In what can only be fate’s cruel way of reminding me of the task I have set myself, the next game selected at random from the backlog is The Longest Journey. The first three games were relative short affairs. This was not quite so short, and was a constant jab at how much I have to get through. Anyway, throwing those thoughts to one side, I got on with focusing on the game in front of me. One step at a time, eh?
The Longest Journey is a point and click adventure game created by Funcom and released in 1999. I owned a copy on CD-ROM and had played through to the end of the second chapter a long time ago. Revisiting it again now with the intention of completing it, I had a little recollection of the way it looked, or how it played.
Time has not been kind to this game. The interface is clunky and was in some ways outright broken on my machine. The save and load interface was missing bits of its UI which meant I had to guess at whether I’d saved properly or not, and in-game I found I had to repeatedly click on objects, with the game deciding at random whether to act on my wishes or not. I couldn’t get it to save screenshots either, so the ones here are from the internet.
There have been a number of high profile point and click re-releases in the last few years, but those have remained playable in a way The Longest Journey isn’t. Similarly, while games like Monkey Island 1 and 2, and Day of the Tentacle utilise 2D pixel art which, while not exactly timeless, have retained an aesthetic that can still be appreciated in the way one might enjoy watching an old Disney movie, the 3D artwork of the Longest Journey just looks bad. Admittedly, I’m not sure it was great even when I first played it, but looks downright shocking now. Character models regularly have transparent body parts, are poorly modelled, and flail around half-heartedly, barely connecting with the much nicer CGI background artwork. It should be noted that this game hasn’t been remastered, so it is very much as it was when originally released, and therefore there is only so much that could reasonably be expected from it, but as it is, I found it a very frustrating game to play.
And the puzzles. Oh, the puzzles. The most charitable thing I can think to say about the puzzles in this game is that they are ‘of their vintage’. There are no shortage of point and click games where the solution to progress is gated by the mad logic of people who seem to have learnt their trade at the Rube Goldberg school of problem solving, and I’m sad to say the Longest Journey adheres to this strange principle of puzzle design. At best, the solution to a puzzle will just be mildly tedious, such as a scene at a police station where you need to talk to the receptionist repeatedly to get the correct form to gain entry to another part of the building, or when trekking back and forth across multiple screens to fix some statue/telephones on an island. At its worst, it’s downright incomprehensible, as in cases such as the now infamous rubber duck sequence. Most puzzles fall into the just a bit tedious category though, and serve mainly to frustrate.
So far, so negative, but it says something that despite the fact that it was so awkward to play, I continued to do just that until I’d completed the whole thing. Rather than me having a masochistic streak, this speaks to The Longest Journey’s main strength: its narrative. The story The Longest Journey tells is long, complex and detailed. They weren’t joking around with their game name here. The game rewards you for dipping into its conversations, talking to people and looking at objects. April Ryan, the main character, is well written and charming, with a distinct personality of her own, and the supporting characters follow suit. Even characters that you don’t spend much time with, such as the Mole people you meet in the middle of the game, are charming and given enough character detail to give you a peek into their world. It is a strength in writing that is often lacking in games and sparkles brightly here.
The game is brave in taking the time to set up a complex world and complex characters and then making you drink it in. Initially, it can feel a bit overwhelming. It reminds me of the Blade Runner original and recent remake, Funcom slow things down in a World of ever-shortening attention spans, reminding you that sometimes details are worth pouring over. The choice to steep you in lore and the minutiae of the character’s incidental details is a risk, and the dialog can certainly go on too long in some places, but if you are willing to invest the time you are rewarded by caring about the characters more, and with a brilliant story that twists around you across the ten or so hours that it takes to reach the finish line. It is the best kind of story, the sort that comes with you when you leave the game; that informs your thoughts about narrative in general, especially in gaming, which typically plays out as self aggrandizing power fantasy.
The Longest Journey is a fiddly, crap-looking and broken mess of a game which I absolutely loved playing. This despite a number faults – some due to age, and others due to the common pitfalls of the genre. It manages to rise above these problems with it’s uncommonly strong writing and a well realised atmosphere and it recommended for adventure game lovers with a tolerance for all the clunk.