In Retrospect: The Longest Journey
WARNING: This article contains spoilers. They are clearly marked where they appear.
We are now but a few short months away from the November release of the first Dreamfall Chapters episode, the third entry in The Longest Journey series of adventure games. It’s taken a long time to get to this point and the new game is highly anticipated among fans of storytelling-focused gaming. There have been long waits between each game, and what better time than now to revisit the previous releases as a reminder of what has happened, and also to see what all the fuss is about?
In 1999, traditional PC adventure games had been declared dead. The new generation of consoles were pushing 3D action into the mainstream, and PCs were all about the first-person shooter. Following the commercial failure of Grim Fandango, LucasArts were on the verge of abandoning the genre entirely, along with their big rival Sierra On-Line. The golden age of adventure gaming was well and truly gone. But it was to have a last hurrah. From out of leftfield, Norwegian developer Funcom released The Longest Journey. It’s possible you may not know of it, or have heard of it but never picked it up, and that’s not entirely surprising as it wasn’t an instant smash hit. While it was very well received critically, sales have remained slow but steady over time as new fans discover it every year.
Written and designed by Ragnar Tørnquist in a frantic rush of hard work along with a small team, the game emerged as an utterly epic sci-fi/fantasy traditional adventure game. What struck most people was how deep, complex and emotionally engaging the story was. Few games before had dared to tell something so involved, and while in this modern era of gaming it’s becoming more common to see games that have a strong focus on narrative, The Longest Journey really stood out early on. You play as April Ryan, an 18 year old art student living a couple of hundred years in our future. Experiencing strange and vivid dreams with talking dragons and fantastic landscapes, she discovers that she is a ‘Shifter’ capable of moving between two distinct worlds: our world, known as ‘Stark’, which is based in science and logic, and another known as ‘Arcadia’ based in magic. These two worlds are supposed to exist in harmony with each other and that harmony is kept in control by the Guardian who watches over The Balance. Unfortunately for everyone, for some unknown reason the Guardian has abandoned their post and The Balance is failing. This would be a very bad thing to happen. Quite against her own wishes, April is tasked with restoring order.
The Longest Journey is aptly named, as for an adventure game it is extremely long. You can expect to spend 20 hours or more playing through it. This is an aspect of the game which works to its benefit, as it’s thoroughly enjoyable from beginning to end and April is a character you like spending time with. She’s sarcastic and funny (the game begins with her stranded in her underwear, along with her declaration that “that is SO not appropriate!”) and is really just a very normal, everyday person who is quite overwhelmed at what is required of her. A strong theme in the game is one of facing your own doubts, and April is certainly unsure if she’s able to do what she needs to. As we discover through journal entries, she has some baggage she needs to deal with along with her fierce desire to be independent. Unlike so many protagonists, April is genuinely unprepared for what is ahead and ends up surprising herself at what she’s really capable of several times.
One thing that the game did not shy away from was conversations. Notably in the early stages of the game there are some very long discussions you can have with various characters, many of them not plot essential, and it’s easy to see how this may be off-putting to some players. For those who persevered, we were treated to Ragnar Tørnquist’s strong ear for dialogue which was absolutely full of character. For such a talky game, getting quality voice acting is vital and here is where The Longest Journey momentarily stumbles. April’s voice actress Sarah Hamilton stands out as doing an excellent job, along with a couple of secondary characters such as your fun bird sidekick Crow and the foul-mouthed weirdo Burns Flipper. However, many other characters don’t fare so well with odd and stilted deliveries, and it’s very noticeable that the same people are doing multiple characters. It’s important to remember that the game was not made on a high budget and it does well with what resources it had.
Graphically, the game’s artwork still stands up quite well given that it’s 2D, but the low resolutions date it. This can be overlooked due to the superb art direction. The game used pre-rendered backgrounds which were quite detailed and brought to life through subtle animations, while the characters were 3D models which were rather plain in comparison but of a standard for the time. The two worked quite well together despite it being difficult to discover items you need in the scenery as they blended in a little too much.
Spoilers begin here
No doubt, though, story is key here. The Longest Journey is presented as a story within a story, and there are numerous stories being told within the larger framework. It’s bookended by a mysterious old lady who may or may not be April from the future (this has never been confirmed but the hints are certainly there). Additionally, the game tricks the player by presenting typical stereotypes - both fantasy and every day - and then doing something unexpected with them. These range across subject matter, from the games representation of a character’s sexuality being accepted by all to religious characters who accept others with different beliefs. Some way into the game April is given a piece of information which many players may have suspected early on: she is the next Guardian of the Balance. However, further into the game she starts realising that people are using her, and at the end it turns out this was not her destiny at all. The role of the Guardian goes to someone else and she is left quite unsure as to what she’s supposed to do next, especially given the emotional shift she experiences by confronting and forgiving her father for his abuse. April was told she was destined to save worlds and is able to reach the point where she is prepared to give up her life and her dreams to do this, only to find out she was just needed to get everyone in the right place so that others could fulfil their roles. Her part was certainly a very important one, but finding out that you’re not the Chosen One after all can come as a bit of a blow. It’s fair to think that she might become lost, bitter and angry due to these experiences, and as the sequel Dreamfall shows us, April follows a darker path from here on. Fans had to wait seven years to continue the story and as it turns out, Dreamfall itself takes a surprising route and would prove to be a very different beast.
Spoilers end here
The Longest Journey is available on GOG.com (completely DRM-free and with bonus extras) and Steam. The game runs fairly well on modern Windows systems although be aware that bugs creep through for some people (check out pcgamingwiki.com for help). If you decide that now is the time to play (or replay) the game, take note of the time commitment it requires and also that this is a traditional adventure game, meaning that it has some really strong puzzles in it and some absolutely ridiculous ones. If you are the sort of gamer who really enjoys being wrapped up in a good, detailed story then this is a game you shouldn’t ignore.