Or maybe the longest, most arduous, most painful, most distressing journey.
On two different adventure gaming boards recently, the subject has come up, the subject of the classic computer game The Longest Journey. No, I don’t want to call it a classic. But to be fair, it’s only a year younger than Grim Fandango, which is a classic, or destined to be one.
In any case, given that people are newly praising The Longest Journey—not everybody, but many whose memories are perhaps deceiving them—and others are asking whether they should play it now, I dug out some of my notes and comments from half a decade ago, and I’m posting my own review of The Longest Journey here, so you all can call me a carping snob. Though I’d prefer if you just called me “story geek.”
If you haven’t figured it out, I wasn’t crazy about The Longest Journey. Released in December 1999 to much fanfare throughout the adventure gaming industry as one of the best story games ever, garnering accolades from every reviewer, it was and still is an epic story, one with much promise.
But promise is all it showed. As a story critic, I thought the game was mediocre at best.
Playing The Longest Journey, I was bedazzled by the sights and sounds. The artwork and soundtrack, in particular, blew me away. The game had all of the technical glitches I expected, including the infamous stuttering problem and the poor inventory interface. (This was five years ago, and I don’t know whether there are bug fixes or improvements available for these things today.)
Mostly, I was disappointed with the story. It’s a superb story—or could be—but the way the game tells the story annoyed me more than it engaged me. And this is because the writers neglected the fundamentals of storytelling. Referring to “Three Things to Make Your Audience Adore You,” The Longest Journey violated my #1 rule: Introduce us to complex characters who experience the extraordinary and will never be the same again.
Now, the TLJ-lovers will protest, “But we do meet complex characters, and they do experience the extraordinary, and they are changed forever!” This is only true if you don’t compare the game with other story forms. Let’s return to first principles: “Show; don’t tell,” as we say. The Longest Journey completely missed the boat on this fundamental of storytelling. “Show; don’t tell” is how writers engage the reader, what involves us in the story. But in general my number-one rule is about creating a compelling story arc. That’s what keeps us turning the pages. It’s what makes us want to go on. And The Longest Journey has no strong, overarching story arc. This amateurish mistake oozed out like radioactive slime from the beginning of the story, into the setting and characterization, and through to the ending.
For the first few chapters of The Longest Journey there was very little to compel me to go on. Take the intro. The intro should establish setting (April’s bed), character (a girl who has weird dreams), and goal (to paint). And I got no motivation from any of it. In particular, I needed a conflict, something to compel me to go on. Instead, the best part of the intro was seeing April in her underwear. Yes, she was dreaming and was in her underwear.
After getting dressed, April goes downstairs and stops to ask her landlady Fiona to describe her best friends. A good storyteller would have Emma and Charlie show us what kind of people they are, rather than asking Fiona to describe them. Now, if I talked about this scene in a novel or a movie, immediately we’d all realize how crappy it is. But on adventure gaming boards, instead I get to defend this position. I don’t get it. What fun is it to watch a film in which the main character stands around for fifteen minutes of inane chit-chat in order to le