Sunday, 28 January 2018

Bioware's Save File Transfer Experiment is a Failure and That's Okay

Contains minor spoilers for the Baldur's Gate, Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.

The title of this article is a bit of an aggressive statement, so before we go any further let me make it clear that I am a massive fan of Bioware. I love each and every one in their own way and they are easily some of my favorite games. For anyone who has yet to try a Bioware RPG I highly recommend all of them.

It's not my intention to bash Bioware with this article. Not at all. Instead, I just want to take a look at one element of their recent work that I think they've never really been able to stick the landing with, and that's the Save File Transfer. The promise of a persistent world state that lasts between games, and with it the promise that player choice will have some kind of significant pay-off.

The origins of the Save File Transfer goes back, way back, to the dawn of pen-and-paper role-playing.

While tabletop games were destined to be self-contained stories, even from its early days, Dungeons and Dragons always gave dungeon masters the opportunity to have players deal with the consequences of their actions. Even long term if they so choose. For example, If players killed an innocent character instead of using stealth or diplomacy then the DM could always, at their discretion, bring up this action several campaigns down the line as a blot on the player's reputation.

Likewise, players would always keep hold of their character sheets between games, enabling them to carry forward their experience and loot from one campaign to another. Down the line players could regale new groups with tales of their former exploits.

Essentially, pen-and-paper always had persistent worlds; it was just really up to those playing how hard they wanted to lean into it.

Come the dawn of the first Bioware era, it was clear that many compromises would have to be made when adapting from tabletop to digital. Baldur's Gate was Bioware’s first success at creating a virtual recreation of a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The game came complete with twists and turns, multiple solutions to problems, and the freedom to play good, evil or somewhere in between.

Baldur’s Gate, however, could only recreate so much of its tabletop inspiration. The compromise came, of course, with the campaign now being limited by technology rather than imagination. Baldur's Gate could never hope to accommodate the myriad ways a tabletop player might approach a problem, and likewise it could never hope to offer the scope of options that a dungeon master might bring. Indeed, even today there is only so much freedom a video game can allow without limiting it elsewhere.

As such, the first form of Bioware's Save File Transfer, if you could consider it that, was the character Import/Export System. While Baldur's Gate 2 gave players the option to import their characters from the first game, carrying over skills, experience and potentially some loot, that is the be all and end all of what would be carried over, and the plot would remain unaffected.

While Baldur's Gate gave players the choice in who lives and who dies, which factions succeed and which fail, Bioware didn't have the resources to tailor its sequel to take all these choices into account. Instead they opted to create a 'canon' version of events somewhat influenced by popular choices, and moved the plot to another part of the world. Any discrepancy was written off as a side effect of your character's torture by series' villain Irenicus. Black Isle's Fallout 2 took a similar approach, as would most other choice-and-consequence stories.

As the first Bioware age rolled by, most developers sidestepped the issue entirely. Both entries in the Icewind Dale and Neverwinter Nights duologies were separated by significant time-skips, rendering the need for a save-file transfer pointless, while Knights of the Old Republic 2 kept the events of the first game at significant arm’s length.

All in all, the popular RPGs of the day managed to get by without feeling the need to acknowledge player choices over multiple games, and there didn't seem much of a desire by developers to experiment any further.

All this changed with the arrival of Mass Effect, the game that heralded Bioware’s golden age. Mass Effect was a much more cinematic, grander experience than previous games, and upon release Bioware made a statement advising players to keep hold of their save files, as the choices they made in the first game would be important in the second. Given that Mass Effect was a game where players had to make many difficult and morally debatable choices, it was a given that players were left believing these choices to be more significant than they actually were.

Likewise, its sister game, Dragon Age: Origins was released with the same caveat, making the persistent world state a signature feature of Bioware games going forward.

Once launch day had arrived, however, many were somewhat perplexed with the degree Mass Effect 2 acknowledged the choices of the first game. Many big choices, like whether the council lived or died, got little more than a mention in a handful of scenes. Often when choices you made during the first game were brought up, it felt little more than fan service. How the game chooses to treat characters that have the potential to be alive or dead, like companions Ashley and Kaiden, is a good example of this.

By choosing to acknowledge player choice, Bioware had also sacrificed the opportunity to tell certain stories. If it was possible for a character to live or die in the first game, then that meant said character’s importance in the plot would have to be reduced, as Bioware didn’t have the resources to essentially make several completely different stories that only some players would experience.

As a result, the main plot of Mass Effect 2, and player’s relationship with its characters, remains generally unchanged regardless of player choices. Had Bioware chose to make Mass Effect 2 without instituting the safe file transfer the main game probably wouldn’t have looked all that different.

Still Mass Effect 2 ended with significantly raised stakes and the possibility of multiple dead characters, leading many to believe that Bioware were saving their big consequences for the third game. Pre-release interviews seemed to suggest as much.

Following Mass Effect 2 was the sequel to Bioware's second flagship title, Dragon Age 2. While sharing many similarities to Mass Effect, Dragon Age: Origins was a very different game with a lot of nostalgia for the past in comparison to Mass Effect looking forward.

While Origins was well received by RPG veterans and had a much more self-contained story, few were surprised to hear that it would be following in Mass Effect's footsteps with a Save File Transfer system.

What did surprise many was how different Dragon Age 2 turned out to be. It was a smaller, more focused story that involved a brand new character in a different part of the world. The few loose plot threads that were left from Origins remained untouched. In retrospect there was even less justification for a persistent world state to feature in Dragon Age 2.

Indeed, most references back to the first game were little more than that. References. Alistair would appear as a King or a drunk depending on your choices, but this was in a simple cameo, separate from the main plot. Even worse, some choices you could make in Origins were even outright ignored in 2, such as Leliana appearing at the climax despite her death being possible in the previous game.

Like Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age 2 was a game that could have survived without a persistent world state, but also like Mass Effect 2, its ending hinted towards the Save File Transfer having a greater importance in the following game. Upon completion Dragon Age 2 is revealed to be a glorified prologue to the third game in the series, suggesting that player choices would be noted upon more thoroughly next time around.

A year later, Mass Effect 3 would finally arrive and the worth of the Save File Transfer would really be put to the test. In the run up, multiple interviews said that there would be serious consequences to certain choices from other games, and one even suggested that the ending would have over a hundred possible combinations, leading most to assume that the multiple endings would be modular, rather than limited to a choice of two or three.

Of course, the ending would go on to become Mass Effects 3's most controversial element, and while I don't have time to discuss it here, I think the reason for that controversy comes from the same failure to aptly implement the choice-and-consequence system that was promised.

To Bioware's credit, the execution of Mass Effect 3's Save File Transfer was much better than it had been in Mass Effect 2 or Dragon Age 2. Certain elements would result in actual gameplay consequences, such as having to fight Legion as a reprogrammed mini-boss had you handed him over to Cerberus, or saving the Salarian councillor becoming impossible if both Thane and Captain Kirrhae died in previous games.

While it has its disappointments, Mass Effect 3 does have one sequence that manages to live up to the promise of a persistent world and this is during the Krogan Genophage portion of Act 2. Here multiple choices from the previous games can pull the plot in a variety of different directions, and while it doesn't affect the gameplay or the layout of the missions, the story does feel otherwise dynamic.

Not only can multiple characters live or die depending on seemingly innocuous decisions from Mass Effect 2, it can also influence the player's final choice on whether to keep the Krogan sterilised or not. Should Wrex survive Mass Effect 1, he begins to lead the Krogan in a more peaceable direction, yet if he died he is replaced by Wreav, a much more viscous warlord. A paragon player could be more easily lead down one route under Wreav, than they would be under Wrex, and I think it's really cool that these choices can make such a thematic difference.

Likewise, should Dr Mordin Solus have survived Mass Effect 2, this sub plot becomes the story of his redemption, yet should he die he is replaced by Padok Wiks, an equally interesting and fully formed character who has their own agenda and even some fresh info on Mordin himself.

Had Mass Effect 3 managed to deal with its climax in the same way it did with the Krogan plot then the promise of the Safe File Transfer system would have been fulfilled, but unfortunately, the rest of the game mostly squanders the potential. Other character deaths are either squeezed to the sidelines (Tali, Miranda, Garrus,) not mentioned at all (Samara, Grunt, Jack,) or even worse, badly covered over with a nondescript character performing their role (Jacob).

Whoever out of Kaiden and Ashley survived, they rejoin the game as a squad-member this time around, but are relegated to a hospital bed for the first two acts. Should the council die in the first game they are replaced by non-identical copies with the same lines and personalities. Should the Rachni queen have died in the first game she is replaced by an identical clone. A pro-Cerberus Shepard is treated no different to an anti-Cerberus Shepard.

As the game goes on it becomes abundantly clear that most of the player’s choices had very little meaning, and most of the consequences manifest not as plot or gameplay but as part of the player’s 'Galactic Readiness Score', a generic number that locks off some of the endings if it is too low, though the game easily offers enough side-quests to build it up to a sufficient level regardless of any penalties your previous choices may have brought.

While Mass Effect 3 may have showcased the very best of what a persistent world state could offer with the Krogan subplot, it mostly revealed that it could never live up to the promises made in the previews. Now this is understandable, Bioware only has so many resources and couldn't exactly make a thousand different games for a thousand different choices, but after three games of hype, it's also understandable that players were starting to feel misled when it came to the importance of save files.

“Surely,” some began to argue, “a simple set of tick boxes at the start of the game and a modular plot based only around the biggest choices would be a more reasonable idea?”

With Dragon Age: Inquisition, Bioware disagreed, and ultimately sealed the Save File Transfer's fate.

Inquisition would see a slightly different approach to the persistent world state. Instead of having to keep your save games on file, Bioware instead would log your choices on an online database called Dragon Age Keep that you could check and tweak at your leisure.

This system came with an upside, and a downside. The upside was that players would have at-will access to the details of their world state and have the freedom to change those details should they so choose. The downside, possibly unforeseen by Bioware, was that access to these details would lead player to an unrealistic expectation on how significant their choices would be.

After all, why give players a log of all these choices if they weren't going to mean something further down the line?

Already hyped after the cliffhanger ending of Dragon Age 2, Bioware had put themselves in an even more impossible position with the fan-base.

Like Dragon Age 2, Inquisition benefited from featuring a brand new character in a brand new part of the world, but it also suffered from having to deal with the previous game’s plot threads. Just like with Mass Effect, Inquisition sidestepped most of the significant choices of the previous games. In particular, the Mage vs Templar plot that dominated the climax of Dragon Age 2 was rather unceremoniously concluded at the end of Act 1, and previous player character Hawke would appear in an entirely separate subplot.

It wasn't all disappointments though, while Inquisition’s use of choice-and-consequence would never reach the heights of the Krogan subplot from Mass Effect 3, it still managed to do some interesting things with its Save File Transfer. Hawke's personality and history would be referenced often and it was fun to see a previous character return in the way they did.

Perhaps the most interesting use of the Save File Transfer was the identity of the Wardern ally, which depending on the player’s choices at the end of Dragon Age: Origins. Should Alistair, a fan favourite of the series, remain in the Warderns he would appear as a returning veteran, the image of the man he always hoped he would be. Should Logain, villain of the first game, have been conscripted into the Warderns instead, he appears as a pariah, longing for redemption. Both of these are really cool character developments that are influenced heavily by the player's previous actions.

Unfortunately, most players will meet neither Alistair nor Logain, as a popular choice by players in Origins was putting one on the throne and executing the other. In this instance, their ally is Stroud, a Wardern who played a minor role in Dragon Age 2's DLC. While Stroud is by no means a bad character, he certainly isn't as interesting as Alistair or Logain, and it's a shame he's the Warden most players ended up interacting with.

Likewise, there are other interesting outcomes for choices most players didn’t make, like refusing Morrigon's dark pact or failing Sabastain's personal quest, so the consequences are experienced by fewer players.

Like Mass Effect 3, most of the player’s choices are relegated to offhand mentions or included in the War Table missions, similar to Mass Effect's Galactic Readiness score. There's no special items or bonus bosses based on past choices, and as with all the other games, the plot unfolds the same regardless of anything carried forward in your save file.

Like Dragon Age 2 before it, Inquisition ends on a cliffhanger and hints at things to come. Dragon Age Keep has all of the player choices logged, but it remains to be seen to what degree they will manifest in future games. Will we see a story arc like Mass Effect 3's Krogan sub-plot? Or will we simply be treated to numerous variations of 'Hey, remember when you chose to do this in a previous game?'

There's a glimmer of hope, of course, that Bioware will be able to pull off a Rube-goldberg of consequences that finally lives up to the promise of true choice-and-consequence gameplay, but after four games of mostly squandered potential, it's not hard to look forward with a more skeptical eye.

Indeed, it seems Bioware, to some degree, agrees, with its most recent game, Mass Effect: Andromeda dropping the save file system and persistent world state entirely. Now Andromeda justifies this due to it taking place billions of years apart from the prior games, but I think it's still a decent hint that Bioware is becoming less interested in trying to accommodate a billion different choices in place of making a decent game.

Looking back, it’s my opinion that most of Bioware's games would have been just as good without the Save File Transfer. Mass Effect 2 could have started with a simple checklist of “Did the council die?”, “Who became the earth delegate,” and “Who survived Virmire,” and left it at that. Dragon Age 2 and Inquisition both could have been kept as their own distinct stories without the need to reference previous player choices. Sure we'd be missing out on cool little cameos and moments, but if that means the resources otherwise going into getting a better game out there, I'm happy to let it go.

Where Bioware goes next remains to be seen. I anticipate Dragon Age 4 will incorporate Keep pretty heavily given that the Inquisitor has unfinished business with antagonist Solus at the end of the DLC, but beyond that, who knows? Andromeda's lacklustre reception has put that series on hiatus, and should future games decide to explore new characters in new parts of the world I think it's highly possible that Bioware will phase out the persistent world states and focus on more self-contained installments.

And do you know what? That's okay. While there'll always be a part of me that would like to play an RPG where every last choice the player makes has a knock on effect that develops through several games and creates an ending with thousands of differing variables, I know it's unlikely that such an RPG is ever going to happen.

For now I’m happy to wait and see what Bioware does next, whether they choose to continue the Save File experiment or not.

Jack Harvey 2018. Mass Effect and Dragon Age are (c) Bioware/EA

Sunday, 24 December 2017

December Update and the state of things

You’re probably wondering why I’ve been seemingly off-the-grid these past few months, so I just thought I’d clear things up before we hit the New Year.

I’ve continued to have persistent computer problems since the reset back in October. About two weeks after the update to Windows 10 the computer has been freezing up at intermittent points, regardless of what I’m doing at the time. I thought I’d managed to resolve the issue a few times, only for 2 -3 days later have it freeze up on me again. What makes it particularly troublesome is that often after freezing it can take multiple attempts to try and reboot the computer, eating up time and energy I’d rather be using on my work.

This is the main computer I use for writing, drawing and games, so my workload has really taken a hit because of this. I haven’t been able to do any artwork since October, delaying my John Paul Jones comic further and scuttling plans I had for getting an illustrated short story up for Christmas.
I apologise for the lack of updates. I’ve been mostly making the best of a bad situation by using my Dad’s laptop to get some further writing done, which means having time to get on tumblr and twitter is more difficult.

The computer is back from a repair now, though we still haven’t been able to identify the problem. Hopefully it’ll be fixed, but right now I’m just going to log off and enjoy the Christmas period. I’ve been toying with getting a laptop-tablet hybrid to use as a dedicated ‘work computer’ but they’re not cheap and if it comes down to me having to get a brand new PC altogether I may not be able to afford both.

All there is to say at this stage is that I’ve been cracking on with other projects that I’m hoping will manifest in the New Year. So I hope you won’t be waiting too long for something. I’m still planning to try and make some conventions next year, though I haven’t been able to put as much time and energy into sorting them out at this stage.

In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me. I hope I’ll have some more stuff up for you soon, but if you’d like to help me out, consider checking out my Modern Realms book and short story Ebooks.

Thanks, and have a good festive period.

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Longest Journey Series Retrospective – Part Three: Dreamfall Chapters (2016)

This is a multi-part series retrospective on Ragnar Tørnquist's Longest Journey Series, made up of The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters. Part One is here. Part Two is here.


It took seven years for The Longest Journey to see a sequel, and when Dreamfall arrived the gaming landscape had come a long way. It would take another ten years for Dreamfall's follow up to arrive, and when it did the gaming landscape had moved even further.

Where TLJ was a standard point-and-click affair, and Dreamfall a third-person action-adventure, Chapters would instead present itself as a full blown episodic drama, a format popularized by Telltale's The Walking Dead and Dontnod's Life is Strange. The adventure game, long thought dead, had now been resurrected in a new form, and it seems fitting that The Longest Journey would see a revival along with it.

Chapters is in many ways the biggest departure from the series so far. Like the contemporaries that influenced it, game-play is paired down to a bare minimum, with character interaction and dialogue taking on a a greater focus. It would also be the first in the series to give the player binary choices that would impact the plot of the game. One of the neat tricks it does is trigger a message stating 'The Balance Has Shifted' upon an important decision being made. In any other game this would be a simple reminder to the player, but in a series that has constantly framed 'The Balance' as a critical, world shaping power, this gives your decisions real weight.

Dreamfall had finished on a cliffhanger, leaving many plot threads unfinished. I can't imagine what it must have been like, waiting ten years, not knowing if Zoë would even come out of that coma. Indeed, the series was in a precarious position, and it was only the changing landscape of crowdfunding that gave it new life. Tørnquist and new developer Red Thread seem to have been very aware of this, and go to great pains to truly bring together a satisfying conclusion.

Like Dreamfall, Chapters is less of a self contained story and more an installment of a larger series. Going from Dreamfall to Chapters feels natural, and the two clearly compliment each other as part one and part two of the same plot.

The story picks up almost immediately where we left off with Zoë in a coma, Kian imprisoned and April dead. It doesn't take long to get the plot moving however, with Zoë finally awaking and moving to a new city, Europolis, and Kian escaping to an uneasy alliance with the Marcurian rebellion. It also introduces a new character, Saga, who's life we play through gradually, and who's importance does not appear to be immediately apparent.

If you thought the politics would stop with Dreamfall then you'd be very much mistaken. In many ways Chapters itself becomes more overtly political in telling an allegory for the current climate. In Europolis, we see a crisis unfold around the coming election, as the two main parties are represented by a right-wing fascistic bully and a morally compromised centrist, while the far left struggles to make a diffidence due to constant infighting. Kudos to Tørnquist for so succinctly framing the problems that continue to plague western politics.

In Marcuria, the Iraq War allegory mostly gives way to a focus on nationalism and xenophobia. Onor Hilloriss, a minor villain, is clearly a stand in for many right-wing European politicians, and definitely influenced by one from the UK in particular. Through Kian we see more of the Azadi's compromised occupation and how it was intended as a mostly benevolent campaign that was, instead, prolonged and manipulated by the powerful few for their own ends. A clear representation of how many feel about the never-ending War on Terror.

Chapters weaves these stories intrinsically into each other, showing that both Zoë and Kian's struggle to find a place in the world is absolutely tied to mankind's self destructive impulses. The political chaos in Europolis and Marcuria is caused by the exact same longing that the characters suffer from, and sticking with the themes of the earlier games, the only cure is to move forward. The past can never be regained.

And it's these themes that are so wonderfully brought to a head in Chapters in bizarre and wonderful ways. Not only does the game draw back to characters and storylines from the first entry in the series, but it expands the scope even furthers, from The Balance, to The Dreaming, to Storytime itself.

It's fitting, in a way, that each entry in the series has evolved in tandem with the adventure genre. The Longest Journey couldn't have stayed a point-and-click adventure game, it had to evolve with updated technology and changing audience tastes. Just like the characters, you can't stay in the same place forever, you just can't, you have to keep moving. It's how you stay alive.

Thus, over the course of three games, we see old lives put to bed and new ones embraced. Zoë finally finds her place in the world, Kian brings an end to the Azadi occupation and April finally realizes her destiny through reincarnation as Saga, becoming the old lady in the comfy chair that was recalling the tale all the way back in The Longest Journey.

On it's own, Dreamfall Chapters is a fine and inventive episodic drama. As the final entry in the series, it ties everything together to make them all greater than the sum of their parts. The stories and lives we witness are universal, but what's even more wonderful is just how broad the scope is.

This isn't a story about mighty warriors or powerful space marines. It's a story about artists, farmers, mechanics, bar owners and computer programmers. It's a story about the dispossessed, the persecuted and the downtrodden. It's not a power fantasy, it doesn't offer any easy answers, but it's comforting too. It lets the player into the lives of it's characters and shows that we aren't the only ones who struggle to find our place in the world.

This is only reinforced by the diversity of it's characters. Back when I was talking about The Longest Journey I already mentioned that the cast was pretty diverse to begin with, but the decision to put LGBT and POC characters front and center brings it's themes of belonging right to the forefront. A less diverse game would have been unquestionably a weaker one.

Gripes? I have a couple. The change in Kian's voice actor between games is pretty jarring, particularly how he goes from soft spoken in Dreamfall to deep and gravelly in Chapters. His redesign also looks lighter skinned, so take that as you will. The game also struggles to shake it's predecessors obtuse puzzles every now and again, in contrast to it's contemporaries more straightforward solutions. Still, these are all minor, and the freedom to choose the path of the story, and explore Marcuira in full for the very first time, more than makes up for it.

The Longest Journey series was intend to have one more entry, The Longest Journey Home, a sort of interquel set between TLJ and Dreamfall that would have followed April and gone back to the series roots as a classic point-and-click. It was set as a stretch goal for Chapters' funding, but the goal was never met, forcing Tørnquist to put the project on ice. In a way, I'm glad that this happened. I don't think it would be in the series best interest to see a sequel so immediate or nostalgic. I'd much rather see Tørnquist come back to it in another ten years time, when the gaming industry, and the world in general, has once again moved on.

All things considered, Chapters is a worthy conclusion, and elevates the series to that lofty status of high art. The worlds of Arcadia and Stark closely mirror our own, and gently warn of the pitfalls of historic reverence, and encourages us to take hold of our own destiny. I can't recommend the series enough. If you've never played them before, you have to check them out, and if you're a long time fan, they are absolutely worth a revisit.

Jack Harvey 2017. Dreamfall Chapters is (c) Red Thread Games

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Longest Journey Series Retrospective – Part Two: Dreamfall: The Longest Journey (2006)

This is a multi-part series retrospective on Ragnar Tørnquist's Longest Journey Series, made up of The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters. Part One is here.


The Longest Journey itself was tight and self-contained enough that a sequel wasn't immediately expected. Even so, it's not hard to imagine what an immediate follow up to the game might have looked like. The continuing adventures of April Ryan, exploring more of Arcadia and Stark and foiling the further machinations of the Vanguard. There have been worse proposed point-and-click sequels.

But TLJ didn't get an immediate sequel, instead it's follow up Dreamfall arrived seven years later, and was a departure in both game-play and storytelling. The action in Dreamfall is more immediate, more dynamic, and the writing is both deeper and further reaching. Where TLJ was a mostly well written quest made of familiar fairy tale tropes, Dreamfall seeks to explore bigger ideas.

Once again, it's the writing that's the strength. There's not a lot to really say about the game-play. Dreamfall leaves behind it's predecessor's classic point-and-click presentation to give us a more action-oriented third-person focus. Though there are Tomb Raider inspired climbing sections and the occasional stealth sequence, the game is mostly business as usual in talking to characters and using inventory items to solve puzzles, albeit in a very paired down, more focused way.

Beyond that the most maligned part of Dreamfall was it's combat sequences. These are finicky and just plain bad, but the worst part about them is how unnecessary they are. There are only a handful over the course of the game, and most could have easily unfolded as cut-scenes instead. It's likely that the move to a console market demanded action, action, action, but it's a real shame that this does nothing but blot an otherwise wonderful game.

Indeed, it's not just the combat that is affected by the move to a console release. While the game's graphics hold up quite well, and still look crisp and atmospheric today, the game is cut into tiny pieces and riddled with loading screens due to the limitations of the console generation at the time. This is a problem that also plagued Thief: Deadly Shadows, and both game words feel tight and claustrophobic in the wrong sort of way.

Still, that's not to say Dreamfall doesn't do interesting things with it's new graphical engine. In fact, Dreamfall plays with cinematic convention in a way only video games can. There are two specific occasions where this really shines. First is when the player returns to Newport, no longer rendered as a painterly background but instead as a full 3D map, except due to the engine limitations Newport actually looks worse than in TLJ. It's smaller, tighter and less flashy than when we last visited it, but this actually works in the game's favor since it mirrors Newport's own fall from grace.

As we return to April Ryan's old place of work it's a grim and gray affair, just as how the once bustling Venice is also on it's last legs. Dreamfall uses what it has with it's limited 3D maps to evoke a specific reaction from the player.

It does a similar thing when the player first returns to Marcuria. As we leave the Journeyman Inn, the camera focuses on the the Inn's sign, before pulling back to the same angle that it was framed at during TLJ. While the character is amazed at the new world they have entered, the player mimics their amazement at seeing a familiar place now rendered in more detail.

And indeed, the entire experience of Dreamfall is all about playing with the familiar and the unfamiliar. The game starts with a flashback to to Brian Westhouse, a minor character from the first game, traveling from Tibet through a hole in reality, but before we get a handle on things we are pulled away from Brian's story, and what unfolds in the prologue wouldn't become relevant until the next entry in the series, Dreamfall Chapters.

We are instead introduced to Zoë Castillo, who appears to be somewhat of a replacement for April. She's also a disillusioned student who's struggling to find her place in the world, and just like TLJ, the game starts us with her morning routine to give us a baseline normal before her world is turned on it's head. Like April, Zoë starts to uncover a strange corporate conspiracy that is somehow connected to the magical world of Arcadia. The player is lulled into thinking that this is mostly a remake of TLJ and Zoë is going to be revealed to be another shifter with a role to play in an ancient prophecy.

Instead the game pulls the rug from under us, revealing that Zoë is actually a dreamer, and has a much different role to play. Zoë gets caught up in an international conspiracy that involves the use of dream machines intended for mass surveillance. In a weirdly pertinent twist, Zoë teams up with a corporate whisleblower who wants to leak these surveillance plans to the press. Despite coming out in 2006 the game has strong parallels to the NSA and Wikileaks scandals of the New 10's.

It's not just the Stark portion of the game that gets political either. The Acadia plot seems separate from Zoë's main arc, and instead follows two further characters, April, now a revolutionary leader, and Kian, an assassin sanctioned to kill her.

After the events of TLJ, the Vanguard's forces occupying Marcuria are deposed by a technologically and socially superior nation that decides to leave a military presence to impose it's own values of society and religion on the reluctant Marcuirans. This in turn leads to a rebellion that isn't above the use of terror tactics.

In case you haven't noticed, this mirrors the unfolding of post-invasion Iraq, with Kian and the Azadi standing in for the Western coalition and April and the resistance standing in for the insurgents. I'm astounded that Funcom and Tørnquist had the balls to frame the west as the bad guys and the insurgents the sympathetic characters, but it does seem that the subtext was lost on most people.

While the game does frame the Azadi occupation as immoral, through Kian's eyes we see that it was done with the best of intentions, and most Azadi leadership just wonder why the Marcurians can't get with the program and civilize themselves. The Acradian plot would be explored in more depth as Dreamfall Chapters rolled around, but it's seeds are planted in the most wonderful ways here.

The game ends with Zoë's plot mostly wrapped up with the discovery that a sister, Faith, unknown to her, was a critical part of the dream machine's development, and her vengeful soul haunts the data-sphere, threatening to end everything. Zoë sacrifices herself to lay Faith's soul to rest, and ends up trapped in a coma. On the Marcuria side, Kian, doubting his loyalties, unintentionally triggers a sting operation against April, which results in her death and his imprisonment. All things considered, the story ends on a grim note, and a final cliffhanger hinting more to come.

Unlike The Longest Journey, Dreamfall is undoubtedly part one of a multi-part story, with clear intentions of a continuation further down the line. This makes it difficult to judge on it's own merits, and had Dreamfall never seen a sequel it would be safe to judge the game poorly on it's decision to stretch out the plot over multiple games. That being said, Tørnquist and his team have to be commended for their decision to expand the story and take it to strange new places like The Dreaming.

Indeed, Dreamfall is a wonderful example of playing with audience expectations, forcing players to second guess where they think the story is going. Zoë is not April 2.0, but the step-by-step realization of this is part of what makes the plot so joyful. The Azadi are not the expected evil occupiers we originally assume them to be, and setting right what once went wrong is not shown to be as easy as fighting an end boss or defeating a horde of enemies like most games suggest it would be.

Though Dreamfall's story ends with many threads still hanging, it's an ambitious and lofty project, with aspirations that go far beyond the standard affair of action-adventure games. It wants to explore big ideas, both political and metaphysical, and it wants to build on the foundations of the adventure genre while both taking it in new directions that the advancing technology and graphics would allow.

For a sequel to a fine 1999 point-and-click adventure game, it far exceed what anyone would expect, and as we'll find out next time, it's follow up would be great launching point to take the genre even further.


Jack Harvey 2017. Dreamfall is (c) Funcom

Monday, 30 October 2017

The Longest Journey Series Retrospective - Part One: The Longest Journey (1999)

This is part one of a multi-part series retrospective on Ragnar Tørnquist's Longest Journey Series, made up of The Longest Journey, Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters.


Some games are a cut above. They're not necessarily the best games ever made and they're not always my favorites, but there's something that sets these games apart from the rest of the gaming mainstream. They elevate themselves beyond their genre trappings to tell stories that get to the heart of the human condition. They have things to say.

Some of these games are shooters, like Spec Ops: The Line, RPG's like Fallout: New Vegas or small Indy throwbacks like Undertale. Most of these games are deliberately written as subversion, taking a familiar genre or setting and twisting it to examine a universal truth. Only a few of these games are created from whole cloth, rather than as reaction, and even fewer maintain their themes across several installments.

I never expected The Longest Journey to join the ranks of these games, and even morose I never expected the entire series, with Dreamfall and Dreamfall Chapters, to join these ranks either. In fact, the most interesting thing about The Longest Journey series is how each individual installment dosen't stand out on it's own, but experienced together they becomes a powerful story of life and the inevitability of change.

But we'll get there in due time. For now, I'm going to dig in to the first installment, 1999's The Longest Journey.

TLJ is the most traditional of the three games. It was released on the tail end of the golden age of point-and-click, where pixel graphics were beginning to be discarded and 3D was leading to games with more dynamic game-play. TLJ reaped the progress of this era, with graphics that were, for the time, more realistic than the cartoony visuals used in genre classics like the Monkey Island series, and using a refined version of point-and-click mechanics that replaced the big list of 'use on' and 'pick up' with a simple eye, hand and mouth.

The opening hours of the game are notable for two things. First, setting up a baseline normality to better present the more fantastical parts of the plot later. We begin the game as April Ryan, a disillusioned art student who just needs to work on her painting and get paid for her part time job. These little tasks really set the scene, and allow us to get into April's head so that when the plot proper gets going, we understand the stakes and the emotional turmoil she is experiencing.

Second, the game has a good run of avoiding a lot of point-and-click adventure bullshit. A lot of the tasks make sense in a logical way and I found I didn't have to resort to a walkthrough early on like I do with a lot of these kinds of games. That being said, as the plot progresses, the puzzles too begin to get more obtuse. This is heralded with the notorious 'rubber duck puzzle' which is asinine for the sake of being asinine.

In the end, I, and I imagine most people, gave in to a walkthrough at points. Many may not agree, but I feel this is acceptable when the game is so story focused. I'd rather just bypass figuring out some harder puzzles if it means I can get on with the plot.

It's for the best really, as the plot here is TLJ's greatest strength. As the story progresses, and April begins to investigate some shady corporate goings on with the mysterious Vanguard, she discovers she is a 'shifter' who can travel between the worlds of science and magic (described in the game as Stark and Arcadia) that were long ago separated to prevent catastrophe. Legend has it that a guardian must come to watch over The Balance, and April seems to be that prophesied guardian.

The visuals are well designed for this tale. Stark and Arcadia both have a distinct style that sets them apart, and while the blocky character models really do look dated now, the painterly backgrounds still maintain some stunning visuals, especially in places like downtown Venice and the Alchemist's fortress.

Likewise with the strength of the writing. Just like the day-in-the-life opening, once we finally get to city of Marcuria we get to experience the boots-on-the-ground nitty gritty of the place first. We learn about map distribution, dock work and the running of the Journeyman Inn, which would go on to be a well trodden location over the course of the series. While the stakes may involve world ending prophesies, April spends much of the game talking to working class people and dealing with working class problems. This in turn ties in to her character's development.

One of the most notable aspects of the game, I've found, is it's use of what I like to call 'anti-worldbuilding'. Off world colonies, badger people, mutant cybogs, talking trees. TLJ and the series as a whole will often be free to pull out whatever it likes without fear of contradiction because it gives us very little to contradict.

Indeed, world building isn't really necessary, for the only world that matters is April Ryan's world. As the game progresses, and through her dealings with crisis both big and small, April agonizes about her place in the world, the people she loves, and the life she has lived. Should she accept the offer to become the guardian or return home to an art career she found no love in?

Tørnquist makes heavy use of contrasting characters to mirror April's plight, from fellow man-out-of-time Brian Westhouse, to newly liberated talking crow... uh Crow. The game gives no easy answers, presenting both destiny and the decision to screw it as a false binary, and indeed, the game saves it's greatest twist right until the end, emphasizing this point.

As it turns out, April Ryan is not the chosen one. The Balance rejects her, and indeed the true chosen one is revealed to be little more than a secondary character that was being manipulated by other parties. In a bittersweet end, April is left to find her place elsewhere. While she hasn't had to sacrifice her old life, she hasn't been shown a better path either. It's a journey she'll have to take on her own. In life, there is no hand holding.

The game ends with an epilogue of (seemingly) an aged April and Crow telling the tale to a young audience, and hints that there were greater things in her life yet to come. It's a neat and tidy ending, and while it leaves the door open for future installments, there are no hanging plot threads or unanswered questions. If no further installments had followed then it would still have been a great tale.

The Longest Journey isn't a perfect game by any means. The maguffin hunt really drags on into the later chapters and doesn't add a whole lot to the story, and, as mentioned, a lot of the puzzles can be brain explodingly obtuse, but it's a story that is well executed with a wonderful cast of characters and real heart to it.

One of the things that stands out to me is that were The Longest Journey released today it would be denigrated by some portions of the internet as an 'SJW' game. The story is about a strong independent woman and her life, loves and aspirations, with a surprisingly diverse cast. Heck, one of the first characters you speak to is your lesbian landlady.

There's a false narrative that's been created in recent years that games that celebrate diversity, that have female or non-white characters, LGBT, race and gender themes, are only a recent occurrence that has been 'inserted' into the genre artificially. TLJ clearly shows that such a sentiment is complete bunk, but it does to some degree reveal why such a misconception is easy to believe.

When I used to read PC Zone magazine back in the day, The Longest Journey sat on the top ten list of adventure games, side by side with the other top tens. While not what one would call a AAA title, it was viewed as an equal side by side with games like Baldur's Gate, Quake 2 and Age of Empires. This was because, all in all, PC gaming, and gaming in general, was more niche back then, and genres generally had a more equal niche within that niche.

Over time, the mainstreaming of consoles and the popularity of more 'dynamic' titles resulted in games like TLJ being left behind, and the thoughtful, deep writing, in many ways, got left behind with it. It isn't that the fans went anywhere, so much as that the fans of other genres grew exponentially larger. By today's standards TLJ is much more what people would consider 'indy'. Small team, simple game-play, and a focus on pushing boundaries when it comes to writing.

The Longest Journey wouldn't see it's sequel arrive until seven years later, and by then the video game industry's landscape had evolved much since 1999. Dreamfall: The Longest Journey would be a very different game than it's predecessor, but as I'll explain in part two, this would only go on to make the series all the stronger.


Jack Harvey 2017. The Longest Journey is (c) Funcom.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Gentlemen, let's broaden our minds!

The day has finally come. (Or days, if you count Monday, Wednesday and Friday) It gives me great pleasure to present to you all my three appearances on the wonderful BatMinute '89 podcast.

For those of you who don't know, the purpose of BatMinute '89 is to take a look at Tim Burton's 1989 film Batman, and spend each episode of the podcast talking about a single minute of the film. I had the honour of being invited to talk about minutes 40 to 42 (That's going from Vikki Vale leaving Wayne Manor to the Joker's coup against Grissom's mob, if you're familiar with the film.)

Niall and Jon do a great job on the podcast, and while it took me a bit to get in to the swing of things, I really enjoyed it, and it was good to get the chance to chat a bit about the fundamentals of Batman as a character in podcast 41.

The three shows are linked below, but the whole series is worth a listen. I look forward to the guy's work in the future and should they decide to cover Batman Returns and beyond, I'd jump at the chance to come back on the show.

Minute 40: ​A Bungling Butler and a Laughing Lounge Lizard

You can also find them on iTunes if that's your jam.

That's all for now Batfans. Stay tuned for more short stories, columns and comics, same Jack Blog, different Jack Post.

Tuesday, 26 September 2017

September Update – Delays, Set-Backs and Changes

The big announcement this month is not a new project or release but instead a little bit of bad news. My computer recently got hit with a hard drive problem that ultimately resulted in a complete system reset, losing all files saved on the PC.

Fortunately all of my creative work has been backed up, so no damage has been done to my progress on the John Paul Jones Comic, the novel that I'm working on, or any of my other smaller projects you'll be seeing in the coming months.

Most of what was lost was merely, 'stuff'. Some fan art, drawing references, reaction images and save files from older games that don't have cloud storage. Still, this has led to a lot of disruption, with a lot of time being spent on getting things reinstalled, getting my music library back up to date, and so forth. You can probably imagine.

So while no serious damage has been done to my creative output, it is both a physical and emotional setback, and as a result has led me to change some of my plans for this year.

  • Naturally, the John Paul Jones comic has been delayed again. While I don't anticipate it to be impacted too much, I'm not ready to put a hard deadline on myself at this point. More than ever it's status is 'when it's done'.
  • Further Convention appearances this year are now unlikely. Originally I was planning on going to York Geekfest in October, but it appears as though the convention itself has folded. I had a number of other alternatives planned as a fall back, but given current events I'm not sure I'll have time to wrangle anything before the year is through. I will still be heading to York in October with a friend anyway, if anyone is interested in saying hello.
  • The chance of getting an Obscure Comic of the Month column out in time is now unlikely, and this has led me to think about making some changes to the series as a whole. A few of the more recent columns I've worked on were written by the seat of my pants, and recently I've grown a little disinterested in the project. Since I don't want to subject readers to work that I feel is becoming sub-par, I'm putting the column on indefinite hold.
  • Instead I've thought about writing more articles on a variety of subjects in place of Obscure Comic of the Month. These would probably be longer and more infrequent, but certainly with more depth and a higher quality of writing, which I hope will draw a broader audience. I'll still come back to the obscure comics now and again, but more when I have something interesting to say, and less when I'm just trying to fill up a column for the month.

Other than those changes, however, there is still content on it's way. As previously mentioned I'll be appearing on three of next week's Batminute 89' Podcasts and I'll be posting the links right here. There should be a new illustrated short story out for your viewing pleasure before Christmas, and my Ebook series from Less Than Three is planed to continue into 2018.

In the meantime you can find all my usual updates, off-the-cuff thoughts and artwork over on my Twitter, Tumblr and Deviantart, and If you'd really like to give me a boost, consider checking out my book of Illustrated short stories and my Ebook fantasy series.

Thanks for reading.