The Longest Journey – “The Hero’s Adventure”
“The Longest Journey” is a classic Adventure game… it almost sounds like a dirty word calling it a “classic adventure”. It’s probably the result of the genre withering away, turned into a past memory that isn’t always the most pleasing. There’s certainly a reason for the death and subsequent shun of the genre, and it partially resides on a range of defects shared by all adventure games; “The Longest Journey” is no exception. Illogical or obtuse puzzles and the thorough use of pixel hunting (the obnoxious habit of devious developers to hide obligatory items in the visual clutter of 2D scenarios) were the only vehicles used in the genre to generate difficulty and challenge, therefore transforming a narrative experience into a game ‘proper’; the truth is that these elements would just end up spoiling the experience. But, putting genre idiosyncrasies aside, as they aren’t really that important, especially in this day and age (we’ve got GameFaqs to thank for that), “The Longest Journey” is a wonderful game because, like all the greatest references in its genre, it focuses on narrative instead of gameplay.
The journey mentioned in the title is that of April Ryan, a normal young woman, full of aspirations and dreams, who’s working her way through college. One night, her dreams become strangely vivid, even though inside them, she encounters a magical realm where dragons and other creatures abide. Later, of course, she finds out that the dreams really were real: images and sounds from a dimension that was once a part of our world… and so she embarks on a journey to save the universe from chaos and destruction. I’m serious, that’s how the story goes. The plot is a by the numbers application of “The Hero’s Journey” (a structure common to most mythological and religious texts, as extracted by Joseph Campbell): it involves an other-wordily place unbeknownst to all but a select few, a young hero that has been chosen by prophecy to save the universe and restore balance, forced to travel to that other-world in search of some magical artifacts, in the process facing numerous trials that allow for his coming of age and the transcending of his inner flaws, and by doing so, eventually freeing the world from evil. “The Hero’s Journey” is a framework like any other, it’s effectiveness is determined solely by the quality of the writer of the work, and how he develops the narrative structure into a story proper. Ragnar Tørnquist (producer, designer and writer), has a vivid, colorful imagination that blends High Fantasy, Sci-Fi and even some New Age religion into a lush magical world populated by original creatures and civilizations. His writing is engaging, cohesive and extensive, not to mention marvelously brought to life thanks to the stunning art design, which transforms each fantasy piece into a breathtaking digital painting. Like in all fantasy novels, there’s a certain sense of wonder and bewilderment on the account of the aesthetic beauty, as if you were staring at a bright, yet hazy dream, an odd mix of the alien and unknown with the idyllic engulfing your senses and bringing about your inner child’s imagination. Tørnquist’s world is so intriguing and inviting, that you can’t but help delve in, just as April Ryan does.
However, though the world is detailed and its lore superbly written, the characters that populate it aren’t always so. In part because of the work’s relationship with the “Hero’s Journey”, but also because of inspiration taken from classical LucasArts’ adventures (“Monkey Island”), “The Longest Journey” characters often are a high fantasy archetype stripped to its barest form (the hero, the villain, the mentor), adorned with some nonsensical, post-modern humor traits, which seem straight out of a comedic cartoon. These are, for the most part, not funny, and mix poorly with the high fantasy aesthetic, not to mention that they trivialize characters, some of which, who are later involved in dramatic episodes that end up losing some of its impact. The main character is the biggest downfall, as she keeps hopping from a compassionate and intelligent youngster, worried about the fate the world and its people, to a dumb, pompous brat, shooting silly one-liner jokes left and right, and always whining about “why won’t nobody tell me the truth?”, “why must I be the chosen one?”, “why must I sacrifice everything?”, etc, etc. It’s inconsistent, annoying and a constant mood-breaker. That’s not to say that there aren’t powerful, dramatic, or incredibly funny scenes (the sidekick, crow, is a good example of a comedic character that isn’t disruptive), but all it takes in one ill-devised dialogue line to breakup suspension of disbelief. The voice acting that comes with the characters is on par with the text: it’s extensive and elaborate, but when it goes down the path of predictable comedic tropes, it tends to stumble, becoming absurd and unfunny.
Despite the disastrous attempt at mimicking LucasArts’ humor, the storyline is what eventually makes “The Longest Journey” a thrilling experience. The universe devised by Tørnquist is truly amazing, and the plot’s climax, with its twists and turns, is sure to make you jump out of your chair in enthusiasm. It’s not Tolkien, it’s not even Lucas, but in videogames, what is? Sure, it can lack the proper tone, and the absence of a meaty subtext to all of the story can be a bit disheartening (at least, one that goes beyond “The Hero’s Journey” main themes), but there’s such a shortage for good (fantasy) writing in the means that it is doubtful anyone will care about such a small mishap. Whatever case it may be, the simple truth is that “The Longest Journey” is an astonishing game inside the frame of its genre. It wasn’t innovative or groundbreaking at the time of its release, and certainly isn’t today, but it exuded a care with aesthetic and narrative uncommon to most videogames; the fact that it came from a Norwegian developer only adds to the value of such a delicate, pondered work. And to enter this mystical land of fantasy all it takes is your commitment to look past the oddities that doomed Adventure games to extinction… and that’s not such a steep price for such a magical journey, is it?