The Longest Journey
Due to the Steam Summer Camp sale a few weeks back, I was able to pick up the Longest Journey bundle. I had played the original some years back but most of that had faded from memory and the sequel would be brand new material. All I remembered about The Longest Journey was that it had left me with a feeling of being impressed and that it seemed more adult than I was used to.
I picked the game up a few years after the 1999 release so I was still somewhat unsophisticated in my ability to pick apart the good and bad of game design; I knew what I liked but I didn’t always know why. Also, at the time, games were just starting to introduce cursing, adult themes, sex, and heavier topics than “kill all the demons placed before you.” Quite rapidly, there was a growing, stark contrast between Nintendo-level childish and Deus Ex-level headiness.
So upon playing the first few hours again, I quickly realized why this game had left a positive mark on my memory. After a short dream sequence, you, as April Ryan, are unceremoniously dropped into the fairly mundane existence of a struggling art student. You live in a crappy little one-room in a communal house shared by other poor creative types. The first tip-off that something was seriously different about this game was Fiona, your landlord and the first person with which you have a lengthy conversation. After a few pleasantries, it becomes clear that she is in a loving, lesbian relationship with a woman twice her age. Whoa.
Up to this point, gay relationships were unheard of in all of gaming. Bioware was still years away from their Mass Effect lesbian sex nerd-pandering and even then, there’s a giant glowing neon sign that screams “Check this out! Gayness in a video game! Aren’t we naughty?!” But here, the information is simply inserted into a random conversation as casually as talk about the weather. April doesn’t hesitate or call attention to it; it’s simply a fact of her landlord’s life, like the color of her hair. And also unlike Mass Effect and Dragon Age, we aren’t hit over the head with it. There are no scenes of lesbian sex or even make-out sessions. Sex is talked about, but in the same way that any two adults talk about sex: fun but not fetishized.
Another stand-out example of these adult themes is found in April’s diary. Like most games, there’s a journal which records what you are supposed to do next, in case you forget. But since this is April’s diary and since developer Funcom did such a great job of adding life to this world, she of course has entries going back months before the game even starts. As it turns out, April has not lived the standard adventure game character life. She fled (sort-of) from home due to an abusive father. She feels bad for her mother, who is now alone with that horrible man and also her younger brothers, whom she predicts will turn out just as mean as her father. Heavy. To this day, I have never played a game that even comes close to broaching the topic of child abuse. And even though it isn’t a major plot point, it does come up here and there in conversation with her friends and she’s clearly still struggling to work through the past trauma.
The fact that these, and many other, adult themes are hit upon is impressive enough. The “trendiness” of gay tolerance is still very new and ten years ago, it was barely in its infancy. Child abuse, while a very relatable and, sadly, common place experience, is just not something that most game developers have the inclination to touch upon. But the real art here is that they are referenced in such an adult way, drawing the player into a sci/fi future world but keeping it all completely grounded. Spending one hour in Venice, Newport was more enthralling than spending forty hours in Kirkwall during Dragon Age 2.
Ron Moore, creator of the new Battlestar Galactica, credits the initial success of the show to the first thirty minutes of the pilot, where we see a peaceful near-Earth setting, full of relatable characters. A school teacher finds out she has breast cancer. A father and son are heatedly speaking to each other again after years of angry silence. And an enlisted deck chief absconds with his superior officer to a janitor’s closet to hide their love affair. These are people just living their lives, completely unaware that the world is about to end. And yet, if the bombs had started dropping five minutes in, as would be the case in most Hollywood movies made today, we would never miss that old life; we would never feel that loss.
The same holds true for the story in The Longest Journey. For the first few hours of play, April is responsible for nothing more grandiose than living any given day. She worries about her friend’s risky dating behaviors, has to haggle a paycheck out of her boss at the bar she works in as a waitress and, stressing about an art deadline, talks herself into grinding out a painting that she has no inspiration or motivation to produce. All of this may sound boring, but it’s the mundanity of the first few hours that not only help you relate to her as a normal, late-teen college student, but also serve as a wonderfully textured backdrop for the strange happenings that are about to occur. When a friend’s holographic statue suddenly comes to life for a brief second, the reason it’s so creepy is because you’ve gotten comfortable in April’s skin and universe. As more and more strange, otherworldly things start happening, they actually feel out of place because April’s world is also your world now too.
From my vague memories, I know that things eventually become pretty fanciful and even somewhat absurd, but The Longest Journey does in its opening hours what only the best books, television and movies have managed. And it did it in a time when the medium was still enthralled by the first three-dimensional Zelda game. TLJ was ahead of the curve in storytelling then, and I would say it still is. Here’s hoping the sequel is just as engaging.