This is a point-and-click adventure game from way back in 2000. It’s available on Steam, and you should all go play it before reading this review. It’s not very long — I clocked 14 hours.
Seriously, spoilers abound inside, go play it.
This is a game that was ahead of its time in a lot of ways. For one, it was begging to be a modern adventure game where you were on the ground interacting with people and seeing cool scenery. It did a lot with the graphics available, but so much of the symbolism of the two worlds was in their palettes and atmospheres, and damn was TLJ pushing up against its own limitations.
Secondly, it was shockingly progressive (always depressing to see we’ve made literally no progress and have perhaps gone backwards). Your love interest is black, your mentor is Latino, your landlords are a lesbian couple, your best friend talks freely about her sex life with no condemnation, NPCs are an incredible mix of sexes and races, the friendzoned guy is evil, and the protagonist is a young woman…. it was pretty amazing. It’s depressing to think that a game like this that got made today would be dragged over the coals by reddit-types.
Despite the terrible title and something of a rocky start, I was really engaged by the story of this game, the likable characters, and its genre-savviness. It was just really original, even today.
You are April Ryan, an art student in the 2200s who ran away from home to escape an abusive situation. You’ve been having strange, vivid dreams lately, waking up upset and exhausted, and everyone else has been having odd stuff happen, too. When the dreams start to leak into the real world, it’s clear something is seriously wrong. Enter Cortez, the eccentric man who has been a fixture in your town for a long time. He tells you you’re the chosen one.
It turns out that a long time ago, the Earth was split in two, a world where magic thrived and a world of science. Why this happened is kind of a vague “something something man gets too powerful and nearly blows up the world so split”. The early premise is a little shaky, but the game does enough with it that I was willing to accept it to see the story through. Anyway, a rogue faction is trying to slam the two worlds back into one before they’re ready, and you were born with a special power that lets you Shift between the two, so you need to save it.
April is extremely likable and realistic, and following her growth is a lot of fun. It’s pretty rare to see a female protagonist get a real Hero’s Journey like this, and April hits all the right marks without feeling like someone we’ve seen a thousand times before.
Being from 2000, the game is of the Obtuse P-a-C Puzzle variety, though mercifully the majority of the puzzles are solvable without a walkthrough, and some are even really enjoyable. There were a few times I used a guide, and some of the solutions are incredibly obtuse (that the game doesn’t really highlight interactable objects vs background-painted objects is a huge factor in this), but unlike in Grim Fandango I don’t think this seriously detracted from the game overall.
The game does have some issues, as there’s a Brock that is a Bird, somehow, and I thought the way it consistently painted April as in the wrong for running away from a father who beat her was really, really weird — and then in the end where the resolution of that plot isn’t that she needs to learn to face him, but to forgive him? No, game. No. Other than that though… there’s basically nothing to complain about on the social front. It’s kind of amazing.
One thing that didn’t age well, amusingly, was the futuristic aspect. The whole setting is supposed to be some kind of light dystopian future, but unfortunately things like the ubiquity of video calls got here a little bit sooner than the dev was hoping (Skype came out in 2003). The “DNA Scanner” thing for the subway just looked kind of like one of the high-speed EZ Pass things, so it was hard to see it as creepy and foreign. Buy hey, tappable ID cards — so 23rd century, amirite? Unfortunately things like a city surrounded by rancid sewer water didn’t seem that odd to me, either. And the ‘holosculpture’! It was a just a 3D model! Sometimes you see scifi from the 50s and its like, “In the year 2000 we’ll have evolved beyond eating and colonized other planets and wear chrome everywhere!” and this game was more, “Hopefully in 200 years… Skype will exist?”
That makes it kind of hard to tell how alien the game wanted science!Earth to be. I actually think the game probably works better feeling mundane, like the near future instead of the far, to contrast with the more fantastical magic elements. It’s harder to be as shocked as April by the existence of all this supernatural stuff when the existence of the hard science is just as weird, but that said it does less to contrast science!Earth and magic!Earth from each other, and I think as a result the Science sections felt less adventurous and more boring. So it’s probably a double-edged sword.
This all brings us to what I really wanted to talk about, which was the absolutely awful ending.
I really loved this game — I was so excited to see how it turned out (I stayed up until 1 AM despite having a 9 AM meeting in order to finish it, because I make good decisions). Unfortunately it turned out the game didn’t have an ending.
Remember when I drew a funny story pyramid for Heaven’s Feel because that plot arc of that was so bizarre? Here’s what the pyramid of TLJ looks like, with a normal pyramid for comparison:
The game just stops. We see the results of the climactic battle, but there’s no resoultion — April walks away from the climax and then it cuts to credits (there’s a bad sex joke in there somewhere…). The story completely and utterly lacks a deouement and so many plot threads have no resolution. This is especially odd for a game that’s such a typical Journey Cycle — the Return Home is a hugely important part of that story. You can’t just cut it out.
What happens with April’s relationships? A huge deal is made out of her struggling with not telling her friends about the whole Chosen One business, and the last we hear one of them has been shot and rushed to the hospital and everyone is furious with her for not trusting them enough to tell them the truth. And… we never follow up on it. This lack of character resolution was honestly the most infuriating to me. So much is made of friendship and companionship and then the game just kind of brushes it off. Her struggle with living her everyday life while all this is going on is absolutely central to the plot, you can’t just not follow up on that! And what about the romance plotline? Why the fuck was that even there if it wasn’t going to go anywhere? And then the weird implications April had a thing for Cortez? What was even the point of that if she never had a final scene with Charlie?
Then there’s the worldbuildy stuff… so like, April isn’t the guardian, which could have been a neat plot twist, but if she wasn’t the guardian, why was she important at all? What is her role cosmically if not what we’ve been led to believe it was? Was everyone telling her how important she was lying? Was she really just the first Shifter they ran across so she got suckered into it?
I actually was really liking where things were going thematically when we thought she was still the guardian. The idea that in order to save both worlds she would disappear from the world forever without ever getting to resolve the relationships she had was really powerful and a huge sacrifice and it would have been a bittersweet, effective ending — ending suddenly in that way would have been part of the story’s message.
But you can’t LOLJK the chosen one stuff and then not go over how she reintegrates into not being the chosen one. This is an either-or situation. And frankly, while there’s some trope subversion in her not being the most important person, it’s a much weaker ending even if it had been written out entirely instead of weirdly cut off. But ending on an emotional letdown and then not providing any catharsis in the form of resolution in her daily life was such a bad decision. An abysmal decision.
I think this is a case of the writers going for a trope inversion for the sake of trope inversion, but as is often said, tropes are not inherently good or bad — their context is what lends them meaning (after all, the Old Asian Sage trope isn’t racist when the story is set in Japan). This is the exact problem we’re seeing with the deconstruction trend going on right now, that simply going, “Look! Look! This is how it’s usually done!” isn’t in and of itself meaningful. If you’re going to invert a trope, you should be tearing it down to build something better… but in this case, the expected ending was infinitely more powerful because of the context.
And then there’s the other parts… like, is she also not actually a Kin? And if she is, what does that mean? What are her duties? Who was her father and how did she end up with her adoptive family? Was the implication that Cortez was her father? I don’t think it was, but that interpretation is definitely valid. Was she really the person of prophecy, or like McAllen said, was she just the person who happened to be there when the people she met needed a savior? You can’t leave these questions unanswered; they’re integral to whom April is, what her role was in her story and her world. These are bad, bad questions to leave hanging.
I’m left wondering why things happened this way. And according to wiki… it looks like it was deadlines: “Since the team had to develop the game engine and most of the required tools from scratch, they struggled to release the game on time. For most of 1999, the team had to work overtime and during weekends to ultimately meet the deadline.”
This is so, so unfortunate, because it left me feeling so disappointing in what was otherwise an exceptional game. Frankly, cutting some of the middle sequences (like everything with the kid with the missing family) would have been a better decision. In general, if you’re writing a story on the deadline, you need to cut from the middle, not the beginning and end. But no one works this way because it feels counterintuitive (plus, no one wants to believe they’re be battling deadlines like this).
To make matters worse, it looks like the dev has burned out on the franchise as a whole. This game was followed up by a sidequel, and then the sequel to the sidequel was crowdfunded very recently. At the time of the crowdfunding, a direct sequel to TLJ was on the table, but in an increasingly angry way the dev team has been brushing it off since then, which is unfortunate. I actually get the sense the sidequel was written with the intent of the two stories coming together, and then the writers actually liked the sidequel more and just kind of lost interest in TLJ as the years went on, and then when you put the expectations of such a big crowdfunding project on top of that burnout is inevitable.
I also do sympathize with this, as a writer. Sometimes, you just don’t have it in you. But it’s tough when you basically released an unfinished product with a massive sequel hook the first time and people responded to it in a way that allowed you to build your entire career. It’s essentially breaking a promise — one people spent money on — and it’s poor form to at least not be understanding about people’s disappointment. I generally think gaming fans are ridiculously entitled, but I also think this is kind of a crappy thing to do to your fanbase, especially since it’s apparently been explicitly said that the writer knows all the answers and just is refusing to tell the fans, even in the form of a plot outline, and he seems to be weirdly aggressive about being asked about the final installment to the series that made him famous. The fans may not be entitled to this last game, but I do think they’re entitled to understanding and even an explanation.
It also sucks as a new player to know this story never goes anywhere. But apparently the dev does try to tie up some loose ends in the sidequel series, and this was really such an excellent game, that’s I’m definitely going to check things out and see how the universe as a whole develops. And on the whole, this is truly a great game. Also, this is neither here nor there, but man this would make a great setting for an open-world wRPG.
edit: So I’ve now started the followup game, and… this is a direct sequel? IDK what the fanbase is asking for when they ask for a direct sequel, unless they’re all under the impression that “direct sequel” means “something that picks up the instant the first one ends,” as there is a time jump. What I suspect is actually that the bad ending in this game wasn’t actually indicative of a time crunch but of an inability to write endings, so after the end of the most recent game the devs had still left really critical questions hanging and that’s why everyone still wants another game. I guess I’ll find out.