I took advantage of the recent Steam Summer Sale to buy The Longest Journey, which I had been meaning to play for a very long time.
It’s an adventure game released in 1999 which has won countless awards for its complex plot and high production values. Here is what Wikipedia has to say about it. Metacritic gives it a rare 91% score and the Amazon reviews are equally glowing.
I am about halfway through the game and I have to say that so far, the game is living up to its reputation. I would probably go as far as saying that this is the best adventure game that I’ve ever played (even better than Monkey Island and probably on an equal footing with Myst).
First of all, while the graphics look a bit dated (remember: 1999), they are quite adequate to convey the surroundings and the sense that you are moving through a universe that keeps alternating between familiar environments and different worlds. Take a look at the screen shot above, or this one:
It looks a bit pixellated on a big screen, but just like Minecraft, you quickly stop paying attention to this as you get more and more engrossed in the story.
The way I see it, an adventure game is typically judged on two major criteria, the puzzles and the story, and a bunch of minor ones, such as the UI, the save system, the graphics and the production.
The Longest Journey has one of the richest and most interesting plots I’ve seen in thirty years of playing adventure games to the point where I wonder why it hasn’t been turned into a book or a movie. The premise is fairly standard but the details and the cleverness with which all the scenes are put together is what keeps drawing me back in.
I find myself going back to the game not to solve more puzzles but to find how the story will unfold and where it will take me, and that’s probably the biggest compliment you can pay to a video game.
The puzzles are overall very decent and logical. I’ve only had to look up a hint twice so far, which in hindsight I could have avoided if I had been more methodical in my exploration. When you have a problem to solve, you really need to ask yourself how you would solve such a problem if it were a real world situation. I found that keeping a list of the various items that you can interact with as you go from screen to screen helps. When you get stuck, you can revisit all these locations or, and it’s much faster this way, simply look at your piece of paper and go through all these objects one by one and try to imagine a way in which they could help you.
There is one big problem that all adventure games need to resolve in order to not frustrate their players, I call it the “missing data”. It’s very simple: when you are faced with a puzzle, do you have all the data at your disposal, in which case the puzzle is solvable, or are you missing one piece of crucial data, which means that no matter how many hours you spend thinking about this puzzle, you will never be able to figure it out?
In my opinion, the “missing data” problem is the reason why adventure games have fallen out of favor these days since it can be extremely frustrating to feel that you are wasting time working on an unsolvable problem.
There are two kinds of data that you can be missing: objects and locations.
Sometimes, solving a problem requires you to have visited a specific location which you never discovered so far. This can be either because this location is hidden behind another puzzle or because you simply missed it. The Longest Journey mitigates this problem by allowing you to see where all the exits are on each screen. If you press ‘x’, the game will show markers on the screen telling you which ways you can go from here. I found this pretty useful to make sure that I’m thorough in my explorations.
Missing an object is much more problematic, and for this issue, game designers have to walk a fine line between throwing problems that are too difficult to the players or by helping them too much. It’s not hard to imagine that a similar mechanism as the one above could be put in place in order to show you all the objects that you can interact with explicitly, but I think this might be going a bit too far (helping the player too much) and also contributing to a suspension of disbelief, which would take away from the immersion.
The Longest Journey doesn’t give you any hint on which objects can be interacted with, you just have to move your mouse carefully over each screen to discover these yourself. It’s not as tedious as it sounds and these objects are usually big enough that you can usually find them pretty easily (I only came across a couple exceptions so far). You need to do some “pixel hunting”, but I think the designers of the game found a good compromise here.
The voice acting is remarkable, especially from a game from 1999.
The UI is also very well done and striking a good compromise between being minimalistic while allowing a large set of options. When you click on an object, either you will get a description right away or a small menu with three items will appear: Look, Talk, Grab. Depending on the object and your progression in the story, not all of these options will always be available (for example, a character might not be willing to talk to you until you’ve solved a puzzle somewhere else).
You access your inventory with a right click but you can also materialize objects from your inventory with the keys ‘a’ and ‘s’, which allows for quick cycling. I much prefer this kind of interface to the one we find in the SCUMM games where you have to cycle through four or five different actions.
One last important touch: when you put in contact two objects that are expected to work together (which means, you are on your way to solving a puzzle), the object on your cursor will glow white. This is a very nice touch which, again, shows a good compromise between puzzles that are not too hard and not too easy.
I don’t have much to put in this section, honestly. As I mentioned above, I had to do some thorough pixel hunting a couple of times, but these are pretty rare and I consider this kind of task as coming with the genre. Another small problem I experienced a couple of times is moving the story forward. The plot is separated in several sections, and a few times, I knew I had just finished a puzzle and I was ready to move to the next chapter, but I wasn’t sure what to do. In such a case, make sure you revisit every single location you know and you will find that one of them has changed slightly in a way that will move the plot forward.
I am very pleasantly surprised to see that a twelve year old game can grab my attention like this. It’s another good example that playability will always trump graphics. Whether you enjoy adventure games or not, this is definitely a game you should consider buying if you like good stories.