Tuesday, January 18, 2011

April Ryan: we meet at last!

The Longest Journey came out in 2000, and since roughly 2001 I've had a veritable cacophony of friends telling me I need to play it.  I'd started once before in 2006, but the copy (not even mine *cringe*) got stolen before I could progress.

There are two main venues of discussion available with The Longest Journey.  The first is of it as a game: its artistic, technical, and narrative merits.  The second is of it as different from other games: how Ragnar Tornquist and company appear to be at least 20 years ahead of everyone else [it's a 10-year-old game and others still aren't there yet] on diversity in gaming.

I'm learning to be better about jumps for post length: 

I'm not going to say a whole lot about the game on its own merits as a game.  It's not that I have nothing to say; it's just that since 2000, these things have all been said already.  Simply put, it's very well done.  After over a decade on the market, it still carries a 91 on Metacritic.  For being eleven years old, the art and controls have aged quite well (for their time, they remain great, even if times have moved on) and the writing is 100% top-notch.   Most (though not all... damned rubber duck) of the puzzles are organic and can be worked through easily in context. The story is robust -- sort of science-fiction and fantasy at the same time -- and you can tell the voice actors were having fun with it.

The best part of The Longest Journey, though, is the population.  The characters of both Stark and Arcadia are people, rather than archetypes and tropes -- except of course where an archetype is required (because sometimes, that's just how myths and legends need to go).  And the star of our show is 18-year-old art student April Ryan, living and studying in the romantically funky poor-artist quarter of town.

There's a reason Border House drew its name from TLJ; it might just be the most broadly inclusive game I've ever seen.  April is not just female, but allowed to be a unique, fleshed-out individual.  Sometimes she has feminine, girly tendencies and sometimes she doesn't.  Sometimes she's wise and mature, and sometimes she acts like the 18-year-old she is.  Her male best friend / potential love interest is black (with some serious business dreds).  Her friend and landlord is a cheerful British lesbian (happily coupled).  Her guide and mentor is Latino, and a side character who helps along the way is wheelchair-bound.  (Well, hoverchair.  It is the future, after all.)  Both Stark and Arcadia have misogynists, but they're all considered to be wrong.  (It's a marker of villainy on the Stark side, and of antiquated thinking in Arcadia.)

In short, the cast is diverse and in a natural, un-forced way.  Each character has a natural background and comes to Newport in a more-or-less organic way -- the same thing that happens every day in real cities.  They're not all nice, or wise, or evil; they're just people.  The difference is that Tornquist & co. made conscious choices about their characters and their avatars, rather than just throwing slender white young people at it without thinking.

We just started Dreamfall, the sequel, last night and immediately my mind was racing: this game begins in a successful, cosmopolitan Casablanca, with references to India (Bombay -- the game came out right before Mumbai became world standard), Ethiopia, and South Africa.  The art design of the initial chapters is all gorgeous Moroccan tile and wood work, and is presented as straightforward (because to Zoe and Reza and Gabriel, it is) rather than as exotic.  The voice actors have very clear accents, and not a one of them so far (I expect this to change; we've barely started) is British or American.

That all of this immediately leapt out to me will say something about how uncommon it is in gaming.  I've been completely unable to think of another game I've ever played set in any part of Africa, excepting various stealth / action "go defeat the terrorist and / or dictator" sequences.  I love that at least in adventure games straddling the line between "mainstream" and "cult," someone decided that it's okay for the future not to be the standard Euro-American white.  And of course, that it's okay for the leading characters (not just the sidekicks) to be women.

I wish more of the AAA games would pick up on the idea that it's okay for the character coin toss to exist, and that it's okay for it to come down on (any of the) the other side(s).


  1. Well it's about bloody time! ;)

    A correction: TLJ's original release date is December 1999 for it's Sweden release. The North American release done in 2000.

    It's worth nothing that TLJ is actually a foreign work; Something that gets lost with a good localization along with a diverse art and character design as the title has.

    And hello new blog to follow (Border House)!

  2. Yeah, after double-checking with Google and Wikipedia, I decided to run with the 2000 date as being more generally accurate, if not specifically accurate. ;)

    I have been noticing, actually, that nearly all of the games that I feel try some serious nuance with character and narrative come from European studios. The same way American RPGs and Japanese RPGs are markedly different from one another, I feel that European studios lately (in the last 5 - 10 years overall I guess, though my gaming has mostly just caught up since 2008) have a slightly experimental bent going for them.