Point-and-click adventure games can tell epic stories, and Funcom‘s The Longest Journey remains almost unparalleled in storytelling even after almost two decades.
The Longest Journey (PC)
(Norway 1999, developer/publisher: Funcom, platform: PC)
Art student April Ryan is drawn into a power struggle of two worlds and has to save or lose both of them, as science and magic collide, and the only one who can keep the Balance is a being called the Guardian who stands between them.
Two worlds of magic, science, talkative people and creatures
It’s difficult to summarize the story, characters, and setting, as everything is connected. The world April comes from is the science-dominated Stark and the one she travels to (first unwilling, later being more in control) is Arcadia, a world where dragons and monsters live and magic reigns. The former is a Dystopian future where flying cars and populated planets are as common as poverty and drug abuse. While Venice where April goes to college is less affected by the city sprawl, i.e. it’s a student community with gardens and museums one can go to, the metropolis is a much more dangerous place. Arcadia feels like a pastoral fairy-tale where friendly but also hostile creatures live side by side with humans who do hard work on the field or find their trades in the city. What both have in common is that they might not seem new if one has already played a couple of fantasy or sci-fi games, but they’re convincingly built to still feel unique.
Arcadia offers an almost RPG-style universe, seen in the many background stories about its lands and cities, creatures and people(s). There is even a library where one can (and actually has to) read about the history, fairy- and folk-tales. These are very well written and don’t only serve to make the world more believable but also provide the reader/player with fantastic stories and moral endings. Storytelling is at the forefront of everything, which can be seen in creatures that fly and tell stories in the oral tradition. Unfortunately, this already indicates the biggest problem of the game: over-exposition. Despite the high quality of the dialogues and interesting texts to read, they are way too long, almost to the point that one spends 15 to 20 minutes listening to people or creatures who can’t stop talking, getting lost in monologues. Even for adventure gamers who are used to talkative characters, this turns out to become the breaking point when progression of a great story is prevented by constant rambling.
Realistic character portrayals with more or less swearing
If one accepts that it takes a while to get through the dialogues, one will meet many memorable characters who’re not simply used for fetch quests (even though there are quite a few), but who add to the immersion and realism. April might come across as a bit too nice and helpful when meeting all sorts of creatures, but she remains a very likeable character, even more so if one takes the time to read her diary entries. These are optional and only help with hints in a few cases, but the writing is very good. They touch Dystopian and fantasy themes, but also deal with April’s past, her relationship with friends and family problems. Even if it’s not highly original, it makes her a more vulnerable and realistic character than most heroines in adventure games. Some of the writing is also pretty witty, because she makes fun of certain adventure and fantasy conventions without trying to be too intellectual or condescending.
However, trying to deliver realistic characters can work both ways. It’s great to have a strong female lead and even sexual relationships between women treated with respect, but there are far too many instances, especially in the case of a certain Flipper who floats around in his substitute of a wheelchair as fast as his cursing goes. Swearing can only be taken so far until it becomes annoying (something that was a deal-breaker for many in Black Mirror II). Fortunately, April’s sidekick Crow (who is obviously a talking crow) is a better example of how sarcastic remarks can be funny without going too far, making him another memorable and likeable character with a strong personality.
Strong world-building and storytelling
It’s not just because of the characters and setting that the player returns to the game again and again, because the story itself is epic and full of twists and turns. At times it can feel like a very long journey, as the story slowly develops. But the pacing helps to familiarize oneself with all the people, creatures, and places. As in all great adventure games that pride themselves with a believable world (be it fantasy or real life) like the original Black Mirror or Gabriel Knight 3, one feels connected to these worlds and one wants to explore and learn more about them.
The Longest Journey achieves this by building a story that always evolves. Even a few personal stories, like a young boy who lost contact to his family and wants to find out what happened to his sister, is connected to April’s quest. Reuniting two races feels as much an accomplishment as looking for stone discs that open the portal to the realm of the Guardian. The way the chapters build on each other is remarkable, and even if the main villain and some of the political undertones aren’t that convincing and it’s easy get lost if one doesn’t pay close attention to the story, it’s amazing how everything comes together and finds a suitable, satisfying, and touching ending.
Once upon a puzzling time
Puzzles in story-heavy games are almost an afterthought in today’s point-and-click adventure games, but The Longest Journey shows that one can still design some taxing problems for the player to solve with lots of variations. As has already been mentioned, there are a few fetch quests, and traveling between locations can be a drag despite the open-world feel, but there are enough puzzles that require object combinations and choosing the right dialogue options as well as some logic puzzles. The latter can be very tricky, especially in one segment where statues on an island have to be aligned to transport sound over long distances. The former can be difficult to solve as well, which isn’t because of missing hints, but because of obscure usage of items and interactions with the environmental objects that can easily be overlooked. So despite offering many varied puzzles, the game isn’t accessible for those easily frustrated. But as with the dialogues, if one perseveres, one will find that most conundrums fit into story progression and except for some very silly instances, they remain memorable, something that can’t be said about many contemporary adventure games.
Stone age looks
The game from 1999 looks like a game from 1999, but not in a good way. While the backgrounds are detailed and lively, the textures are washed out and pixelated, especially in the case of characters. Titles like Grim Fandango: Remastered still look great in their original resolution, which is mainly due to the art style. A game like Monkey Island 3 will always look timeless with its hand-drawn graphics, but The Longest Journey suffers from the technology it’s based on. Many crashes ensue on modern systems, something than can somewhat be avoided by having the VLC Player running in the background before a cutscene plays. As weird as it sounds, it works… Still if the character animations are more realistic than in most adventure games with 3D models, they’re so slow that they’re detrimental to the gameplay. It takes too much time for people to sit down, stand up, walk or perform other actions. The option to hit the ESC key to skip these animations is already an indication that the developers were aware of the problem. Running from one end of the screen to the next can also be shortened with this function, and it’s highly recommended to do so.
The orchestral soundtrack has aged much better and is still a joy to listen to, even outside the game. With many variations, instruments, and vocals, it perfectly captures every scene, setting, character, and moment, adding to the epic feeling of being immersed in another world. The voice acting is of a very high quality, too, with almost all characters sounding great, except for the main villain, whose slow speaking and exaggerated tone of voice makes him an more annoying than a dramatic persona to be taken seriously. This is too bad, because it takes away some of the more emotional scenes’ power and obviously the originally strong personality.
A journey not easily forgotten
It’s amazing to think that it’s been 20 years since The Longest Journey arrived at a time when point-and-clickers were almost dead, and even if it didn’t convince the naysayers to give the genre another chance, it provided a glimpse into the future of what story-driven games can do and how they can still offer real puzzles. A very detailed world that feels as much alive as its characters is just as interesting to visit today as it was back then.
While the plot development and pacing of the game suffer tremendously from over-long dialogues, this is a game that needs to be played by everyone. It has a playtime of around 20 hours with a memorable setting that might draw inspiration from well-known fairy-tales or folklore, but combines sci-fi with fantasy unlike any other game. It might not be a classic everyone will enjoy due to its outdated graphics and some obscure puzzles, but for fans of the genre and those interested in how the point-and-clicker genre still offers surprises after the LucasArts and Sierra years, this is the one to start with.
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This is one of my favourite adventure games ever! Great post. 🙂
Thanks! Yes, even if it has its flaws, this is a title one can always return to if there’s time. Quite a long journey…
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