to them, but they aren’t as detailed as some of the Unreal Engine 3 stuff that has come of late in games like Mass Effect. While you will probably get used to the technical side of the graphics several hours in, the game would have really benefited with an engine that could have done the models and the faces better, like the Source engine in Half Life 2. On the other hand of the graphics, the settings and the visual design of the environments feel totally inspired, vivid, and original. There are just so many diverse environments in this game with its unique premise; you’ll travel from dystopian science facilities, to an African city’s market, to the imaginative place of with white snow falling on the huge scaling stone walls that echo Medieval Europe with a fantasy touch. All this just conveys the level of imagination and actual adventure this game has.
Of course we run into the actual gameplay of the game, and it takes a back seat and almost thankfully so. A lot of the gameplay relies on puzzle solving with items as your used to with many other adventure games, the good thing about it, is that it is smartly designed that you only carry about 3-5 items maximum at any given time. This is a lot better than something like Indiana Jones and The Fate of Atlantis where you carried several dozen items at a time, or the original The Longest Journey which may devolve into dubious gameplay of rubbing items against another item or character to progress the story. Instead it relies on logic with the items you have on hand, and some puzzles which are creatively designed with the environment and other elements you may not consider in mind. There’s also combat in the game, but it’s very basic and abysmal compared to anything like Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry, but it’s easy and functional allowing you to progress the games story. Same can be said for the stealth as it is no Splinter Cell, but you’ll never get terribly stuck or frustrated as it is also very easy. This also makes the game highly recommendable to bother regular gamers and non gamers alike.
But if you’re playing this game, it’s not going to be for the combat, the stealth, or even the puzzles. You’re going to play this game and leave this game not feeling that is was the most fun experience of your life, but you’re going to leave it feeling something. Whether that feeling is sadness, happiness, satisfaction, or dissatisfaction is something you will have to discover yourself. But when the characters start talking and when you engross yourself into the world of these people, the criticisms of the gameplay mechanics start to fade away, and what your left is an adventure you won’t soon forget.