As 'The Longest Journey' Makes Clear, a Good Story Is Not Timeless
The Longest Journey isn’t just dated because it has obtuse puzzles and blocky graphics. It’s dated because it tells a serious story that it doesn't know how to take seriously.
The Longest JourneyPublisher: Empire Interactive
Release date: 2000-11-16
Storytelling isn't static. The stories we tell, and more importantly how we tell them, evolve over the years. Times change, and audiences change, and storytellers change. The stories we tell must also change or be left behind. A good story is not timeless.
I was recently talking with a 70-something-year-old coworker who noted that older television shows were very simple compared to what's on today. A drama from the '50s would be a half hour with a small cast and a single storyline. Now most dramas are an hour long with ever-expanding casts and three or more storylines per episode that may or may not intersect. The basics of television storytelling have evolved, have iterated upon themselves, adding so many more layers of plot and character that those older, simpler stories seem rather poor by today's standards.
"Poor" is, of course, just a matter of perception, but perception matters. Audiences of every era become accustomed to stories being told in a particular way, and stories that break from that formula naturally feel more alien -- too simple, boring, too complex, too fast, too short, too long -- a complex combination of expectations that are often reductively summarized as "it sucks".
You don't even have to go as far back as the '50s to see this evolution at work. There's a joke in the 2000 X-Men movie in which Wolverine complains about his modern X-Men uniform of black leather, and Cyclops responds, "What would you prefer, yellow spandex?" It's a joke made at the comic book's expense, where Wolverine does wear yellow spandex, and it was funny at the time because yellow spandex is pretty goofy and because black leather is clearly so much more badass and so much more befitting a character like Wolverine. Jump to 2011, when X-Men: First Class dressed its heroes in bright yellow jumpsuits for the climactic battle. Superhero movies now embrace their colorful comic book origins rather than mock them, and an audience raised on The Avengers is likely to reject that first X-Men's attitude.
Audience expectations change, and so storytellers change how they tell stories. Audiences then become so used to these changes that to go back to an earlier time feels like going backwards through evolution. Now we're moving from the complex to the simple, from large casts in a serialized story to a small cast in standalone story, and our culture, especially gaming culture, has often equated "simple" with "poor", so these stories, through no fault of their own, become lesser in quality as time passes.
This has often been obvious with games on a mechanical level, since it's easy to see how systems are iterated on and improved upon. You couldn't look up or down in Doom, and now a player would reject any shooter with that kind of absurd limitation on vision. Older point-and-click adventure games are infamous for their absurd, obtuse, illogical puzzles that encourage you to use a teacup on a doorknob because, hey, it might work. Now puzzles have been streamlined into sensible types of obstacles or ignored altogether in favor of the "adventure" part of "point-and-click adventure".
I assumed The Longest Journey would be a difficult game to play for these very reasons. I assumed that the puzzles would be awful. I had heard of “The Fucking Duck Puzzle”, so I decided early on to play with a walkthrough open beside me at all times. This wouldn’t hurt the experience because I wasn’t playing for the puzzles, I was playing for the story, the thing that has cemented The Longest Journey into gaming history as a game worth playing and an integral point-and-click adventure. The story, I assumed, was a thing that transcended time and old game design.
Except that it's not. The story sold to me in reviews and hype is not the story that I actually got. What those old reviews praised as mature, I see as frustratingly childlike, simple in its morality, themes, and presentation. It’s disappointing, but also enlightening in how it reveals narrative to be just as singular to a time period as mechanics and graphics. The Longest Journey isn’t just dated because it has obtuse puzzles and blocky graphics. It’s dated because it tells a serious story that it doesn't know how to take seriously.
Many people praise the “wry and sly” commentary of The Longest Journey's heroine April Ryan, but her dry and sarcastic humor now comes across as whiny and embarrassing. It’s “funny” in the same way that X-Men joke was funny, and just as in that example, what felt like clever self-mockery back then now feels like a joke stemming from insecurity. It’s as if the game is afraid of its own high concept sci-fi/fantasy mash up and constantly makes jokes about itself in order to better sell the idea to audiences, like the developer is saying, “We know this is all ridiculous, but just bear with us.”
Such a tactic might have been necessary (or even just helpful) back in 2000 when The Longest Journey came out, but in a modern gaming age filled with the likes of Assassin’s Creed, Bioshock, and Mass Effect -- big budget games with outlandish stories that still take themselves and their themes very seriously -- audiences are more than willing to accept the ridiculous, and so that kind of insecure humor only serves to undercut the drama.
She Starts an Idiot and Ends a Moron
The biggest victim of this undercutting is April herself.
The game wants April to go on a traditional hero’s journey, and grow from inexperienced child to responsible adult, but she never actually gets the chance to mature because the game’s insistence on self-deprecating humor means she can’t ever take a situation seriously. She must joke and complain about everything, which undercuts the drama of the moment and also undercuts her character arc.
In Chapter 9, after seeing two of her friends shot and seemingly killed, she runs to her room, opens her window, and as she readies to jump out into the canal below, she comments, “Oh, this isn’t going to be fun,” because the water looks disgusting. In Chapter 10, after a friend talks about making a last stand and taking some enemy soldiers down with him, April literally laughs and says, “I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
Near the end of the game, in Chapter 12, April crosses a vast desert to get to a magical tower. Along the way she faces a vision of her father in the emotional climax of the game, the moment when she applies her newfound maturity to her old life in order to repair a broken relationship. It’s a fine scene and is actually relatively successful, all things considered. But afterwards, on the very next screen, when she reaches the base of the tower, when she has just established her newfound maturity, she shouts, “I thought I’d never get here,” in a tone of voice usually reserved for petulant teenagers at the end of an unwanted family vacation. The climax meant to firmly establish her maturity is immediately followed by a line that betrays her childishness. And for what? A momentary smile from a player who agrees that it’s been a damn long time getting to the end?
Situations like this happen throughout the game. Scenes that are seconds apart feel entirely disconnected. Important events or revelations are followed by poor readings of poor jokes, working together to make April feel disconnected from the events around her because nothing seems to affect her in any meaningful way. Not only does this kill any potential growth for her character, but it also makes her cruelly indifferent towards her friends and comrades.
At the end of Chapter 7, April tries to break open a treasure chest with a hammer. She misses and instead puts a hole in her ship and sinks it. This occurs after she’s purposefully mucked with the navigation to steer the ship into a storm, and the captain has locked her things away to protect the safety of the crew. This also comes about halfway through the game, after she’s come to terms with the shocking true nature of her world, broken into a police station and hacked their database, killed a cannibalistic witch, gone through a spirit journey and faced her inner demons, defeated an evil wizard, and ridden a flying castle. Instead of growing from these ordeals, instead of becoming a more competent and empathetic adventurer, she remains an idiot who accidentally sinks a ship with a hammer.
April never grows or changes. She veers from (unfunny) wisecracking adventurer to petulant teenager, based on the whims of the scene. Every time that she’s about to mature the game takes away that growth for the sake of a joke. She’s never able to become the hero the game wants her to be. She starts an idiot, and ends a moron.
April is the audience's surrogate, so her persistent childishness affects our perception of the entire world and prevents the game from delving into the deeper themes inherent in its premise.
The world of The Longest Journey has been split into two. There’s the sci-fi world of Stark and the magical fantasy world of Arcadia. Long ago they were one, but when magic and science existed together, people could wield a dangerous amount of power that threatened The Balance -- the equilibrium between Chaos and Order. To protect the world from itself, some powerful dragons (er, “Draic Kins”) created The Divide, splitting the world, separating magic and science, and de-powering the populace. Now, a chosen Guardian watches over these worlds and maintains The Balance.
The game is very clearly pro-separation. The villains want to reunite the worlds, and the good guys warn that this will only bring disaster. This stance raises many questionable but intriguing themes, of course. Magic and science both emphasize knowledge, so by keeping them apart, the game promotes anti-intellectualism. Many characters talk about The Balance in a religious context, as if it’s a sentient thing that governs the worlds, so the game encourages us to trust in this higher power. It has a very clear faith-based message... except that it doesn’t. The game never actually demonizes the pursuit of magical or scientific knowledge, just the combination of the two, so is that still anti-intellectualism?
In the end, after we prevent unification, we’re told in the epilogue that the worlds get reunited anyway, so was our blind faith in The Balance betrayed? What is the game trying to say about knowledge and faith?
These are questions that April, as the audience's surrogate, should be asking in order to better flesh out the themes, but she doesn’t. Whenever she does question her actions, they’re not serious inquires. Instead, they’re meta-jokes at the game’s expense, look-at-how-ridiculous-this-situation-is-and-laugh jokes.
As a result, we never get a clear understanding of the sides or the stakes in this conflict. The Balance is talked about in contradictory terms, both as something that can be influenced by the fickle whims of society and as something that influences society. Only the Guardian can control The Balance, yet the bad guys are throwing it off by introducing doubt and skepticism into the world. These ideas cannot coexist. It seems like the rules for The Balance change depending on who you talk to and what kind of drama the game wants to evoke at any given time, yet April never probes deeper into this inconsistency. She accepts everything at face value, and her naiveté allows the game to reduce its morally complex world into a fairy tale of good versus evil.
How Far We’ve Come
It’s hard not to compare The Longest Journey to other more recent games that have the benefit of a decade-plus of design and storytelling innovation and iteration.
Where The Longest Journey struggles to fit puzzles into its narrative -- often destroying the pace of the game and tension of its story with an obtuse gameplay roadblock in order to artificially inflate its length -- the episodic adventures of Telltale have nearly removed puzzles altogether in order to let the story flow as naturally as possible.
Where the world of The Longest Journey struggles for internal consistency, striving for a serious-minded story while also mocking that very seriousness, the worlds of Bioware, Bethesda, and CD Projekt, do a tremendous job incorporating your personal hero quest into the politics of the world, thus providing a better means of delivering exposition and justifying your travels and incursions into other cultures. And they do it without losing the humor.
The Longest Journey may have been a good story in its time, told in the weird language of the era of the 00's style of adventure games, but that design language looks, sounds, and feels old today. In a time less concerned with game length, the puzzles here feel forced and unnecessary. In a time more accepting of the weird, the game’s self-mocking feels sad and self-defeating. Even in a time that still lacks strong female protagonists, April Ryan feels like a step in the wrong direction. There's a good story within The Longest Journey, but The Longest Journey is incapable of telling it.