Dreamfall Chapters: In Which My Decisions Could Potentially, Someday, In Some Manner, Be Of Consequence (Maybe)

WTF is Dreamfall Chapters?

Dreamfall Chapters is the long-awaited sequel to Dreamfall, which was the sequel to The Longest Journey, which was one of the best games ever. I honestly had given up all hope that this game would ever be made, but Kickstarter backers brought it to life, and I’m grateful.

The main conceit of the series is that there are at least two worlds – the world of Stark, a cyberpunk future ruled by corporations, and the world of Arcadia, with magic and dragons. Zoë, a character from Dreamfall who returns for Chapters, is from Stark originally, but can cross between worlds under the right circumstances. Kian, another Dreamfall alumnus, is from Arcadia, and used to be a soldier of the oppressive Azadi empire before turning traitor and helping the rebels who oppose them. A new character, Saga, lives in between worlds and has powers that only become clear toward the end of the game.

As the last part of a trilogy, there’s a lot of back story behind what happens in Chapters, but the broad strokes are that Zoë and Kian have to work opposite ends of the same mystery in order to save both their worlds. The Azadi leadership are plotting something terrible that seems to mach up with a terrible plot by the oppressive WatiCorp in Stark. Zoë needs to recover the memories she lost at the end of Dreamfall, work things out with her boyfriend, Reza, and uncover the truth about Wati. Kian needs to prove himself to the rebels, reconcile his feelings about his former comrades, and stop a potential genocide.

Gameplay alternates between Zoë and Kian, with a little bit of Saga’s story in between chapters. It’s primarily a choice-based game, in the spirit of Telltale’s oeuvre or Life is Strange, but includes some of the puzzle-solving you’d expect from an adventure game. In each chapter, players are forced to make major and minor choices that promise to change the story’s ultimate outcomes.

In the end, all secrets are revealed, all mysteries are solved, and the deceased hero of The Longest Journey, April Ryan, makes a bittersweet cameo appearance.

The game was kind of buggy

Chapters is essentially a labour of love. It exists because the fans and game designers really, really wanted it to, and you can tell the designers put their souls into it, reaching far beyond what they’d promised to deliver in the Kickstarter campaign. I completely appreciate that, and I feel fortunate that this game exists at all. But it was sometimes rough to play.

The biggest SNAFU was a change in game engines midway through the release schedule that delayed the final chapters of the game, and also made them look weird. As we limped through the last three instalments, it seemed like there was some new problem with each of them, and, I confess, I eventually just played the final chapter in one sitting because the loading screen was broken and I was afraid it wouldn’t start again if I shut it down.

These things happen, and playing the game now that it’s patched and updated is probably a totally different experience, but, after playing episodic games that more or less came out on schedule and more or less worked as predicted, it was clear that Chapters’ ambition made it more expansive at the cost of being less reliable.

The ending was hella confusing

Obviously, I wasn’t in the best state to pay attention by the time the game wrapped up, but the ending confused the hell out of me. I won’t spoil what happens here, but, there’s a house outside time that I don’t understand, and it’s unclear who lives there, and some other characters are in a stasis pod, and the dead come back to life sort of, and maybe the prophecies came true and maybe they didn’t, and maybe everything that happened in the previous games was retconned and maybe it wasn’t – the most important question is whether Kian responded to my incessant prodding and got together with his sometime-enemy, Likho, but that isn’t clear either.

I mention this because of that time when Kian turned gay because he didn’t kiss a stranger

There’s this weird decision moment in the game where some random woman Kian barely knows tries to make out with him, and you can either let it happen or pull away. If you pull away, you later end up in a dialogue tree that reveals he’s gay.

The game designers clarified later that their intention was for Kian to be gay no matter what – but the dialogue triggers definitely make it seem like being gay is the only reason they could think of why a man wouldn’t kiss some strange woman. Just for the record, four other good reasons are: 1) She’s obviously a spy; 2) She’s probably trying to trick him; 3) It seems socially inappropriate; and 4) HE DOESN’T WANT TO.

If you play your cards right, you later find out that Likho, Kian’s sometime-nemesis among the rebels, is also gay but, alas, no matter how determinedly you undertake a quest to join the only two gay characters in some kind of romance, even though they don’t like each other, the best result’s ambiguous.

Incidentally, Likho and Kian were both April Ryan’s love interests in Dreamfall – a plot point that’s been retconned through both of them telling each other they liked her as a friend. April Ryan: more like me in death than she even was in life.

Speaking of April, she’s dead in the swamp

April’s fate at the end of Dreamfall was – I now believe, unintentionally – ambiguous. We saw her get stabbed and dumped in a swamp but the story ended so abruptly after that that, for all we knew, she could have survived. Chapters opens with the rebels setting fire to her body.

The weirdest thing about this trilogy is that the last two games have basically nothing to do with the first game except that they borrow the same universe and feature cameo appearances from some of the same characters. Dreamfall does act as a bridge between the very different story lines we see in The Longest Journey and Dreamfall Chapters, but it’s still strange to me that the hero from the first game is dead and burnt by the time we get to the third game. It also seems like kind of a nasty way to get rid of her.

Spoilers for The Longest Journey, but the strongest element of that game is April’s surprising story arc, in which she first has kind of a crap life, then believes that she has a special destiny that redeems her crap life, then discovers that she doesn’t have a special destiny after all. The story ends with her standing alone in the rubble where her special destiny was supposed to be, not knowing WTF should happen next.

When we meet her again in Dreamfall (where she’s now a supporting character in Zoë’s story), she’s become the bitter, angry leader of the rebel army in Arcadia, and her story is about how sometimes you don’t have a special destiny and you have to keep on living anyway. Her general abrasiveness changes Kian’s mind about the Azadi just in time for her to get betrayed, stabbed in the stomach, and dumped in a swamp.

Then, it’s the third game, and she’s dead, and the only person who misses her as much as I do is her sidekick from the first game, Crow.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate what the designers are trying to do in terms of inverting and challenging the “special chosen one” narrative. By the end of Chapters it’s clear that all three of the lead characters have a special destiny that isn’t specific to any one of them – that they’re all playing a small part in a larger design as part of a collective form of heroism. It suits the game’s format, which emphasizes how the choices of one person affect the course of other people’s lives, because we’re all connected, and the weird, vague connections between April and the new character, Saga, have led to speculation that maybe April’s destiny was fulfilled after all, in some way, but everything’s so confusing by the end that all I can tell you for sure is that April got murdered and dumped in a swamp.

My choices sort of mattered, but not really

When Chapters presents you with an important choice, time slows down, ominous music plays, and the game promises you that your decision will have consequences. At the end of each chapter, it recaps what your most important choices were and either tells you what the outcome was, if it’s already happened, or offers the dark promise that the long-term consequences of your decision have yet to play out.

This is a pretty common model for choice-based, episodic games to follow, and usually the ominous consequences of your decisions don’t amount to much by the end. The same is true in Chapters.

The most consequential choices you make – in terms of things that will affect your actual gameplay experience – occur in the first chapter. The most consequential choices in terms of narrative occur within the first three chapters. The closer we get to the end, the more Chapters becomes an interactive movie with a story set on rails. That’s probably partly because there was so much time-pressure to complete production, but also because I don’t think the game industry has figured out how to manage branching story lines in a cost-effective way yet.

A lot of the nuances depend on remembering the past two games

I think it’s good and right that Chapters builds on the characterization and plot details of the first two games in the trilogy, but it’s been decades since those games came out and, even if you want to play them again, it’s not such a simple thing to do.

My patchy memory of the first two games left me with vague feelings about some of the characters – Brian Westhouse: probably evil; Reza: maybe a pod person?? – but I couldn’t remember what the basis for those feelings was. I remembered that Na’ane existed – which is one step up from how I completely forgot about Likho – but I forgot the rather important detail where she was the one who betrayed the rebel army. Like, there’s a tense moment early in the game where Kian meets her for the first time and has to make an Important Choice about whether to reveal her betrayal to the others and, while he was struggling with that, I was just like, “What did she ever do?”

The end of Chapters makes a lot of that a moot point by throwing a blanket of confusion over literally everything that’s happened, but, overall, I felt like I would have had a better grip on the stakes if the previous games were fresher in my mind.

In conclusion, “choice” is fucked and I’m okay with that

Dreamfall Chapters is a decent game, even if its ambitions outstrip what it can actually deliver.

Choice-based, episodic games are going through an awkward phase where developers are still experimenting with what they can be and where critics are reading a lot of meaning into how the games interpret “choice.” Without reading too much into it, I think the vision for Chapters was initially of a game where your choices significantly affected gameplay and created branching narratives, but that it got scaled back to a light-weight adventure game with some choice-based customizations for flavour.

I think the issue is not that developers misunderstand what people want when they say they want choice – I think the issue is that we’re asking for something that, at this point, is literally impossible to deliver.

Image: Dreamfall Chapters; Red Thread Games | December 17, 2016