Eight years is a long time to wait for answers, and the opening scenes of Dreamfall Chapters understand as much, providing a tearful gut-punch that is as much of a conclusion as it is an introduction. This is the universe that has occupied my thoughts and fantasies since 1999, when The Longest Journey was released and earned rightful praise as one of the best adventure games ever made. It was a game about balance: the balance between the mundane and the magical, the head and the heart. Its sequel, 2006’s Dreamfall, found new worlds to balance–those of waking life and dreams–and Dreamfall Chapters returns to this same theme soon after its emotional opening. Returning Dreamfall heroine Zoe Castillo has remained comatose, but she has not allowed her body to serve as a prison.
Those earlier games provided another kind of balance: that between a slow-paced opening and meaningful narrative tension that rose as the stakes grew higher. The first episode of Dreamfall Chapters provides the former, laying the groundwork for a potentially rousing adventure, but too little rises from that foundation. Those eight years between Dreamfall and its sequel were long–but I suspect that the wait between the Dreamfall Chapters’ first and second episodes will feel just as lengthy, even if it’s a matter of months and not years. As part of a long-term arc, Book One: Reborn may prove highly effective; on its own, it plays at a measured adagio that rarely quickens. The episodic format doesn’t seem a good fit for the series’ long-term storytelling, and I felt stranded by the abrupt ending, as if I had been invited to an opulent dinner only to arrive and find no one was home.
Zoe has a knack for getting in over her head.
Dreamfall Chapters may begin with an answer, but it is more concerned with questions–questions that you can add to the growing list of Longest Journey mysteries. The nature of the Tower being built in Marcuria, the relationship of the Undreaming to the dream machines, the identity of the white dragon: these lingering wonders are left to occupy your thoughts while you navigate Book One’s more pressing themes. Zoe’s spirit has been left to wander the Dreamtime, that otherworldly dimension first introduced in Dreamfall, even as her body rests in hospital. Here, she helps those stranded in the Dreamtime, people in the waking world that are connected to WATIcorp’s dream machines, which provide on-demand dreams as entertainment to the masses.
The subsequent level provides both an intriguing setting and an effective tutorial, putting you in control of Zoe from a third-person perspective, and having you assist lost dreamers in finding their way home. A selection cursor automatically hones in on interactive objects in your field of vision, flipping between choices as you move and look about, and indicating the type of interaction available with an appropriate icon. This system is a natural progression from Dreamfall’s selection cone, making both controller and keyboard-and-mouse setups viable options.
Two characters, two prisons.
More importantly, this sequence familiarizes you with Dreamfall Chapters’ dialogue mechanics, which allow you to choose responses that suit your vision of Zoe. One of the game’s successes is how it allows you to set a path, but ensures that all paths are authentic to this lovable woman who captivated me and so many others years ago. Zoe has always been gentle but aimless, making her indecision during these conversations an authentic aspect of her character, and not a game-ish contrivance that contradicts the earlier games’ linear tales. When faced with a choice, Zoe thinks each choice aloud as you hover over it, speaking every line with a thoughtfulness and sincerity that should easily win you over. “I’m not ready to wake up, to face myself again,” she thinks to herself. “I’m scared of losing what little I have left.” Having found a purpose in this supernatural zone, it is no wonder she would have reservations about leaving. But because her choices–and therefore yours as well–occupy different places in the same emotional spectrum, none of them contradict what we already know of her.
Zoe ultimately finds her way back to the real world–well, the real world the series calls Stark, in any case–but her memories of the past are left behind in the Dreamtime. Months after her revival, Zoe has made a home in Propast, another of the series’ rich and gorgeous locales. It’s a multicultural neighborhood, far removed from the dystopias science-fiction stories typically depict. Propast is a future that rose from a past and present we understand; that the city should be home to people with American, European, Asian, and African accents is perfectly reasonable. This is the global village the age of the Internet has produced. Gorgeous lamps sway above you as you traverse the Chinese district; just blocks away, neon signs written in German (“Sonnenschein” consumer goods company) and English advertisements (“Cloud Nine Prosthetics”) peacefully coexist. Food carts sell every kind of food you can imagine from the world over. You have never been to this city, but it sure feels like home.
Choice leads to consequence.
The relationship between technology and culture isn’t always so peaceful in Dreamfall Chapters, though your earlier choices determine how you approach that dichotomy. In my time with Zoe, I learned about her job as a laboratory technician, and set about testing synthetic algae with the help of a little hovering robot called Kidbot. Other players have told me of a mechanical friend called Shitbot, but my choices never led me down a path that included him. I don’t regret my time with Kidbot, however: her playfulness is cute but never grating, a difficult balancing act that Dreamfall Chapters gets exactly right, thanks to adorable dialogue and fantastic voice acting that conveys innocence without ever becoming saccharine.
Dreamfall Chapters thus reflects the series’ history with its imaginative settings and empathetic characters. There are puzzles to solve and tasks to perform in your time here, but the episode is short on brainteasers: the obstructions you encounter are easily surmounted. The few inventory items you accumulate have intuitive uses and are quickly disposed of, making the first episode as much of an extended tutorial as it is a meandering prologue. Episode one is not short on glitches, however; the game struggles somewhat with its lens flaring, sometimes streaking your screen with distracting lights and colors, and in the game’s final and curious scene, I walked right through a door and out of the level.
The super-city of Europolis sprawls across what used to be entire countries. Propat is just one part of the whole.
That final scenario isn’t just intriguing from a story perspective: it also puts you in control of an unlikely protagonist with a particularly charming way of interacting with the world. Earlier in the game, you also take control of Kian Alvane, so the world of Arcadia does not go unacknowledged, though a prison is the only setting you get to explore there. Kian’s chapter is light on challenge, but the thematic ties to Zoe’s story give his section heft regardless: just as Zoe refuses to let her comatose body cage her, so too does Kian embrace the opportunity to flee his cell. Both characters are getting second chances, just as the series itself has risen from the crevasse Dreamfall left behind.
The Longest Journey crafted a protracted story arc that featured an equally leisurely opening, but grew into one of the genre’s greatest citadels. The first episode’s flat narrative structure may not be entirely satisfying, but Dreamfall Chapters’ diverse and endearing cast, nuggets of political and personal tensions, and glimmers of the poignancy that made the previous Longest Journey games so memorable make me hopeful for the futures of Stark, Arcadia, and the Dreamtime, wherever those places might take me.