The Longest Journey

Just before I started studying at Oxford, I bought an adventure game called The Longest Journey. I was quite into adventure games at the time, having played and enjoyed Syberia, and I’d heard an awful lot of good things about The Longest Journey; things like ‘the best graphical adventure game ever’ and ‘great story’. The fact that it only cost £5.50 meant that it seemed like a pretty sensible purchase (especially if it really was a ‘longest journey’).

The game languished on my bookshelf for the next three years. I would occasionally look at it and think about archiving it away somewhere or possibly even playing it, but I didn’t have a working PC to play it on any more, having moved to Apple, and I just didn’t feel in the mood.

With the arrival of my Intel iMac last month, I finally had a computer capable of playing Windows games (and yes, I did buy Windows XP legally). First up was Civilization 4, which I managed to play for about 12 hours in an 18 hour period. Luckily my empire-building urges were quickly satiated after a couple of games and I’ve been able to put it behind me for now. Next was another Sid Meier game, Pirates! Again, I played Pirates rather obsessively for a couple of days until I got sick of it and put it away.

Still, I felt in the mood for more PC gaming, so I popped in The Longest Journey. Amazingly enough, despite being seven years old, The Longest Journey managed to work perfectly fine in Windows XP with a minimum of tweaking. I had high expectations of this game – not in the graphics department, which I knew would be dated, but in the story. It started off a little uneven, with a promising storyline hindered by unforgivable bug that I meant I had to replay about twenty minutes of the game, but it quickly recovered.

[The bug involved me leaving a room before getting a gold ring off someone. When I returned, she’d disappeared, along with the item. I can’t see anything on the internet about this problem, which leads me to conclude that no-one else was foolish enough to make the same mistake – or to own up to it!]

The storyline of TLJ is perfectly fine, and when compared against other computer games, practically an equal of Homer or Virgil. It’s essentially a standard science fiction/fantasy story involving parallel worlds resting on the fate of one person, but it’s executed pretty well. The entire story has a very epic feel about it, caused by the growth of the main character, April Ryan, and the huge variety of people she and places she encounters. The designers imbued the game with a solid and consistent history to the extent that you spend a reasonable amount of time reading or listening to stories within the game itself.

One of the real strengths of TLJ was the quality of the dialogue and voice acting; I’m not aware of any game that has placed such an emphasis on getting good actors and writers. It’s not perfect and there are some duds, but on the whole I felt very immersed in the game. What’s more, it’s funny! It’s been a long time since I laughed out loud at a computer game, but TLJ managed to make me do that on many occasions. It’s not zany or gross-out humour either – just good old fashioned witty stuff (and I say this as someone who’s played all the Lucasarts classics).

The other notable thing about TLJ is the amount of profanity in it. It’s not an especially adult game (indeed, it’s rated 15+ in the UK) but the designers didn’t shy away from throwing in a suitably large number of swear words when the story or characters required it. I remember being shocked the first time I heard it, but then grew to appreciate the lengths they went to make the dialogue convincing and realistic.

A word about the puzzles. I’m not sure whether I’ve mentioned it on this blog before, but I don’t actually like puzzles. I know that this is a strange thing for the designer of Perplex City to be saying, but it’s true. As a result, one of my goals in creating Perplex City was making puzzles for people ‘who don’t like puzzles’, which I hope I’ve achieved at least in some way.

As anyone who’s played adventure games will know, there are a few variety of puzzles. Some are fairly obvious and satisfying, such as finding out a good way to distract a receptionist. Others involve combining random objects in an attempt to create something that will help you fish a key out of an inaccessible place. The worst kind – for me – involves moving levers and pressing buttons. I really have no patience for that sort of thing. That probably says more about me than it does about the puzzle – I’m more interested in progressing the story, exploring new places and talking to new people.

The Longest Journey is no different to other good adventure games with regards to puzzles. There are some great puzzles. There are some average puzzles. And there are some frustratingly obtuse puzzles that saw me resort to a hints service. As far as I’m concerned, this is just the way of things with graphical adventure games – it’s something I have to put up with in order to play. Personally, I think minigames might make more sense (like in Shenmue) but I suppose that would put off people who don’t like twitch gaming. Can’t keep everyone happy…

I probably spent 20-30 hours playing the The Longest Journey, spread over three weeks. That works out to 22p per hour of entertainment, probably a record for an adventure game like this. Some of that time was taking up with the more obtuse puzzles and minor bugs in the game, but most of it was listening to the dialogue. If you don’t like dialogue in adventure games, I advise you to stay well away. There must be literally hours of it in TLJ, and characters will sometimes go on for several minutes at a time without you getting a word or click in edgeways. Even I got sick of it on occasion, but the highlights more than made up for it.

The lead designer and writer of the game, Ragnar Tornquist, has said that “being engaged in dialogue is a form of gameplay.” I’m not entirely sure what he means by this, but it’s not a million miles off my belief that navigating through an alternate reality game – following links, reading blogs, calling numbers – also constitutes a form of gameplay. If that is what he means, then I’d agree – although I know that many others wouldn’t. I’ve had a lot of thoughts bubbling away about the nature of storytelling in ARGs and adventures games which I’d like to write down soon at length.

As is typical with many adventure games, the first act is spent setting the scene; the third and final act is wrapping things up. That leaves the second act to bear the brunt of the storytelling and interaction, and that’s where The Longest Journey excels. I wouldn’t say that I disliked the rest of the game, but it was clear that most of the resources and good ideas had been expended on the second act. So, if you end up playing TLJ, enjoy it while it lasts.

Since I only played TLJ over the last few weeks, I managed to escape the seven years of waiting that true fans had to endure for the sequel. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was released a couple of months ago and has apparently done quite reasonably in terms of sales. Reasonably enough to ensure that the last part of the trilogy (Dreamfall 2) will be produced one day, although I’m not holding my breath. For now, I’m waiting for Dreamfall to arrive, and thinking of how wonderful it would be to design my own graphical adventure game…

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