Dreamfall: The Longest Journey

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A great story that shines through some rather hackneyed gameplay.

Dreamfall is a 2006 sequel to the niche but somewhat well-loved point-and-click puzzle adventure game, The Longest Journey. The latter (but chronologically earlier) game was lauded for its narrative but criticised somewhat for its inscrutable puzzles – which, to be fair, were somewhat de rigueur for the time, what with maximising playtimes with endless permutations of object combinations and all.

Dreamfall eschews that style, being a much more straightforward 3D adventure game with simple combat and stealth elements. Unfortunately, the shift in gameplay isn’t particularly salutary. Dreamfall is often a chore to play – the wonky camera angles, the unintuitive object interaction system,  the tedious stealth, and the janky, uninspired combat add up to a thoroughly pedestrian gaming experience, even by 2006 standards.

And in terms of art direction and level design, I can’t really say that Dreamfall stood out of the crop, either. Environments are uninspired, and the frequent back-and-forthing in them is made tedious by the lack of visual or auditory interest. The gameworld feels like a game world. And it’s not the technical standards of 2006 that are the cause, either – KotOR managed to do much better in terms of creating compelling environments, and that game was three years older.

But, despite everything, Dreamfall is a worthwhile game to play, if you’ve played The Longest Journey. The franchise depicts two parallel worlds – the technological world of Stark, which is a future version of our world, and the pre-industrial world of Arcadia, a world of magic. In The Longest Journey, preserving a cosmic balance between these two realms was the preoccupation of the heroine and player controlled character, April Ryan. In Dreamfall, there is a new protagonist, Zoe Castillo, who embarks on a new journey. But her story is closely intertwined with April’s continuing one.

Part of the pleasure of Dreamfall derives from the nostalgia of seeing the familiar faces and locales of The Longest Journey in a new, 3D form. However, it would be inaccurate to say that Dreamfall rides solely on the coattails of its predecessor. It heralds a new and somewhat darker story, and fleshes out aspects of the world and mythology in surprising ways. The game truly shines in its dialogue and voice acting (except for some characters) and the characters are compelling and sympathetic.

While the world itself seems rather twee, bandying about unfashionable tropes of fate, cosmic balance, dreams as the fabric of reality, and what-not, it does so in an earnest way that recalls more high-spirited adventures of old. Once you buy into the mythos and accept it for its old-school charms, the world opens up with possibilities.

If there’s one thing to be criticised about the plot, however, it’s that it ends in a total cliffhanger that took about 10 years for the developers to address, by releasing a new game to complete the story: Dreamfall: Chapters. Indeed, I only started playing the games in this franchise because I knew that that game was coming out. Without a proper narrative resolution, the game would have seemed somewhat pointless – Zoe’s journey, in some respects, is complete, but the greater narrative journey persists.

All in all, a well-told story that just about survives rough handling by the janky mechanics.

I give this game: 4 out of 5 dreamers

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Jason Bourne

jason-bourne-poster-aThere’s not (that) much to be said about this piece of thriller film generica.

Films like these are dependable doses of adrenaline and when done well, they deliver the goods in a way that satiates that craving for vicarious excitement. Such films don’t have to be judged by the usual criteria reserved for films in general – they just have to do what they do well.

Jason Bourne does what it does well, for the most part. The plot is a thin rehash – pretty much another excuse for Bourne to go on the run and display his super-soldier physicality and intelligence. But the film does manage to orchestrate some masterfully tense and interesting setpieces, mostly by leveraging shiny new surveillance technologies that play an abidingly fresh (if somewhat jejunely CSI-esque) role in the cat-and-mouse game between Bourne and his pursuers. Not all the set pieces are like that – there’s a car chase scene early on in the film that could have benefited from some massive shortening – but things like the London set piece, where Bourne uses his resourcefulness to avoid surveillance and rendezvous with a man who holds the keys to his past, are tense and well done.

One hitch to the otherwise competent action package is director Paul Greengrass’ regrettable overuse the incessant shakycam, which oftentimes feels less like a deliberate artistic choice than a matter of “oops, we forgot to bring our dollies”. A lot of scenes that shouldn’t be shakycam are, and often are in a way that offends the viewer sensibility – like how sometimes a shot will push its snide way into an actor’s face until it envelops the entire screen and you can almost see the pores, and then recede shakily out and swing out to somebody else. But I guess you get used to it after a few nauseating minutes.

The performances are your standard stoic posturing – Matt Damon as the hypercompetent Bourne is sleepwalking his grim hero with a tortured past shtick by now. Alicia Vikander channels her best emotionless Jennifer Lawrence impersonation as the CIA analyst with the Stanford degree and big ambitions (her American accent is weird and disconcerting, though). Tommy Lee Jones as the smarmy CIA director is probably the most entertaining because of the cragginess of Jones’ face, which is basically the omega point towards which all thespians’ gobs aspire. And – poor Vincent Cassel, his long face making him such a good fit for the one-dimensionally villainous role that he is put into, as the Asset that dogs Bourne’s footsteps trying and failing to kill him at every turn.

I also mentioned the whole tech part, which is probably an attempt to update the movie and give it a more contemporary sheen – it has been 10 years since the last (actual) Bourne movie, after all, and an equivalent number of years has apparently passed in Bourne-land. The shiny surveillance tech parallelizes with some plot strand concerning the CIA’s attempt to implant code into a social network company (that they funded) in order to enable global surveillance in an ostensible bid to keep Americans safe. As I said, however, the weird way in which technology is depicted – as a kind of black-box magic plot driver that can do anything a la CSI makes the attempt at thematic relevance a little unconvincing. It’s the standard jejune technology as Promethean fire/double edged sword metaphor that usually signals that a franchise has got a bit long in the tooth.

But I digress too much from the original proposition, which is that Jason Bourne is an action film first and foremost, and should be appreciated for its great setpieces. Just don’t go in expecting an abiding treatise on the ethics of mass government surveillance or anything.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 incriminating dashcams 

 

Adam Robots

robots-c-hb2High on concept, (often) low on follow-through.

Adam Robots, a compendium of short stories from the writer with the similar-sounding name, displays much of the brilliance and also many of the problems that characterise his other work.

Roberts is a writer of singular imaginativeness, who creates premises and fictional universes that rival the best in the business with their sf-nal inventiveness, and thematic cleverness. But, having filled out his worlds and explored his thematic preoccupations to his own satisfaction, he seems eager to wrap up his books stat, even in a way that might be unsatisfactory to the more plot-oriented reader. Yellow Blue Tibia and Jack Glass were culprits of this, sporting arresting premises and intriguing universes, but ultimately lacking a sense of completeness and closure.

In that regard, however, the short story medium attenuates this problem because the brevity of the stories prevents expectations from being built up as much as they would in a full-length book. So when the stories fall flat (if they do), the gulf between expectation and reality is not so stark.

That’s not to say that the compendium is a disappointment – the breadth and depth of Robert’s stories is impressive, with the stated goal to write one short sf story in every subgenre. There’s science fiction in there of all kinds – the Asimovean robot-treatise, the Heinlein-esque space opera, stories about time travel, religion, sf fantasy, gaia-sf. Some stories are better than others – some are indulgent experiments; others are serious attempts at self-contained short fiction. Some are truly bizarre – The Cow is a one-page riff on the famous nursery rhyme about a lunar-cresting bovine. But almost all display immense creativity of premise, in the best tradition of speculative fiction.

One other note: Many of Roberts’ stories display an interest in religious themes and imagery. Roberts likes to use the imagery of religion – especially Christianity – to explore and interrogate religious devotion, orthodoxia, and cultural norms. Adam Robots is rife with such stories, some displaying a more sympathetic thematic bent towards religiosity of thought, some less so.

Here are some of the better stories in the collection:

Adam Robots: The title story is about AIs that are placed in a simulated Garden of Eden to see if they will commit the Original Sin. A taut satire of the ways in which hermeneutics can be twisted to justify any self-serving purpose.

Thrownness: A somewhat chilling story about what would happen if you got the power to traverse dimensions, meaning your actions have no consequences from your local frame of reference. Mayhem ensues. Throws up some interesting questions of ethics.

The Mary Anna: I have to give Roberts credit for this story – even though it’s a somewhat pedestrian example of the subgenre of solar system romance, it’s entirely in verse and actually reads pretty well.

And Tomorrow And : What if the witches’ prophecies were taken completely literally, and MacBeth became functionally immortal as long as their overly restrictive conditions were not fulfilled? A wildly inventive piece of speculative fiction that takes us to the near future to solve MacBeth’s conundrum.

Anticopernicus: Interrogating the question of what if Copernicus was wrong, qua what if we are the centre of the Universe? Brings out that ol’ sensawonder so important to the genre.

I give this short story collection: 4 out of 5 clone armies