Two voices are being sought after here: that of the female gamer, and that of meaningful narrative in video games. Female gamers can celebrate: this game, I believe, is a voice you can heed, with its strong feminine world and lead characters. However, what about the other voice?
Ragnar Tornquist seems to be in the pantheon of those rare, recognizable stars in context of the video game design world, a guy whose reputation for his craft results in writers like me associating an entire game as ‘his’ game, not much unlike auteurs of the film world where it is more common for a singular vision guiding and shaping a team process. This reputation is built on the strength of his writing ability and vision in only two games. Character and story come first for him.
Losing faith, finding faith and testing faith: these themes guide the narrative of the narratively complex Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, sequel to Tornquist’s 1999 PC adventure game, The Longest Journey. This whole business about ‘faith’ seems to be popular these days, especially in movies. In fact, M. Night Shyamalan continues to explore it in his latest ‘Lady in the Water’.
I had my suspicions as I played through the game that Tornquist has had formal training or immersion in film. According to a mini-biography on IMDB, he has, and it makes sense. Dreamfall’s narrative structure, pacing, and music resemble that of a movie, as well as other elements. Basically, that is what Dreamfall is: an interactive movie. Emphasis on other common gameplay elements is minimal.
Dreamfall, being an adventure game, is not much unlike those that have come before. Its main concern is in allowing you the freedom to poke around a closed environment with three controllable characters, searching for clues and events to further your progress. The game comes off a lot like Knights of the Old Republic, but without the depth and scope. The battle system is very simple and is not used often. Most of your time will be spent interacting with people and objects in the relatively small environments. The puzzle-solving and detective work is also fairly simplistic, but it is well-implemented and spaced out to help the pacing of the game. The puzzles are well-implemented in the sense that the puzzles don’t conflict with the logic of the world, like some of those you would find in a Resident Evil game.
As in games like Deus Ex and Knights of the Old Republic, during important conversations, you will occasionally be prompted to respond to a set of choices. This input is either to ask questions, take an action, or to change your approach (plead, be hostile, etc.) Those choices may affect how the game flows in the short term, but by and large there are no greater ramifications or branching results unfortunately. Most of your experience with this game will be in these skippable dialogue exchanges in the story. In this, we get excellently-voiced characters and sharp, relevant dialogue. Perhaps it is sometimes too clever and self-aware.
It seems that most designers have always struggled with how to transcribe a well-written story on paper into a game while maintaining just the right pace and balance with the interactive elements. Another issue altogether is in implementing engaging and fun interactivity–gameplay–the most fundamental aspect of a video game. Without engaging gameplay, why would one play a story when they can read a book or watch a movie? The general attitude and implicit solution up until recent years is that the story is there to justify the scenario and world that we interact within: narrative and interactivity as two forces dancing to the same song, but not with each other; therefore, one doesn’t get in the way of the other, doesn’t trip. Later came games whose narrative aim was higher. These games have a story to tell, underlying themes to express, perhaps a message to get across. They use a plethora of techniques so that the narrative and gameplay interact, crossing each other’s paths on the dance floor. Some games have failed in their exploration of this territory, Xenosaga being one that comes to mind. So, where does Dreamfall stand?
First and foremost, Funcom, the developers, understand that a cogent world must be created, something that Xenosaga lacks. In fact, there are two main worlds in this game, in parallel. Without an interesting and convincing world to inhabit, explore, and interact with, story-driven video games in general become too much like visually uninteresting films–or worse. Knights of the Old Republic, Deus Ex, Myst and other great adventure games and their hybrids invest in their worlds. While Dreamfall’s is not particularly strong in all aspects, it does suffice. Some particular areas in this game show some intelligent, artistic level design, like the cramped cavern homes of a mysterious, stocky creature.
The first world, Stark, is the world of 24th century science and technology, ‘our’ world. You start the game as Zoe Castillo, a smart, beautiful young woman who has seemingly lost her direction in life. The Static, a mysterious and seemingly natural global phenomenon, reeks havoc on The Wire, a global network of electronics, or perhaps an upgraded Internet. Throw out your preconceptions that Stark is some massive futuristic cityscape. In fact, you would almost believe, given the technology present in the game and the style in clothing, that it’s not too far away. Her journalist ex-boyfriend, one Reza, is working on a top-secret story with far-reaching ramifications on society at large. The well-paced plot begins to unfold almost right away, which will sweep you up and make it hard for you to put the controller down as Zoe searches for her direction, meaning and faith in things again.
In Arcadia, a world of magical things and mysterious happenstance, lives a distant April Ryan, the protagonist of The Longest Journey. She of little faith stubbornly and almost absently leads a group of rebels who are fighting the occupying Azadi empire, liberators from the South who are now imposing their wills and ways upon her people. What’s funny is that Arcadia comes across intentionally as almost being a spoof on MMORPGs and RPG/fantasy elements in general. The April Ryan character even seems to be playing to this on more than one occasion. Also in this world is a self-righteous yet even-keeled Azadi Apostle to The Six, his swordsmanship unmatched, tasked with bringing the word of the Goddess via his sword. On his journey, how strongly will his faith be tested?
I have yet to play The Longest Journey, but from what I know, Dreamfall continues to build on the cosmology of this universe very well. Some concepts in the game are mentioned that you might be confused about, but it has undoubtedly been covered in the first game. That it’s rare for a video game series to continue to intelligently build on the universe it has set forth is definitely a shame, but be thankful that this game series seems to do. Mostly, you don’t need any knowledge of The Longest Journey to enjoy and understand Dreamfall. It’s just that well-conceived.
Visually, Dreamfall is uneven. Sometimes, it is brilliant. The city of the Shadow People displays awe-inspiring imagery. Sometimes, it is lazy, as in characters disappearing into thin air instead of walking through a door, or when characters handle invisible objects. Musically, the game, as mentioned before, goes for an ambient, dynamic film-like approach to set the mood. The controls are responsive but the control scheme can be a little confusing given the context-based approach to interacting with objects, which assigns different buttons different functions given the context of the situation.
To me, the ultimate ambition for narrative in video games lies in interactivity. Each medium by which a story can be told or conveyed has some property that is unique. Dreamfall, the Half-Life series, the aforementioned adventure games, and more represent varying degrees of intensity and success into the realm of true interactive, dynamic storytelling. Perhaps the ‘true’ longest journey is the journey to find the unique narrative voice of video games. Tornquist, in this regard, fails to merge interactivity with narrative, to unite the partners in the dance, but he sure knows how to weave a tale and develop characters. Maybe he should try his hand at film.