I got a hold of a game I’d wanted when I was a lot younger. I had wanted it since the time when the internet was just getting out of AOL trial-disk land, before it had any significant or recognized impact on the way the world ran. The only knowledge I had about it was what my Xbox magazine had said about it, and the only times I’d see it were when I actually went out with my mom on shopping trips to go over to the games section, oogling at something I wish I could have.
The world was smaller and simpler back then. Information was valuable; there was no Google or whatever that program’s called that everyone has on their smartphone these days. Money was valuable too, at least to me – though America has been capitalist/consumerist for over a century, I was not allowed to touch or have things for a long time. There’s jokes and stereotypes, but I had no cash under my own supervision until I was halfway through highschool. Up until sometime last year I was completely hesitant to even spend five dollars on a fast food meal by myself – I’d resist and tell myself I couldn’t spend anything, I’d have to just live on whatever my parents had left me with for the whole term. Their complete reversal last year and suddenly giving me a credit card and telling me they’d pay for whatever I needed, along with constant exposure to sales everywhere online, has changed that a bit. Though I don’t treat money as valuable as before, there are many things which remain holy to me in this unholy goddessless world. Cars, for instance – I have only recently conquered a “fear” of distance by regularly commuting five miles a day by bike to campus and twenty to thirty mile loops in training for cycling, but the safety, power, comfort, and transport capacity available to so many still eludes me. I’m sure there are many other ways my world is much smaller than everyone else’s, but it’s getting bigger.
And I’m not sure I like it.
This game went on sale on Steam recently, and it brought back a lot of those memories. I had originally wanted it simply because there was a hot girl on the cover. This was, again, before the internet, and thus the vast quantities and easily accessible images and videos of hot women doing hot things. I had no particular hopes for the graphics of a 2006 game after building myself a top-end desktop in mid 2011. I was interested in the three-character narrative back then, and it had inspired my writing and thinking style for a while, but I’ve seen a couple of those by now and it’s no longer as novel. I didn’t get it for any particular reason, really. Steam simply had it on sale that day, and I remembered that it existed.
Perhaps I got Dreamfall: The Longest Journey simply out of nostalgia.
And playing it felt like I really had gone back in time. The character animations are simplistic, and the conversations have everyone standing stock still with a couple of head motions – only the movement of the mouth is perfectly timed with the audio. Audio by voice actors who clearly weren’t about to speak above their “inside voice”. The textures are dull, and the more important a character is the more detail they get. You can’t fall off the edge of any cliff or bridge. The maps are essentially linear (and has loadpoints every ~30 seconds, as this was a time before 1gb of RAM), and there’s no such thing as a sidequest. You can go ahead, wander around and look at random things, but there’s really only one correct way to achieve the goal, and there is only one goal. Perhaps you choose to fight directly, rather than sneaking around. Or activate the puzzle pieces in this order rather than the other. But it doesn’t really matter. There’s only one correct answer. And if you do anything wrong, it is death. The camera moves to a different angle, and you watch in slow motion as the character you are currently controlling dies. You also can’t change the appearance of your character, name it, or really do anything to them except choose conversation options. Options, not choices. Again, there is only one correct answer. One tale. One end. There’s also the fact that Dreamfall isn’t really a game. It is more akin to a visual novel – the only real “playing” i did was moving around, combining and using items, solving the random puzzle and fighting the random enemy. Most of the time I spent in the “game” was listening to conversation. They weren’t questionable, or quittable. You couldn’t move the camera. It simply was.
What was was content from a lost era. Though the game presentation is easily recognized as something created in the early 2000’s, the story feels like it’s in some future – a future which isn’t our past. There are enough things in the story which tie it to our past, like the existence of an internet, flat-screen TV’s, cell phones, references to terrorism, and the an all-powerful military/police state. The direction, however, doesn’t reflect anything. We have characters who in one instance are so familiar to us we question the intelligence of any author willing to use a character so realistic, and yet in the next they all act in a way which we have rarely, if ever, seen before. In most stories the structure of the question is familiar but the precise version of the answer is what makes the hero and story unique.
For Dreamfall the problem is vaguely familiar, but the familiarity ends there.
Zoë: Every day’s exactly the same, and I’m not doing anything to change that. There’s no school to go to, no job, and I barely spend time with my friends. What’s left of them.
Liv: I see you all the time. You haven’t abandoned me.
Zoë: No, but that’s because it’s so easy to come here. If it requires any more effort on my part… and that goes for everything. I’m on autopilot.
Liv: It’s probably exhaustion, sweetie. You’ve had a tough year. You dropped out of school, broke up with Reza, moved back home. All of that’s bound to take its toll, no?
Zoë: You’re probably right. and I do complain way too much, don’t I? I don’t want to be the whiny, apathetic Zoë. I want to be me again.
It is the problem of Fatigue.
(The following contains spoilers.)
Dreamfall being an adventure epic, the problem at hand is of an epic scale – but it doesn’t really matter what scale it is. It’s been illustrated time and time again that increasing the scale of a problem does not have anything to do with making a story more amazing. Assassin’s Creed is about saving a planet, but the premise feels like it’s tacked on. Mass Effect is about saving a galaxy, but the actual things being done were simply a go here go there help your friend and that random other guy.
The most amazing parts of those stories at the end of AC2 and the undertone of ME1: the mysticism. The Reapers were an “unknowable” entity, and spoke in an entirely cryptic manner. Those Who Came Before spoke through and saw through people and through time. You didn’t know why they did things. You simply had to go and do it, whatever it was, without understanding, hoping that understanding could be achieved at some point before the timer ran out on when the main something, the something of unimaginable importance, needed to be done so you could actually go and do it correctly.
But by the third installment of each series, it was lost, replaced with a non-dead non-alive version: “reveals”. In replace of the unknown unknown called “magic“, the structure is a known unknown. Fetch quest, and everything else will be a given. You will know the answer, so long as you do this simple combination of buttons. Desmond in AC3 says, right before the ending: “moment of truth”. One of Those Who Came Before, word for word: “I will explain”.
In place of “If you do X, you could get some help for Y”, is “If you do X, Y will be done”.
In place of mystic dreams and fantasy lies an only-currently closed book.
The Book is the idol of this culture. The idea that truth is in the facts, those things which are true no matter what and simply await passively their discovery, that once we have finished the game of hide-and-seek, everything else is simply a given. Once we know the truth, the light will show the way, and it will be as easy as one-two-three. A simple procedure – that’s all it will be. Follow the instructions, and your experiment will complete with the correct results. Do as your teacher says, and you’ll get into that university you wanted. Do as the career center says, and you’ll get an interview and job. File your taxes and vote, and you’ll be a respected citizen. Be yourself, and you’ll find a nice girl to fall in love with. Follow the advice of the marriage counselor, and you won’t have to deal with divorce lawyers. Fill out the forms correctly, and you’ll get free money from social security rather than an agent from the IRS. The same has occurred in games; talk with that NPC, fetch some things for them, do something else with them, and they will point you to the next person/place you need to visit next. Everything is framed with a procedure. Perhaps there’s some things before and after that don’t exactly seem to be explainable, that seem to “depend”… but those parts don’t matter, it’s this part that we have down that matters. Stick to what you know, and you know that the Book has all you’ll ever need to know. It is the modern-day equivalent of salvation:
You simply need to open the Book, and read it, and you shall Know the Truth.
And yet, it’s really… tedious.
For some reason, pulling the cover away seems to take a lot of time. The text seems to be written in an older version of the language we’re familiar with, or perhaps some of it is familiar but most of it is jargon. Maybe the text is too light to read, or the lack of good handwriting is making it somewhat difficult to read continuously. It’s always just a little more. Why is it always a little more? Why does it seem like I can’t actually just open this book and read it? That can’t be possible can it? It’s supposed to simple. Why is it taking forever? Why does it feel like nothing has been gained at all?
Why can’t I get there?
April: I wish I could just sit down, gaze into the fire, and forget everything. (Sighs) But I can’t.
Benrime: So, child, did you find that person you were looking for last evening?
April: What? Oh. No, I… No.
Benrime: What’s the matter? You seem distracted.
April: I’m okay, Benrime.
Benrime: All right. Well, the day is getting on. If there’s anything you need, come see me.
April: Actually, Benrime, there is something. I’m…confused.
Benrime: About what, child?
April: I’m not sure what to do, and I… I would appreciate your advice.
Benrime: I see. Well, child, I’ll do the best I can, though I’m no Wisewoman. What’s wrong?
April: I think something’s going on, something potentially bad… Something involving the Balance between the twin worlds.
Benrime: Ah. Does this have anything to do with that nice young woman from Stark? Zoë, was it?
April: It may. It does. But I can’t tell you all the details. I don’t even understand what’s going on. I’m just worried that I might be involved somehow.
Benrime: I see. And you would prefer not to be involved.
April: I’ve done my share for the Balance. And I have more pressing concerns. People depend on me.
Benrime: Yes, they do. But that is no excuse.
April: I’m not looking for excuses. I’m looking for answers. I want to– I need to know what I’m supposed to do this time.
We keep asking, we keep opening. And the more we try to open the Book, the more we destroy the rest of the world. Literally, we destroy – our models for everything else erode. We convince ourselves that our task is truly as simple as a couple of steps, and see not that we spend ever more time and energy doing the same thing. We can’t see it, because we have established as axiom that the Truth is the most important, and everything done to get it is insignificant. It is necessary, thus all costs are negligible. So we become sloppier and more inefficient at that single task. And, having allocated closer and closer to everything to opening that book, our modelling of the rest of the world becomes rusty and starts fading to oblivion. In other words, our knowledge, memories, skills become lost. Forgotten.
Eventually, when we tire our quest for eternal happiness… we find there is nowhere left to rest. In the chase of this one order, we neglected the order of all else. At first everything else was proper enough so we could focus all our energies on this one nagging thing, but it has reversed. Now, everything is broken except this one thing which we believe has… the answer, the solution. So we go back to opening the Book. Back to destroying the rest of the world. Destroying our world.
The cycle repeats, and each cycle, everything gets slower. Even if we get past the first words on the next page, it’s not enough. Now we have some of it, there’s more to read. The big picture is not yet complete. Truth should solve everything, and because there are still problems in the world, that clearly means we haven’t gotten to the end yet. If we have gotten to the end, well, we must’ve missed something the first time through. Maybe it was hidden in between the lines. So the search goes on.
Zoë: What do you mean, you’re not getting involved? You are involved, April, whether you like it or not!
April: I understand that you’re upset, but this is not my fight. I know that now.
Zoë: Oh, because this Guardian person told you. Does he know everything?
April: Maybe not, but he told me that my role in this thing is over, that I’m free.
Zoë: So, what, you’re just going to walk away? You’re not going to help me? What am I supposed to do?
April: You’ll find out, I’m sure. I know I did–
Zoë: Fine, yeah, God forbid you put yourself on the line again.
Zoë: Did you ever think that maybe the reason you saved the world the first time around was because others helped you?
April: Others helped me, yes, and they suffered for it. There’s no justice in this universe. No matter how much you give, there’s no guarantee you’ll ever get anything back.
Zoë: That’s no reason to give up. It’s called having faith, April. You might want to try it out.
April: That’s… Look, Zoë, I’ve told you everything I know. I’ve helped you as much as I can. You’re on your own now. I have others to take care of.
Zoë: Fine. If I have to do this on my own, I will.
Zoë: Have a nice life, April Ryan.
Destroying, tiring, destroying, tiring, and at the end when we have obliterated everything and there is nothing left but the Book, we’re too tired to care that nothing else exists. But even as we tell ourselves again that it’s okay because the Book has what we need, there’s a nagging at the back of our heads. There’s a doubtful voice, floating here and there, flitting around us – something wrong with our thought. Sometimes the voice is louder, sometimes softer, but one time eventually we get around to solidifying exactly what the concept in question is. “It’s okay because the Book has what we need”– And then we see it. In the process of destroying the world, we destroyed… the “need”.
We destroyed… the “we”.
April: Don’t ask me. I don’t need saving. You’ve got the wrong woman.
Zoë: I don’t think so. This girl, she led me to your room where I found the picture. It can’t be a coincidence.
April: It can’t? You’re sure about that? Look, Stark’s not my world anymore.
April: You got problems, you figure them out. That’s what I had to do.
April: I’m done with the saving of the world. Ask someone else.
Zoë: But I–
April: I’ll help you get back. It’s either that or we lock you up somewhere until you figure out how to use your powers.
Zoë: And what do I tell your friends?
April: Tell them whatever you want. The April Ryan they knew is dead. I’m not part of their world anymore.
Zoë: So you’re not going to help me? You’re not curious to find out why I keep getting these messages about you?
Zoë: What if something big is going down, and–
April: Like I said. Not my problem. I’ve played my part. Just leave me alone. Now, do you want to go back or not?
April: Keep an eye on Brynn, make sure he doesn’t follow me.
Benrime: That boy… He takes after you, April. He adores you. You have a responsibility to–
April: Responsibility. There’s that word again. He’s an adult. I can’t babysit Brynn forever.
Benrime: You saved his life. You are the only family he has. Do not forget that.
Benrime: You may seek danger – even death – yourself, but do not forget that others rely on you.
April: They should find someone else to rely on. I can’t be anyone’s guardian angel. Or mother.
April: Kara, about Benrime. We need to do–
Kara: She put her life on the line for us. We won’t forget that anytime soon. We’ll sing her song at the tables tonight.
April: The Azadi will be keeping her alive until they can ship her west. They like to have a show trial before executing their prisoners.
April: If I can take a dozen people with me south, I can–
Kara: You intend to take on the entire Azadi army by yourself? No, April. This war will have its victims, and you’ll have to learn to live with that.
Kara: You may have a death wish, but not everyone shares your lack of faith in the future. In time, we shall prevail.
April: I’ve dedicated my life to fighting the Azadi, Kara. What makes you say that I have no faith?
Kara: You’ve already given up your life. You don’t fight because you want to destroy them. You fight to destroy yourself and your demons.
Kara: Granted, your ferocity and guidance have strengthened us. The enemy fear and curse your name, and you’ve made them tread more cautiously in the north…
Kara: But both you and I know you’re not doing this for any greater cause. You’re doing this because it’s the only thing you have left.
In truth, fatigue has nothing particular to do with how difficult a task is. Exertion can always get us tired. But use of energy alone can never break us down – simply come back to it another time, refreshed and renewed, and you’ll be on your merry way. A machine doesn’t break down simply because it works hard and long, it breaks down when its main fuel is empty, its lubrication dried, and its older parts in disrepair and neglect. Humans, too, need more than simply just sleep and food. America has discovered this recently, that there’s this curious thing called “exercise” that we need, that for some strange reason it makes us feel great and keeps us in good health. These things which were once known are now questionable oddities, trivial facts and things to know rather than givens and undeniable truths.
It was once a given that there was an “us”.
The lack of a sense of “us” is the true cause of fatigue. We destroyed the only real and immutable reason there is in this world.
Without the “us”, there is no ” some other time”. There is no one to watch your back – both physically, and all the figurative ways.
Perhaps we are actually well fed and we actually do live in upper class neighborhoods with cops and lighting. Perhaps we do have a high paying job and have jobs which allow us to drink every night and go anywhere in the world we please. Perhaps we’re even working our “dream job”, and our work is actually play, and everything we do there at our corporate, paid, capitalist job is a passion. Perhaps we even have thousands of people hanging at our every word on Twitter or our next lip movement on a YouTube video. But when we go home, we have to use our own key. When we open the door, no one waits. No lights are on, no life is seen. Our neighbors are peachy but we don’t really know them. There are no ancestors in the sky we believe in who watch over us. Our parents, if alive, are seen as simply a source of money and a usage of time. So we walk in, by ourselves. We do the dishes, clean the bathroom, do laundry, type at the computer, cook our dinner to leave half-eaten plates around again, turn on the heat, drink alcohol and leave that around too, and sleep.
Again, the scale of the story – of whomever it may be – is irrelevant. It matters not if you are saving the universe from heat death or saving a cat from a tree. You are simply tired of everything, because “Loneliness is a disease equivalent to death“. Even if we have absolutely everything else we need,
Is it happiness? Is it enough?
Dreamfall begins with a girl who had dropped out of college in a high-demand major, whose dad (mother died at birth) is more than willing to fund anything productive she’d want to do – “I hate to see you like this”. As for Zoë, she doesn’t care too much. She and her dad have a cordial relationship, but she doesn’t ask too much about his work or have dinner together often at all. Her relationship with her friends are the same way. It’s all very casual. The adventure truly begins when, while doing a favor for a friend, she finds someone else in trouble. After saving the one in need, she attempts to deliver the package to her friend… to find an open door and a dead woman inside! The military police come in and “boom” her, and bring her into questioning. After getting out, she embarks on a journey around the world to find her friend – to find that she was actually on a journey around two worlds.
She had a few things at her disposal. She had plenty of money being a rich girl, and was “the most gifted student” at her martial arts studio. But for everything else she drew blanks – until others came to her aid. One provided invisibility for her phone from the cops, and multiple lock breaking mechanisms for seemingly every possible situation. Another provided information about how to break into and steal information from the headquarters and main research division of the largest company on the planet. Yet another provided sanctuary in the most dangerous district of a now-downtrodden city. Every other step she took was guided, and into the unknown. She didn’t know where or how to find her friend. She didn’t know what to do, and had help she didn’t understand the implications of.
But she had a purpose.
Damien: He must be very important to you. Reza, I mean.
Zoë: He is. Reza was my best friend for so long, and I was totally in love with him. When that feeling went away…
Zoë: I don’t love him any less, but it’s different now. I don’t know what’s going on with me. I’ve just… I’ve lost faith. Not just in him. In everything.
Zoë: School, my friends, my hobbies…my future. Reza. Nothing seems to matter that much anymore.
Zoë: And that’s why, when Reza went missing, I knew I had to go after him. Not just because he’s my friend, and not just because I love him.
Zoë: But because if I didn’t, then who would I be? What would I be?
Zoë: I may not like the Zoë I’m turning into, but I would have hated the Zoë who just abandoned her best friend like that.
Zoë: So, yes…he is very important to me. Of course. And right now, more than anything in the world, I want him to be okay.
It is where all stories begin: something needs to be done, someone has a purpose. A purpose always has a certain kind of gravity to it, a consolidating force. Whomever it may be and whatever they do for or against you, every action weighs a lot more. Those who do help you, are no longer just acquaintances or friends. Just as purpose draws you, it draws in others as well – and suddenly, they are there, for you and with you. You suddenly have a team, the fundamental unit necessary for anything to be done. Through your combined skills and directions, the solution which was missing can now be created. What is it? Don’t know. How do we do it? Don’t know that either. Maybe it’s this? It could be wrong, and everything could go to hell. But we don’t know what to do and we have to do something, and this should be right.
Okay, do it.
We ‘ll cover for you. We got your back. Do what you need to do.
Dreamfall’s execution of this is beautiful even in its visually and audially antiquated form, but where it shines most brilliantly is its contrast with the conventional perspective – the “book” way of approaching the world. It feels less like a fable from centuries past, and more like a modern fairy tale – an attempt to ressurect the fairy tale. Zoë’s lines are amazing not because they are flowery and look like they could be from any random motivational speaker’s talk at a community service event. They are amazing because her lines have a support. A contrast.
The Guardian: You’re free. Go live your life. Let the past go.
April: That’s easy for you to say. There’s meaning to your existence. Me? I wasn’t who I thought I was.
April: I honestly have no idea who I am anymore. Everyone kept telling me I was important, that I was needed.
April: Then one day, I…wasn’t. I was just lost. So don’t tell me I’m free. Don’t tell me to go live my life. You don’t know. You have a purpose.
The Guardian: We all do, April. You just haven’t found yours yet. But this isn’t it. Let it go.
April Ryan in Dreamfall’s prequel was the savior of the world – or should have been. Her life fell apart, her friends died, and her existence caused a city to be sacked and the greatest public library in the world to be burned in an attempt to save two worlds from being destroyed. She was told she was important and she went along with it, and at the end, when everything had fallen apart except for this one last thing, she wasn’t. The Guardian of the Balance she was to become, and then… nothing. She was a nobody. Friends here and there had helped her through the worst of almost-catastrophes, and they all died to get her to a point which was revealed to be meaningless. She had nothing to return to, and that stuck with her, even when she became a respected and feared fighter for outcast groups against an imperial race ten years later.
Zoë didn’t have much either, but her attitude and perspective were completely different. They both had things to do, and at the time of their meeting April clearly had a larger network than Zoë could hope to compare with. She had connections everywhere and people protecting her, and all Zoë had was at maximum one person who knew who she could probably turn to for help next. Yet she had much more family than April did. April, for all the people she knew and all the things she had done and could do, wanted nothing. She acted, and her actions had much greater consequences than Zoë’s, but she had no purpose.
Zoë had one thing April didn’t, which caused all the difference in the world.
The belief that she was needed. The belief that because others needed her and she needed others, what needs to be done shall be done:
It matters not how much support you have, how close your parents have been with you, how well your friends have treated you, and how much the world needs you as its prophezised hero if you don’t care about them. So long as you believe you are alone in your quest for truth and the truth is the most important thing, whether that be worded as an “individual”, a “scholar”, a “feminist” or “MGTOW”, a “99%” or otherwise, everything you do will fatigue you in the end. It is inevitable, because the principles of the Book are counter to the principles of human action. Nevermind that reality isn’t actually a set of procedures and no “facts” are ever actually “proven”, that the Book doesn’t actually and can never exist. Let’s even say it does, like it did in Dreamfall. How much did it help April to hear from the Guardian of the Balance himself that she had nothing to do with Zoë’s concerns? Did she suddenly treat the groups she protected as her family? Did the mysticism return and turn her into a passionate and visionary warrior, from a tactical fighter who simply happens to know how to exploit small advantages?
Of course not. She couldn’t possibly. Passion requires purpose, purpose requires family, and family requires faith.
The Truth cannot give you Faith.
This world and this culture has chosen Truth. It trusts no place of mysticism, no groups or systems with magic. In place of fathers, mothers, uncles, aunts, and cousins – government, law enforcement, school, and strangers. In place of community and culture – regulations and law. Hospitality and trust, are checkpoints and disarmanent. No honorable war, only courts and protests. No discovery and creation, only evidence and design. No magic. Only facts.
This is how the world ends. With everyone looking up for answers and none being given, the current culture as a whole has already deteriorated into nothing but inertial resistance. Its “original content” is nothing but lower quality imitations, and its only direction is irony and hipsterism. Its people are the same, doing nothing positive and everything only in response to others. So fearful of this culture to rip a page out of their precious Book, so long have they waited for the Book to give them the Next Big Thing, that they themselves have rotted to the skin. They can no longer do anything.
And this is why the world will begin again. Those with faith will impose order and create a new world. Call it” survival of the fittest”, “competition”, or just “fate”, the best will always rise to the top. With faith and everything that follows from it, they are unfatigueable and thus indomitable. For all the bureaucracy, political correctness, and other systems of resistance that this abominable society has come up with to prevent itself from falling off the cliff of death, it is powerless. There is nothing the dead can do against the living who want to live.
There is nothing a detached object can do against limitless energy.
Mysticism shall rise once more.
Merry Christmas, everyone.