The Longest Journey: Could be shorter

Recently, I’ve played The Longest Journey by the Norwegian Studio Funcom. It is not to be confused with it’s very different sequel Dreamfall: The Longest Journey. The Game Designer responsible is Ragnar Tørnquist and I found out that he was about my age when he began working on the game, which is always quite a shock. The game is supposed to be one of the milestones in the recent development of adventure games. It was praised in almost every source I found and according to many reviews it is one of the best adventures of all time.

The Longest Journey is considered a game especially suitable for women. Even though the main character looks a bit slutty, I must agree.

The game has some extraordinary aspects and I would like to address them. However, if this it the best adventure of all time then the genre has yet many problems to solve.

It is a classic third-person click & point adventure. You see one static screen at a time and your character inside it. You control your character by clicking on various objects. You can pick up things, there is an inventory, you can look at things, use things and talk to people. The story is about April Ryan, a young arts student in the future, who visits a fantasy world in her dreams. With time, she discovers that there is a deeper meaning behind her dreams and the plot goes mildly Fahrenheit.

The Longer-Than-Necessary Journey

One thing that immediately stroke me when playing the game was how incredibly LONG things take. I mean LONG. April moves so incredibly slowly through the environment that you have to wait up to a minute until she even crosses a screen. There are over 150 screens. It was not until the third chapter or so that discovered that I could make her run by double-clicking on things. Even then, I found myself on screens, which took over 30 seconds to cross even when running. This seems like a banal complaint but it is a serious flaw. The adventure genre is about exploring environments and trying out different things. If movement trough the environment takes so long, players will get discouraged experimenting. They won’t risk spending another few minutes going from one location to another unless they are absolutely sure. It also should be obvious that the movement in point & click adventures is quite non-interactive and not very fun.

The are various solutions:

  • Make the environment dense. If there are longs stretches of non-interactive environment, you might be doing something wrong. I agree that non-interactive passages can enhance the mood (like the long ladder in Snake Eater) but not when we are talking about routes the players will take several times.
  • Make characters move faster. I mean really fast. Why not even teleporting? Cut to the chase. The Longest Journey has some teleporting but in order to get to a place you can teleport off you usually have to walk a bunch of screens, which makes it rather pointless.
  • Make movement interactive. If you have to add long routes, at least give the players something to do. In action games, you don’t have this problem since players are in direct control of the character and the movement is completely interactive. I guess that wouldn’t work in point & click adventures because the whole idea here is the indirect control. But what about Doom III-like audiologs where players can listen to dialogue while they move through the environment, for example?

The problem with The Longest Journey is that it doesn’t stop there. Not only the walking takes so long, also interaction with other characters is very tedious. The first real conversation you have in the game spans no less then 17 different topics and it takes 12 minutes to listen to all of it. That is half of a “The Simpsons” episode and that is just one conversation. There are several reasons for this madness. First of all, at least some of the German voices (I’ve played the game in German, it might be different in other languages) overdid it and really took their time to pronounce their lines. This can be very classy if you have maybe three lines of text, but not in a game like this. Another reason is that the Funcom decided to introduce some character animations, which apparently were made by the same guy, who did the walking animation. If you talk to a sailor character, he has to take out his pipe before he can even say “hello” to you. This animation takes 16 seconds alone. And it happens every time you talk to him. The record was an animation of about 50 seconds. It happens when you as a librarian about a book. He slowly walks to a shelf and fetches the book for you. The animation is non-interactive, you can’t do anything else while it is happening and the voice is also interrupted while the animation is running. Just just have to wait for a minute doing NOTHING.

Just imagine watching this screen for 12 minutes while people are talking in the background. And you have to click once about every minute.

But the most significant reason for the long conversation is simply the writer’s philosophy. It has become a bitter cliché: in almost every game, your main character begins suffering from amnesia and every other person in the world has to explain to him again how the word works. This isn’t a story cliché, it is actually the image story writers have from the players: they understand players as empty vessels just waiting to be passively filled with info. The more info you provide, the better “writing” the game has. So as a player you spend your time bluntly asking everybody “Can you tell me about X?” or “Y? Never heard of it”. I must say that although there are some nice dialogs in The Longest Journey, I have come to hate this kind of writing. It is boring, stupid, patronizing and non-interactive. If you start questioning the amnesia philosophy, you will find out that you don’t have to explain things, that people can figure out a lot by themselves, that they become more emotionally engaged in the process and on top of that, you will save money because you dialogue is shorter. A good example for a radical departure from this philosophy is Myst – a game that offers almost NO clue about what is going on, leaving the player thirsty for info and burning up with desire to find out what is going on. By the way, this also exactly how J.J. Abram’s “Mystery Box” approach works.

Another problem with the amnesia philosophy is that things have the tendency to go from bad to abysmal. The game designers realize that there is just no way to shovel that much content into the players the way they envisioned and start introducing features like in-game books where players are supposed to read whole segments of the background story. Because this is done as a quick fix, it always is a disaster. The example in The Longest Journey is a particularly horrible one. There are 6 books or so, each one several pages long. Not only you have to wait 50 second for each book because of the animation, they are all written in completely illegible, pixelated, italic font. At this point, I just gave it up reading. If they didn’t care enough, why should I?

This image has not been scaled. I couldn’t decipher that mess, even if I wanted to. If you don’ understand German – trust me, it makes no difference.

Quality Goes, Quantity Stays

In his DVD, Michel Gondry (Who failed to answer on his nomination for the Cologne Thumper – asshole) mentioned a very nice observation. Without being able to quote him directly, he said something among the lines of “On this DVD, I concentrated on quantity because quality goes, quantity stays”. It would be difficult to find a game, which illustrates the point better then The Longest Journey. When it came out in 1999 it was praised for excellent graphics. Today, if the reviews didn’t feature screenshots, I would be sure they are talking about the wrong game. The game is just hideous. I never saw characters so ugly. They look all like badly-lit potato zombies. I would understand if it was just in-game – there is just so much you can do in low-poly. However, even the pre-rendered sequences are just horrible. The animations are so bad, I wouldn’t even call them animations, they rather resemble slow-motion spastic seisures. It will remain a mystery how there might have been a time where this was considered “stunning”. On the bright side, the environments are not as bad as the characters. In fact, they still look good. In the end, it makes you wonder just exactly what people will criticize about today’s game graphics ten years from now.

Gamespot, 1999: “The character models [...] are good-looking and diverse.” Me, 2008: “GAAAAHH!! Go away ugly potato zombie!!”

The other part of the quote, “quantity stays” also applies to The Longest Journey. No matter how bad the characters look, the game offers just SO MUCH content, it deserves kudos just because of that. In the game, you visit a futuristic metropolis, a fantasy city, a magic forest, a flying castle, you go on a ship, you dive to an underwater city, you get stranded on an island, you go into space – it is overwhelming. While the character graphics fail to impress, the sheer amount of content still does and probably always will.

A game for women?

The Longest Journey is often called a game for women. I was skeptical at first, especially if you consider the slutty outfit of the main character. However, as you get into the story, you will soon realize little differences, which probably make the game more attractive to the female audience. April Ryan is an arts student. She lives in a charming low-cost student’s apartment. The campus and her apparent are situated in a city quarter called “Venice” which a small, quiet neighborhood with an industrial historic background. There are canals, there is a little café, a park, houses with lovely paintings on the walls. April’s life revolves around paying the rent, working at the café as a waitress, preparing on a piece of art for an exhibition, going into concerts and clubs and chatting with her best friend about music bands and guys. I can completely understand how this is more interesting then a CRAZY GAME ABOUT PIRATES or A CARTOON DOG WITH A CARTOON BUNNY SOLVING WACKY CRIMES, especially from a perspective of a young female player. The good thing about The Longest Journey is that it is not pink ware. It is not gender-exclusive and being a student myself, I found the setting very familiar and heartwarming.

Venice is a charming, liberal part of the town. Living in Cologne’s Südstadt, I almost felt home. There are even crazy bums bugging you.

Although she looks slutty, April is a strong female character. As a typical adventure game character, she has witty remarks to various topics. She is no super hero, she is just a young student after all but she manages all the problems she encounters all by herself and she is not afraid to kick some butt in the process. Refreshingly, there is no male character for her to swoon over, she isn’t rescued by a “hero” at any point in the game. Well, ok there is this one scene where a guy helps out but that guy is 60, so he is rather a mentor figure then a “hero”.

The story has a fantasy component and I have enjoyed it because it successfully avoids the general fantasy clichés. There are no knights and no sword fights, no orks elves and gobblins – none of that typical Lord of the Ring Zoo. The fantasy world has a certain medieval style to it but it is generally refreshing and quite original. Because it is less violent and focuses more on wonder and mystery, it works well with the Charmed / Buffy part of the female audience. And again, it is not gender-exclusive: guys like Buffy too, you know.

And then there are even some more intriguing details. You landlord is a lesbian. Not the Britney & Madonna pseudo-lesbian made for men to drool over. She’s no aggressive dyke either. She is just lesbian and totally and completely comfortable with it. There is also a police officer who repels April’s attempt to infatuate him by simply stating “I’m sorry, I’m gay”. This police officer is no gay cliché. He isn’t talking with a funny voice, he isn’t moving funny. He is a respectable policeman who just happens to be gay. The Longest Journey might be the first game where gay characters are portrayed in a serious and mature fashion.

Needs more duct tape

So my general impression is that the game has some very interesting aspects. It has a somewhat unique setting, avoids clichés and delivers A LOT of content.

But the last strong point is the problem at the same time. As I have already mentioned, nobody is able to handle that much content yet. In a TV series, an individual episode can have very nice, consistent dramaturgy. If you look at the story across a whole season, you will realize obvious plot-holes and inconsistencies. The audience doesn’t realize because they too have a hard time to keep track of all the things that happen in a whole season. The recent trend of watching TV Series on DVDs exposes the weaknesses of long stories. The same goes for The Longest Journey. What strikes me every time in these kind of games is how the story completely falls apart at the end. The studio runs out of money and patience, the designers realize that the haven’t thought things trough, parts of the game get cut and rewritten. The Longest Journey, you find out at the very end that “the chosen one” is some random guy whom you met in just one scene. I had a hard time figuring out who that even was. Yet the other characters act as if they knew him very well so it is obvious that the writers completely failed to establish for the player who that character is – possibly because of major cuts or because of rewritten script. Also, the puzzles get noticeably easier at the end while the cut scenes get more frequent. A clear sign that the team just wants to get over with it.

So I’m left with contradictory feelings. There are obvious gameplay flaws like the slow movement, amnesia philosophy, Fahrenheit syndrome and fatally invisible causality (giving a cipher to a hacker for decoding results a random guy in a different part of the town to order a piece of pizza – what?!). If a game considered to be the best adventures games still has those basic flaws, the genre has still ways to go.

Because the strong parts of the game are the mundane college scenes, I would again recommend: more of less. Cut the fantasy crap to a minimum, focus on the simple facts, polish the gameplay, make a short, meaningful story with replay value. On the other hand, there is something awe-inspiring having just the sheer amount of content, especially if it is peppered with cool details like the lack of fantasy chlichés or mature gay characters. So in the end, I’ll probably settle down on the following: it could be shorter.

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

12 responses to “The Longest Journey: Could be shorter”

  1. Anonymous

    Yeah, that sounds like it would be much more fun if they cut out all the fantasy elements and just had her sitting around in cafes talking about guys. That would be an amazing game. Maybe she can go to work in an office and do some data entry too. Fucking idiot.

  2. Krystian Majewski

    Man, you like… TOTALLY pwned me with this comment. Because OBVIOUSLY everything without FANTASY like TOTALLY sucks and it’s just like a matter of time until the world wakes up. Duh.

  3. Krystian Majewski

    I appreciate every comment so please do post you opinions. However, I will remove further posts with foul language. Insulting people is not ok kids, not even on the Internet.

  4. sic

    I liked the game, even with all the flaws. I was most annoyed by the somewhat convoluted way to solve some puzzles. Either you miss some obscure object, or the game expects too much imagination from your part–the solution to some puzzles doesn’t actually make much sense–use a rubber duck to keep a tool open? Please. There’s also the annoying retracing of your path back and forth. All these things were easy to forgive, because of the immersing universe and captivating story.

    Less of the fantasy stuff? More focus on only one kind of world? I don’t know–the never-ending-story feel was exactly what’s cool about this game. It was NEVER predictable, you were always on the edge of your seat eager to find out what was coming next.

    As a side note, when I was reading news of the future coming “The Sims” I was skeptical, saying “this is stupid, this will never work. A game about your everyday life? Eat, sleep, go to work, buy furniture? We already do those boring things in everyday life”. Boy, was I wrong! The Sims was one hell of a bestseller. Even I moderately enjoyed playing it for a while.

    So TLJ with less of the fantastic elements would not be TLJ. Even when the action happened in the industrial world, what kept the player engaged was the inherent intuition of the “otherworldly” stuff.

    Basicly, it’s about escapism. You’re not a native of a fantastic world, that could get boring. You GET INTO a fantastic world as a total outsider. That’s the brilliance of it.

    Yup, and it goes on and on and on. That’s a good thing. When the game actually ended, I still wanted MORE of it.

    On the shortcomings of the interaction you’re perfectly right. Still, the long times of getting from point A to point B were not that bad, as you could take in the beautiful vistas once more.

  5. Krystian Majewski

    @sic Yeah, the rubber duck puzzle was just horrible.

    The fantasy topic seems to ba a hot button issue for a lot of people. All I have to say is that I haven’t played it when the game out. I’ve played it recently. The thing I found intriguing about The Longest Journey were the mature aspects of it because it is something I rarely see in Videogames. Obviously, the game has different meaning for different people. I do understand if you enjoyed the Fantastic elements. They well well-made after all. But as you’ve noticed yourself, the very same story has been made a couple of times now – Never Ending Story, The Labyrinth, Narnia, Harry Potter. Escapism and “a stranger in a fantasy world” is hardly what I would call “brilliant”.

  6. Anonymous

    Oy. You've just pointed out all of my biggest frustrations with the adventure genre.

    They have a tendency to take too much control away from the player. They also tend to give back-story literally, rather than imply it subtly.

    The worst of all is when there is not enough stuff to interact with — or that you cannot interact with things in a meaningful way.

    I kind of have a love/hate relationship with adventure games. I want to love them, I really do. But for some reason 'story' in adventure games has evolved into these unfortunate situations where it takes over the game… At the expense of all other components of gameplay and composition.

  7. CruzaDE3

    Fantasy topic continued…

    I have to agreed with Krystian. The characters, due to amazing voice-acting and a detailed script, are by far the best aspect of the The Longest Journey. The fantasy, although decent, wasn’t what made this game great.

    A few examples of fantasy elements gone wrong:
    1. Roper Clacks gets sucks in by a calculator, WTF?
    2. The Warrior Shifters are never explained.
    3. Pocket-watch being Cortez’s heart…?
    4. The part where the flying castle plummets from the sky and the very next scene you see April walking across a meadow? Yeah right, girl.

    Also, the ending was rushed. Did you notice how it took 20+ hours to get 1 piece of the stone disk and 3 hours to the get other 3 pieces and the other 4 dragons eyes? I mean, the Dark People appeared out of nowhere just to give you a piece of the stone disk and you never see them again. Really?

    As far as gameplay goes, to be fair IQ Media Nordic had at most 17 people working on it at one time. You can only do so much with what you have.

    Summary: Cut out the crappy convoluted fantasy and keep the good fantasy. Also Ragnar Tornquist should have spent more time on polishing the ending.

  8. Hellegennes

    Well, there are a few things to note here. First of all, TLJ was slow in movement but had a skip button (escape). I think you had to tick an option in the settings first, but once you did you could skip movement and dialogue. With that option and if you know the solution to all puzzles, it takes no more than 20 minutes to finish the game if you hold down escape.

    Second matter is the dialogue. Sure, there are long dialogues which may get boring and asking stuff like “tell me about Emma”, who just happened to be the protagonist’s best friend, seem odd. But at least in the English version, the response you would get from characters, matches real people reactions. So, the designers knew that it’s silly for this background info to be included in dialogue hence they mock themselves by having the characters saying “why the hell do you ask me about X, who is your best friend, by the way”.

    The reasons these traits are included, is that serve the provision of background. That said, they belong to a category of fallacy devices called “plot devices”. They are used both in Cinema and in Literature but these are often missed because films are an escaping means, progressing linearly through the course of 1-3 hours. So you don’t get to stare for hours and notice that it is impossible to always find a parking spot where you want to park, computers DON’T open instantaneously, car doors are in fact locked, so goes for house doors. Most of the time, there is no time for you to focus on these escaping moments of unreality. In literature, plot devices are delivered through narration. No character needs to bring up background info because the writer can narrate them himself, breaking the linear action without harm done. But in computer games, you cannot really do any of this. If you want character development, you need background. And to get background, the most easy and profound way is through dialogue. There are always other devices but nowhere near as effective as straight words.

    Now, the fact of the matter is that the ending seemed a little rushed, probably because it was already a huge game so they decided to scrap quest sequences about the other stones, etc. It was already started to become boring anyway and it isn’t very original (get the pieces of a disk, jewels, etc). But I don’t get the commend about the “chosen one who is revealed in the last scene”. There really isn’t such a thing in the game. There is a twist in the end, where it is revealed that Gordon is the next guardian, but he isn’t really a new character. There are dialogues about him, you see him in a video and you talk about him with the Flipper but, most importantly, you also speak to him directly, in the Border House. He isn’t just a random guy.

    1. Krystian Majewski

      And to get background, the most easy and profound way is through dialogue. There are always other devices but nowhere near as effective as straight words.

      Just because it’s easy doesn’t mean it should be done. What you are referring to is called “Exposition”. Over-reliance on exposition is sometimes also called “Information dump”. Especially in movies it is considered bad practice because it goes against the “Show, don’t tell” admonition. I don’t see games being different in this regard.

  9. V_N

    At first I found this review to be a little unreasonable. I felt that your irritation with the slow movement was a bit excessive, possibly due to the fact that it took you so long to work it out. For the first play-through, I find the speed at which April moved was useful to drink in the visuals around her. So many little details that added to the depth and character of the world that would have been missed had I simply teleported everywhere, or had a double-click taken me directly to the next screen. Perhaps after finishing the game (or as default-OFF option) there could be a mechanic like that, but frankly the only times I felt annoyed with the game were when I was running in circles trying to work out what to do. (And, ok, I’ll admit – my lesbian landlady was an extremely long-winded, boring character to start the game with, when you’re full of excitement and actually WANT to click on every discussion option.)

    Regarding books and the like, I’m personally a fan of computers. An in-game Wiki would have been awesome (and story-relevant) to go look up things that people made reference to in every-day conversation. Nothing should be impossible without research, but having bonuses reward people who enjoy exploration through text as well as running around would be good.

    And yeah, April WAS ugly. Wow. I kinda liked her more for that. The lack of romantic interest was also greatly appreciated.

    Thanks to your review, I now have a desperate desire to re-play TLJ. Thanks a lot. :P :D

  10. Mirrors

    You were completely right. The game was slow and pretentious. I didn’t have the energy to talk myself into liking it as some people have. I enjoyed the realistic part at the beginning, too. I think instead of fantasy which made no sense it would have been better to introduce conflict and plot into that world, also mystery and a romance with Charlie. There’s nothing wrong with a girl having a romance and being helped by friends. I enjoyed the talkativeness of the game when it was about something, but when they started talking about the Balance and various boring things, I just stopped playing this game. Dreamfall, the sequel, has its problems, but at least I could bear playing it until the end.

  11. Alan Stock

    Just wanted to tell you I just finished the game and agree with almost everything you said. Of course if only you’d found the “time skip” which is in the Option menu and lets you skip animations and lines of conversation! I nearly got RSI using that button, skipping almost every animation after I got the gist of what was going to happen, and skipping through most dialogues. Annoyingly I discovered at the end you can right click to skip dialogue too! Everything in the game takes way too long, even characters turning to speak to you can take a long time. Sadly “Escape” doesn’t work for everything, like the rotating puzzles. Why the hell isn’t there a button to rotate the other way for the statue puzzles? Grrrrr!

    Unfortunately I found April really annoying too, and I hated most of the voice acting in the game including hers (English version). The script bored the hell out of me and although I appreciated the attempt at wit it only made me laugh a few times. The humour and tone of the game I found very schizophrenic, sometimes serious bits were spoiled by silly comments, sometimes light-hearted sections were suddenly plunged into the realms of drama but just left you confused.

    On the plus side I played through the whole game as I was intrigued enough to see what happened. I did like some of the characters and some of the game was amusing. I liked Stark and its vibe and some of the puzzles were decent. The world hopping concept was quite good and many of the environments were visually impressive (lets not talk about the horrendous FMV!). Also there’s plenty of variety in the game which is always good to see.

    It’s interesting that the Lucasarts games still hold up today as being entertaining (especially the HD remakes) , but this isn’t an adventure game that’s aged well. I suspect people were wowed by the graphics and “mature” content and dialogue for the time (even though most of it is tosh!). Although I wouldn’t call this a bad game I don’t think it stands the test of time and I think if you aren’t enjoying the game by Chapter 5, give up because it only gets worse!


Game Design Reviews is a Blog used by a group of game designers from Germany to publish and discuss their thoughts on various games. The blog consists entirely of reviews of games. Each review focuses on the important game design ideas and concepts of that particular game. We also run a second, more informal Blog called Game Design Scrapbook.


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