Back in 1961, the prolific Rod Serling adapted a short story for an episode of his Twilight Zone series titled "Five Characters in Search of an Exit." In this episode, a clown, a hobo, a ballerina, a bagpiper, and an Army major find themselves confined within a large, metal, silo-type enclosure. There are no doors or windows--only an open ceiling much too high for any of them to reach. The characters are blank slates. They have no memory or knowledge of who they are, where they came from, or how they wound up in the silo. Racking their collective brains, they posit whether they have been abducted by aliens, have gone insane, have died and been sent to Hell, or exist only as figments of someone's imagination--as characters in another person's dream. Eventually, the major plots an escape and manages to clear the wall. As he tumbles over the edge, the twist is revealed. (Spoiler!) The camera smash-cuts to a child picking up an army doll from the snow and placing it back in a bin used to collect Christmas toys for orphans. The major is returned to the group, all depicted as dolls now, while the ballerina’s eyes fill with tears as her plastic hand reaches towards his.
While Serling's tale centers on the unknown horrors of existential dread, it also demonstrates the way in which the creative process itself becomes manifest in the final product. The twist ending is encapsulated by the meta-narrative of the child, who embodies the spirit of this creative potential. Without a child to play with the dolls, they remain sedentary lumps of cloth and paint. Dreamfall Chapters Book Three: Realms begins with its own child, Saga, scuttling around her Storytime home. From here, the worlds of Stark and Arcadia may be viewed from a different perspective, a meta-perspective, in which the boundaries of their occupations by the Azadi and the Syndicate alike form the walls of their respective toy bins. Like the Twilight Zone episode, the Dreamfall trilogy simultaneously is, was, and will be in this abstract, ethereal place.
Admittedly, the postmodern layers weaving through the story are often difficult to pin down. So what better way to illustrate their connection to the boots on the ground than with a little straight-forward adventure-game fare?
The player's first task after assuming the role of Saga in Interlude II involves a laborious easter egg hunt for a series of the child's drawings hidden around the house. Saga's clumsy toddling through the home begins as a cute romp of stilted, giggling mania and quickly becomes an exercise in patience and perseverance as the drawings become exponentially difficult to find and Saga's movement grows more frustrating to negotiate.
Fortunately, as Saga explores the house, she has more to do and interact with than the goal requires. Whether she plays with a picture on the mantle, a poster on the wall, or a simple hat on a rack, Saga's superfluous interactions with these objects fill in some of the rather drab enviro-narrative spaces with flares of color. In classic adventure-game fashion, many of these interactions, such as plucking an umbrella from a pail and pronouncing, "I'm a fancy lady!" are more satisfying than the objective at hand. Typically, "click on all the things" tends to be a fruitless undertaking, but in this case it was absolutely worth it. Saga communicates a real sense of wonder and captivation consistent with her muse-like character.
Once the entire series of drawings has been acquired, Saga must order them chronologically, with each piece depicting an event from The Longest Journey. On one hand, this is a nod to the trilogy's history, serving as a sort of veteran test for experienced players. On the other, it echoes back to that Twilight Zone episode. Is it possible that Stark, Arcadia, and all their inhabitants exist merely as figments of this child's imagination and illustrated using crayons and paper? Is Saga a personification of the creative process itself? Is she the child in the snow, playing with the dolls in the bin? Dreamfall Chapters wants its players to toy around with and consider these kinds of questions as our heroes in the "physical" world continue their journey.
The following chapter returns to Arcadia two months after the events of Book Two, which is made evident by Kian's nifty new beard and the increased proliferation of pipeworks running through Marcuria. Unlike previous episodes, Kian's (and later Zoë's) path here is simple and straightforward. Instead of presenting you with another network of choices and possibilities, Book Three tightens things up and focuses on establishing the effects of previous decisions in an effort to put all the rubber ducks in a row, so to speak. You cover much less actual ground completing Kian's objectives because the city is under an increased lockdown, with guards and gates cordoning off much of the area previously explored. It's a welcome change of pace to the long-winded trekking prevalent in Book Two.
The puzzles here also jive thematically with this streamlined approach. For the most part, they feel like a relevant series of tasks (such as exploiting an Azadi mechanic to steal his tools, breaching the pipe network, and confronting the engineer at its helm) that serve a single purpose: facilitating Kian's infiltration into the heart of the Azadi conspiracy and the mystery of the infernal machine. Where Book Two focused on reconnaissance, Book Three centers on penetrating enemy lines. No more interrogations, no more spying. Finally, the time has come to take action.
Dreamfall Chapters raises the stakes of not only the conspiracy game but also its players.
On the other side of the coin, Zoë emerges from the explosive conclusion of Book Two with a new look of her own (dig the short hair!) and a similarly intensified security presence in Propast. Again, the limited access offered by Syndicate forces serves the pacing of this act well. Aside from a couple of quick jaunts through Chinatown to check in with Queenie and Mira (who actually shows some niceties to "petal" for once), Zoë is off to the races as she struggles to procure a modded dream machine to further explore the connection between the Syndicate and WATICorp, including an important revelation involving Hannah and the Dreamtime.
Once her task is complete, Zoë's return to the Dreamtime finally makes good on a long-awaited reunion with one of Dreamfall's most familiar and notorious compadres, Crow. This intermezzo of cheeky banter provides a welcome if brief respite from the bustling tempo of Zoë and Kian's journey to this point. It proves yet again that this story still has a few surprises up its sleeve in the way of character development and dialogue treatment.
Along those lines, Book Three continues to pack punch after punch when it comes to character insight. From the bombshell dropped by Anna in her meeting with Kian to Kian's extremely brave and personal confession at the onset of the opening chapter (not to mention an especially sweet scene between Hannah and Abby), Dreamfall Chapters raises the stakes of not only the conspiracy game but also its players. They have true skin in the game, and the conflicts surrounding them become more palpable and complex as a result.
Without giving too much away, Book Three takes our heroes in new directions, which are sure to affect their characters in interesting, potentially different ways depending on the final and most significant player choice in the episode. Regardless of the outcome, the conclusion sees Zoë finally making her first leap over the proverbial toy bin wall, while Kian is set to do the same. But instead of an out, both heroes are seeking an entrance to infiltrate new spaces in which worlds collide and player decisions dictate the terms of trespass.
In many ways, Book Three acts as the fulcrum from which the story's trajectory pivots on your past choices. It is short and powerful, using the momentum of previous chapters to leverage dramatic weight going into the penultimate act like narrative jiu-jitsu. In contrast to the previous two acts, the third clocks in at around four hours, none of which seem to waste a minute. What will Kian and Zoë find as they continue to scale the walls of conspiracy? At this point, the "what" hardly matters. Book four is poised to bring much more interesting answers in the how, why, and with whom. This is perhaps its greatest victory as I, for one, can't wait to see who else is lying in the snow outside that toy bin.