Game review: Dreamfall Chapters and the Longest Journey series.

A review of Dreamfall Chapters, a game I just finished this weekend, while also touching on The Longest Journey (played ~4-5 years ago) and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (played right before DFC).

As with most of my book and game reviews, I prefer to call it a contemplation on my experience of story and character, gameplay and interactivity, how all of them mesh together in the medium of interactive game.  As always, there are spoilers everywhere.  Don’t read if you haven’t played the game before.

 

I.  The Longest Journey: a story that came too late.

Naturally, my experience of the Dreamfall games (particularly the storyline) was greatly influenced by my playthrough of The Longest Journey, and I came to TLJ a decade too late.

At the time when TLJ first came out in 1999, I was just discovering adventure/puzzle/point-and-click games (a la Myst) and thoroughly enjoying the genre.  But somehow, I missed out on TLJ until much later, when I bought it after a lengthy hiatus away from gaming.

But I was shocked to discover that I didn’t really enjoy playing TLJ (and the adventure genre at large).  I think it was a combination between heavily dated graphics, limitations on gameplay given the era was created, and confounding puzzle design.  Waiting for April run slowly across the screen so I could get somewhere else, fetching disparate items from all over the place, and then trying to work out the puzzles, led to me getting more fixated (and sometimes frustrated) on the gameplay and less on the story that was being told.  So I ended up paying less attention to the storyline, and how all the small world-building details in April’s journeys fitted into the big, overarching story.  I remember wondering at various stages, “so why is April here again?  Where are we in the story?  What here is important information for the bigger plot, and what is just world-building?”  So I ended up viewing the world and story in a series of isolated pieces that barely fit together, and only did in some way because the game was taking me there.  Overall, I wasn’t that invested in April’s story, and most of its emotional impact was lost on me.

Perhaps I’ve been conditioned by more contemporary games where everything happens faster, and necessary information is conveyed more overtly.  This reminds me how gameplay and game mechanics contribute so much to a gamer’s experience of the story and character, and also how game mechanics are indicative of the era the game was made in, both in technology limitations and in gameplay sensibility.  If TLJ was made in the style of DFC, I may have had a different experience of the story.  And in the early/mid 2000s, I may have been more patient and enjoyed TLJ more, just because that was the standard of games in that era.  But when I played it c. 2011-2012, gameplay that might have once been enjoyable was now frustrating and obviously dated.  It’s a huge shame that the ship had sailed.  I was a young teen in 1999, and I’m certain that the game would’ve made a massive impact on me, and April would’ve become a landmark fictional character while growing up.  Alas, not meant to be.

All that is to say, I started playing the Dreamfall games with very little investment in April’s character and the world of the Balance.  I understand the importance of April, but she hasn’t touched my heart.

But the Dreamfall games… that’s when I got invested in the world of the Balance, and in the characters of Zoe and Kian.  To me, they were more empathic and relatable than April.

 

II. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey: bridging two eras.

DF:TLJ is obviously the transition game between TLJ and DFC, in both game and story senses.  I can see the vestiges of TLJ’s “running back and forth between locations” method, and some game mechanics were a bit clumsy, but the setting is less sprawling and the puzzles more tightly located and intuitive to figure out.  This tighter gameplay has benefited the storytelling: I could follow the plot closer, and never got a sense of being lost and confused about happenings or characters.

Zoe was the most sympathetic character of course; Kian and April never were as significant; but where the story really came alive for me was the resolution after the climax, when Zoe finally met up with the mysterious girl on the screens.  That was such a moving finale to the plot, and the crowning moment of her character arc.

Overall, DF:TLJ gave a lot of context and set up everything very well for the excellent DFC.

 

III. Dreamfall Chapters: a masterpiece of choice.

DFC is where the TLJ series really took off for me.  I got very invested in all three characters, and enjoyed the compelling, elegant story and how it all played out.

Gameplay-wise, DFC is the culmination of what DF:TLJ began.  DF:TLJ really did seem like the transition game: it might have 3-d graphics but the point-and-click sensibility of TLJ was still there.  DFC has taken the best of TLJ’s storytelling, perfected the gameplay that was begun in DF:TLJ, and made a truly elegant game.  The design of the puzzles/problems to solve are seamlessly integrated into the environment, the user interface is unobtrusive and elegant, and both fade into the background to showcase the storytelling.  This is an adventure/puzzle game designed to perfection and I thoroughly enjoyed the gameplay.

 

IIIa. Choice, consequence, and character.

Choice and consequence (c&c) in character development is front and centre of the game, so I’ll be talking about this the most and how it impacted on my engagement with the story.

While there is a “save the world” plot and worlds-spanning conflict, the story is primarily about the growth of the three characters (Zoe, Kian and Saga) over time.  The choices in the game all involve crossroads that shape the character over time; the the major Balance-related choices not only shaped their characters but also the world arond them.  I felt the great portent and weight while making them, and was very pleased to see how they shaped the subsequent story… until the very ending (explained below).

The way c&c played into Zoe’s character arc was perfectly executed.  All the Balance-related choices she made were major events that had ongoing repercussions on her; the smaller choices also felt meaningful concerning her personality.  Her decisions — both actions and dialogue — had direct and long-term ramifications on her story, both the external plot and her internal growth.  In playing her character, I became very invested in her and interested in how she grew across the story.

Kian’s story was less elegantly crafted, and his character growth wasn’t as finely showcased as Zoe’s.  While he was a sympathetic character, I didn’t feel the changes in his character as viscerally.  I think this is because the c&c in his storyline didn’t mesh as closely with what I understood of his personality.  Following DF:TLJ and Book 1 of DFC, I thought that Kian’s most important internal struggles would be over (1) his role as symbolic figurehead to the magical rebels, who were people he used to despise; and (2) his own conflicted faith in the light of state-sanctioned atrocities made in the name of religion.  But none of this was part of the c&c character development: practically all of Kian’s Balance-related choices revolved around his treatment of enemies, which would be an outcome of his faith, or his relationships with the rebel characters, which would be subordinate to his perspective on the resistance at large.

If Kian’s c&c was meant to be character development in association with those two main conflicts, there wasn’t enough information in Kian’s background or the world building to make meaningful decisions.  What information I received about him felt stilted and overly telegraph-y. (The conversations about his sexuality was the most obvious one.)  While his conversation with Likho in the airship revealed a bit of soul-searching, the in-game consequences on his character weren’t pronounced.  Even at the end of the story, I couldn’t see how his c&c had impacted him as a person, even if they impacted the people surrounding him.

So I think Kian’s storyline was one big missed opportunity. While he ended up doing a lot of things, overall, I had less control over his character development than I had of Zoe, and what I did have didn’t seem as consequential because the outcomes weren’t noticeable.   I’m rather disappointed that he didn’t receive the same depth and dimension as Zoe received, to become a fully realized person.

Saga’s story meshed into DFC in the most brilliant way.  Her interludes were masterfully crafted, showing the story of her family life changing over the years with melancholy and poignancy.  Her entrance into Zoe and Kian’s storyline at the climax was brilliant.  It was wonderful to see how the Shifter played her supporting role in these Dreamer stories — a powerful character, but nevertheless a supporter.  The noticeable lack of choices in her storyline are a strong contrast to the many choices that Zoe and Kian make.  Saga has intrigued me, and I hope she gets more stories in future.

What about April?  I understand that DF:TLJ was a bit controversial because of how April’s character developed since TLJ, and have read various analyses on why she changed the way she did.  I have no strong opinion about that, but I think there were signs all throughout DF:TLJ that April’s story was coming to an end, and indeed, closure came at the climax and was finalized in DFC.  I’d like it to stay that way.  April’s story is done, and now the mantle of Shifter has completely passed to Saga.

Is this opinion a symptom of my smaller investment in her character?  Perhaps.  I’m satisfied with how the game wrapped it up, and personally, I’d like to hear new stories of Saga, instead of continuing to revisit April.

 

IIIb. Story, climax and resolution.

Overall, the story was enjoyable and engaging.  The most impactful part was Nela’s death at the end of Book 2 — in fact, Zoe’s entire sequence in Chap 5 of Book 2 (from her waking up and contemplating the Dreamachine all the way to the bombing) was very haunting.  All her meetings with Queenie were full of portent and significance; her innocuous encounter with Brian Westhouse held a sinister tone.  Practically all of Zoe’s storyline in Europolis felt fraught: the increasing dystopian atmosphere was the literal representation of how her world was closing around her, and it was time for her to transform so everything could change.  The Yaga was appropriately awe-inspiring, puissant and fearsomely otherworldly; meeting Abnaxus and Lux in the Purple Mountains had an exquisite atmosphere of otherworldliness, mystery, and melancholy.  And the way her story opened in Book 5 and her escape through Jiva was fabulously mind-blowing and nerve-wracking!  Zoe’s storyline was full of ups and downs of atmosphere and emotional tone, and overall, I got the sense that she has indeed been on her own Longest Journey.

Again, Kian’s storyline unfortunately was more predictable and monotonous in tone, without the same depth and breadth and “Longest Journey” feel.  Nevertheless, there were some interesting moments.  Anna was a suspicious figure all the way through — her attempt to kiss Kian startled me.  His choice of leaving or taking Likho to Ge’en felt like a point of no return.  Even though the plot was predictable, I did get a sense that Kian never quite fit in amongst the magical rebels.

As for the climax and resolution in Book 5… did it deliver on all these promises set up in the previous books?  Well.  I think it delivered on some and not others.  And sadly, it did not deliver on the most important promises of theme.

The drama of Saga, Zoe and Kian’s converging stories was executed fabulously.  I must admit that Brian Westhouse’s villainy came as a surprise — while I had my doubts about his character all the way through DF:TLJ and DFC, they remained mostly subconscious feelings of shadiness, and I didn’t realize he was such a big bad.  (Frankly, it didn’t entirely square with his portrayal in TLJ, but it stays consistent in the Dreamfall games.)  Crow’s death made a surprisingly small impact on me; in fact, Nela’s death shook me more.  I think it’s because of what happened afterward — he was Zoe’s psychopomp in the Dreaming, was reunited with April’s spirit, was somehow “resurrected” by Saga, and appears in the epilogue.  He didn’t stay dead, and that made his death feel inconsequential.

The defeat of the villains was to be expected and I was satisfied, if a bit detached from the sense of victory.  However, my biggest critique comes from the way the story resolved the internal conflicts and character arcs.  Yes, the characters fulfilled the external plot by restoring Storytime and the Balance of reality, but how have they been transformed by this Longest Journey?  Yes, their choices had extensive consequences on the people and environment around them, but did the consequences impact on them personally?

There were so many questions left unanswered.  For Zoe: How did she feel about being conceived solely as a scientific experiment?  How does she feel about having the manifest power to shape reality, and being a Dreamer responsible for maintaining this reality?  Now that Nox and Lux are reunited in her and the Balance is restored, how is this continuing to impact her life?  For Kian: How did he feel about having been a figurehead for the rebels all along, and how did having been amongst them changed him?  (It was good to see how the rebel movement was affected by him in the end, but it wasn’t clear how he was affected by them.)  How did the destruction of the Azadi Engine and all it represented, not to mention handling the fell Spear of Gorimon, impact on him?  How does he feel about magic persisting in Arcadia, and how does it square with his faith (shaken or not) in the Goddess and his loyalty to Azadir?

I’m not sure if I supposed to be drawing my own conclusions by myself, but none of the character consequences was really shown in the ending of DFC.  This failure to fulfil thematic expectations was my biggest disappointment in what is otherwise a brilliant game.  I was expecting greater transformations for both chars, on par with both TLJ and DF:TLJ.  In the former, April restored the Balance, and the ending was clear that she could no longer return to her old life, which opened new possibilities of exploring her new role as Shifter.  In the latter, Zoe’s pursuit of Reza and assuming (albeit unconsciously) her role as Dreamer ended up leaving her in a coma.  These two characters experienced monumental change to the point of no return.  Based on those precedents, I was thoroughly convinced that Kian was going to die and Zoe was going to depart forever into Storytime to become the Dreamer who shapes reality, or enter endless sleep like Lux.  To see them carrying on with their lives as if nothing had changed felt enormously dissatisfying.  Even if they deserved to get that Happily Ever After in the “life goes on” sense (and I can see how the game storytellers are leaving things open to continue making TLJ stories), at least I would’ve liked to see more overt signs of how the plot had changed them forever.  This IS The Longest Journey, isn’t it?

In fact, it is Saga who embodies the most change, and the resulting sense of loss and sorrow that change brings.  Her interludes showed the way her family life had changed irrevocably over the years; and her final interlude in Book 5 was the most sorrowful and poignant one.  Of the three characters, it’s Saga who seems to be forever transformed — and the fact that she fully embraces the transformation and her Shifter role with steely resolve (more than Kian or Zoe ever did for their roles) makes her an even more compelling character.  I felt her storyline and its resolution exhibited the richest, most compelling character arc.  I wish Zoe’s and Kian’s had closed out just as powerfully.

(This issue I take with DFC is possibly the same problem that Mass Effect 3 had.  But somehow, I wasn’t as bothered by ME3’s ending as I am with DFC’s.  It could be because I got some closure in the Extended Ending on how Shepard’s choices prior to the climax of ME3 has impacted on the Galaxy even it didn’t make a difference to the actual climax, but I didn’t see how Zoe and Kian’s choices have impacted their lives forever.)

 

IV. In conclusion.

Why do I have a long beef with DFC’s anticlimactic ending?  Because it was such a brilliant, elegant, thoughtful game.  At this stage, while I have played lots of RPGs that involve c&c, I’d not really played a narrative-heavy game such as this, where influencing the narrative through your choices, and investigating the consequences, stands at front and centre.  In spite of some faults, DFC has set a very high bar for such narrative-heavy, non-RPG, c&c games, and I want to play more.  I hear Life is Strange and Undertale are stars in this genre.  Time to hunt them down.

I have a lot more to say about Dreamfall Chapters in terms of storycraft, theme and storytelling archetypes, but that shall be another post, if I ever get around to sorting out my plethora of thoughts about it.

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