I recently played through The Longest Journey – an entry of that oft-neglected genre of computer games, the point-and-click adventure. Following on from the purely text-based games which have been around for decades, the point-and-click games had their heyday in the 90s, most notably in the hands of LucasArts, with the colossus of the genre being the Monkey Island series. Fans of those games will know that it’s high praise indeed when I say that The Longest Journey is right up there with Monkey Island at its best. As for the sequel, Dreamfall…
I read an article the other day which claimed that the two most vital elements for an adventure game are the story and the dialogue – a point which is hard to argue with. Adventure games are inherently story driven in a way which simply isn’t necessary in other genres, and the dialogue (and also monologue – the player character’s responses to the player’s actions, for example) is the primary way in which that story unfolds. TLJ has an epic story spanning two worlds, in which our protagonist travels to the depths of the ocean and to outer space, meeting a host of memorable characters along the way. The dialogue is always interesting and frequently hilarious (humour, whilst not an essential part of the genre, is almost universally present in the best games). One thing that spans both of those is the player’s character – the player really needs to like and empathise with this character, to want them to succeed, and TLJ’s April Ryan does this every bit as much as MI’s Guybrush Threepwood (OK, the latter wins at names. Probably also insult sword-fighting).
Another vital component is the control system – which is where the “point-and-click” bit comes in. Stick to that formula and you’ll be fine – TLJ has a refined form similar to Monkey 3 which does away with the traditional “click on a verb then on an object” format. This leads into the gameplay itself, which usually boils down to puzzle-solving. The trick here is striking the right balance between too easy (giving the player no challenge and leaving them feeling that they’re doing little more than playing though a movie) and too hard or obscure (frustrating the player and driving them to abandon the game or hit the cheat sheets) – and part of that it not just the puzzle itself, but often figuring out what the puzzle is which needs to be solved. TLJ seemed to pretty much hit the sweet-spot – it never became boring and obvious, but whilst I’ll admit that I checked a walk-through a handful of times (mostly because I was impatient to find out what happened next), in every case all that was needed was a pointer to an item I’d failed to spot or a line of dialogue I hadn’t pursued far enough.
At the bottom of the list come sound and graphics – not that they’re unimportant, just that the above factors are, to me, far more important. The Secret of Monkey Island is a game I still enjoy replaying, and the 16-year old graphics matter not a jot (especially when 3x upscaled in an emulator). TLJ is only half that age, and the graphics are much richer for it. Whilst the 3D characters don’t always integrate into the 2D backgrounds as smoothly as they could, they gain realism from their smooth animation. Music is a hands-down win for Monkey Island with its numerous memorable tunes – I can’t remember any from TLJ, and I only finished it 10 days ago (on the plus side, I don’t remember the music being bad or intrusive). Finally we come to voice acting – the big change from the floppy disk era – which is, barring a couple of minor characters, excellent (more on this later…)
The first thing you notice about Dreamfall, the sequel to TLJ is the lush 3D visuals. I’d be hard-pressed to name a better-looking game (at least, as long as the characters aren’t actually moving – facial animation in particular has been much better done, in Half Life 2, for example). The second thing you notice is that the console-friendly control system is, at best, clunky. Gone is-the-point and click idiom. Instead, you control your character directly (as best you can given the far from perfect camera movement), and hope that you can get them to look at whatever object or person you wan them to interact with (easier said than done if that object is behind another).
What is less immediately obvious is the comparative thinness of the story (not to mention the almost Lost-like speed/lack of revelation). Having multiple playable characters, whilst an interesting idea, serves mostly to disrupt the flow of the story and doesn’t compare favourably to watching the story unfold through one character’s eyes. Even worse is the thinness of the puzzles – most of them involve little more running from A to B, talking to a character, running to C, talking to another character, then back to B, etc. All too often you’re told almost exactly what to do, robbing the “puzzle” of what little challenge it had. Added to this are a few brief fighting sequences which are painfully bad in their implementation and serve no useful purpose.
The dialogue, at least leaves little to complain about, true the main player character Zoë Castillo is rather bland compared to the April of the first game (and, indeed, the embittered, 10 years older April of the second game), but she’s likeable enough. On the other hand, the truly great moments so common in TLJ are sparse in Dreamfall – and mostly related to re-appearances of characters from the original. The voice acting is a much more mixed bunch – whilst the recurring characters are as good as hey were in the first game, many of the new characters including, crucially, Zoë are mediocre (sounding more like someone simply reading lines from a page than putting much acting into it), whilst others are downright terrible (to the point where I was seriously wondering if they were produced by a voice synthesiser). And where good voice acting can really ad something to a game, the bad stuff can really drag it down.
Finally, there’s the problem of the ending. Or, rather, the lack of an ending. I don’t mind a cliff-hanger ending in a TV show or even a TV series which will be resolved in at most a few months. An Empire Strikes Back style ending is fine when you know that its the middle of a trilogy and the next film will be along in two or three years. What is really annoying is to have your game unexpectedly reach its so-called and premature conclusion with all sorts of cliff-hangers and unresolved plot threads (some introduced in the final cinematic sequence, for crying out loud) to find only vague plans for a sequel which certainly won’t arrive for several years!
Dreamfall isn’t as bad as the above would make out – I did still enjoy playing it, it just compared rather unfavourably to its predecessor (also, it’s much easier to rant about the badness of a game than to praise its quality…)