Dreamfall Chapters is about power and its abuse.
Dreamfall Chapters, Book Two: RebelsPublisher: Red Thread Games
Number of players: 1
ESRB Rating: N/A
Developer: Red Thread Games
Release Date: 2014-03-12
Dreamfall Chapters has been a real slow burn during its opening act. The first book felt too overly hamstrung by the need to both set up and catch the player up on the world that the game takes place in and its present situation. The game picks up where two other games left off, after all. A good half of the length of book two continues to serve as a reintroduction to the worlds of The Longest Journey and Dreamfall before kicking into gear and finally progressing towards things beginning to happen that are of consequence to this iteration of the series.
If I may be allowed an extended metaphor. Playing Dreamfall Chapters is like if you sat down in front of a Chess board and someone began explaining not only where the starting positions of each piece are and how they all move according to the rules, but then also began explaining the nuanced uniqueness of each specific pawn or knight to differentiate it from other Chess board's pawns and knights. Then, near the end of the session, you were allowed an opening move before stopping for a break. Then after some months, you were sat back down at the Chess board and instead of continuing from that opening move, the game then explained the nuances of the rooks and bishops. However, after all of the major pieces have been explained, so the game continues on.
By itself, "Reborn" was a rather frustrating experience that lacked it's own narrative arc or thematic marker that all the presented pieces could relate to. The title is "Reborn." While accurate in the meta sense that the series has come back to life as well as its characters. Within the fictional world, this does mean that they have to get acclimated to a world that has moved on during their absence and so do we. It relied on the world itself to pull the player through from point to point, instead of the drama that could have been experienced if it had just lead the way.
"Rebels" has no such issue. The thematic conceit of all the action is right there in the title. Book two picks up a week after the first episode. Kian Alvane is recovering from a fever induced by a blood magic portal and has now joined the Marcuria resistance, a group of rebels that formed against the Azadi occupational forces. Alvane is now embedded with the very people that he was tasked with hunting down and exterminating. There are obviously trust issues, but the game also takes time to focus on the cultural misunderstandings that exist on both sides and based on the perspectives of people whose fundamental existence are opposed to one another.
Meanwhile, in the world of Stark, Zoë Castillo is off to her weekly therapy session only to stand witness to The Eye's increased martial presence in Propast, as they have all but put the city under lockdown. Armored officers are now patrolling the streets blocking off every other avenue and conducting random arrests. Thanks to some new information and a return to some dangling story threads left hanging last time, Zoë goes from unsure of the world around her and her place in it to having everything that she did understand upended. It's a miracle she hasn't become full on paranoid as a result of these experiences.
I didn't take an itemized inventory assessment, but there is probably just as much new world building material in Book Two as there was in Book One, but I didn't think of it like that because the characters were finally in motion. Narrative emerges from characters doing things, not explaining things. We are seeing both worlds, Arcadia and Stark, dealing with their own forms of kyriarchal subjugation. There are the obvious powers of the Azadi occupying force and of The Eye's privatized military policing the citizens of their respective cities.
Dreamfall Chapters is a game whose material is quite aware of the real world. Kian's first conversation with Enu (now my new favorite character in the series) about his people's lived reality and the beliefs that drive them are juxtaposed by the realities experienced by their victims. I was grateful that one of the lines in this conversation amounted to "not all Azadi" and the voice over of Kian's mental reasoning for its opposed dialog choice was essentially, "what does that fact matter to her and what she's experienced." He knows the gulf between them needs to be bridged, but he also knows that in the face of the atrocities that the Azadi have committed such a bridge doesn't matter.
The shades of grey defining the situation can be seen everywhere. The Mole, the leader of the "criminal underground," is another figure whose own history speaks against the easy dichotomies of the evil empire against the rebel alliance. Likewise, being human doesn't make the character evil, even if the local Human's Only movement -- a thinly veiled allegory to white supremacist groups -- try to associate themselves with their movement based only on their race and not their beliefs.
While Kian's side of things focuses on the racial dynamics that underlie these power dynamics, Zoë's part of the story is about the economic forces in play. Propast is not a well off place to begin with, and Zoë spends much of her time looking for some of the most neglected and helpless of people. Her other mission concerns the corrupt dealings of those at the top of economic food chain. All the while in the public square, there are announcements of "Demonstrations are tools for terrorists." and "Stay inside" casting an ominous pall over the entire situation as an election nears and is simultaneously pushed to the back of people's minds.
You can find reflections of nearly every major element between the two worlds. The game plays with similar pieces in slightly different ways to explore the relationship between power, desire, and rights. Each world has their xenophobic group, their upcoming election, their rebels, their terrorism, their homeless children, their underworld boss, their occupiers, their informants, their collaborators, their schemers, and their traitors. We are told that these two worlds are connected through the Balance. Really, it is the behavior of sentient beings that connect each other in their repeating patterns of power and its abuse.