Wednesday, June 7, 2017


A dozen chapters... and three, almost four of them involved some actual gameplay.

I hadn't heard of The Longest Journey back when it first released, and it was ironically the hype around the development of Dreamfall which prompted me to play it... and then skip Dreamfall when it released because of some negative reviews - justified as it turns out, for once. Now with the episodic follow-up Dreamfall Chapters underway for some years, I thought it time to decide for myself why I don't like Dreamfall, and thankfully Good Old Games stocks bad old games as well.

Dreamfall is basically a poster-child for Hollywood envy. The Longest Journey was one of the few games to adopt that short-lived fad which sprouted up in the years surrounding Y2K, 2.5D. Given that adventure games, already an outdated '80s throwback, have since survived by adopting a "neo retro" 2D sidescrolling perspective, that extra half dimension was already more than TLJ needed. Dreamfall adopted full 3D, and when I say "adopted" I mean it seems to have blown its wad on it.
In itself the eye-candy's not completely inedible, though it pales in comparison to the graphics of contemporaries from genres more apt to three dimensions (remember Dreamfall came out in 2006, same year as Oblivion, two years after FarCry and one year before Crysis) but there's nothing really inspired or unique to look at either. The bigger issue is the paucity of other features. Either the game engine broke the project's bank, or more likely Ragnar Tornquist forgot he was making a game altogether and just strung together endless cinematics. Aside from one or two decent sneaking gimmicks (the sleeping dog, for instance) you're left running back and forth through pointless empty dead ends until by sheer trial and error you stumble upon the one correct route with the exactly one interactable item. The MacGyver part of the game is almost entirely gone, as you usually only have one functioning item in your inventory, and your character even tells you when to use it. While there are a few visual puzzles, they're usually just that: visual, mindless image matching with no thinking required.

The zones are huge... and empty. You move through gargantuan hallways with sparse, repetitive decor reminiscent of old Hanna-Barbera cartoons, with usually just the one interactable object at the end. To cover up their own lack of effort, the developers impose a lot of pointless effort on your part, using RPG-inspired fetch quests to make you run back and forth and back again along their unimaginatively linear oversized 3D backdrops.

I could think of other complaints as well. As I mentioned in relation to The Lord of the Rings (On- and off-line) it's a bit counterproductive to show the player a wealth of imaginative locales and characters, then try to build your entire game on the least interesting, most human elements. TLJ was a nonstop cavalcade of storybook tropes and adorable or amusing one-short characters. Dreamfall tries to get serious... and its supposedly imposing and menacing vaguely oriental theocratic human evil empire falls completely flat. Instead of building up the engrossing faerytale Arcadia laid out in TLJ, the sequel ditched nine tenths of it in favor of a new dream world based on pure imagination, which is to say the everything that is nothing.

Worse, the writing and voice acting which made TLJ so memorable were somehow completely lost in the shuffle. Most Dreamfall characters sound completely unrehearsed while some (Na'ane) were just painful to listen to. The greater fault lies in the writing. TLJ was a character study. April Ryan's personality, largely well-meaning but also snarky and capricious, pretty much made the game. Her replacement, Zoe, is so utterly flat that you wonder if the new fancy graphics somehow sucked all the three-dimensionality out of the dialogue. Even when April shows up, she's much more subdued than storytelling choices would mandate.

This is all too bad, because there's little else to do in this game other than sit and listen. While I've heard of a mouse-driven game and even a successfully keyboard-driven game (The Cat Lady) in Dreamfall I found myself keeping my fingers intertwined beneath my chin to keep from nodding off during the various interminable cutscene dialogues requiring no user input whatsoever. Hilariously, while thumbing through an online cheat guide to see if I could speed things along, I found the guide's writer telling me to just move to location XYZ and "Zoe will take care of the rest" meaning the game basically plays itself. By what definition is it a game at that point?

It's not completely impossible to pull this off. Some years ago, the "game" Dinner Date made interesting use of the Source Engine to create one hum-drum but painstakingly decorative scene which the player largely just observed while making meaningless contributions by clicking. Utterly unapologetic about this, it later even thumbed its nose at its dissatisfied customers with this hilarious little jab:
However, Dinner Date was a single self-contained scene with a specific creative purpose. It's exactly 25 minutes long and pretends to be no more than it is. Dreamfall was a torturous series of simplistic make-work chores alternating with endless tedious, stilted, badly acted and lazily written cutscenes. As a game it's barely there. As a movie, it's worse.

I can't help thinking that the praise he received for TLJ went to Tornquist's head, which is too bad. He's an excellent writer of dialogues for video games... except that what he apparently wants to be, and had by 2006 decided he already is, is another Ingmar Bergman. His later attempt at a multiplayer puzzle-solving game, The Secret World, flopped (*partly) due to once again over-stretching simple game mechanics into something they cannot be, trying to force side-scrolling pixel-hunting into cinematic three-dimensionality.

From the reviews I've seen of Dreamfall Chapters, his latest flop, it's yet more of the same.
Holy shit man, take a hint!

P.S.: Don't even get me started on the grinding parroting of the word "faith" in every other scene.

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