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The Backseat Game Designer: The Rest of the Longest Journey Review

This is the addendum to my Longest Journey Review in which I put all my opinions that contain spoilers. If you haven't finished playing The Longest Journey yet, you don't want to read this page. Please go back to the regular review site, where I promise to tell you everything you need to decide whether or not to play this game without giving away any of its plot.

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The Backseat Game Designer: The Longest Journey

These Backseat Game Designer pages are primarily a place for me to put all my game commentary that was too revealing for the regular reviews, as well as a place to tell everyone exactly how *I* would have done the game better. Hey, who knows, maybe Ragnar Tornquist'll be googling around one night, see this page, and decide to put me out of my misery by having April tell what happened to Charlie in Longest Journey 2. Ah, well, a girl can dream, right? Here's all the news about The Longest Journey that's fit to print, just not on the no-spoiler review site.

Personal Reactions

My response to The Longest Journey was stirring, complex, and difficult to describe. The first three chapters, in particular, were profoundly affecting in a way no computer game I've ever played has been. The complex personalities, well-written dialogue, and terrific voice acting of the NPCs and of April herself made me truly care what happened to them. Arcadia is the first computer fantasy land since Ultima IV to take my breath away for a moment with the sheer magic of it; The Longest Journey is the only computer game I've played that has ever managed to artfully blend fantasy adventure and sci-fi into the same package (something the beloved Might & Magic and Wizardry franchises had been unsuccessfully trying to do for a decade). It's also the first game in more than 15 years that actually made me cry. With all of this emotion and awe going on, it actually escaped my notice for a few hours that The Longest Journey was also the single most interactive graphic adventure game ever, allowing players to choose not only their own lines of dialogue (as good older games like Grim Fandango did) but also, on occasion, an actual course of action. Baby steps, to be sure, but... still steps. I've been begging for something like this from the adventure game genre for so many years now, it almost made me want to fall down on my knees and cry out some new prophetic moniker to hail April's arrival: Ijjikweinen'aa, she-who-gives-gamers-the-power-to-make-choices! You have come, at long last!

Plot Holes

It's possible that something may have been lost in the translation in this game, though it doesn't seem likely. The designer is Norwegian, but I'm pretty sure the English-language release of The Longest Journey was actually the first one, and if my visit to Norway was any indicator, it's likely that everyone who worked on the project was completely fluent in English anyway. Still, there were a couple things in this game that did leave me scratching my head:

1) What the hell happened to Roper Klacks when April gave him the calculator? Did it... suck his soul out somehow? What? Why? This was by far the most confusing and pointless thing to happen in this game; if anyone has any idea what was supposed to be going on in this cutscene, I'd be grateful if you clued me in.

2) Why does April age so much between the story and the frame? She's one of the Kin; Cortez and McAllen are still completely mobile after several hundred years. (I suppose it's theoretically possible that the frame takes place 1000 years in the future or something like that, but then it would be completely ridiculous that Crow is still alive.)

3) Who is it that April says she is starting to fall for in her Chapter Four journal entry, anyway? It had better not be that stupid @$%#@!! Crow, but she's already stated it isn't Charlie (unfortunately), and the only other candidate in this epic is Cortez--and isn't he April's older brother (since he calls the White of the Kin "Mother"?)

4) I really didn't get the subplot about April and her father. April's father beat her because... he felt guilty about having dropped her when she was a baby? Am I being very dense to think that this makes no sense? Also, where did this backstory suddenly come from that April was crippled as a child and everyone thought she would never walk but then she miraculously recovered? It came completely from out of nowhere. If April had some miraculous healing ability as a child, it should have been alluded to before the finale; as it was it just felt forced.

5) The Longest Journey suffers badly from the typical sci-fi flaw whereby everybody 250 years in the future is inexplicably well-versed in pop culture from exactly 250 years ago. (Jerry Garcia, Alex Trebek, Gilligan's Island, et al). More relevantly to the plot, why does everyone (not just Cortez) immediately associate "old movies" with "black and white movies"? Haven't they had 250 years of old color movies to look back on? Isn't this like us associating "old movies" with silent movies?

6) I'm usually able to suspend my disbelief about a graphic adventure hero carrying everything from a poker to a bowling ball around town, but it really stretched my credulity for April to have carried her entire inventory to Arcadia with her IN HER UNDERWEAR. Not only wouldn't any of it have fit in the first place, but she wouldn't have gone to sleep with a book, a screwdriver, a toy monkey, and half a dozen other things jammed into her bra, nor would she have stopped to gather them up before leaving while neglecting to get herself dressed. Simply too silly and we couldn't stop giggling about it quickly enough to take Abnaxus seriously.

The Longest Journey Game Advances

Things I hope become standard in all games from now on:

1) There are a few points at which you can choose slightly different courses of action for April that have slightly different consequences in the game (deciding whether or not to work the first night, for example, and whether or not to honor April's promise to Zack.) I absolutely adore this kind of thing, which has been standard in the better CRPG's for years now but completely lacking from the adventure game genre till this very moment; here's hoping that other graphic adventures take The Longest Journey's admittedly tentative lead on this.

2) The Longest Journey allows you to choose from different dialogue options during conversation, a wonderful feature too few adventure games avail themselves of. Face it, if it's a graphic adventure, there's going to be a lot of talking; the boredom factor of this can be reduced or even eliminated by giving the player control over the protagonist's role in these conversations, and that's just what the dialogue menu does. You can decide whether April should be more sarcastic, more friendly, more vulnerable, or anything else during each given conversation. The next step is to have previous choices be remembered and have an effect on the game itself, as they do in CRPG's like Baldur's Gate 2. The game designer, Ragnar Tornquist, has already stated that this is one of his major goals for The Longest Journey's sequel. Oh, frabjous day!

3) The Longest Journey re-uses inventory items to brilliant effect: while other games mulishly refuse to let you leave an area without first pocketing, say, a screwdriver that you'll need in the next area--a brainless annoyance, most of the time, since you don't know what objects you need to collect to obtain the game's permission to leave and your character wouldn't either--in TLJ, you need to use that screwdriver to detach an object you need in the current chapter, and then it stays in your inventory for the next chpater. You collect everything you need to progress without it ever being called to your attention--and may, in fact, not even realize what second task that screwdriver will be needed for from a mile away (it's a truly different use.) Expertly handled.

4) April gets a thumbs-up from me for being a relatively normal-looking woman in relatively normal clothing. I'm so tired of having to play an overly-large-bosomed action heroine or an overly-large-eyed anime woman-child, you wouldn't believe it. Special kudos for the underwear she starts the game in being utilitarian rather than the standard black lace thong and peekaboo bra Hollywood has inexplicably decided women wear to bed when there's no one else around.

5) The gameworld totally drew me in. I love the juxtaposition of the decaying future earth with the fantasy realm. By itself, Arcadia would have been a rather routine fantasy setting, but in tandem with the dystopic techno-corporate futuristic earth, the magic and wonder of the standard fantasy realm introduced itself all over again.

6) The characters were among the best-written I've ever encountered in a computer game. Charlie and Cortez, in particular, were compelling three-dimensional characters, but even minor characters like Mickey the laconic super and Qaman the ego-impaired giant made themselves into people I cared what happened to. The villain McAllen was somewhat cliched but still had a sinister ambiguity to him; I really still have no idea whether he was lying about anything he said or not. (His intention to spare April if she cooperated with him, for example. True or not? His people did kill Flipper after promising not to, but on the other hand, they also evidently sent Emma to hospital instead of killing her. And McAllen seemed reluctant to kill Cortez; April, too, is "kin of his kin.") I find that a villain who's somewhat ambiguous is often scarier and more compelling than one who's colored in all the way, particularly in computer adventure games, where truly three-dimensional villains are few and far-between.

7) Changes in the scenery (i.e. the appearance of a new object) are usually hinted at in the dialogue somehow, a welcome change from many adventure games where you merely have to pixel-hunt the same area over and over again till something appears there.

8) I appreciated the ability to have April examine objects in inventory. Her reactions helped to shed light on the world around her, yet were totally optional and skippable during faster-paced sequences where examining a key just wasn't interesting to me.

9) The game has good attention to detail--for instance, it often works equally well to combine something in your inventory and then use it or to use one piece and then another.

10) The Longest Journey not only allows you to replay cutscene videos you have already viewed (a feature that I'm thrilled to see becoming more common in graphic adventures these days), but also keeps a complete conversational log of dialogues April has had. This is VERY handy in a genre so full of dialogue.

Advice from the Backseat Game Designer

In my game review, I gave The Longest Journey a 9.5 out of 10 (rating: outstanding). So, what would have improved this already excellent game even more? Well, there were a handful of minor things, as there are in every game: players should have been able to name savegames (I don't know why adventure games have moved away from this sensible feature, since players frequently want to keep a savegame called "before agreeing to work" around, and aren't necessarily going to remember this information from a generic thumbnail picture of a bar.) April should have worn a different color shirt every day, to help keep up the realism of the atmosphere and to give the player a sense of passing time. (It would obviously have been trivial to program, since changes of clothes were added as plot points on a few occasions; yet left to her own devices, this savvy college student still gets up every morning and puts on the same clothes she was wearing yesterday.) A movement shortcut--double-clicking an exit taking you immediately to a new screen--would have been very welcome. And The Longest Journey still suffers from adventure-game randomitis on occasion (actions with unguessable consequences--give a police officer a bad-tasting piece of candy and when he spits it out he'll hit another character on the head, thus causing the plot to progress. There's no way April could have predicted that would happen, so no reason she would have taken that action.)

But in terms of major flaws in need of improvement, there were only three that leapt out at me. First, The Longest Journey was just too darn easy to solve. This problem could have been almost completely eliminated if there had been some kind of "low-hints" setting. There are many puzzles in this game that were quite clever (such as the alchemist's potion formulas, and the paintings in the mermen's cave), but are ruined as puzzles by April narrating exactly what the answer to each one is as soon as you click on it. If this had been a Myst game, for example, I would have been left to decipher the alchemical formulas on my own. I miss the empowerment of that. I wish The Longest Journey had been able to trust me a little more; it would have been a more challenging game if it had, and no less fun.

Second, though the conversational choices and occasional plot forks do make playing April a relatively interactive experience as graphic adventure games go, too many of her opinions and reactions to things are pre-scripted. It doesn't really matter whether you choose a friendly or smart-alecky response to a character, April will explicitly state at the end of the conversation "I can't stand that guy" anyway. The worst part is that there's simply no need for this. In the characterization department, sometimes less is more, and if April had refrained from adding extra comments every once in a while, each player could have projected more of his or her own feelings onto the gameworld. I was particularly put off by the fact that the game decided to announce, for no apparent reason, that April only liked Charlie "as a friend." When I played April, I felt really drawn to Charlie. OK, so his 3D sprite sucked, but that was true of everyone in this game; the sketch art of him was dead sexy, his voice-acting was terrific, and the stories he told filled in a wonderfully subtle, three-dimensional character. If only The Longest Journey could have taken a lesson from CRPG's like Baldur's Gate 2 in allowing players to dynamically determine their own reactions to NPCs! It would have been easy to implement--when Emma brought up Charlie in her earlier conversation with April, she could have had a choice between two responses, one which made it clear she thought of him only as a friend and one which made it clear she wished it could be more. Then the game could have remembered this and given her two different reactions to the vision of Charlie among the Bandu. Little things like this let gamers feel like the character is an extension of themselves, not just some animation having a lot of long, boring conversations with strangers all day long. And there is a lot of conversation in this game, and the pace is pretty slow. Five bucks says there were plenty of players who lost interest in this game before reaching the dramatic parts... and who might not have if they'd been able to bond more closely with April in the first place.

But by far my biggest disappointment with this game--in some ways my only real disappointment--was its lack of interest in the fate of April's friends. They were well-written and compelling enough that I evidently wound up caring about what happened to them more than the game designer expected me to. I really couldn't enjoy the slow-paced, six-chapter-long disk assembly quest on Arcadia the way I should have because I spent the whole time hurrying to get it done with so I could get back to April's friends and the much more compelling main plot (something April herself seemed oddly unconcerned with doing). It was really hard to concentrate on April's gleeful frolics through fantasyland with her oh-so-witty talking bird when all this stuff I cared about so much more was going on. And when I finally DID get there, there was nothing I could do to help any of them anyway. In fact, except for Crow (and I have an aversion to talking animal sidekicks in games meant for adults anyway), April's friends were used ONLY to manipulate the player's emotions and then dropped like rocks, something I resented greatly. To advance the plot, for example, you're supposed to run to the Fringe Cafe after escaping from the Border House. Well, yes, this is exactly what I did do, and why? Because Charlie wasn't in the Border House, and it would occur to any normal player to want to either warn him, ask him for help, or at least go see if his body is nailed to the cafe door. The game is only too happy to take advantage of this impulse to further its own plot purposes, but not to give a player who's demonstrated this impulse any resolution. Charlie is never seen again, in fact. I understand that there's going to be a sequel, and that we may find out whether Cortez is truly dead or not then, but given this game's total indifference to them I doubt we're ever going to find out what happened to Emma, Charlie, Fiona and Mickey. They didn't even make the epilogue--after all their loyalty and help, apparently the only one April really gave a crap about was the idiotic talking bird. Boy, did that end a fantastic game on a sour note.

I won't hold it against Mr. Tornquist, though. He's kicked a genre I've been frustrated with for years out of the rut it's been stuck in, even if just a bit, and he's created a world more absorbing than anything I've played since the original Myst and the first computer game character whose death made me cry since Planetfall. I'm looking forward to seeing where Longest Journey 2 (tentatively titled Dreamfall) takes Stark and Arcadia next.

Best Quest: Disposing of Roper Klacks. The bizarre, Escheresque labyrinth was creepy and fun, the petrified guard made me really want to rescue him, and the villain himself was simultaneously cliched and hilarious (I just about died laughing watching him beat April at a game of hopscotch!)
Lamest Quest: Sailing to Alais. I did like April having to do something rather reckless to continue her journey, and I liked her extremely believable screw-up at the end of the chapter. What I *didn't* like was how the storm doesn't approach until April looks at something completely unrelated on board; how the ship doesn't hit the shoals until April picks up a completely unrelated object; and how the plot generally doesn't advance until April talks to somebody about something. It's all very artificial-feeling.
Best Puzzle: The potion-mixing one. I really enjoyed using April's senses to figure out what essence was in each bottle.
Lamest Puzzle: Concocting juvenile-delinquent booby-traps to distract policemen (not once, not twice, but three times.) It's just silly that these big-city cops are so easily and constantly outwitted by tired old grade-school pranks like handing them a soda can you've shaken up. Come ON.
Best Plot Twist: April not being the thirteenth Guardian. There were enough clues that I should have figured this out, but it still surprised me.
Lamest Plot Twist: The lame, lame, incredibly lame one where April is rescued from certain death by her future self because "you're supposed to escape." AUGHHHH, this cutesy little paradox is not only horribly cliched and moronic in every conceivable circumstance, but in this case, it also undercuts the story completely by showing that it would have been impossible for April to succeed on her own without deus ex machina intervention.
High Point: It's hard to choose just one. I do think April's first shift to Marcuria was one of the most evocative moments in my long gaming career.
Low Point: Reading all the books in the library, one at a time, having to talk to the librarian first and watch him slowly move around before and after each book. I want that 20 minutes of my life back.

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