Growing older with April Ryan

By Bane Okholm | Feb 27, 2013

Even in this digital age, when the technology used to carry narratives is evolving at an exponential rate, I think it’s possible to create stories that transcend their limitations as their form of medium is inexorably outpaced.

Before you scoff, chew on this. Books, a medium that’s been around for thousands of years, may not be disappearing, but they’re transmuting. Now not only can I read Neal Stephenson novels, but I can read different editions of a particular text, highlight portions I like, and see what sections thousands of other users have highlighted.

Traditional painting might not be going anywhere, per se, but art created in digital imaging programs like Adobe Photoshop can be infinitely more elaborate, take less time to create, and be infinitely reproducible. Given the high cost of quality ink, they can be as expensive as a “real” painting, or as cheap as the price of a printout from a big box retailer.

Thus beginneth the narrative portion of this blog...

We didn’t have the greatest computer in the house when I was a teenager. When I was a kid I played a super-pixelated Robin Hood and Sherlock Holmes, and later LucasArts’ Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, but we weren’t exactly keeping up with the cutting edge of graphics.

For some reason, though - perhaps my own request - “Santa” left a copy of PC Gamer magazine in my Christmas stocking every year. I drooled over that thing with all the dreaminess but none of the sexual tension of adolescent boys with an illicit copy of Victoria’s Secret, imagining a time when “gaming” no longer meant my mother backseat-driving yet another round of Amazon Trail. (Not that that wasn’t a good game, too.)

One year, while making the rounds through the pages of my latest festive prize, I came across a review for a game called The Longest Journey. The screenshots that accompanied what must’ve been a one-page article blew my techno-sheltered young mind. Though I didn’t actually get to play the game for another few years, it blew my mind tenfold when I did.

Plainly put, there was something beautiful about this game. The protagonist was dynamic and funny, a female dork in an age when most videogame women were arse-kicking sexpots or nonexistent. April Ryan may have been older than me in real-time, but I could completely identify with her choices and reactions, as well as react to those of other characters as if they were autodynamic entities.

On top of that, the cutscenes were so stunning I’m still strangely afraid of one character. (The Gribbler. That name alone gives me the wiggins.)

It took me an inordinately long amount of time to play through TLJ for the first time, but then, it’s very much a game written by a screenwriter (NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts grad Ragnar Tørnquist), which is to say there’s a LOT of dialogue, which is time-consuming. Maybe the story would have fared better without quite so much verbosity, but it’s quality dialogue, which I think more than makes up for the volume, especially back then (and given how my own existence clearly proves there was obviously a market for such a story.)

During the past ten years I’ve been through many other games and at least three copies of TLJ, playing through the entire game approximately once a year for a decade. I’ve completed the sequel, Dreamfall, too, but TLJ is really that game that holds my heart.

For me, what it boils down to is the very apparent joy in the construction process. Where else could I find a character that jokes around about her appearance when you click on her? (If you aren’t a gamer, I swear, that isn’t as creepy as it sounds.) Or Abnaxus of the Venar, who greets you by saying, “Enter, honored guest, and I would have been with you presently”? Where else could you find Roper Klacks, alchemist and occasional hopsotch-duelist?

Even before I understood the art of narrative construction in any meaningful way, it was obvious that someone cared about this game. And that made me care about the game, too.

Part of my marriage contract with my husband dictated that he play TLJ, which is great because now he gets the jokes I crack about it every so often. Like how the other day I told him I wasn’t going to sign something until he played me some music to distract the Mo’Jaal. I can’t imagine what the people behind us at the grocery store thought I was talking about, but if they happened to be that oh-so-rare fellow gamer, I bet they’d think it was funny, too.

(I had another friend play TLJ years ago, too, and that ended with us co-opting a lap swimming session into shimmying around in the shallow end shrieking, “I’M QUEEN OF THE MAERUM!” But I digress...)

By constructing such a truly fantastic game, one that combined a solid storyline and graphics with a unique, clever execution, Tørnquist and production company Funcom created a narrative that’s fun for gamers to re-explore even as the years pass. I know most of the dialogue by instinct, but even so, about once a year I do another walkthrough on TLJ just for fun.

Funcom and Tørnquist have since created survival horror MMORPG The Secret World, and I find myself looking back over half a lifetime, to when I was 13 and just dreaming of playing The Longest Journey. I don’t have a rig that can handle a decent MMORPG right now, but having been through this journey before, I can trust that someday I will.

And when I do, I know a truly well-constructed World will be waiting.

Tune in tomorrow for a discussion about issues with the film adaptation of the early ‘90s classic novel Ender’s Game!

Courier Publications reporter Bane Okholm received her M.F.A. in Screenwriting from U.C.L.A. Email her at bokholm@courierpublicationsllc.com or follow her on Twitter @MediaHeathen.

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