Thursday, February 21, 2013

Another Step in The Longest Journey

Over the last two weeks, I've been tweeting quite often about a certain project on Kickstarter. It's a game called "Dreamfall Chapters: The Longest Journey" and, if it doesn't ring a bell at all, I want to tell you why I'm so excited about it.

I've always loved video games, for the same reason I love -- and practically devour -- books: they tell me magical stories, take me to incredible places and allow me to do impossible things. The first game I ever played was "Chequered Flag" on ZX Spectrum 48 that my parents gave me when I was 7 years old. Since then, I've watched the history of video games unfold and it has been a fascinating journey.

Right now, the gaming industry is in a state that I find pretty disappointing: there's a bunch of big players that are mostly staying within the bounds of their franchises and churning out sequels following their tried, true and increasingly tired formulas. My prime example is Ubisoft. They won my heart with "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" and "Assassin's Creed". Then they broke it with "Assassin's Creed III". To be precise, they didn't break it all at once: they chipped away at it until it broke. It was a blow to me when they abandoned the beautiful "Prince of Persia" reboot in order to squeeze out "The Forgotten Sands" like another bowel movement, but what really eroded my respect for them was the way they kept stretching Desmond's story in the "Assassin's Creed" franchise until it felt like I stepped in a piece of bubblegum. Another example is Bethesda, although this one is much more positive, because they haven't (yet) pissed all over their players. The worst thing they've done is the progressive dumbing-down of "The Elder Scrolls".

Truly different games are rare and precious and if I had to single out a few, I would certainly start with "Shadow of the Colossus" and "Heavy Rain". Both throw away most of the conventions held dear by other games and come up with something unique. The former tells a pretty minimalistic story in a profoundly haunting way that leaves you in a pensive mood. The latter combines the best of reading books and playing video games: it's incredibly rich and immersive like a good book, but interactive and with a flexible story like a good game.

On the bright side, extreme innovation is not required to get a great game. Sometimes a brilliant execution of old gaming formulas will do the trick, such as Rockstar's "Red Dead Redemption" and "L.A. Noire". What makes these games exceptional is the way they explore profound themes through rich stories wrapped in engrossing gameplay.

This is why I'm so enthusiastic about "Dreamfall Chapters". For those of you who don't know the history behind it, it's the third and final part in the saga that started in 1999 with "The Longest Journey", a point-and-click adventure. The second part came out a whopping seven years later in the form of a third-person 3D adventure called "Dreamfall". Both games feature not only exquisitely rich and memorable world-building, but also excellent storytelling, with memorable characters and thought-provoking motifs, and beautiful graphics. And now, in 2013, Ragnar Tørnquist and his team at Red Thread Games are working on the final leg of a truly epic journey, wholly deserving of being called the longest: "Dreamfall Chapters".

Now, let's step back a bit here and focus on one important fact: how much passion, patience and balls does it take to stick to a dream over the course of 14 years? For that alone, I would have been inclined to back "Dreamfall Chapters", even if I hadn't played or heard of its prequels.

That, however, is not the primary reason why I'm trying to do all I can to promote "Dreamfall Chapters". The real reason is because I know Ragnar and his team are going to produce another masterpiece that will not only bring enjoyment to countless players across the world, but will also bring a breath of fresh air to the gaming industry.

Here's why I trust the Red Thread Games team: I first played "Dreamfall", without even having heard of "The Longest Journey". I played the whole game and enjoyed it immensely, without having any idea that it's a sequel. I never felt lost. There was never a "something doesn't end up" moment or "am I missing something here" feeling. And yet, when I discovered "The Longest Journey" and played it, not only it fit perfectly, but it transformed "Dreamfall" for me. So far, I've only had one other experience like that: when reading Discworld books by Sir Terry Pratchett. If you've read Pratchett's work, then you know how high a praise that is.

By all means, don't take me wrong: I don't claim these two games were perfect. "The Longest Journey", for example, had one of those "dude, wtf?" puzzles that old-style adventure games were so criticized for; just look up "the longest journey duck puzzle" on Google. "Dreamfall" had a totally superfluous combat system that makes a game of "Pong" feel like "Ninja Gaiden" in comparison. Yet, despite these imperfections, these games were -- and remain -- some of the most enjoyable adventure games out there.

So far I've covered why I trust the team, but I haven't really given much details about why I believe this to be so important. So it's another adventure game, albeit an excellent one, so what?

I'm very passionate about games. Apart from enjoying them as a player, I'm also one of those few adult programmers who hasn't outgrown the dream of making them. For me, it's important not only what games are made, but who makes them and how.

Ragnar Tørnquist left Funcom and founded Red Thread Games in order to make "Dreamfall Chapters". Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Funcom at all, but the fact remains that a well-known game designer and one of the iconic figures of game development industry left an established, stable studio and went indie to make this game. And it's not any game, it's the long-anticipated finale to a saga that has, despite any imperfections we might find in it, earned its place in the history of video games.

I want to see it succeed and I want it to be a huge success. Apart from being a work of art, it will also challenge the status quo by showing that it really is possible to make a masterpiece without clinging to the old publisher-developer structure. And, as a bonus, it will contribute to Linux and Mac gaming scene and bring back some of the glory to PC gaming, wresting a bit of power from the tightly controlled walled gardens of the console world. All in all, it should be an important step in a journey even longer than "The Longest Journey": the journey through the history of gaming.

If you're still with me after all these words, then I hope I've convinced you to at least go to the Kickstarter page for "Dreamfall Chapters" and look at what you find there. And after that, if you feel moved to back the project, then so much the better.

1 comment:

Engineseer said...

I do agree with most of your points.

My first objection is about the state of Funcom. Funcom is now in deep trouble. Its lastest project (The Secret World MMO) failed rather miserably, has gone Free-To-Play and their stocks have plummeted. I do not believe that Funcom has the money to pursue an abitious and risky project (an adventure at this age!) now. On the other hand, Ragnar and co are motivated by two things (thankfully for us): the instability of Funcom, after the failure of TSW and the recent Back-to-the-Roots sentiment of gaming. The success of Double Fine, Obsidian, Fargo's Wasteland 2 and other recent kickstarter projects, have shown that there is a market for fringe, nostalgic games. There are gamers (like you or me) that are rather bored by the latest manshooter (I, as a principle, refuse to play online games)and we seek all these games that you mention. I bought the HD remake of Okami for PS3, for those same reasons (its great, btw). With these kickstarters, we have shown our strength and have made ourselves heard.

Second objection, is that very few games that came from big publishers are considered "masterpieces". The lastest that comes to mind is Bioshock (let's see about Infinite). Now, lets see what the indie scene has brought us: Braid, Limbo, Bastion, Minecraft, FTL, Amnesia, Dear Esther, Journey...all these games are masterpieces in their own fields and are made by small, indie teams or one person (Notch is the man). All of these teams have moved on (apart from Jenova Chen's team, thatgamecompany, as they have great financial difficulties) and strive to change the established status of Manshooter 3: the shootening, made by EA or Activision. This is the best possible time for Ragnar and co to make that game, riding on the crest of the recent indie wave and the kickstarter success. These are exciting times for gaming indeed!