Chapter One of Dreamfall Chapters was first released in 2014. Development of the game officially began in 2013, after the developer’s Kickstarter was fully funded, and the story was based on ideas that were first kicking around since the original Dreamfall: The Longest Journey’s 2007 release, or maybe even 1999 when the first game in the series, titled simply The Longest Journey, was first published. And yet, as I replayed the game earlier this month, the game felt very specifically about another year entirely: this one, 2016. While I can say with a fairly high level of confidence that Ragnar Tørnquist and the other fine people at Red Thread Games were not in possession of a time window into this year, and that they were not attempting to write specifically about the latest U.S. presidential election, the game, mixing together cyberpunk (via the future Earth called Stark) and fantasy (in the magical world of Arcadia) invokes the past and future to say a whole lot about now.
Dreamfall Chapters mainly follows two characters, Zoë Castillo and Kian Alvane, who are both on journeys that began during the first Dreamfall. Zoë, from Stark, is a college dropout who is now attempting to put her life back together after she spent a week successfully stopping a corporate conspiracy and getting a year-long coma and amnesia for her trouble. Kian Alvane, from Arcadia, is a former Apostle (read: faith-based assassin) for the Azadi Empire, until a chance encounter led him to doubt his faith and mission, eventually resulting in him defying his masters’ orders and getting branded a traitor and arrested. Also, he is gay, which I mention because it is awesome.
It is through Kian and Zoë’s eyes that we experience two very personal stories about, faith, renewal, acceptance, denial, and talking birds. It is also a story about change, and how it can come about in very sudden, scary—but not necessarily unpredictable or surprising—ways.
Note: Spoilers Below
Much like in the real world, a lot of time and space in Dreamfall Chapters is spent on elections. In Stark, the city-state of Europolis—“the filthy bowels and bloodied entrails of Europe”, comprising what were once Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic, Belgium and the Netherlands, as well as parts of other countries—is in the midst of a four-way election for the chancellorship: there’s the incumbent Dieter Gross of the center-right Alliance of European Democrats for Freedom and Liberty, whose tenure has been noted for scandal and mismanagement; far right Konstantin Wolf—“Kaiser” Wolf, to his opponents—of the far-right European Dawn; Lea Umińska of the center-left Unity Party; and the Marxist Marta Ribas of Manifesto, a coalition of far-left entities. Of the four, only Wolf and Umińska are seen as actual contenders, meaning it’s a fight between, according to various people, a racist, reactionary fascist and a woman whose main appeal, according to many, is being the least worst choice.
(All of the election elements were introduced as early as the first book, in 2014.)
In Arcadia, one of the recurring cast members is Onor Hileriss, who is running for leadership of the City Watch, the internal administrative body of the occupied city of Marcuria. Where the Stark candidates exist behind the scenes, Hileriss is visible and in-your-face; you get to see him around town, and even listen in on his campaign speeches, where we learn that his platform is a familiar one. Representing the National Front for Faith and Family, his platform is centered on the expulsion of the various magical peoples from Marcuria and collaboration with the occupying Azadi Empire, who are essentially Nazis.
From a certain perspective, Hileriss’ open hatred of magical races could make him seem “refreshingly” frank—or at least they would, if he weren’t also consistently mendacious. When asked about the Azadi’s attempts to stamp out all religion besides their own, a lynchpin of their occupation efforts, he lies and calls it a mere token gesture, something they don’t actually care about. Also edited from his stump speeches is his misogyny. Women, when they feature in his speeches, are to be protected and looked after. During a one-on-one conversation with Zoë, he is quite open about how his ideal world is one in which women are shut out of all but the domestic realm—a sharp contrast to the way Marcuria actually operates.
(Again, this was all established before 2016 came along.)
While important world-building elements, neither election is vital to Dreamfall’s core plot, which suggests that they exist because they allowed the writers to explore things they considered important—among these, how situations like these come about.
Normalization is the default:
The first Dreamfall has Zoë, who has arrived in Arcadia under mysterious circumstances, enter a conversation with a man called Ary Kinryn, a supplier and merchant who has seen his business delayed by the closure of Marcuria’s Magic Ghetto, which he needs to traverse. Gameplay-wise, his role is to be part of a fetch quest; as part of the story, he tells us a very important thing about how Marcuria has changed in the decade since the events of The Longest Journey: people, or at least a certain kind of people, have gotten used to Azadi occupation, even when it means there’s now a Magic Ghetto where there wasn’t one before. Sure, he’s not happy about no longer being able to publicly express his belief in his god of choice, after the Azadi forbid the practice of all religions save their own, but he’ll begrudgingly accept making the necessary token gestures, as long as they allow him to go by his day.
Kinryn is mostly singular in Dreamfall, but by Dreamfall Chapters, he’s become one of many, and the way Marcurians slowly but progressively accept their changing status quo is one of the subtler, and yet most important stories in the game. While the situation was bad in the first game, it gets even worse as the game progresses, as Kian and the other rebels witness the eventual closing of the Magic Ghetto and the expulsion of most magicals from Marcuria. Not even this is enough to spark a true national uprising, however: while the sudden lack of magical is a popular topic, it exists only as a topic of conversation—as Kian and later Zoë walk around the city, you hear people talk about how there used to be magicals, sounding as if they were talking about something that occurred decades ago instead of months.
Perhaps the clearest indication of how normalized anti-magical sentiments become can be seen in the way Onor Hileriss’ campaign intersects with the story. When we first see him, he is giving a speech in what is a private, invitation-only meeting held at night, where most of the attendees wear hoods. Kian, who has infiltrated the meeting, notes that it doesn’t bode well for a movement when its members are afraid of being seen. When next we see Onor, however, it is three months later, and his speeches have shifted venues: while the substance of his campaign has not shifted, he now gives them in public, in broad daylight, to people who have no problem being seen. Roughly a week later, he is staging the public burning of a magical being, and the event is treated largely as entertainment.
While the occupation of Marcuria and its transformation into Vichy France was a drastic shift in its status quo, the various characters in Stark have always lived in corporatocracies; complacency in the face of oppression, then, isn’t something we see people grow to adopt, but something people have grown up with. In the original The Longest Journey, protagonist April Ryan speaks casually of the way Bingo! Soda obtained its monopoly by destroying its competition in a literal war, and how people in debt or with no resources could “choose” to enter into indentured servitude off-planet, in colonies owned by megacorp Bokamba / Mercer, which is also co-owner of the city of Newport’s police department. Zoë, in the first Dreamfall, is understandably troubled after spending a night in the custody of the EYE, the global corporate police, but she is also quite used to the way it keeps track of her every move. All of this, in turn, leads them to deal with the increasing oppression seen in Dreamfall Chapters with a casualness that should feel shocking but isn’t. As players traverse Propast in book 2, they can see newly empty streets that were teeming with life a week ago, a slew of new EYE checkpoints, and increased protests and arrests. Zoë herself gets stopped on the way out of her apartment building, and is only allowed to continue with her day after the EYE agent confirms that she does indeed have an appointment with her therapist, and yet there is a very notable lack of anger. She can identify that something is fundamentally wrong with the world, and yet she cannot see a need for radical change; the best she can hope for is a candidate that won’t fuck people over as hard, which is why she volunteers for the Umińska campaign. She is not the only one to feel that way: after all, Martha Ribas, the candidate explicitly running against the status quo, is still hopelessly behind in the polls.
The people who fight
Still, things can only be ignored until they can’t, and Zoë has always been a hero. In the original Dreamfall, her attempts to discover the whereabouts of her missing ex-boyfriend Reza Temiz lead her to WATICorp, a standard cyberpunk megacorporation known primarily as a toymaker. Reza, it turns, out, had been investigating WATICorp, and was at the cusp of uncovering a scandal related to their upcoming product, which secretly served as a backdoor into people’s minds, allowing WATICorp a way in and allowing it pluck information at will. Although Zoë is unable to prevent the product from being released, she manages to close the backdoor, in large part because she had help: if she succeeded, it’s because Reza paved the way, scientist Helena Chang sent them both on the path, friends like Olivia DeMarco and Charlie provided time, resources and kindness, and WATI employees Daniel Cavanaugh and Rio Kuroki decided to do the right thing and turn against their masters.
WATICorp returns in Dreamfall Chapters, both independently and as part of the larger corporate machine, and once again, Zoë works to stop them. This time, she is aided in her efforts by not only Reza, but also local Umińska campaign manager Baruti Maphane, community leader Queenie, purveyor of food and Marxism Nela Vlček, teen gang member Hanna Roth and her girlfriend Abby, journalist Süleyman “Sully” Sadik, and programmer of quasi-legal software Mira and her partner Wit.
As all of these names and weird punctuation suggest, white people are not prevalent among Zoë’s allies. Reza and Sully are Turkish. Baruti is from Botswana. Queenie is Chinese, while Helena and Hanna have Chinese parents. Mira and Wit came from India. Zoë herself is from all over, being born in India and having Chinese, Argentine, and Indian heritage. This diversity, while visible in the first Dreamfall, becomes more notable in Chapters, in part because of the game’s European setting. Propast could have been portrayed as an uniformly white city without drawing much in the way of complaints; that it isn’t is not only notable but also provides context that allows the game’s world to better parallel ours. Of course European Dawn is doing well; as we’ve seen this election cycle, nothing will bring out the supremacist in white people more than suggesting that people of color deserve to be centered. This, in turn, explains why it is mostly women and people of color who take part in the fight against WATI and the corporatocracy: like here, they’re the ones with the most to lose.
While axes of oppression in Arcadia can’t be intuitively mapped onto our own as one can with Stark—like Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, it is a place where white and black have settled their differences in order to deal with the blue, and neither of the human cultures in the game are monolithic in terms of their population’s skin color and appearance—Dreamfall Chapters still finds way to explore the various layers of oppression and prejudice. A key element of Kian’s story is that while every Marcurian is in some way oppressed by the Azadi occupation, they are not all oppressed in the same way, and thus react differently. The game notes on more than one occasion that the demographic makeup of the resistance has changed since the events of last game, with the human membership dwindling. They’re not getting sent to ghettoes, after all. The storytelling bears this out: in the first game, there existed only one named magical among the rebels, Na’ane; in Chapters, most of her human companions are gone, and the focus shifts in a very noticeable way to characters like the Enu, Likho, and Shepherd, who become Kian’s most visible companions through the journey. The most poignant moment, however, comes courtesy of the Mole, a smuggler in Arcadia, who hates the Azadi and has seen them make her people all but extinct, but still needs coaxing in order to provide the rebellion with weapons and resources. Kian asks her why she doesn’t take a more direct role in affairs, and she replies.
How quickly they forget how [magicals] treat the Banda before. How they look down on us, call us mole-man, mud-dweller, stub-snout and soil monkey. The magical treat Banda much the same as human treat Banda. Like muck underneath toe nail. Like filth.
The Mole refuses to aid the resistance unless she herself benefits, and it’s not hard to see why. Like the women of color—and black women most directly—she parallels, she’s seen what unconditional loyalty rarely rewards the least privileged. The rebels may be operating in good faith, but she has no reason to believe that that is the case. Loyalty has to be earned.
* * *
The Longest Journey has always been political, and not quite in the same way all genre fiction—even Star Wars—is political. The first game, in addition to mining the standard cyberpunk setting and its concerns about corporations, also included queer portrayals that still feel nuanced and humanizing by today’s standard, the sort which are often seen as divisive, controversial, and pandering by people who’d rather not have those portrayals. The same is true of Dreamfall Chapters, and would have been, even if Red Thread Games hadn’t openly and unmistakably used game iconography to implore American Facebook and Twitter followers to vote for Clinton on election day, which they totally did. People complained about that; presumably, they found the appeals because they enjoyed the game, which raises the question about what exactly they got from it.
It is precisely because Dreamfall Chapters is political that the game is worth playing. Sure, it’s got fun characters and dialogue, and is one of the rare videogames to push back against the belief that women are only interesting when they can be sexual, but in the end, the game is most remarkable because it saw what was happening to the world, and nakedly and unabashedly decided to do something about it. In the process creating one of the most interesting, real worlds in videogames. We’re going to need both things, in 2017.