The Longest Journey – A Retrospective

By John Walker on August 21st, 2007 at 2:52 pm.

My earlier post about story reminds me of a piece I wrote for PC Gamer a few years back, looking at The Longest Journey, and its lasting effect on me. There was never room for my full thoughts then, and the full length ‘director’s cut’ version has sat on my hard drive since. Clearly Dreamfall has been released since, telling us more about April Ryan, and another retrospective is due for that. Meanwhile, here’s the full-length version of the original piece.

“Mystery is important. To know everything, to know the whole truth, is dull. There is no magic in that. Magic is not knowing, magic is wondering about what and how and where.”

Arcadian docks.

The Longest Journey almost vanished away unnoticed, another obscurity ranted about by a few, but never reaching any acclaim. In the mire of pre-millennial adventure gaming, it could so easily have been drowned by the density of its peers, ignored by pessimism, never given the chance it so strongly deserved. How it was joyously liberated from this fate is mysterious. And in mystery, there is magic. In The Longest Journey, there is magic.

As a point and click adventure, The Longest Journey already defied conventions, ignoring the genre’s desperately floundering attempts at “catching up”. Developer and writer Ragnar Tørnquist and his team at Funcom understood that “catching up” was meaningless – they had a story to tell, and a world in which it needed to be told, and so this was the game they made. The natural instinct to say how it recaptured the adventure’s previous glory is strong, but this just simply isn’t true. Adventure gaming had never been as glorious as The Longest Journey – it hadn’t ever even come close.

Eighteen year old art student April Ryan provides the most perfect eyes through which to witness this tale. Sceptical, sarcastic and sassy, she tight-rope walks the same line as Buffy, mouthing off but never quite tumbling into the irritating. And yet still somehow gets away with normally grating late 90s Ameriteenisms such as, “That’s SO not appropriate.” You forgive her, because you realise, as do the games’ twin worlds of Stark and Arcadia, that she’s important.

Poor man, he must be petrified.

A friend was recently explaining to me how Silent Hill 4 manages to spook so effectively by blurring the two worlds of the normal, and the horrific. When an element of one leaks into the other, stability in the known is shaken, and fear drip, drip, drips in. In April Ryan’s life, it is the fantastic that begins to disturb the normality of her existence, the world of dreams invading her world of rational and science. And where a good horror story shows you fear in the every day, The Longest Journey shows you magic. Set 200 years in the future, April’s world is enough like our own to allow us to identify, but distant enough to allow it status as a metaphor.

The meta-narrative tells of how, long ago, the united Earth was divided into two: Science and Magic, Stark and Arcadia. The Bladerunner-inspired future version of our known world allows the effects of this severance to have been demonstrated even more, well, starkly than they are now. Wars have increased the degree of global apartheid, Capitalism’s punishments are more prevalent, authority rules over democracy, and people simply get on with being people as it happens around them. It is unavoidably our future.

The language is, um, colourful.

In contrast, Arcadia refers back to so many fantasy lands, simplicity bolstered by magic, thus creating seismic instability and inevitable fracture. But Arcadia at least possesses hope. Stark’s worldview is blind, eyes gouged out by its people’s own hands. It allows the coming destruction of Chaos without even the consciousness to question. And so it is through April’s dreams, through her powerful imagination, that she is drawn to ‘shift’ out of that world, and to learn her part in the shaping of the future.

I was unaware of how much I’ve been influenced by The Longest Journey, until returning to its tale for this piece. I’ve been writing a children’s story, on and off, for a couple of years, never getting very far with it, but always driven to persist by its unstoppable urge to leave my head. I’m now wondering how much I have to remove because I’ve simply plagiarised it from my subconscious. The ideology of this game is lodged deeply inside me, partly because I so strongly identified with the message I took from it, and partly because that message is so powerfully told. It is always a point and click adventure. There are always daft clicking the rubber duck on the clamp and tying it to the string puzzles. But it works with these elements, not despite them. Nearly every voice is perfectly cast, and the recording supervised by the game’s creator and writer, Ragnar Tørnquist. Yes, there is swearing, but there is swearing where real people swear. And wow, are the conversations long. But they are telling you a story like no other.

Hansel and Gretel got scarier.

April is not a simple character, a template onto which we may impose ourselves to experience a world. She has issues with her father, trouble letting people get too close, and a propensity to run away rather than face difficulty. She is a complex and broken human being, thrown into a situation too big to understand, and arguably destroyed by it. She’s a person.

The opening quote, said to April by her mentor when she is persisting with him for answers, speaks for the whole game. The Longest Journey is epic and magnificent, but completion makes you aware that this is only a tiny fraction of a created world. Indeed, these are only weeks in the whole of April Ryan’s lifetime. So much remains unknown. But to know the whole truth is dull. Magic is in not knowing, magic is wondering about what and how and when.

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35 Comments »

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  1. Naseer says:

    Thank you for publishing this. The Longest Journey remains one of my favourite games all time.

    I also loved Dreamfall and I am looking forward the upcoming episodes.

  2. wiper says:

    John Walker The Longest Journey tribute-post shocker ;)

    I still think the last half of the game felt disappointingly rushed, but it is a wonderful game.

    One day I shall get a machine capable of running Dreamfall (my lone copy of it laughs at my laptop’s futile attempts to get it running at a playalbe framerate), and I shall be happy. Until I get to the end of that, presumably.

  3. Brinstar says:

    By strange coincidence, I actually restarted playing this after almost two years. I had never finished it the first time around, and got distracted by other games at the time.

    You’re right about the voice acting. It’s very natural, as is the writing.

  4. XsV says:

    Let’s hope this wait isn’t so long. Any news whatsoever on the next installment?

  5. The_B says:

    I don’t know if the RPS team are privy to any more information, but all that is officially known at the moment is it’s going to be episodic.

  6. Dan Trott says:

    Lovely article John.

    I recently snapped it up on Steam and this has reminded me to get stuck in to it properly.

  7. Acosta says:

    Fantastic piece of writing. I want to play it, but I am afraid the puzzles are too hard for me as I am not an expert on graphical adventures and use to get stuck. I should get the steam offering and give it a shot after reading this.

  8. John P says:

    I somehow missed this one, but have recently bought Dreamfall on the basis of the latest PCG top 100. Do I need to get this and play through it for Dreamfall to make any sense, that’s my question!

  9. John P says:

    Just noticed it’s on Steam for bugger all. Very tempting!

  10. Donna says:

    I jsut recently bought the limited edition box of Dreamfall with both copies of the game and the hardback art book. Today i finished Dreamfall and I loved it. I’m a fan of Funcom as a games producer after playing Anarchy online for 3 years. I’ve been loking to buy this game for some time now and was very happy to find it. It’s a superb game and definately recommend it to all.

    Can’t wait to see the next installment as the ending is so open to another episode.

  11. John Walker says:

    Hey John P – just to be clear, Dreamfall wasn’t in the PCG Top 100, even if they did decide to accompany The Longest Journey’s entry with a picture of Zoe from its sequel (sigh).

    I gave Dreamfall 77%, with the rather strong caveat that you probably shouldn’t buy it. I adored it, overmarked it because of that, but stressed that it was a poor *game*. Astonishing story, moving beyond words, but a weak game. It made all the mistakes with story in games being discussed in the comments thread below. But oh how I loved it. But was disappointed by it. But loved it. But…

  12. The Sombrero Kid says:

    I Played Dreamfall, but never the longest journey i couldn’t get passed the EXTREAMLY IRRITTATING and longwinded canversations about her boyfriend, i had bashed my head on the screen till it was bleeding and had to stop for medical reasons, was this a mistake, does it get better after the first 10 mins or is it that you all like long boring conversations about boyfriends? is this game only for teenage girls? am i missing something? I love Adventure games BTW

  13. John P says:

    John – thanks for clearing that up, I suppose that will teach me to buy a game on the strength of skimming a feature! Still, Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, The Longest Journey – it’s easy to get confused! I guess i’ll invest in the steam version of the original then, only 5 dollars or something similar I believe.

  14. John Walker says:

    Sombrero – If longwinded conversations are going to put you off, neither game is for you. I’d also stress that playing Dreamfall without playing TLJ would be a fairly pointless experience, with most of the story making no sense to you.

    Don’t mistake a game being for teenage girls with one being about teenage girls.

  15. Steve Cooper says:

    Sombrero, I bought this game recently(ish) after repeatedly reading articles extolling it’s virtues.

    I’ve stalled now part-way through and I can’t bring myself to go back to it after finding myself waking up having nodded off listening to another interminable conversation.

    I like point-and-click adventures not point-and-snore.

  16. The Sombrero Kid says:

    Maybe i’ve been spoiled by lucas arts but i don’t think i’ve got the adventure metal to play dreamfall, i’ll probably give the longest journey a bash though!

  17. Servitor says:

    I dearly loved TLJ. I would have loved Dreamfall, but they introduced combat to the gameplay in such a lame way that I refused to go any further.

  18. Donna says:

    I got into a fight twice in Dreamfall. The other times you think it may be needed there’s always a non-combat way out of the situation.

    My only real gripe about Dreamfall is that it’s way too short. I finished it in 15 hours.

  19. Jiiiiim says:

    For my money, Dreamfall is the superior of the two. The puzzles in TLJ almost got in the way of the story, made it more obviously a game and I certainly identified less strongly with the characters. Add in that the story of TLJ is more game-structured and I just felt more immersed in Dreamfall. Uh, after the minigames went away.

    On the other hand, with Dreamfall I was essentially watching a movie where I occasionally got to tap the screen. But as that was more of a novelty to me, I embraced it. Doubt it would happen again ¬_¬

  20. Stefan says:

    TLJ is my all time favourite PC game, period. After so many years it still comes to mind ever so often, and only in the most positive way. What more can you ask of any game, or movie, or book?

  21. Yet another John, common name eh? says:

    The Longest Journey is easily one of my favorite games of all time… no, that’s not right, not one of my favorite games. One of my favorite stories! As a game both The Longest Journey and its sequel Dreamfall fail, I hated the stupid counter-intuitive puzzles of the first game and the pointless combat of the second, but the story the games weave is just so good I can’t stop playing. That and the characters are so endearing. Crazy as it sounds, I hope it turns out alright for April Ryan in the end!

    Thank you for the read, methinks I’m about ready for another play-through of the old game and maybe Dreamfall too if I’m up for it.

  22. Erlec says:

    When i was 11 years old (the days of 2001) I saw The longest journey in a store for around 15 bucks. Seeing i had already played a demo of it for half year ago, i bought it with my money (which was originally going to candy). Since me and my brother got the habit playing adventure games together we played it on our old 98 computer.

    I could not foresee the consequences for playing this game. The story, the characters, the worlds and even the puzzles. Even the hard waking the giant up puzzle in the island. I had a amazing time playing it, trying to decipher Abnaxus figure of speach and crows puns. To date, I’ve played through the game four times in the coarse of 6 years.

    The game itself changed how i see the world, and of strange and how much magic is in this world. It has also set a lasting imprint in my mind and I believe in my future as i think I will set work in the future as a game developer. Even with no media attention this is a deafening game in the adventure genre. This game is a must play for every game interested person in this world.

    Now the game is really cheap, so anyone who still is in doubt about playing it. DO IT NOW! If you are mature enough, it will change you.

  23. James H says:

    I actually played Dreamfall before I learned it was a sequel (don’t ask me how). A lot of the game makes sense in its own context, but for the full experience, you should play TLJ.
    I *love* Dreamfall and TLJ, both! Some of the game-play mechanics fail it, but the story is amazing. Thank God (and Ragnar) for giving us games with convincing dialogue/voice acting, beautiful art, AND an *extraordinary* story.

    I even recommend purchasing Dreamfall. It shines through its faults.

  24. Luredreier (my net-name) says:

    A realy good article.. I never saw the game that way..still it’s my apsolutly most fantastic experiance ever in my life (20 years old) an that includes sailing Trondheim-Lofoten (in norway) with a old fishing boat from the ca 1800… riged with the same kind of sails the vikings used…
    It’s simply a fantastic game… I can’t even begin to describe how I felt when I played it…
    It’s the only game, story or experiance of any kind that I have experianced that I would call my self a fan of…
    I like the Dreamfall to.. but TLJ >

  25. KBKarma says:

    I recently played Longest Journey on your urgings.

    I shall never doubt you ever again.

  26. Kast says:

    Thanks to KBKarma for drawing my attention to this article. It was posted before I found RPS and I don’t remember any of it from reading PCG. I’m sure I did read it in the mag, but I’ve read so many it has long been subsumed.

    Yes, TLJ is a brilliant tale. The graphics’ age is a barrier to access these days but struggle past it and I can’t imagine anyone not misting up at times.

  27. KBKarma says:

    Not a problem, Kast. I’ve been enthusing about it to everyone I’ve met.

    It’s a wonderful game. Both funny and introspective.

  28. Ian says:

    I only got TLJ relatively recently and loved it, and it’s a definite triumph when it comes to the characters because the irritating characters are irritating in the right way. Not oh-Christ-I-wish-this-game-didn’t-have-you-in-it kind of a way but the way that you appreciate them and their part anyway.

    I have Dreamfall but have yet to play it, maybe it shall be my next PC gaming endeavour. I’ve grown to accept now that sometimes in adventure games I’m just going to have to check a walthrough because I don’t have the mentality to always work out the more obscure puzzles, but when the narrative is as fine as it is in games like TLJ it hardly matters.

  29. Bhazor says:

    Damn it John. All those words and you don’t mention it’s one of the funniest games ever made.
    Honestly.

  30. UK_John says:

    The Longest Journey is Arcadia, Dreamfall, unfortunately, is Stark. In these two games we see the history of PC gaming. One, deep and magical with great gameplay for the dollar. It was intelligent, meaningful and took risks. It is the opitimy of it’s day for gaming. The second, released after the market went ‘multi-format’ was safe, one sixth the length and contained little challenge or gameplay. It offered very little gameplay for the dollar.

    The difference between these two titles is the difference in gaming between these two periods.

    As much as I love The Longest Journey, FunCom must be the most idiotic company games publishing has ever seen! They, quite simply, should have had another title ready at least by 2004, and April Ryan should have been the main character again. To have left it so late, and to not have April as the main character was economic suicide by FunCom. Dreamfall sales, compared to The Longest Journey, especially given that Dreamfall was on console too, were abysmal, with sales 30% of what The Longest Journey sold on PC alone! The Longest Journey, even today, sells on a par with Dreamfall and Dreamfall only gets mentioned in relation to TLJ, not the other way around. In fact, with no TLJ Dramfall would never have ben published due to it being non-commercial.

    To put FunCom’s decision perspective, I would ask you to imagine Valve not having Gordon Freeman as the main character? Or what about the second Tomb Raider not having Lara Croft in the game? Or better yet, putting them in but making them miserable, broken character’s that you could barely sympathise with?! Exactly, I rest my case.

    So the mishandling by FunCom of this gem of a character and story has left us with no TLJ 3, when, if handled right, we would be on TLJ number 6 or 7, with the series embedded in the concious of gamers and truly helping create a gaming market that today would be so much the better for it, with better characters, stories and game depth in every game!

    Instead, because of FunCom’s errors, we have shallow, short and dumbed down games most of the time, and nothing of the standard of The Longest Journey. A huge opportunity was missed. So part of me is so glad I found TLJ back in 2000 and have replayed many times since, and part of me is very bitter that nothing was done with either the characters or the story or the gameplay.

    Today we have a tiny gem shining brightly in the corner of the gaming cosmos. FunCom could have made it a supernova, but instead it has remained this tiny sparkly gem that nobody notices…..

  31. UK_John says:

    Correction: No Gordon Freeman in Half Life 2 I meant.