I finished Dreamfall, by Ragnar Tørnquist, today. It is 12.7 hours long and I recommend it to all my classmates.

Pluses: It’s visually spectacular, well acted, and well written. It’s an adventure game (see below), and those are among my most memorable gaming experiences.  There should be more games like this: beautiful and ambitious.

Geeks like Zoë, Zoë likes geeks
Geeks like Zoë, Zoë likes geeks

I’m a graphics snob, I’m afraid, and early games (of the vintage of Half-Life or Morrowind) are really unattractive to me.  Dreamfall is good in this respect, but not top-notch; the designers seem to have had trouble with arms, and the fervently acted dialogs are a little weakened by animations that only move the eyebrows and mouth.   On the other hand, Zoë is cute and it’s fun to watch her ponytail bob around as she moves.

As many people have noted, the combat system is kind of dumb.  It’s just tricky enough that I’d frequently lose fights, but not used enough that you get much practice.  Others seem to dislike the sneaking, but I didn’t mind that.  The camera controls are wonky, though.  So far as  I can see you can’t pan up or down, which occasionally makes puzzles more difficult.

Spoilers ahead, so take whatever precautions you normally take under such circumstances.

The story kind of frustrates me.  It seems to me that Tørnquist didn’t let his character arcs talk to his plot.  His idea seems to be that April Ryan has fallen into despair after saving the world in the previous game (which I haven’t played).  That’s a great idea, except that in terms of actual action she’s a key resistance fighter– a hero.  There’s an odd scene where her superior alternately thanks and denigrates her.  The game makes a big deal out of her not helping Zoë… only she does, at considerable personal risk.  Perhaps she could have done more, but no one bothers to explain what.   (Her final scene is also frustrating… she’s at the end of a pier; why didn’t she just jump in the water?  It’s not like she was held at gunpoint.)

Similarly, there’s a huge push to “save April Ryan”.  The White Dragon sends Zoë to the key location at the right time.  Only she doesn’t do a thing there (except perhaps fatally delay the escape of a couple of fighters). 

The last scenes with Zoë are unsatisfying as well.  They wrap up one story (that of Faith, your standard creepy little girl); but 90% of the actual game has been about other characters and machinations.  Some of those are left hanging or even complicated more at the last minute.  I guess it’s part of the territory that your MacGuffins may end up being inconsequential, but the game is trying to tell several stories at once and the balance seems off.  Perhaps we’ll just have to wait for Dreamfall Chapters, the eventual sequel.

While we’re at it, it’s rather strange that video game characters are so blasé about sending the player character into possibly fatal situations.  In Dreamfall, Damien (the computer geek in the picture above) sends Zoë on a mission that, objectively, would be likely to kill her.  It’s as if he knows that she can just respawn.  Even in Half-life 2, Alex sends Gordon Freeman on frankly suicidal missions– e.g. through Ravenholm.  He’s good, but that’s a lot of confidence to have in anyone.  At least in Fallout 3 the NPCs seem to have a reasonable attitude: the Vault Dweller is an adventurer who puts her life on the line for a few bottle caps… they’re not forcing the quest on her.

One more cavil: it kind of feels like the developers ran out of game about an hour before the end.  After a point, it’s all cutscenes.  That’s probably why some critics felt like it should have been a movie instead.   I wouldn’t go that far, but again I think the balance was a little off.  At the least it would have been nice to have some dialog choices.