Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Longest Journey

The most remarkable thing about The Longest Journey is simply that it was remarkable. Adventure games are a relic of the 80s, when two-dimensional, cartoonish side-scrolling with interaction limited only to clicking a certain unchangeable marker on the screen was the very cutting edge of computer game technology. By the time TLJ came out in 1999, adventure games as a genre were already almost a decade outdated, outpaced, outgrown and out-flashed by FPS, RTS and RPGs. Myst and its offshoots were the only well-known remnant. A completely linear point-and-click adventure game with an almost nonexistent challenge level, ostensibly centered on a teenage girl getting magic powers, should have blended quietly into the background, remembered only by die-hard fans of the genre.

Two things saved it: writing and voice acting.
The Longest Journey is the hero's journey made immersive and personal. The whole point seems to be to make us identify with April Ryan as she grows into her role as heroine through the on-screen interaction, to maintain her personality even as she acquires the status of legend. The distilled essence of the entire game is in a dialogue just over halfway through, when April is asked "who are you?" - at ~2:20-3:40 in this video.
She tries to explain and identify herself, using her growing, monarchic list of bombastic fairytale titles with the lack of conviction of a gradeschooler sounding out long words, then much more confidently, decisively adds "... and i'm April Ryan." Throughout the game, we are presented both with her growing importance as a fairytale hero and the persistence of her own individuality. We are given the illusion of tipping those scales ourselves with every dialogue option we trigger.

Among the stereotyped RPG rags-to-riches stories, April's multifaceted personality stands out like a green tree against the stark steel-and-glass of a skyscraper. She is a teenaged college art student, a farm girl migrated to the big city. She is snarky and vain, kind-hearted but demanding, basks in attention and tries to balance her love of clothes and glamour with a developing sense of morality. She is intelligent enough to stand out from the crowd but shares the common man's abhorrence of ivory towers. She constantly plays off the importance of her quest in girlish asides. Her dialogue is not an attempt to establish social standing, either high or low. She is built up as neither a likely nor an unlikely heroine.

Writing and voice. Her dialogue contains the right mixture of youthful brashness and uncertainty in the face of the unknown to make her endearing. Much of it is also carried through voice inflections, timing and a "feisty little bitch" tonality without which the dialogue would have remained good but unremarkable. She sounds natural.

Aside from that, there's not much to say about the game. The world is just alien enough to keep it interesting, familiar enough to give the protagonist her human foundation. The other characters are all minor, even her sidekick, merely plot devices or color. The gameplay is decently advanced in that the environments managed to feel three-dimensional. The puzzles are sometimes nonsensical in their attempt at originality, a common flaw of adventure games. Visuals and sounds are only good enough to maintain immersion. The overall plot, aside from a decent twist right before the end, sticks to RPG tropes. Though none of it is particularly badly made, it would also not have stood out without the main character.
All in all, April Ryan is TLJ.

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