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SPOILERS: Major spoilers for Dreamfall: The Longest Journey.
Umberto Eco commented that you can tell you are watching a porn film because journeys happen in real time. Makers of ‘proper’ films cut past the bus ride to get straight to the narrative meat. Pornographers, or at least those of a certain era, pad out the prudish narrative drapery by making us sit through the bus ride. Dreamfall suffers a similar fate as a videogame. It doesn’t really want to be a videogame any more than the porn film wants to be high cinema but, like the porn film, it remains in hock to its videogame trappings, aping them without truly engaging with the form. For me, it ruined the game.
I don’t normally write negatively on this blog. I far prefer to write about games that prove unexpectedly special to me, games that have given me new insights or resonated strongly. So I feel a little uncomfortable writing this piece. However, the ways that Dreamfall fails are too illuminating to ignore. I am sure a lot of these points have been made better elsewhere, given that the game came out in 2006, but this is my take.
Woven through Dreamfall is an unquestionably strong narrative. The characters and their personal journeys are exceptional, as is the humanity of the game which is justly celebrated in John Walker’s retrospective on Eurogamer. If this narrative had germinated in the mind of a great novelist or film-maker then I have no doubt that it could have become a modern classic.
And yet I find that Dreamfall fails entirely as a videogame. This comes as something of a shock to me since it is the first time that I have ever written, or even thought, that about a game. I have played and loved numerous alleged ‘non-games’ from the first iterations of Sim City through to Proteus, Gone Home, Call of Duty and, just a few weeks ago, The Stanley Parable. Until playing Dreamfall I was not aware that there was a defined edge to what I understand a videogame to be.
I don’t generally buy into elaborate formal definitions of any artform. While they can be a useful analytic tool, when taken as dogma they serve only to stultify mainstream creation while excluding and marginalising anyone who tries something different. In videogames, particularly, formalist approaches have been used regularly as a tool of political aggression. However, even with a wide open mind on questions of form, it remains fundamental to my experience playing videogames that I, as player, must do something which is meaningful within the context of the experience.
There are two sides to that starting point: (1) I must do something, I must act rather than simply perceive; and (2) that something must be meaningful within the context of the experience. Dreamfall fails on both counts. At its most basic, virtually every moving, memorable or dramatic moment in the game takes place in a cutscene. There are large chunks of the game where the player is simply watching and listening – this is fine in itself, but it is film and not videogame. In fact, I wish it had been film: imagine what the climactic scene between April and Kian might have looked like in the hands of Miyazaki or Spielberg?
But Dreamfall is a videogame and not a film. I know this because as player I often had to do something otherwise the whole show would grind to a halt. As a whole, the game clearly does require me to ‘do something’, although its most special moments, when taken alone, do not. Far worse, is the game’s failure to make my participation meaningful.
If there simply isn’t anything for me to do then maybe a work can stand up on its merits as a film or novel or whatever. However, when I have to do things but without meaning, the work risks falling through the gap between different forms of expression. I have played a lot of videogames in my time including some very weird stuff (thank you, www.freeindiegam.es) but until Dreamfall I had never seen a game throw itself so wilfully over that edge.
The interactions in a narrative videogame, the verbs, are fundamental to the way the narrative is experienced by a player. Interactions embody the player within the narrative. They bind the player to the protagonist by creating an experience that is shared between them. When April Ryan is puzzling her way through Roper Klacks’ deranged castle in The Longest Journey, we are right there with her. We face the same set of challenges she does and we both work through them together.
The process of embodiment offered by a narrative videogame creates a unique audience perspective that can’t be replicated in any other medium and the relationship between my agency as player and the agency of the protagonist is fundamental to that process. The expectations of that relationship can be toyed with and manipulated, the second chapter of Howling Dogs is a particularly brilliant example, but they cannot be ignored if a videogame is to make the most of its medium.
Dreamfall fights diametrically against the strengths of the medium with disastrous consequences. It is particularly frustrating because there are some sections of the game where it does all hang together showing the potential that is wasted in the remainder of the game. An example is the section set in WATICorp.
The WATICorp section features a series of meaningful conversation puzzles where we and Zoe both face the challenges of getting a ticket and then distracting a guard. In both cases the conversations plug into side-narratives that cast an uncomfortable light on our actions: first we contribute to the problems in a couple’s relationship; later we put a child’s safety at serious risk. The section of play then features three stealth sections, first a simple one and later two more complicated ones, and also includes a traditional ‘find A then B then C’ puzzle which motivates our and Zoe’s exploration of the underground facility. There is a varied section in which you and Zoe take control of a bot.
The WATICorp chapters include dramatic narrative revelations relating to the Dreamcore and culminate in a confrontation with Peats in is garden. This confrontation is a totally appropriate use of a cutscene. After we and Zoe have had the densely interactive exploration of the facility and then hurried escape, it makes rhythmic sense for both her as protagonist and us as players to pause when confronted with the terrifying Peats and the use of a cutscene gives much more effective control over the dramatic reveal of Peats’ character. The final moments in WATICorp are a fantastic example of the fusion between narrative and interaction: a frantic escape from the twins as we and Zoe, together, are forced to identify an escape route at high speed and take a very risky way out.
Altogether WATICorp works really well as a narrative and as a game where the dense interactions give us something meaningful to do that binds us together with Zoe in a shared experience. It is hugely disappointing that this is the exception rather than the rule in Dreamfall.
Compare the section set in the swamps: here we take turns to play as Zoe, April and Kian. The narrative we see play out shows the same events from each perspective. A flare goes up. Kian confronts April on the pier, revealing his change of attitude. The Azadi strike force arrives taking all three by surprise. April is apparently killed, Kian arrested and Zoe escapes back to Stark. It is a moment of intense drama for all three protagonists and the climax of Dreamfall’s Arcadian plotlines. The chapter is aptly titled ‘Crossroads’.
But what is my role as player in all of this? Aside from an essentially reflective choice as to how Kian reacts to the scene playing out around him, my primary interactive role during this chapter was walking. As April I walked through the stilt-built swamp camp having occasional conversations (in which I as player did not interact) until reaching the pier. As Zoe, I walked around until able to see the pier. As Kian I walked around until reaching the pier and encountering April. There is a mild degree of challenge, for me at least, in that it was not immediately obvious how to find my way around the area due to the convoluted nature of the paths. However, this challenge bears no correlation to the circumstances of the protagonists.
For April, this place is home – she knows it well. For Kian and Zoe there is no suggestion that navigation in the area is a challenge. It is not comparable to a case where a protagonist finds themselves in a maze, for example. For each of the three protagonists walking around the area is something they do unthinkingly, en route from A to B. It is not the meat of their experience whereas it is the meat, or meat substitute, of my experience as player.
The insult is that it is for precisely this reason that walking around can be safely delegated to the player. Because the process of getting from point A to point B is meaningless in the context of the protagonists’ experience, there is no narrative risk in passing control back to the player for that brief period. As soon as events occur that do have meaning for the characters, control is taken back and I watch it play out as a passive observer.
The two visits to the Dark People’s city map out a similar trajectory. My primary activity was simply walking through the city. Not exploring, which might make a degree of sense given that both Zoe and April are there for the first time, but simply following a guide through the halls until we meet the White of the Draic Kin and each chapter delivers its dramatic payload in the form of a cutscene.
The game starts with a huge amount of promise. The characters are engaging. Casablanca feels tremendously fresh as a game environment. The conversation system, giving players the opportunity to determine attitude rather than content, is heavy with narrative potential. It is a tragedy that that promise was allowed to drain away entirely as the game progresses. My actions as player should be binding me ever closer to the protagonists, embedding me more deeply in the narrative, allowing me to feel and understand facets of the narrative that are invisible from the passive viewpoint. Instead, as a player I was gradually pushed further and further to the side-lines of the experience. Increasingly, I was delegated thoughtless grind, the simple task of walking here and there, trivial chains of action – open cupboard, get pass, use pass on key pad – that enabled the protagonists to reach their denouement while I watched.
The game’s final chapter starts in Winter, an icy dreamscape. The dolls’ house, Faith’s dolls’ house, is suspended in the middle distance and opens slowly, a staircase descending to the ice. By now I already know how this is going to play out: I am going to walk to the dolls house, up the stairs to find Faith and then experience the game’s final cutscene. The game defeated my expectations: the cutscene kicks in as I approach the foot of the staircase. Even the experience of walking up the stairs into the dolls’ house cannot be safely delegated to the player.
The final chapter comprises perhaps ten seconds walking across the ice, followed by – I don’t know – fifteen minutes of cutscenes? The wonderful narrative wraps up: in a heartbreaking moment Faith lets go, Zoe is transported to the storytime, a storm – literal and metaphorical – gathers over the twin worlds. The game ends with a sword of Damocles hanging over the characters’ heads by a frayed thread. What was my role in this as player? I walked across some ice.
Videogames have such potential as a narrative medium because the active viewpoint, working through the same challenges as protagonists, exploring their world, wrestling with the same systems and dilemmas, brings us closer to those characters and allows us to get at facets of narrative that are otherwise unavailable. Done right, it is enormously powerful. However, where a game falsifies that active role, giving us a colouring book to keep us quiet during the play, it risks destroying the beauty of its own narrative as we focus our attention on the meaningless task handed to us rather than the human drama unravelling on stage.
I wish I had been able to watch Dreamfall as a film or read it as a novel. It is a wonderful and deeply human story that I should have cherished. But I didn’t: I played it as a game and as a game it insulted me, it squandered its own potential and it wasted my time.