Imagine: one day you wake up, only to find yourself apparently still dreaming. Instead of lying in your nice cozy bed, you're in the middle of a vast landscape of cliffs and canyons, with a strangely colorful sky. And there's a four foot egg dangling precariously over a cliff, held by the root of a cranky talking tree. You'd think you'd gone nuts, right? That's exactly what April Ryan thinks when she gets dropped into that situation. And that is why The Longest Journey is a good game.
The Longest Journey is an entry in the genre of "adventure games," also known as "interactive movies." Such games are more about characters and stories than about the technicalities of interaction. There are no challenges of manual dexterity -- no high-speed chases to maneuver through, no shoot-outs to survive. Adventure games provide their challenges in the form of intellectual puzzles and clues hidden in the environment. They do their best to immerse you in an imagined world.
What has really happened to April is that she has accidentally crossed the boundary between two Earths. She is native to Stark, a world where science and logic hold sway, where physical law is not subject to whimsy or fantasy. The dreamworld she enters is Arcadia, a realm where power can be channeled by the will of sorcerers, but machines are prone to breaking, and scientific study must always allow for magical exceptions. These two worlds, she soon learns, exist in a delicate balance: too much order, and the worlds will become barren and lifeless; too much chaos, and they will be devoured by wild energies. April, a teenage art student, has been called upon to preserve the balance and save her world in the face of an unknown threat. She is not pleased at finding herself caught up in a potentially life-threatening quest. As is typical in coming-of-age fantasies, April's greatest battle is with her own self-doubt.
In playing the game, you must guide April back and forth between Stark and Arcadia, through personal crises and the challenges of saving the world. Like many adventure games, The Longest Journey presents April's story in the third-person (you see April on the screen and direct her to take various actions) and makes use of an extensive collection of items found during the course of her adventure. She's smart enough to reject your guidance if it will get her killed. While it's still a good idea to "save early and often" in case your computer crashes, you'll never have the irritation of losing progress because you fell victim to some programmer's diabolical joke.
What makes the game stand out is the believability of the young heroine. Though as a teenager in Stark, April has futuristic technology at her disposal, she still has to deal with many of the same problems students have today -- all-nighters before a deadline; sleazy upper-class boys; managing to cover rent, food, and fun, on a shoestring budget; and so on. She also has some problems with her parents (we know from the beginning that she ran away from home to pursue her studies) which become clearer as the story progresses; though important, they're perfectly mundane. She does not have any experience that would prepare her to deal with being dropped unceremoniously -- in her nightclothes, no less -- into a magical quest. She reacts with a mix of skepticism at the absurdity of the notion, anger at having been yanked out of her more-or-less happy existence, and terror at the possible threat to her life.
This is rather refreshing. Most heroes in this style of fantasy adjust to their circumstances far too easily. Authors sometimes use plot devices or quirks of character to excuse the sudden shift from regular-joe to hero: he always knew he was special, or he somehow felt this morning that something was going to happen. That's fine, but it doesn't at all succeed in giving us the feeling of what it would be like if something like this happened to a normal person -- to one of us. April Ryan succeeds admirably. She never feels terribly heroic; she does heroic things because they are necessary, and she has the courage to resist her doubt and fear. In so doing, she teaches us about our own courage.
The sprawling scope of the story and the detail of the settings reflect the time and care devoted to every aspect of The Longest Journey. The game was produced by a team of Norweigan developers at FunCom over a period of several years -- I first heard about the game from the producer, on a USENET group, almost three years before its eventual release.
The game's strongest suit is probably the background scenery -- the art is stunning, especially in Arcadia, where sweeping vistas and fantastic cities spring to life on the screen. We're given a wide-ranging tour of Arcadia, from the capital of its greatest nation, to a castle in the air, to the bottom of the ocean. In Stark, we mostly see the city of Newport, but we see many aspects of it: a slum, an artsy university district, an upscale shopping neighborhood, and so forth. And when we do finally get an excursion out of the city, it is an impressive trip. The live action sequences, though somewhat brief, and a bit primitive compared to what can be accomplished on modern console gaming systems, do showcase some impressive views of a battle in the air over Newport, a storm brewing over Arcadian seas, and visits from various peculiar creatures.
The creatures, and humans, with whom April interacts vary widely. Some of them add depth to the story, such as the enigmatic Cortez, who does his best to provide some guidance to the struggling protagonist. Others provide breadth, helping to fill out our image of the twin worlds; among this lot is Horatio Nebevay, the captain of an Arcadian schooner, and as salty an old tar as you ever did meet. On the down side, the quality of the voice acting varies a good bit. April's angst and wise-cracking mostly feel realistic and entertaining, but sometimes whiny. And unfortunately, one of the most irritating characters follows you around as a sidekick for much of the game. While the vocals are unreliable, the rest of the sound (music and environmental noise) works well, contributing to the sense of the locales you explore without becoming distracting.
The interaction with foreground environment is simple, and generally fairly easy. The one flaw in the interface design is that most actions end up requiring two clicks, because there is no keyboard shortcut to select an action before clicking an object. This stands out as an error that should've been caught, considering how well everything else works, and while it doesn't make the game difficult, it does become irritating at times.
If you are accustomed to games that provide action and mayhem, you will probably be frustrated by the slower pace, and by the puzzles, which are occasionally whimsical, and often intricate. But, if you enjoy a good story, dislike excessive violence, and like puzzles that demand careful thinking and patience -- and especially if you're a student, dealing with the same problems April faces back in the "real world" -- then The Longest Journey may be just the thing to give you hours of entertainment, mystery, and maybe just a little bit of inspiration.
1. Current adventure games take some inspiration from the old text-only Infocom games (the best known of which is probably Zork) and Sierra's King's Quest series. The best known example of the modern point-and-click adventure is Myst, though that one has a first-person view and no inventory system, giving it a far simpler interface than the game here considered.
2. One long-standing paradox of the entertainment industry is that work on animation is not as well-respected or as well-paid as screen acting, even though it demands more imagination -- you have to create the scene in your voice, without using your body. In any case, most game characters' voices end up being provided by relatively poor actors, though there are notable exceptions, such as the stellar cast of the Wing Commander series.