Dreamfall Chapters

This was an excellent game and you should all go play it. I am pleasantly surprised by just how well-constructed it was and I really, really enjoyed it. The scenery was also very pretty.

Dreamfall Chapters was crowdfunded on Kickstarter in 2013 and released in five parts. The dev smartly decided not to make the game actually episodic, which I think would have been a nightmare, but to have one continuous storyline broken up at logical points. Playing all five pieces at once was smooth and I thought the plotting was generally good. It had a slow build, but I felt it worked well, and Stark was finally suitably alien enough to be able to carry interest simply on exploring its day-to-day.

The game starts off by immediately doing what I complained the most about with its prequel: giving the protagonists personalities. I really, really liked Kian, and that they chose to open the entire game by giving him backstory and relationships was exactly what needed to be done. I also thought this game was populated by likeable and memorable side characters who had their own stories and motivations. I wasn’t a fan of all of them — Likho was a bit too grimdark and I fucking hated Anna — but overall I thought the side characters really made it a full setting.

That said, Zoe is once again the weakest link, and I think they writers were just too hamstrung by the events of the previous game to really make her intriguing. They really tried to give her more motivations, more interests, more relationships, but they were tied to who and what she was last game, and as a result she once again just ends up being a person who has interesting things happen to them instead of an interesting person. I think the writers’ inability to really get a feel for her dragged down all of the Stark sequences, which were held up by people like Mira, Queenie, Hanna, and Nela. That said, while I think generally you can tell how hard they were trying with her, I have no idea why they made her plot Relationship Drama: Round 2. I know it was probably tempting for continuity to bring in the only other major character from her game, but they really needed a clean break. Reza as a person is intolerable, and Reza as a character ties Zoe down.

I also suspect the idea was for Reza’s dickishness to be a result of WATI’s mindfuck, but Zoe acts like this is normal behavior for him, so the whole thing ends up coming across as her being stuck in a relationship with this guy who’s one beer away from hitting her because she moved from Africa to Europe with him and can’t afford anything else. I really do think having him around was an attempt to bridge the gap between DF:TLJ and DFC, but I’d much rather everyone just admittedly the whole “but mah boyfrannnnnd” plot was bad and should feel bad and completely started over.

Zoe really needed more longstanding personal relationships. If they had to retcon the fuck out of them, so be it, but something as simple as “my old bffl from South Africa also came with us and I need to protect her while not letting her know what’s going on and putting her in danger” would have done wonders for Zoe as a person. I appreciate that she now has ambition and life goals, but that was only part of what made her bland — her lack of internal conflict was the other half, and that never gets fixed.

The gameplay this time was more interesting, too, more like a polished version of TLJ. That said, it also has some of the same problems that TLJ did, namely that some puzzles are unnecessarily opaque and interactable objects aren’t discernible enough from set dressing. There were also some weird gameplay/story clashes, like how Kian’s masking potion completely hides him except during the sequence where you blow up the shipments, during which he is visible normally to the guards on the pier for no reason. I also felt the sewer gates in Propost you go through with Hanna were too obviously there to make walking and talking more interesting instead of being something a city would logically build.

The game had a structure similar to Cinders, where there were lots of decision points and when a situation is a result of a prior decision a little icon appears, which I thought was neat. Zoe’s story in particular seems to have a ton of different options and the game has a lot of replay value, though I’ll likely watch LPs instead of actually replaying. The result though is that the game is massive, in a really neat way.

That said, I thought that the system forced the writers into some corners, causing your choices in moral situations to be more black-and-white than they ever would be in reality. For some reason, this was a real issue in Kian’s route and things were subtler in Zoe’s. This all also results in NPCs taking some really weird stances in order to have choices affect your relationships differently.

So like, at one point you capture an enemy whom you find out is actually a child rapist and you catch him in the act. You interrogate him, and at the end you’re given the option to kill him, or let him go and use him to collect intelligence. I chose to kill him because again, child rapist, this is not a dude we want running free to rape children. Grimdark NPC is all THAT’S GRIMDARK AS FUCK HELL YEAH, and in order to make it so the other NPC lost affection points, they had to be upset that you a) killed a person and b) didn’t want to use him to intelligence gather. The PC responds, this dude was obviously going to keep doing this and would have tons of opportunities, to which Pro-Child-Rapist NPC kind of sputters and stops talking. And, well, the fuck would she have done? Given the options “kill man” or “allow man to rape children” is she seriously arguing for the latter here?

Later on in the game, another NPC chides you for decided to kill him instead of letting the justice system handle him. The thing is, there were only two options here. There was no third, “Hand him over to the proper authorities with a nice letter detailing his crimes and trust that they’ll try and imprison one of their own on an anonymous tip,” option. My choice were literally “kill child rapist” or “release child rapist” and if the game wanted some kind of morally grey decision here child rape was a really, really bad crime to go, “But is it really wrong to let the felon be free?” on. The whole scenario almost reads as though there was supposed to be a third “give to police” choice that got removed at some point. But there’s also some really good in-game reasons why you can’t take him to the authorities and only did have the choice to kill him if you wanted the child rape to end. I mean, I guess you could have maimed him and that would have been less cruel, somehow?

And then there’s the issue with Kian being called a traitor. As Kian repeatedly explains to people, he’s not a traitor — he loves his people and thinks some corrupt people at the top are doing something horrible, so he’s doing what he believes will help them in the long run. Would the rebels have rather he… not tried to stop them in order to remain idealogically consistent? This comes up over and over, and the game kind of weirdly implies the only way to be good is to be born good, and if your culture is doing bad things to try to stop them is actually wrong because you’re somehow “betraying” your own people.

This comes up a lot in certain forms of media, and I suspect it’s a Western things as I don’t see it in Japanese media — it may even specifically be a US thing. It’s this idea that once you have an opinion, you’re never allowed to change it, and if you do — or you call that opinion into question — you’re actually a liar who never believed the original thing to start with, as opposed to a fallible human who works with the information they have. It’s kind of an extreme version of the No True Scotsman fallacy, where anyone who hasn’t towed the party line 100% perfectly forever is Out of the Club.

This is an extremely dangerous mindset for two reasons. First, it says that people can’t and shouldn’t change, that to update your worldview based on new information is a moral shortcoming. You see this in tumblrland a lot, where people will dig up a post from 3 years ago as “proof” that so and so is actually secretly sexist/racist/whatever. A high-profile example is Beyonce — after she started to be vocal about the BLM movement, I saw people going batshit about how she played the Bush inauguration in 2001. And yes, no fucking shit, it’s almost like growing up, getting married, and having a child drastically affected her views on the world over the course of 15 years especially as it concerns young black people like said child who would have thought. However, this attitude doesn’t just cause well-meaning groups to cannibalize themselves — it says outgroups are irredeemable, and someone who thinks Bad Thing About X will never not think it, and it punishes that person when trying to turn to Good Thing About X. At the same time, it makes it a crime to take a critical look at your own beliefs and movements you’re a part of, because if a movement does something that’s clearly not working out, and you try to troubleshoot, you suddenly were never a true believer, and this is how radicalism happens. It’s the exact problem I always whine about feminism having right now, and it’s also why you see a lot of self-identified feminists who also hate black/fat/gay people never get called on it.

This is ultimately a small part of this game, but I did think it was really frustrating how the game was constantly on Kian’s ass for doing what was objectively the only right thing for him to do. I kept wanting to shout at the rebels, “Would you rather he just go back?!?!” to which the answer is obviously no.

Changing gears:

On the other side of the spectrum, I thought it was incredibly obviously playing all three games in a row just how big of an effect the non-independent release had on the social messages of the middle game. DFC is infinitely more like TLJ in terms of diversity of cast and which classes got a voice. And I don’t think anything encapsulated this better than the women’s faces.

Zoe herself is of the usual china-doll-style female protagonist face — bland and inoffensively attractive to just about anyone. But the thing about ‘beautiful’ faces –where beauty refers to general Western standards — is that they’re really, really boring. You start to get actual art in faces when you allow yourself to stray from what’s expected. And male faces are allowed to actually be interesting, but usually female faces aren’t (which, by the way, results in some really bad immersion-breaking in games).

DFC does not have this issue. We can start with my two favorites, April and Young Saga. First, Saga:

Look at those magnificent eyebrows! She’s like Maisie Williams Lite. She has square head with a high, square jaw and thick eyebrows that sit very low on her face. This gives her an intensity even when her face is at rest that I love.

Looking at April’s evolution over the three games is extremely enlightening, though:

Image result for The Longest Journey  

Notice how the last face looks like a reasonable hi-res version of the first game’s box art, while the middle looks like an entirely different human being from both of them? That, to me, speaks volumes about the freedom the character artists had on the first and third titles.

April’s face next to Saga’s is cool, because they’re almost opposites. April has a low, soft jawline and long, oval face with small eyes and higher, thin eyebrows. I really like her upper lip’s look, too. She just looks like a real human you might see on the street.

Have some more cool faces!

 Image result for dreamfall hanna

All of that said, I was really saddened and disappointed that the game decided the only place for a non-thin woman was as a delusional lunatic stalker who literally murdered children. It’s always so weird to me that people who are all about representation and antiracism and such can still hate fat women so much. It’s such a weird kind of cognitive dissonance, and my heart really sunk when I saw that.

In dude news: This may be the first time, in books, games, comics, et al, that I’ve seen a story successfully make a character gay without making the entire story about their sexuality. I really loved everything about how Kian’s sexuality was handled. This isn’t a romance game so there was no need for a romance plotline, but at the same time it does in fact come up. I particularly loved the scene where Kian looks right at the camera and tears into Likho-as-the-audience for assuming a gay man must be struggling with not wanting to bang chicks like god intended and for the assumption that homphobia is so obvious a choice all fantasy societies would have it pre-built-in. I also liked how later on they went back to the conversation and had Likho explain that he only brought it up because it was a struggle for him in his culture, and so you have an actual of diversity of experiences represented. It was great!

If you’re in the mood for some horrible amusement, you can look on fan forums where you can find post after post of, “Look, I don’t care if Kian is gay (no homo) but did he really have to utter the phrase “I’m gay”? It’s just too much.”

All of that said, what the fuck was up with Anna? Was she some botched commentary on heteronormativity? Because she was basically a stalker and actually a sexual predator and the game did not seem to realize this at all. She quite literally forces herself on Kian after he tries to let her down gently time and time again, and then she starts talking about how he like, owes her romance because she stalked him across two continents? She’s incredibly creepy and rapey and it’s one of those cases where I wonder if there were any women on this team, because the instant you swap the sexes here it’s clear how fucked up the whole thing is and I’m not sure an all-male team would have thought to see it that way. It was just so creepy how the first time she goes in for a kiss you can pull away but the second you have no choice — she literally corners you and shoves her face in yours. It doesn’t help that she’s also a completely extraneous character who does nothing except show up every now and then to sexually harass Kian. She was basically the worst thing about the entire game.

Careening into a different topic to wrap things up, I was really satisfied with how the game ended. It feels like everything did finally come together. I actually liked that a lot of the circumstances surrounding Saga were left a bit hazy — I think these were the acceptable kind of questions to leave hanging, since she wasn’t really part of the main story. I thought the story followed a comfortable arc, was well-paced, and ended properly. The final scene with April was also really an excellent decision.

If I had any criticism for the story, it would be that I really did feel like Kian and Zoe’s paths needed to cross a few more times — they were just too separate of plotlines, even with the inevitable convergence. Just one or two sequences where they exchange information, realize that the Prophet is working in both worlds, and decide to help each other would have gone a long way in tying the stories together instead of having them kind of keeping going, “Oh yeah you’re that person I saw that time.” It’s especially odd to me that this wasn’t done in that it would have been extremely easy.

All in all I think this game was really a worthy successor to the first one, and it’s nice to see what they were capable of with proper funding, no time crunch, and a more seasoned writing staff. Go play it!

 

5 Comments

  1. Xander77 says:
    I hated this game so goddamned much. It would have been… well, if not exactly fine, then at least less completely infuriating if the author learned absolutely any lessons from Dreamfall and stuck to finishing the plotlines introduced in the first two games, instead of vomiting every bit of worldbuilding that ever crossed his mind into the final two chapters, no matter how much it clashed with or distracted from plot threads that he really needed to focus his attention on.

    Then again, I’m pretty sure that the only way I really would have loved the game was if it left Zoe in a coma and resurrected April, so… :shrug:

    1. Act says:

      Can you elaborate on what you felt was unfinished? The whole thing was really tighly plotted and I’m not sure exactly what they should have been spending time on instead.

      I wasn’t crazy about the treatment of April in D:TLJ, but realistically they have to work inside the constraints of the previous games. I don’t think “they should have pretended the middle game didn’t happen” is a really useful approach.

      1. Xander77 says:
        Quoting myself: “If only you’d dump all the random digressions that come out of nowhere and amount to nothing – the Undreaming, Soul-Stones (but keep Baba Yaga, because it and the Engine are the only interesting setpieces in this fantastical game) the fucking Spear of Gromnir, and particularly Saga (grr) – you’d still have the same basic story about an attempt at eliminating magic that was started in TLJ. (Looking back, I’m amazed at how comparatively coherent TLJ is).

        Then, bring back my beloved “skip everything” prompts from TLJ, include a “highlight interactable spots” button, because 90% of the times I was stuck in this game came from shitty pixel hunting in a 3D environment (was the “attention” button supposed to do something like that? Because it did absolutely nothing, as far as I can tell) and you’d have a merely mediocre game occasionally redeemed by stuff like Enu and Crow, instead of the aggressively shitty mess we have right now.

        PS – I was starting to write up a “what the hell are Enu’s sterling qualities as a leader” thing, when I realized all of Kian’s qualities as an inspirational blah blah blah were also told rather than shown. We’ve been stuck with the resistance for a boring ever, yet we never actually got a glimpse of any of that, or interacted with any of the resistance members in a meaningful way.”

        Finally, here are all the characters that snapped their own necks in an effort to escape the mess that is this game: http://steamcommunity.com/id/Xander77/screenshots/?appid=237850&sort=newestfirst&browsefilter=myfiles&view=imagewall

        1. Act says:

          Not sure where you’re quoting yourself from? Let me know if you keep getting caught in spam; I think I got them all but who knows, this filter hates me.

          you’d still have the same basic story about an attempt at eliminating magic that was started in TLJ.

          I suspect you have an attachment to TLJ that I don’t having just come to the franchise, because it really just sounds like you don’t like any of the new plot elements at all. Personally, I found them to be interesting and entirely coherent. I also thought Saga was a great character.

          How would you rewrite the story? What parts in particular do you feel don’t work, and why? “I hate it everything” isn’t really… useful? You’re not giving me any real specifics to work with.

          90% of the times I was stuck in this game came from shitty pixel hunting in a 3D environment

          I very much agree with this, as I said, but this was also a problem TLJ had, and even if it was still here it was nowhere as bad as in the original. Ideally it wouldn’t exist at all, but it’s something to keep in mind if we’re looking at the game with nostalgia blinders on.

          what the hell are Enu’s sterling qualities as a leade

          On a meta level? She was the only character we knew who was left.

          In-game, she doesn’t really have any leadership qualities, but assuming she was high-ranking and everyone above her is dead, well… in my playthrough there was literally no one else to take over. I can see her maturing and being a good, if slightly impulsive, leader.

          interacted with any of the resistance members in a meaningful way

          Wha…? Almost all of Kian’s scenes are him getting to know the people around him. He was important in the first place because he gave them some hope after April died, but his entire plotline is him getting to know the people around him and becoming friends with them, Likho in particular.

          I can’t come at this game as someone who waited 15 years for the series to resolve, obviously, but having played all three games in quick succession, this is a totally solid game with much better writing than the previous two and some similar gameplay flaws to the first one. They were hamstrung in places by the shittiness of the middle game, but, I mean… that’s life. Short of inventing a time machine I’m not sure what could be done about that.

          I wouldn’t call this high art, but it was enjoyable and interesting and even did some things very well.

          I’m not sure what I’m supposed to be getting from that link… sometimes 3D models can be wonky? Uh, yeah?

  2. Xander77 says:
    In reverse order:

    Just thought it was moderately amusing. Though it did serve to ruin my immersion by constantly reminding me that these ARE 3D models.

    Yeah, I’m way more interested in April’s story arc and the basic balance / unification theme than I am with most of the themes that were brought up in games 2 and 3, mostly because they were so poorly developed or just left hanging, only to bring in more last moment themes that had absolutely no foreshadowing or development. Deus ex machina ultimate artifacts, non-specific prophecies, the First Dreamer?

    Kian spent most of his time interacting with Likho and Enu (one or both of whom are likely to die, depending on his decisions). That had practically nothing to do with establishing he has the ability to command the nameless resistance people.

    There’s only one bit in TLJ where I had no idea where I was meant to be clicking. There’s obscure puzzles, which might be a given in an adventure game, and then there’s “what the hell am I even supposed to interact with?”

    Saga, like most new elements, needed to be either expanded to include a proper “who, what, why” explanation or cut out completely. After two games in which the setting included only two worlds, having a multiverse with forces intentionally interfering matters on Stark and Aracadia in a beneficial manner was jarring as hell. Again, it feels as though the writer had a bunch of non-related ideas he felt the need to publish in some form, even by sticking them into a story they totally don’t fit.

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