The Longest Journey is a game series of which I just had a whirlwind tour over the past week. It spans two video games: The Longest Journey, which is an old-school point-and-click adventure game, and Dreamfall: The Longest Journey, a sequel much more in line with modern 3D adventure games. In short, I heartily recommend both of them, so long as you know what you are getting into.
I downloaded The Longest Journey whilst browsing Good Old Games, which, despite the clunky name, provides a fantastic service, allowing new computers to play old games without the headache of compatibility issues (and I have been there many times, believe me). I think it's especially great, because it lets people like me explore a lot of the computer games I missed out on in the '90s, while still supporting the developers. TLJ was my first purchase from them, and it was beyond worth it.
Like I said, TLJ is a traditional point-and-click adventure game, like Myst or the King's Quest series. I haven't played too many titles in this genre, but I have enjoyed pretty much every one that I have experienced, particularly the Myst series. It's a really different kind of gameplay than pretty much anything on the market today, but I would hesitate to call it outdated, because I think, when done right, it holds up as engaging. TLJ definitely does point-and-click gameplay right, but what separates it from every other point-and-click game, and nearly every other video I've played, is how much emphasis is put on the story.
I would probably call TLJ as much an "interactive novel" as a video game. The majority of your time is spent listening to dialogue and reading, as opposed to puzzle solving, and I think anybody could see how that would be kiss of death to a "game." But The Longest Journey not only pulls it off; it makes it so that the story is the most engaging part of the experience. This succeeds for several reasons. First, the story is written by somebody who can write; you can tell this five minutes into the game, and it's very refreshing. Second, the voice acting is superb by today's standard's, so it must have been unbelievable for the game's release in 1999. This is especially notable, considering the sheer volume of dialogue. Third, the gameplay is about as least frustrating as it can get for a point-and-click game. Pixel hunting is at a minimum, and most of the puzzles aren't too obtuse (I did succumb to a guide for one or two. Or three.).
But the important part is the story, and the story is a lot of fun. It is largely fantasy, with some science fiction thrown in by virtue of it taking place 200 years into the future. It follows a lot of fantasy tropes, but uses them well, and excels in characters. The protagonist, 18-year-old artist April Ryan, emerges both as a strong character and a good proxy for the player; you see her change throughout the game, and you learn as she does. The story is also quick to acknowledge its influences, and there are a lot of shout-outs to other fantasy and science fiction franchises, which serves to give a pretty heavy story an appropriate amount of levity. One of my favorite features is that you eventually befriend a wise-cracking talking bird, who steals every scene he is in (you have an encounter with him earlier in the game, and my immediate reaction was "I hope, I hope he ends up traveling with April"). The magic-science/chaos-logic/nature-man dichotomy is treated interestingly too. Neither is portrayed as "better" than the other, and that kind of frank ambiguity is the kind I appreciate.
A lot of the game is listening to talking heads, so there is definitely patience required to get the most out of the story. Personally, I liked being forced to slow down and pay attention to the well-written and well-spoken dialogue. The action is more akin to a stage play than a movie, though, due to the limits of the game engine. Most of the time, you’re looking at a fixed background and rather static character animations, which can grow exhausting, I have to admit. FMV sequences aside, which suffer from the ‘90s uncanny valley period of CG, the pre-rendered backgrounds, especially the fantasy ones, are a visual treat. And this is a small but annoying problem, but the text font they used is kinda hard to read too, which doesn’t matter so much for the in-game dialogue (since it’s all spoken aloud), but reading April’s diary can be a chore.
The game is simply wonderful, however. True to its name, you can expect to put in a lot of hours, and if you are in the mood for a good story, you can expect this one to engage you. The prologue provides the best introduction I could think of. Beautiful, bewildering, whimsical. It's what hooked me.
Dreamfall is an odder beast. Since I’ve prattled on about The Longest Journey enough for an entry, I’ll give Dreamfall its own space sometime soon. And there is still so much more to say about TLJ, but it’s difficult to do so without getting into spoilers, so I’ll save that for a later date.