Dreamfall – “Adventure 2.0”
When “The Longest Journey” was released, the adventure genre was still alive… barely so, but still alive. When its sequel, “Dreamfall”, came about less than three years ago, the genre had died. Perhaps not in the strictest of senses, as its influence had disseminated far and wide across the video-game genre spectrum, infecting everything from role playing to survival horror, but adventure game cannon was long gone. Apparently, Ragnar Tørnquist wanted to bring it back by producing “Dreamfall”, an attempt at revitalizing one of the most precious video-game genres. It’s a feat in itself, as few games have tried, and fewer even succeeded in re-imagining adventure game beneath the light of the XXIst century, with the blinding lights of modern shooters obfuscating every single piece of original entertainment. But “Dreamfall” tries, and succeeds, at that monumental task, and with an utter commitment to the original spirit of the genre, something which even “Fahrenheit” (often regarded as the second coming of the genre) failed to uphold.
“The Longest Journey”, like so many adventure games, was something of a rocky gem. It’s narrative and aesthetic shone brightly, but a dated game-play model and an unfortunate sense of humor were in need of severe revising. “Dreamfall” is, in many ways, the hidden gem of “The Longest Journey”: it’s more pondered and contained, and more aware of the flaws of the genre in which it inhabits. That self-awareness allows it to counter-weigh such flaws, making it a more polished game than its prequel in almost every way. The exploration, now in full 3D allows for a greater sense of freedom and immersion in Tørnquist’s brilliantly concocted fantasy world; the puzzles are simpler and easier to understand (clearly a compromise with today’s difficulty standards); the narrative feels more balanced and structurally more sound, featuring denser characters and more twists, and being fully deprived of inopportune humor. Even the visual style, which at first glance seems to have lost some of the magic vibe of its predecessor, as a consequence of the move to 3D, ends up using the extra dimension in its behalf, conjuring up a dynamic, pulsing world out of the beautiful, yet static, paintings that composed “Journey’s” backgrounds. And on a purely technical analysis, “Dreamfall” is still one of the most impressive games today, with detailed backgrounds, a stunning lighting engine, and incredibly expressive character animations… all coming from a middle-sized European studio. That alone would be worthy of applause.
But that’s not to say that the polishing of “The Longest Journey” yields a perfect gem. Unfortunately, some of the containment that can be felt in each of its expressive vehicles ends up marring the spontaneity of “Dreamfall’s” creators. The story, while equally elaborate as its predecessor’s, lacks the sense of bewilderment that you’ve come to expect from fantasy set pieces – a flaw easily attributed to the more prevalent sci-fi mood in “Dreamfall”. That the plot is left unfinished by the end of the game, is also hard to sink in, even if it stems from Tørnquist’s apparent desire to further dissect his world. While the perfectionism of his tale remains breathtaking, the cost of the final cliffhanger is that the story does not achieve any sort of conclusion for the player, which, knowing the difficulties of the small studio behind it, makes it likely that a sequel may never be brought to life, thus leaving the story untold. The final polish that opens further cracks in such a gem, comes from attempts at making the game more pleasurable for modern players: by increasing the number of basic puzzle pieces, more akin to mini-games than actual puzzles, and adding short, simplistic action sequences, in which you play a stripped down version of a brawler. While these elements might have served to punctuate the slow-paced rhythm of the exploration portions of adventure gaming, they are so bland that they add nothing to the strengths of the game.
Despite the sometimes excessive compromise with modern design, “Dreamfall” furthers the quality of its predecessor, effectively bringing its light to the XXIst century. It maintains the spiritual legacy of classic adventure gaming intact, but does so while lightening its silly idiosyncrasies in favor of more simple game design dynamics. And so, once again, Tørnquist devises a world that sucks you in entirely, filled with mystery and drama, and an aesthetic beauty that is unique to his creative imagination. Not only does it reinterpret adventure gaming, as it redefines it, completes it, and makes it shine as the inner gem it has always been… a gem that’ll mesmerize you with its seductive light.