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Wot I Think: Dreamfall Chapters - Book One

The beginning of the end

When you spend so long hoping for the continuation and conclusion of a story that was part of your earlier life, it's a bittersweet relief to hear that the waiting is finally over. Parting is such sweet sorrow and all that, but it's beneficial to have some closure. The Longest Journey began a decade and a half ago and Dreamfall Chapters marks the end of that journey.

But not yet. Not quite. Here's wot I think.

The Chapters are now divided into Books and yesterday saw the release of the first. It's around five hours long and I've written about most of the content already, although there have been some additions and tweaks since the preview build I played. Europolis, the neon hub of marketing and militant police that you'll spend the majority of this first episode exploring, is more heavily populated and some scenes have been altered to improve the flow of the story, or to provide pointers where objectives weren't entirely clear.

Minor additions aside, I didn't play anything in Book One that I hadn't already seen. The game is attractive - although I sense the bite of the budget or the edges of the engine in the depiction of certain events, particularly a jailbreak in which rioting is kept conspicuously off-screen - and the script is strong.

Anyone going in cold, without knowledge of the previous games, might be slightly baffled, even though there is an attempt to ease into the story. The scale of what is happening, particularly in the opening scenes, is vast - world-ending, myth-shattering, fate-fiddling stuff - and it's only when the story settles into Zoe's new life in Europolis that we zoom in and get a read on the purely personal rather than the preternatural level.

Something strange happens when the pace slows. Zoe is in a new place, attempting to kindle the sparks of an old relationship, and without any fanfare Dreamfall Chapters becomes a story about beginnings rather than endings. From lingering at the fringes of bodily existence, she becomes vital again, with no memory of her grander purpose. The workings of fate and the overlap between Dreamfall's several worlds fade into the background - Zoe's tasks for the day involve buying lunch from a food stall, visiting her boyfriend and checking in at work, where she will test out the abilities of a confused machine not-so-affectionately known as Shitbot.

Given that there's a prologue of sorts set in the realm of Dreamtime, where Zoe is a saviour of sorts to those poor souls who have become lost while interfacing with a Dream Machine, I was somewhat relieved when I found myself reading journal entries about holidays in the sun and everyday worries. Between the prologue and Europolis, the jail break takes place, introducing swords, sorcery and the fantasy land of Arcadia, although there's not a great deal of it to see at this point, given the jail element of the scene.

I've always enjoyed the series most when it has managed to walk the line between magic and mundanity, muddying them together like paints on a palette. There's a (presumably) conscious echo of The Longest Journey's opening in the beginning of Chapters, with the gesture toward the power of dreams and fate overshadowed by the ordinary trials of life, love and labour. And it works - Zoe is believable in her barely concealed exasperation at the state of her existence. Life, love and labour may not be terrible, but there's something sad and resigned in her attempts at enthusiasm.

'Is this all?', she seems to ask and while we know that it isn't, we also know that she might soon wish that it were. For the duration of Book One, however, Zoe engages with problems close to home. Given the fairly brief running time of the episode, Red Thread do well to construct and communicate the politics of their dystopia. There's an election coming and Zoe feels motivated to pick a side, even helping with campaign work, and party politics might well meet with corporate politics to drag her back into the cyber-conspiracies that are tied up with the dangers of the Dream Machines.

What's strange about this - and it's four paragraphs back now that I said 'something strange happens' - is the sense of beginnings rather than endings. I can only speculate as to what the overall thematic threads of the story will be as it comes toward its climax, but Tornquist and his team seem to be building new worlds rather than putting old ones to bed. Given Zoe's state at the beginning of the game, I think this might well be a story that is, at least in part, about the difficulty of letting go of stories.

Dreamfall makes me sentimental, brings back memories, and the new chapter is at its best when the characters' problems are familiar. There's plenty of that here but it's a small taste and anyone hoping for any immediate conclusions to the ongoing saga might be slightly frustrated. The wheel is turning again but there are new places to explore before old scores can be settled.

As a story, Book One is a good opening chapter. I was surprised (again) by how witty the script is and had to go back to The Longest Journey to remind myself that, yes, that has always been the case. I enjoyed Shitbot in particular, caught up in the pathos of ineptitude and - yes - thwarted destiny. A machine built to perform but dumped with handlers unsure of its purpose, Shitbot is a metaphor for the whole series - you heard it here first (and possibly last).

My one complaint about the script is to do with its density and direction rather than the quality of the writing itself. The 3d spaces are well-designed, although Europolis does begin to feel like corridors and rooms while darting back and forth to find points on the map, but character models don't match the quality of the writing. The characters in The Longest Journey were abtract enough in their presentation to allow imagination to add expression, but there are gaps between script, vocal performance and 'physical' entity that occasionally yawn wide.

Most of that is forgotten whenever the music takes control and composer Simon Poole deserves a great deal of credit for the themes that run beneath, over and through the dialogue. Often unashamedly plucking at heart strings, Dreamfall doesn't shy from big emotional moments and it has a score to back them up. When there are mystical witterings and grave prophesies to be heard, I'm often the first to scoff, but I find it hard to do that when there's a little tear creeping out of my eye.

As for the density of the episode, I think there's a distinct possibility that it's doing too much. There's foreboding and prefiguring, there's relationship drama (although it's admirably and credibly undramatic), there are the seeds of a political thriller, and there is humour. There's also the not insignificant matter of multiple worlds and the relationships between those worlds - how do they influence their neighbours, and are they neighbours at all or nested dreams and constructs. The game plays with these ideas, while also pointing to the connection that writers have with their own worlds and the words that make them.

That's a lot of ground to cover in a short period of time. As the game unfolds, all of these things may intertwine, focused on characters and their decisions, but there are tonal shifts in this compact first episode that could cause whiplash. One scene has already sparked heated discussion, and I'm not convinced that it works myself. I think the intent, as Tornquist describes in a forum thread (slight spoilers) and did in conversation when I spoke to him about it, is solid and even admirable. I think the execution sells that intent short and that's occasionally true of the game as a whole, which doesn't seem entirely comfortable with what adventure game baggage remains.

The fault isn't with the script, it's in that density of ideas, and sometimes uneven performance and direction. Perhaps the episodic nature is to blame as well, to a degree. We have to wait if we're to see how Mira and Wit develop, and can only judge on what we've seen. At the moment, there's an uncomfortable slice of life that will be lacking context for a while longer.

I see my fidgeting during that scene, and my smiles and sadness during others, as evidence that the game has the ability to get under my skin and into my memories, just as its predecessors did. Whether I'll still believe that to be the case when Dreamfall Chapters reaches its conclusions (I'm sure there will be several endings, literal and otherwise) is impossible to say, but there are characters and situations here that I want to know more about. There are worlds I want to revisit.

Chapters is positioned somewhere between a more traditional adventure game and the consequence dramas that Telltale have become known for. There are few inventory puzzles and important decisions are marked as such in a way that seems to mimic Telltale a little too closely (THIS CHARACTER WILL REMEMBER THAT), but I'm already fretting about a couple of decisions and how they're likely to break my resolve further down the line. I particularly enjoy the vague hints as to how and when resolution will arrive.

Most importantly, the story still has intricacies and a powerful emotional core, and after a decade and a half, I'm still happy to wait for an ending, even if this one was a little abrupt. Whatever levity and controversy occurs between now and then, I don't expect a dry eye in the house when that ending comes because I'm becoming convinced that this is a story about letting go - of life and of creations - and the inevitable consequence of growing up and coming of age.

Dreamfall Chapters Book One is out now.

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