Mento's May Mastery: Day 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

As we head towards the end of May, I'm starting to get philosophical about this particular series and its future. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm personally happier with this particular format of going deeper with the more pressing items on my Steam backlog (though these meandering intros have gotta go next year), but I'm wondering if I truly need to make them a daily thing. I can't help but feel that I'm spamming the forums and, for lack of a better term, permeating the site with my own opinions and inadvertently drowning others in the process. It's a big site, and I'm probably being paranoid, but when you start seeing spambots copying the titling format it feels like a wake-up call.

I originally began doing these daily blogs to challenge myself. To push myself to write something, anything, on a daily basis and ensure that it was substantial enough (and not filled with typos, though I'm not sure if I've managed that part) that I wasn't just wasting everyone's time with the equivalent of stream-of-consciousness LiveJournal chickenscratches. I feel like I've plumbed the depths with the games I've covered; even those that have repeated for three days (like today's game) and have stretched my capacity to create interesting, new observations to its breaking point.

2016's May Madness, or whatever alliterative name I choose next year, might not be a daily series. Or, if it is, it won't be published on the forum day after day. Maybe I'll go back to the observational bulletpoints list format that I use for the Metal Gear Solid games, though I'm concerned that it only really works for games with stories/moments people are intimately familiar with. I'm sure I'll think of something. There's too much I personally like about this format to abandon it, and those Steam games aren't getting played without a big event to galvanize me. I guess we'll see.

Sorry, didn't mean to get all navel-gaze-y. Not a whole lot's happening around here right now, though June ought to be fairly interesting with the way things are moving. I hope I'll find the time to exhibit all those Atari ST games for the system's 30th birthday in the midst of everything else happening that month.

Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

Well, I guess it was fortunate timing that I happened to beat this game just hours ago, given that I was about to put it away for a few days to concentrate on the next two games. I'll obviously have more to say with the way it ended, if not the particulars, when I get to the end of today's rundown. The fact is, though, that this will be the third time I've covered this game while prohibiting myself from discussing the plot, its details, its twists and turns and, now, its conclusion. What I can still state, and have stated from the offset, is that the story of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, and by extension all aspects of its storytelling from the characterization to the dialogue to the cinematography (or video game equivalent) to the way it uses the perspectives of multiple protagonists, is truly excellent. It'll factor heavily into my final opinion on this game at the end, along with my specific feelings about how it concluded.

Instead, what I thought I'd do today is to draw comparisons with three other noteworthy games that I had the pleasure of visiting for the first time fairly recently (for two of them, at least), even though they and this game were all released fairly close to one another almost a decade ago. Not exactly generational comtemporaries, but close enough that I don't feel the gaps are necessarily significant. Many of my older blogs tended to frame my recent experiences with a game using examples of other games and exploring the connections. All games are connected beyond simple inspiration/homage relationships, and trends tend to influence the way developers consider the inner workings of their games. Even for games as patently uncommon as Dreamfall's mix of traditional point and click graphic adventure sleuthing and its mild (and mostly reductive) action elements.

#teens.
#teens.

The first of these is Troika's Vampire: The Masquerade: Bloodlines from 2004, which I played for the first time in 2013. The two games share a lot of similarities that don't involve vampires, but specifically it's the combination of it being in "adventure" mode and being in "action" mode. In Bloodlines, the player is a newly sired vampire looking for answers about what they are and this new underworld they inhabit and, eventually, looking for a purpose that gels with the type of entity they are. It offered a lot of freedom, and in that regard it's disparate from the linear story Dreamfall is telling. But alternating those two modes: the exploratory, dialogue-heavy sequences where you're simply gathering information and looking for where to go next, and the more active sequences where you're stealthing around hostile territory and occasionally getting into fights, is very much how the two games operate. There's no denying that the former is easily the highlight of the two games, while the latter usually served to distract from what made the game good: the intrigue, the revelations and using your wits to stay one step ahead of your enemies. The two games also share a certain cinematic style, with panning shots and other cinematography tricks while smooth Indie music about "finding oneself" sets the mood. It's rare I play a game with this much confidence about the story it wants to tell but so lacking in gameplay depth/quality that it sometimes feels superfluous to the experience: it's almost always the opposite scenario.

The second is Quantic Dream's Fahrenheit, known elsewhere as Indigo Prophecy, which was released the year before Dreamfall. While, again, we're looking at a combination of a graphic adventure game with movie leanings (complete with another soundtrack filled with Indie moping) propped up by less than sufficient gameplay elements, there's a specific similarity I wanted to discuss. The game plays around with perspective; not so much in terms of where the camera's pointing, but how it'll switch the playable character and force you to sympathize with characters that you already know are working against the ostensible hero of the game. These characters have their own generally altruistic reasons for wanting to hunt another of the protagonists down. In Fahrenheit's case it's the pair of detectives who are investigating the murder Lucas Kane unwittingly performed. In Dreamfall, it's a zealous and skilled assassin of the antagonistic Azadi Empire who nonetheless has the capacity for compassion and rationality. In addition, the game will zip around as the story sees fit, creating a layered narrative that shows as much of a character's story arc as we need to become invested before it drags us away to check in on another. It's the sort of "first-person hot potato" storytelling that's worked so well for the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, and something that the Game of Thrones TV adaptation has had to find creative ways to maneuver around. I won't claim that Fahrenheit has the best or most coherent of video game stories, but the early chapters where this protagonist hopping was at its most pronounced were also easily the best parts of the entire game.

Crow's working some Rough Chuckles these days.
Crow's working some Rough Chuckles these days.

The third and final game I want to draw a comparison to is Konami's Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty from 2001. This actually has nothing to do with Dreamfall's scattered and undercooked stealth elements, but almost entirely to do with how the two games tease the player's expectations, especially where they pertain to sequels. Metal Gear Solid 2 pulls a big prank on its fanbase by removing Solid Snake from the story a few hours in, replacing him with a new, younger character who has his own backstory and destiny to discover. Solid Snake then adopts something of a secondary advisory role throughout the rest of the game, and MGS2 is eager to slyly reference his diminished role and make meta observations about the structural similarities between the two games. Dreamfall has a similar case with The Longest Journey's protagonist April Ryan, who is frequently told that she is no longer expected to save the world and can live her life freely. The fact is, that suddenly being bereft of purpose has made April bitter and resentful, and she chooses to direct that ire towards the occupying forces of the Azadi for no other reason than to give herself something to do. Likewise, during the few chapters in which you play as April, you're often being reminded of people and events from the first game and how they nor the locations of Arcadia are quite as integral to the plot this time around. April actually visits several major characters from the previous game only to be told that she should just chill and let the new girl handle it, in so many words. Even Crow abandons April to be with Zoe, seeing as the former heroine no longer has any desire to be part of this struggle against the newest threat to the Balance between Stark and Arcadia. It's a little distracting for fans of the first game to see all their favorite characters get sidelined like this, but it's interesting too how they appease those same proponents with fan service cameos that are really just passing through and want no part of this new adventure. There's something to be said about how Dreamfall could easily be the MGS2 of its particular franchise simply because of how weird and divisive it is compared to its predecessor.

Anyway, here's my finishing thoughts on Dreamfall: The Longest Journey: It's one of those games that you should absolutely play if you have any deep appreciation for this artform, or are the sort of person who considers that word to be applicable to video games in the first place. It doesn't adhere to familiar video game structure, it has some really cool storytelling aspects, and the irksome and half-baked gameplay conceits can be suffered through without it detracting too much from the experience. I prefer The Longest Journey on the whole, as a solid adventure game with an equally solid story, but Dreamfall almost feels like it's the more significant of the two through the way it breaks the mold and presents something almost entirely unique.

Still a great looking game. Referring to its art direction, of course. It's the only visual element that's timeless, unlike screen resolutions and poly counts.
Still a great looking game. Referring to its art direction, of course. It's the only visual element that's timeless, unlike screen resolutions and poly counts.

One of the big sticking points is that conclusion though. The game simply ends, almost immediately as soon as the third act would've traditionally begun. The many characters are... well, in a less than great place. I'd consider it the dark middle chapter, like Empire Strikes Back, except that movie at least offered a little closure. It built up to the Vader fight and ended on an optimistic note with the party at their most vulnerable. Conversely, the various plot threads of Dreamfall are just abandoned one by one, and it almost feels like the developers ran of out of time and/or money. That the many fans of the series have had to sit on those final few cliffhanger cutscenes for over eight years until a conclusion finally arrived is some real Waiting for Godot bullshit. I hope they find that closure with these new Dreamfall Chapters, which I am now happily prepared to jump into. (Y'know, as soon as they've released them all.)

Day 01: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 11: MiasmataDay 21: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 02: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 12: BotaniculaDay 22: Magrunner: Dark Pulse
Day 03: I Have No Mouth, and I Must ScreamDay 13: BotaniculaDay 23: The Nightmare Cooperative & Lilly Looking Through
Day 04: Life of PixelDay 14: Shantae: Risky's RevengeDay 24: Cook, Serve, Delicious!
Day 05: Life of PixelDay 15: Bit Dungeon IIDay 25: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 06: SPAZDay 16: Stick it to the Man!Day 26: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 07: SPAZDay 17: NaissanceEDay 27: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey
Day 08: NightSkyDay 18: The SwapperDay 28: The Banner Saga
Day 09: The RoomDay 19: ClaireDay 29: The Banner Saga
Day 10: Ultionus: A Tale of Petty RevengeDay 20: DokuroDay 30: The Banner Saga
Finale: Papers, Please
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