Review: “Dreamfall Chapters”

julio 7, 2016 at 1:13 pm (Videogames & Vidcons) (, , , , , , , , )

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Dreamfall Chapters is huge. Too huge, really: it’s the finale to a story to a game released ten years ago, dealing with plot points and characters from a game released in 1999, featuring three worlds (or more, depending on how you count), two cities, four protagonists, and the answers (or simply answers) to a million different mysteries. It’s a story about life, death, rebirth, dreams, identity, depression, growing up, relationships, addiction, conquest, colonialism, politics, passion, genocide, racism, complacency, sisterhood, guilt, redemption and whatever other theme you’d care to find. That developer Red Thread’s scant resources are just about enough to give us the stage play version of events, and to do so fairly well, speaks highly of their commitment and passion. And yet, it’s still the stage play version of events: think the original Star Wars, with the camera never leaving the Death Star.  While its world is technically larger than its predecessors’ it feels like it should be larger still, and that it isn’t is behind many of its issues.

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However even as it struggles against its limitations, Dreamfall Chapters remains a singular,  experience, and combined with its predecessors makes for one of my favorite stories ever.  As a conclusion to the story of The Longest Journey, it is as good as it could have been. While exponentially less effective as a stand-alone story, it is nevertheless very much worth playing.

Chapters continues where its predecessor, the first Dreamfall, ended, with things going very badly for its three protagonists. Zoë Castillo, the depressed college dropout from Stark (i.e.: future cyberpunk Earth) who had uncovered and stopped a conspiracy by the WATI mega-corporation to use their upcoming product to observe and steal peoples’ memories via dreams, had been placed into a coma by her mother, after which her consciousness made her way into a realm called Dreamtime. In Arcadia, the world of magic, Kian Alvane, the Azadi apostle who had begun questioning his faith and allegiances to his people, turned against his masters and was arrested for it. April Ryan, protagonist of the first The Longest Journey, who had once saved two worlds and collected more names than Daenerys Targaryen, and currently spent her time fighting the Azadi occupiers in Marcuria, was stabbed and left for dead by Kian’s comrades.

Let’s talk about April first. Were this a TV show or comic book, one would have expected April to somehow survive—the story began with her, after all, and there had been hints suggesting that she would survive until old age and fulfill some yet-unspecified role. What’s more, works that kill off main characters of her stature tend to be ensembles, with a much broader focus than The Longest Journey and Dreamfall. Therefore, it was genuinely surprising that the very first images in Dreamfall Chapters are of April’s funeral. While she’ll continue being important, her story is over. It’s an early and forceful reminder of the sort of story The Longest Journey is. Some people will come out the other side and live happy lives. Not all will do so.

And so, we’re left with Zoë and Kian. In the Dreamtime, Zoë begins to accept her role as a Dreamer, someone with the ability to interact in particular ways with dreams, and in turn alter reality.  She eventually wakes up from her coma sans her memories of the events of the first Dreamfall; reunites with her no-longer-missing ex-boyfriend, investigative reporter Reza Temiz; and the two move from Casablanca, Morocco to Europolis, where Zoë attempts to build a new life for herself while attempting to better her mental state.  Kian’s imprisonment, meanwhile, proves short-lived, as he is rescued by the same Marcurian resistance he’d once worked against, which believes that he will be vital to their efforts. With his only link to this group—April—now dead, he is a fish out of water, and must now get used to working with comrades who have little reason to trust him, all for a cause he is still unsure about.  Since this is fiction, things get complicated: Zoë, during her time as a campaign volunteer, discovers a political conspiracy that, if revealed to the world, would change Europolis’ established order forever; Kian grows more involved in the resistance and in the lives of both its members and the people whom they seek to rescue, and grows closer to figuring out just what the Azadi empire wants with Marcuria, which, as seen in the previous game, involves getting rid of magical beings in a genocidal fashion and installing steampunk machinery everywhere.  As it did in The Longest Journey, what goes on in Stark is related to what is going on in Arcadia and, much like they did in Dreamfall, Zoë and Kian’s stories intertwine, concluding in what is probably the most consciously action-movie like sequence in any of the games, as characters from both worlds work together to end a worlds-changing threat.

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The world-changing threat. It’s very abstract.

One vital thing: while it was quite possible to play the first Dreamfall without having played The Longest Journey, the same is not true here. Not only is it essential to play the first Dreamfall in order to understand what is going in Chapters—fair enough, as one is a direct continuation of the other—Chapters also calls back to the original The Longest Journey in a way its predecessor never did, to the point of making familiarity with the game vital.  By the time it ends, Dreamfall Chapters stands revealed as not just the end of Dreamfall, but the end of The Longest Journey as a whole.  All well and good…except for the part where Dreamfall Chapters becomes so focused on ending the stories set up in 2006 and 1999, that it all but forgets to end the story it itself had set up.

While the games in the series have always attempted to give the twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia equal prominence in their narrative, this has never quite worked out in practice. Much like how direct interaction between Earth and Narnia is one way—British children travel to Narnia, but Narnians, with marked exceptions, don’t travel to Britain—Arcadia interacts with Stark more than Stark interacts with Arcadia, meaning that Arcadia consistently ends up becoming the focus of the story. Zoë ends up caring about the Azadi occupation of Marcuria, but April and Kian never become aware of the WATICorp conspiracy, or the electoral conspiracy in Europolis, and they never need to—it’s completely irrelevant to them. This unbalance means that in the end, Zoë’s story is always at risk of being drowned out by everything else, which ends up being the case here, in ways that severely hobble her side of the narrative.

As mentioned, most of Zoë’s story for the first three of the game’s five episodes involves her life in Propast, a life which is intentionally disconnected from her circumstances in the first Dreamfall. While there are moments which deal with her status as a Dreamer, and these moments do hearken back to that first game, those plot developments are also quite personal, meaning they don’t directly affect the people around her.  And to be clear, this is not initially a problem: Propast despite its disconnectedness is in many ways the most interesting area in Dreamfall Chapters. The problem begins in book three, when Zoë decides that the only way she can move forward is to use the Dreammachine, WATICorp’s entertainment device / drug which allows people to dream lucid and controllable dreams, and see if she can’t find answers. As happens in Dreamfall, upon activating it, she finds herself in Marcuria.

Chapters never revisits Propast again.

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These two girls never get closure. Did they get to go on that vacation they talked about? Answers! I must have them! (Also, to clarify, they are not in jail.)

 

After spending Book Four exclusively in Arcadia, Zoë returns to Stark, but not to Europolis. She instead awakens somewhere else entirely, where she spends the entirety of the Book.  Her story shifts, becoming not about the Propast shenanigans that had defined the first half of her story in Chapters, but about her origins and her relationships with her parents, one of the more ambiguous bits of the first Dreamfall.  While interesting in a finally-some-answers way, it also feels like a distraction, like something that happens to Zoë, rather than part of her story.  And it is with this distraction that her story ends: ironically, while the final act of her story focuses entirely on her, and renders arguably the most important single person in Dreamfall, it does so in a way that largely ignores her emotional state and desires shown in Dreamfall Chapters.  And nowhere is this more apparent than in her epilogue, which features Zoë, five years after the events of the game, pregnant in a Casablanca balcony, seemingly at peace, when she is approached by an unseen and unheard person implied to be her romantic partner.  It is a marvel of vagueness, and it’s a sharp contrast to Kian’s own epilogue, which while equally short, is also held up by plenty of additional context giving it weight, and is directly related to events in his story. While I actually quite like the idea of Zoë deciding, at age 26, that she wishes to be a mother—how many videogame protagonists make that choice?—it at the same time irks: it feels like it happened because it’s the only way they could convey change in a twenty-second scene, without additional context. It pretends to be an ending, but it’s simply a different sort of  cliffhanger.

From another perspective, however, Zoë’s ending seemed inevitable. A key feature of Dreamfall Chapters is its choose-your-own adventure elements, which in theory allowed players to directly affect the story and the world.  While this is indeed the case, to a degree, this element also has the effect of forcing the game to compensate for those decisions, crafting its story in a way that allows it to go forward in the intended manner no matter what decisions the players make. It in effect works to eventually make the players’ decisions tangential, and given that Zoë’s choices involve things like her choice of career and how invested she is in her relationship with her boyfriend, it means that the most important parts of her story are also things which can’t play a role in her ending.  As interesting as it to determine how Zoë deals with an unsatisfying relationship, and as interesting as her two career tracks may be, I’m not sure they’re worth it, in the end.   I may change my mind in subsequent playthroughs, but at the moment, I think I might have preferred a more restrictive story in exchange for a conclusion that actually takes notice of Zoë’s consistent struggles with depression and identity.

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(On that note, let’s talk Reza. I mentioned in my review of Dreamfall: The Longest Journey how refreshing I found it that Zoë’s search for him seemed divorced from lingering romantic feelings for him, which made the decision to get the two back together for Chapters somewhat bemusing.  While is continued presence makes sense within the narrative and the context of Zoë’s aimlessness and amnesia,  the series makes it frustratingly hard to get a bead on the character or on what makes him tick, which renders him a largely unwelcome presence. While it’s interesting to see the two characters navigate their relationship, there’s really nothing to make the player invested in their success, other than the idea that Zoë should be invested.  Reza is just “the boyfriend”, and in a game that usually does such a good job with its characters, it feels exceedingly frustrating, particularly given his importance.)

(On the other hand, this failure to sell him makes me exceedingly glad about the epilogue’s vagueness.)

Zoë at least gets an ending, which is more than I can say for most of the characters in Propast. What happened to Queenie, the savvy community leader (with an awesome floating tea set) whose support Zoë sought as part of her duties to the Umińska campaign? What happened to Hanna—artist, Dreamer, and de facto leader of the Dragonflies, a Propast teen gang—and how are she and her girlfriend Abby doing? How did Baruti Maphane, the sweetheart campaign manager for the Umińska campaign, deal with news of the election scandal?  How are Mira and Wit—which depending on the players’ choices, are Zoë’s boss and co-worker, respectively—faring?  The most we get is a throwaway line stating that yeah, the forces of truth and justice prevailed and the whole electoral scandal plotline got satisfactorily resolved offscreen­, thanks in part to Zoë’s actions in book two—a stunningly pat resolution in a series that tended to avoid such things, and one that gives Zoë no real sense of catharsis.  Given how their Arcadian counterparts fare, it feels quite unfair.

(On that note, let’s talk Wit, who is the game’s only character on the autistic spectrum.  When the first book was released, the character was at the center of some criticism centering on the fact that his closest relationship was with Mira, who interacted with him using abusive and ableist language in a way that that was nevertheless meant to come off as affectionate, and Just The Way The Two Are. Fair enough, on its own—not everyone can be a paragon, and Mira’s behavior is consistent with her standard operating procedure of berating everyone she interacts with—except that it’s also combined with a complete inability to learn what Wit thinks about it all: direct interaction with him is impossible. Together, these serve to rob Wit of any sort of subjectivity, or any role as the protagonist of his own story: he is as other people make him, never as he makes of himself. While he eventually ends up playing a small, offscreen role in the last book, providing the means with which to crash the steampunk computer currently threatening both worlds, it’s far from a role which contextualizes his character in a way that explains the developers’ choices. It’s baffling, particularly given the games’ episodic nature (which would have allowed for some correction based on feedback and it is by far Dreamfall Chapters’ most glaring and complete storytelling failure.)

Now, there’s a case to be made for Chapters’ mode of storytelling, where incidental details and noodle incidents are not elaborated upon in order to suggest a world larger than the story.  It’s a technique the series has previously used to good effect, such as with The Collapse, the cataclysm that apparently rocked the world between the events of the first two games, whose details are never explained but whose consequences are felt all over Dreamfall’s version of Stark. There is a certain appeal to stories set within the limits of their protagonists’ points of view, and if the resolution to the various Propast plot points had been omitted because the player was only meant to know what Zoë knows, that would have been one thing.  This is not the case, though: throughout the game we see multiple scenes from points of view other than Zoë’s or Kian’s—mostly scenes focusing on the Arcadian bad guy couple of Commander Vamon and Sister Sahya and / or their co-conspirator, the Prophet—indicating that if we don’t see similar scenes for Propast characters, it’s simply because the creators don’t consider their story to be as vital. I disagree.  What’s more, the issue isn’t that things are being left open-ended; it’s that they are closed in an incredibly haphazard manner, suggesting that there was no though put into this story after it stopped being relevant to them, and that makes me sad.

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Baddies. We’ll see quite a bit of them, and while their presence is necessary, I also wish we’d gotten more of Baruti.

While the Arcadia story has some of these same issues, it and Kian fare far better, thanks in large part to the fact that their Dreamfall Chapters story is simply a continuation of the story from the first Dreamfall, with no equivalent to Zoë’s time in Propast.  Their story, of the events surrounding the occupation of Marcuria by the Azadi Empire, gets a largely satisfactory end, and do Kian and the people that make up his world.  The big bad is revealed, it is precisely whom everyone thought it would be, and the final confrontation is suitably big, even when it plays out in a very limited space.  Kian’s story is a good one, well told, all the way until the end, in a way that is both satisfying and frustrating, given its counterpart.  While this half of the story, like Zoë’s, features a slew of new characters, they are all integrated within existing contexts, meaning they can feature in Dreamfall Chapters’ endgame in a way characters like Hanna or Nela can’t.

Still, a whole that doesn’t quite work as such, isn’t as fatal as it might have been. The appeal of the series has arguably always lain in the details, and those are as wonderful as they’ve ever been, justifying the price of admission entirely.  While Dreamfall Chapters doesn’t feel as big as it should be, it does a marvelous job of feeling dense, with many, many memorable bits and characters and interactions.  The cities of Marcuria and Propast, while limited, are wonderfully realized, and I could spend countless paragraphs on the various details and people.

A notable element in Dreamfall Chapters is that Propast and Marcuria are in the midst of elections. Propast is preparing for a four-way contest (the front-runners are a far right racist dude and a center-left woman, which feels quite prescient in an American context), while in Marcuria, anti-magical demagogue Onor Hileriss is making a bid for leadership of the City Watch as part of the National Front for Faith and Family (!). Much like in real life, the elections are inescapable, and so you’ll hear the various people who populate the world talk about it. The same occurs in Marcuria, where you’ll see people attending Hileriss’ rallies, commenting on it both positively and negatively, and on occasion letting the candidate know in no uncertain terms just what a terrible piece of shit he is.

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It’s not clear without context, but you can see iconography regarding three of the four candidates in this screenshot. Also, I’ll admit that I did not initially notice the Star Wars reference, which is clever from both  Watsonian and Doylist perspectives.

Or, as Richard Cobbett put it:

Put bluntly, and unlike most cyberpunk worlds I’ve seen, just about everything you see [in Propast] is there to reinforce that the people who live here actually give a shit. The main topic of conversation is an upcoming political election, and while it’s pointed out that none of them are going to save the world, there’s a buzz on the streets as everyone discusses their favourite candidates. There are police checkpoints, but there are also big (peaceful) demonstrations protesting them, instead of everyone just rolling over and accepting that things are what they are. There’s no shortage of decay, and at least informed danger when it comes to bad streets and gangsters and the increasing police presence. But there’s also excitement, life, and passion, as well as a cultural mix of everyone from punks with holographic mohawks to girls in mass-produced Bingo T-Shirts. It’s a place you can imagine people choosing to live, not simply being trapped to await death.

(Source: PC Gamer.com)

(Y’all should read that article in full, if you can. It’s one of my favorite pieces of writing about the game.)

While speaking exclusively about Propast in comparison with other Cyberpunk cities, Cobbett’s comments also apply Marcuria, which is in itself a different kind of dystopia—it’s fantasy Vichy France, essentially, in the midst of occupation, apartheid, and genocide—and yet is teeming with people who give a shit about things. Some people give a shit about the occupation and either speak out or join the resistance (whose meeting place the bar The Rooster and Kitten, provides some juvenile but genuine laughs). Some people give a shit about Reapmoon, the upcoming harvest festival which is mostly just now an occasion to be drunk and foolish in public.  Some people give a shit about fingerlings, a one-man play featuring finger puppets which is less dirty than it sounds, performed by a former evil wizard.  Magical creatures brave increasing oppression to fight back, to go on with their lives and sell “sand-witches” and explosives from their sand-witch and explosives shop, or to simply enjoy being children.  Collectively, these characters do a lot to imbue the world with humanity, and interacting with them and the cities they inhabit make for some of Dreamfall Chapters’ best moments.

It always helps, of course, that we have magnificent lead characters with which to experience these worlds, and both Kian and Zoë continue to be superlative.

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Look at these two gorgeous dorks. Fall in love with these two gorgeous dorks.

Of the three* protagonists of the The Longest Journey cycle, Zoë has always been closest to my heart; I’ve got lots of space for characters who have no idea what they’re doing in their lives. Much like she was in the original Dreamfall, Zoë is a character adrift: now back where she was a year ago, she’s chosen a life which is at times satisfying and better than nothing, but leaves her wondering if that’s all there is. The people who helped her find out the truth about WATICorp, best friend Olivia DeMarco and former WATI employer and potential love Damien Cavanaugh, both from the first Dreamfall, were killed for helping her, and there’s nothing she can do about it but mourn (and not even that, in Damian’s case). Unlike 99% of the characters who would benefit from one, she’s seeing a therapist, whom she considers flirting with (I didn’t, because ugh). Her employer has her doing busywork that does not make use of her skills or relate to what she hoped to do. She does campaign work, but it’s essentially to keep her busy; her feelings for Lea Umińska go no further than “she sounds better than the alternative”. Her relationship with Reza is in a rough patch, surviving essentially on inertia and lingering feelings.  She has built up a new social circle which includes various friends, and she can enjoy herself on enjoyable occasions, and yet it’s not enough to make her feel satisfied when she’s not doing those things. And yet, she endures, fighting like hell for every piece of happiness she can hold on to. She’s Propast in a nutshell, and I can identify with her quite a lot.

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While Zoë is very much still Zoë, Kian, whose comparative lack of screentime and general defensive and terse demeanor had made him the least immediately appealing of the original Dreamfall protagonists, really comes into his own here, as the new focus brings out different sides of him. Most notably, he’s now funny, in a way that makes him more at home in the universe of The Longest Journey while at the same time making him more distinct. Book Three, for example, reveals that his months in Marcuria have given him a taste for yams, to the point where he berates a bunch of rats for not eating the ones he’s left for them (he needs a rat in order to clog up the pneumatic tube system that is at the center of the Azadi’s plans for Marcuria, because that’s the sort of game this is).  It is delightful.

Plus, he’s gay.

There’s a moment in book two where Kian meets with Anna, a sort-of ally in their fight against the Azadi occupiers. Anna clearly knows more about Kian than Kian knows about Anna, and there’s palpable tension between them. After a fraught conversation, the game gives the players a choice: kissing Anna or not kissing Anna.  I chose not to kiss her, not only because doing so would be clichéd, but also because even though the game hadn’t established it and I had no reason to believe it ever would, I wanted Kian to be gay and thus played the game as if he was, canonicity be damned.

Then came Book Three, whose very first scene, a conversation between Kian and either Likho or Enu, two of the game’s new characters and Kian’s new compatriots in the resistance, has Kian opening up about his sexuality.  In the space of a single conversation, Kian, whom I already loved, became one of my favorite characters ever, as well as one that’s important in the context of videogames. He was already one of only a handful of Black protagonists in the medium; as a Black Queer protagonist, he’s downright singular.

(Note: Kian’s sexuality remains the same whether or not you choose to kiss Anna.  The decision to present that as a choice while still explicitly making Kian gay has drawn considerable fire, some from people wishing they could make him not gay, and, more importantly, from people who feel that it is dubious that a gay character is placed in a situation in which 90% of straight characters would never be made to face. For what it’s worth, creator Ragnar Tørnquist has stated that the kiss, if it happens, was not romantic, but more akin to a spontaneous and unwise response to an awkward situation.)

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Dreamfall Chapters has been dubbed by detractors as a “SJW” game, and one can see why. There’s a palpable sense that Red Thread Games is consciously attempting to be as inclusive as they know how to be,  detailing the world as they have (it’s worth noting that  Ragnar Tørnquist, the chief person behind the series, is a white dude). Its two* protagonists are people of color. There are tons of women about, in tons of different roles—resistance leaders, smugglers, freedom fighters, geneticists, artists, food-and-explosive vendors, food-and-Marxism vendors, dream addicts, gang members, political candidates—many of them women of color, almost all of them worth meeting. They have different body shapes (although there is not as much variation as I’d like, with fatter people being almost nonexistent) and are not depicted or presented according to the male gaze. One of the people you see over and over and over again in Propast—by which I mean that she’s an extra, rather than someone with a unique character model—is a hijabi woman with neon-colored highlights on her headscarf. I love that she is there. There are multiple non-straight characters—as mentioned, there’s Kian, there’s Likho, who is apparently bisexual (my choices meant I didn’t get to interact with him as much I could have, so I didn’t get to see the conversation where this is revealed or know its details) and serves as a pseudo-love interest for Kian, there’s Hanna and Abby, and there’s a generalized attempt to combat heteronormativity—there’s a sense that characters’ default sexuality isn’t “straight”, but rather “unknown until it isn’t”, which is how it should be. In a touch I love, Propast has queer bars, although like all but a handful of buildings, you can’t enter them.  The game is far from perfect—I mentioned Wit earlier, and I understand that some people are disappointed in the way Likho’s story is resolved—but it’s clear Red Thread is trying: Chapters is better at it than the original The Longest Journey, which was already better than most games in 1999, and whatever Red Thread Games’ next thing is, I’d expect it to be better still.

Women of Dreamfall Chapters

This was tweeted by Red Thread Games for international women’s day this year. Note that this not actually the game’s entire female cast.

And thing is, it’s not just that these characters are collectively diverse; it’s that that diversity makes them individually and collectively awesome.  The cast of Dreamfall Chapters is fantastic largely in part because we haven’t seen stories like theirs in videogames, and the two things are related. It is because the writers don’t believe that people have to fit in these constricting little boxes in order for their stories to be worth telling that we have characters like sweetest zhidling Enu, who is there being talkative and friendly and awesome without being forced into any of the boxes female characters are usually smooshed into. It is because the series isn’t married to toxic masculinity that Kian is as wonderful as he is. And it is because we have such variation than when we do have characters who fit into the same old archetypes, they do so without necessarily saying anything about a particular group.

This is Enu. She is sweet and funny and exists for no other reason except to make the world better with her presence.

This is Enu. She is sweet and funny and exists for no other reason except to make the world better with her presence.

And then there’s Saga.

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(Note: Character and ending spoilers ahead)

Despite its name, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey was in many ways a tale completely separate from the game that preceded it. It made use of characters and concepts introduced there, but it did so largely to tell entirely new stories, to the point where one could, as mentioned earlier, play Dreamfall without first having played The Longest Journey and not lose anything, or at least anything that couldn’t be replaced by something of equal value. The same cannot be said of Dreamfall Chapters, which brings back concepts from the 1999 game in a big way, and none more significantly than the House of All Worlds.

Both framing device and mystery, The House of All Worlds and its inhabitant, Lady Alvane (!), appeared three times in The Longest Journey. The first and third are halves of a whole; we see Lady Alvane at the beginning of the game as she is about to tell the story of April Ryan to her visitors, and then we see her at the end when she finishes said story.  What makes this more than just a framing device is an appearance by Crow, the talking bird who had served as April’s companion in Arcadia (and who will later become both Zoë and Kian’s companion in the same way) and who we learn had a similar relationship with Lady Alvane during their younger days.  This raised two questions: if Alvane is an older April—the simplest theory—then what is the reason for the “Lady Alvane” moniker? On the other hand, if Alvane was not April,  how did her relationship with Crow come about, and why should we care about it, and her?  Then there was the House’s second appearance, which is seen from April Ryan’s point of view, after she accidentally arrives there. April talks briefly to Lady Alvane, Lady Alvane imparts some sage advice about how to April can embrace and control her budding abilities as a Shifter (someone able to travel between Stark and Arcadia under their own power) and that’s essentially it.  After Dreamfall: The Longest Journey came out, a third question was added to the list: what, if any, was Lady Alvane’s relationship to Kian?

The House of All Worlds returns in Dreamfall Chapters, and it is within its walls that we meet the girl named Saga, whose story is at once both tangential and vital to the goings-on in Stark and Arcadia. Taking place in chapters specifically identified as interludes, we see Saga first as a toddler, and then as a child, teenager, adult, and finally as an old woman.

The Saga segments are short, and they’re not especially plot-sensitive or exciting—the first one consists entirely of Saga toddling from her room to the House’s living room, the second of child Saga horsing around as she picks up the drawings she’s left all around the house. As these scenes occur, we learn about her and her family, and how her life has changed with time.  Her mother, blue-skinned victory-roll-sporting book-writer Etta, a Midgardian, disappears between the first two sequences, lost somewhere in time and space. Saga’s father, Magnus, proves increasingly unable to deal, and increasingly paranoid about Saga’s budding ability to shift, to the point of using magic on the house to make her unable to use her powers to leave the domicile. The closest thing to relevance is the increasing evidence that Saga has some sort of connection to April, remembering as she does events from the first game, but it’s not clear what the connection is. If she is April reincarnated, then she is to April as Korra is to Aang; despite similarities—a shared interest in art, most notably—they’re different people, and their link is far from the most interesting thing about either of them.

The Longest Journey has always been a woman-centric series, and Saga’s story feels like the natural continuation of that, in a very specific way. In a medium where female protagonists are rarely outside the fifteen-to-forty age range (and even then, they tend to look like act as if they’re twenty-to-thirty-five) and even more rarely fill roles other than violent badasses, love interests, damsels in distress, and / or male gaze bait, that we get a focus on a woman throughout her whole life, doing toddler and child and teenager things, feels significant and unprecedented. Sure, she’s doing so in the context of one of the series’ mysteries, but even still: normally, this would all be backstory. Here, it’s the actual story. And while Saga does eventually get involved in the goings-on of Dreamfall Chapters, Dreamfall Chapters is little more than a footnote in Saga’s story, which is less about saving the world and more about growing up and growing old. It feels intensely personal and melancholy in a way few videogame stories do.

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Saga herself is unlike any of the protagonists that preceded her.  Unlike April or Zoë, who lived on mundane Stark before the call to adventure swept them away, she is unfazed by weirdness, having grown up in a fully-furnished transdimensional domicile subject to temporal shifts and transdimensional tears that was nevertheless painfully normal and mundane. While sheltered in more immediate and significant ways than Kian, having spent the 99% of her first thirteen years in a world of exactly four people, she is also the one most open to new experiences and circumstances. Interestingly enough, she has rather specific knowledge of her future, but unlike most characters with Destinies (TM), she goes along with it without reluctance or angst; when we meet her at age 35, she is returning to the House so that she can prepare herself to fulfilling a prophecy, which she does despite having no real personal stakes in it with a certain detached enthusiasm. In other words, she’s a fatalist, but without the pessimism that usually implies. That she knows she lives to a ripe old age probably helps.

(Saga’s knowledge of the future also allows Dreamfall Chapters to use her to casually hand out whatever answers it doesn’t have time or resources to show. The game’s conclusion is very Pretty Little Liars in that way.)

One thing I haven’t mentioned so far is how Dreamfall Chapters fares as a videogame, partly because it feels less than entirely relevant, and partly because I lack the language with which to comment on it. It’s an adventure game, and I can’t comment how well it does adventure game things in comparison to other modern entries in the genre like Life is Strange.

That said, I can compare Chapters to the original Dreamfall, and in that respect it does…alright, correcting some of the issues that made the 2006 original a terrible videogame and inventing new ones. Most notably, Chapters feels considerably more like a game than the original Dreamfall did: it no longer feels as if one is walking from cutscene to cutscene.  It also abandons what is probably that games’ biggest failed experiment, namely the combat and action sequences, replacing the latter with Quick-Time Events, where one needs to find the proper element to interact with in a short window of time—these can sometimes be obtuse, and there’s one in particular that I solved even though I still don’t know why.  Puzzles are more plentiful and challenging—almost too challenging, in parts, particularly on occasions where there is the whole city to explore and little clue as to where to proceed. It is in these cases where the openness of the world works against it, especially since this is the sort of game where running, while possible, just feels wrong.

Graphically, the game looks fine at worst and absolutely freaking gorgeous at best, although it’s worth noting that my point of reference is 2008, and that I generally believe there was little need for console generations after the PS3 / X-Box 360 era. As mentioned, the main cities look fantastic.  Zoë and Kian and adult Saga are all yum. One thing worth noting, at least that the lip syncing, in my experience at least, was crap, although it did get considerably better in the last book, and has improved in subsequent playthroughs. It may have just been my computer.

The voice acting, on the other hand, is uniformly great. People who played the original Dreamfall will quickly notice that a lot of key characters, including both Zoë and Kian, have been recast, which is an issue for about two minutes.  That said, it’s a damn good thing Roger Raines was able to return for third stint as Crow. Crow is the closest thing the series has to an iconic character, and his voices and cadences are extremely distinctive, so any replacement would have felt just wrong.  Similarly, I’m extremely grateful that Sarah Hamilton was able to return to play April yet again, even if her work consisted only of a handful of lines. I understand that voice acting is no longer a thing Hamilton does on the regular, and that she’d been recovering from a recent serious health issues around the time the game began production, so I really appreciate that she took the time for the fans.

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I mentioned that Dreamfall Chapters is just as much a conclusion to the whole universe of The Longest Journey as it is to itself, and nowhere is this more notable than in the ending. The game’s final scene features Saga, now an old woman familiar to players of the original game, as she prepares to receive a visitor. Given control one final time, there’s not a lot for the player to do here except go around the living room and observe Saga as she takes note of the various mementos and remembrances of a long life well lived, some of which hearken back to  people and events we know we know and some we don’t. It’s a very effective scene, one that feels appropriate for the end of a story seventeen years in the telling; much like Saga’s life, the story of The Longest Journey has been extensive and eventful, and taking a moment to look back and rest in comfort feels like an ideal thing to do, after everything.  There are what-could have-beens and regrets, sure, both in-universe and out—its notable that the original Kickstarter for Dreamfall Chapters suggested that Red Thread had another game in the series in them, should the funding be available; that game has since been scrapped—but the finale feels optimistic, despite its melancholy atmosphere.

And really, that’s The Longest Journey in a nutshell. It’s a world where terrible things can happen. People die. People lose their way. Living can sometimes seem pointless.  And yet that doesn’t stop it from being funny and inspiring and beautiful.  While Dreamfall is not the first game to make this argument, it is still the one that does so most memorably.

—-

Game: Dreamfall Chapters (Full Game)

Developer / Publisher: Red Thread Games

Creator / Director: Ragnar Tørnquist

Platforms: PC

Release Dates: Oct. 21, 2014 (Book 1) – June 17, 2016 (Book 5)

 

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Despite the name, Shitbot is…well, he’s still kind of shitty. He’s also amazing.

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The fireball is how you know the wine is classy.

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Note: This is the closest Chapters gets to assigning a sexuality to Saga. Note to Hollywood: compulsory heterosexuality isn’t.

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This is the aforementioned Baruti Maphane, listening to Zoë talk about the sun. There is nothing about his look that I don’t love. He is an inspiration.

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The most important screenshot in the game, because it is the one with my name.

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We never see exactly what began Kian’s love affair with yams, but I imagine it was suitably epic.

 

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If it weren’t for the institutionalized racism, Marcuria would be awesome to live in. It’s like a lot of places that way.

 

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There are several recurring locations in the series; the Journeyman Inn and its surrounding street is, if I’m not mistaken, the one location that appears in all three games.

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Enu is brave and has no chill. Pass it on.

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The shipper’s non-dilemma.

 

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The best screenshot I could take of the aforementioned hijabi extra. That it takes place in Propast’s souk is a coincidence—versions of her appear all through the city.

 

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A self-portrait by teen Saga.

 

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Zoë in the Dreamtime.

 

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When first introduced, Onor Hileriss was ridiculous and satirical.

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Propast’s sole visible lesbian bar, the Pub-lick, and an extra with a fantastic holographic mohawk.God, I love this city. 

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…and Pub-lick’s men-oriented counterpart. I’m not familiar with either scene, so I have no idea how tacky these names are. “Very”, I’d imagine. Still, maybe tacky is in in 2220.

 

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Selling magical products in Marcuria is now prohibited. The people have since adapted. 

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The aforementioned Wit. Ugh, this dynamic. Why is Zoë assuming that Wit is okay with things?  Ask him! Make sure!

 

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Baby Saga. The portrait in the back is of Etta, her mother.

 

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Marcuria prepares for Reapmoon, its harvest festival.

 

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Cuties.

 

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Goats!

 

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Social media in 2220. which is really just social media in 2016.

 

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Old Saga.

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Wonkers, like all watillas, straddles the line between toy and friend, with all the uncomfortable things that suggests.

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Zoë has Wonkers. Saga has Hugsy. Kian, we eventually find out, had a pet rat which later abandoned him for a new owner.

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Chapters takes place across several months, so we see Marcuria and Propast undergo changes as time passes. The introduction of electricity to Marcuria is one of them, and helps explain just how the Azadi managed to conquer it in the first place.

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