This is a bit of a spiritual successor to the stuff I was doing on my blog, but in a new and improved form! Count yourselves lucky. Essentially, it’s a sort of pseudo-review without any sort of critical backing, and more a mind-splurge on a page in a bunch of metaphors and personal events. This time, it’s concerning The Longest Journey, a game almost a decade old from Funcom, who most recently did the Age of Conan MMO. It’s an adventure game, a genre I’ve barely even scratched the surface of apart from things like Escape from the Crimson Room, and Myst when my dad used to play it on our old Mac. So I’m coming to the game fresh, and interestingly, I didn’t flounder quite as much as I thought I was going to.
Before I start, let me just get this off my chest; the visuals of The Longest Journey are in such startling opposition to one another it’s astonishing. The backgrounds and essentially anything that doesn’t have to move an awful lot are beautiful, but the character models and any sort of animation are terrible. This is a game from 1999, so it’s not like I can blame it for not looking like something out of Crytek, but it’s there. The beauty of the game is, however, not in how it looks, but how it unfolds. Within an hour I was entirely uncaring about the visuals. They were there, but they weren’t how the story was being told.
The Longest Journey is what would happen if someone decided to make a game into a novel. There is no wrong actions, and you can’t die. Even when your character, (April Ryan, voiced excellently by Sarah Hamilton) is in mortal danger, the game doesn’t force you to act with any sort of speed. You merely have to find out the way to defeat whatever obstacle is in your way, be it an enemy or a situation, and then that’s that. It’s a very interesting approach, and the game does it’s best to never make this seem forced or a way to break the narrative flow. In fact, there were only two, perhaps three times in the whole thing where I felt the pressure to act quickly, even if I never actually had to.
This is all a very meandering way to get across the point that the game has an extremely strong narrative that, while it only gives you the option to change the outcome of an event a few times, keeps you returning to see how the story is unfolding. I felt the same way playing The Longest Journey as I do reading a good book. I’ll stop when it presents an obvious pause, but I’ll have that constant niggle in the back of my mind that wonders what will come next. Invariably, it brings me back before a day has past, just to get to the end of the current chapter, or start the next one.
I’m sure I could have finished the whole thing in one sitting (it would have been a very very long sitting, but it would be possible), but that would deny me the curiosity that fuels a good story. By creating natural pauses, you are allowed time to come up with assumptions and alternate plot lines that can then be shattered or reinforced by the story as you continue. This argument is starting to get into literature territory, so I’ll redirect, but the very fact that it’s drawing such a comparison is high praise.
There are problems. Some of the puzzles, especially at the start, are fiendishly difficult. Others don’t follow the same rules that they set themselves, and so stump you for a while. Sometimes they’re just grossly unfair, and that could be enough to push some people away, which would be a shame. I only had a consult a walkthrough once, which I think is fair going for one not thoroughly versed in how adventure games work. That’s a warning, more than anything. If you decide to grab The Longest Journey (assuming you don’t already have it), know that it’s going to be very annoying at parts. I did, however, make sure never to leave the game during a difficult puzzle, and instead when the narrative flow slowed. I didn’t want to be angry at the game.
The voice acting deserves to be lauded, and a few characters in particular are brilliantly acted. This is down (I’m told), to the development team spending time with each actor and working the characters around them, rather than forcing the actors into the characters. It’s astonishing that ten years on, I’ve yet to play a game that has such convincing characters. Much of The Longest Journey’s success relies on you feeling for the characters (and that’s feeling anything at all, from anger to love), so the fact the acting works is a relief.
Similarly, the story is brilliant, drawing on the fantasy genre without becoming cliche. There are no orcs or elves (thank god), and instead there is a variety of species who are brilliantly original. Even the game’s version of the ‘real’ world is excellently realised, reminding me of the sort of dystopian yet clean cities seen in something like Half Life 2 or Final Fantasy. That latter comparison could be fueled by the fact the game is seen from a fixed perspective, but there is that element of grace and beauty in a sterile city that both games share.
In the end, The Longest Journey is a brilliant realisation of what could easily have been a novel. It’s the first time I’ve seen a story so well realsied in the medium, and, ten years on, it’s not looking like anything is going to change that. Something like Fahrenheit or even the upcoming Heavy Rain (dunno if that one’s coming to PC, unfortunately) don’t quite seem to capture that same sense of narrative and purpose. When I played Fahrenheit I was more concerned with not dying all the time than I was with knowing just what the hell was going on. By removing the fear of death, you allow the player to really pay attention to their environment. While it may make them feel more like a spectator, I hardly think that’s a bad thing. A story can be witnessed just like it can be experienced.
You can get The Longest Journey on Steam.