Last week on The Border House, I gave a fairly detailed but non-spoilery overview on The Longest Journey and its sequel, Dreamfall (“The Longest Journey and Dreamfall.” Feb 22 2013.). Both games feature remarkable characters in a fairly interesting world and there were some things I didn’t get a chance to unpack in the article that I’d like to now in a slightly more spoilery treatment.
For starters, in The Longest Journey the vanguard are the bad guys because they want to eliminate the balance between the technologically advanced Stark and the magically powered Acadia. The vanguard are a force of rash and irresponsible change. This puts the hero, April Ryan, in the role of defender of the status quo. What’s interesting is that the status quo has never been kind to April, in addition to living in poverty, she was a victim (and, we find out, a perpetrator) of violence in her home. The game establishes in a conversation between April and her mother that the history of abuse is not enough stop her from loving her family. It would be far easier for the game to just portray her parents as villains and her escape as pure and righteous. But The Longest Journey doesn’t frame April’s runaway like that. Her relationship with her family is conflicted, complicated and painful. April doesn’t talk about it much but from the scraps that she leaves in her diary or inner monologue it becomes clear that her family dynamics are not as cut and dry as “the good princess escaped the evil king’s castle.”
On that note, April shows a disturbing comfort with danger. In a game where police authority is boundless and merciless, she doesn’t hesitate to poison a detective, or even infiltrate a police headquarter to observe and tamper with their records. Her reaction to heading into a dangerous neighbourhood is the same as confronting a powerful alchemist in an enchanted forest: “yeah, sure. Whatever.” There’s much to be said about her confidence and strength, but in the shadow of that is an unnerving nonchalance toward danger. It begs the question: what kind of personal experience could she have that makes her so indifferent to putting her life at risk?
This differs considerably with Dreamfall‘s lead, Zoe Castillo. Dreamfall‘s tone is much closer to a political thriller in Stark. Zoe plays detective against a sprawling corporate power with a dark history. True to the genre, there are scenes of extreme tension and fear. Even though for most of the game there is no health bar to keep track of or any mechanical danger to avoid, it does fear extremely well. It’s hard to describe how the game is effective without taking a microscope to specific scenes–which would ruin them–but personally I’ve never played a game that has put me in so many frantic dashes to keep my avatar safe, even when, technically, there isn’t even a threat. The difference, I think, is appropriate, because unlike April, Zoe is completely out of her element. Zoe doesn’t belong on the longest journey, she’s there by accident and has stayed on track by virtue of her courage and character.
Finally, the third playable character of the series so far, Kian Alvane, was also left out of the original article. Kian’s place in the journey is limited and, to be honest, far less important as it stands in the two games so far. He’s an elite soldier and assassin of the Azadi empire the force occupying the pseudo-capital of Arcadia. Kian’s journey from loyal servant of the crown to reluctant rebel doesn’t take long and presumably his change in heart will have a deeper impact in Dreamfall Chapters, but he actually doesn’t impact Dreamfall very significantly.
Still, Kian is an interesting twist as a badass swordsman in that he’s soft-spoken, eloquent and considerate. However, the events that lead to his character arc are particularly fascinating. Late in Dreamfall, April–now the leader of the rebellion–and Kian–the specialist assigned to kill the leader of the rebellion–meet without knowing the other’s identity. The player controls both sides of the ensuing conversation, watching how each of their worldviews hold up when they’re challenged not with arms, but with ideas. The player swaps back and forth as each character discusses their perspectives on the situation. April admits the early merits of the Azadi’s presence and Kian admits that they’ve overstayed their welcome. After Kian actually communicates with a member of the people he assumed he was protecting, he sees how arrogant and short-sighted his approach has been. And like the reasonable person that he is, Kian elects to change and better himself.The player experiences a confrontation from each side and follows how both parties react internally to what they’ve engaged with.
There is a lot going on in The Longest Journey series, perhaps even too much. The plot gets very difficult to follow early on and there are a plethora of intersecting forces that keep changing where everything stands, but the rich characters ultimately make it worth coming back to. Often, when a series is projected to continue, the biggest concern is and should be how the developer will make what has already been done feel fresh again. But in the case of The Longest Journey, the strength has always been in how much care has been put into filling the world with believable and memorable characters. And there’s always more need of that.
Further reading: Walker, John. “Ragnar Tørnquist On… Dreamfall & Faith.” Rock, Paper, Shotgun. Aug 20 2008.
Vollmer, Mike. “Analysis of Dreamfall and The Longest Journey.” Talking in Circles. Apr 20 2008.
Walker, John. “Retrospective: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.” Eurogamer. Apr 24 2011.