“The longest journey
Is the journey inwards.
Of him who has chosen his destiny,
Who has started upon his quest
For the source of his being”
For weeks, I had been absorbed by April Ryan’s adventure and enchanted by the sheer beauty of the worlds The Longest Journey had created — and now it was all drawing to a close. Even at the age of 10, I had experienced enough fictional stories in books, films and games to perceive when the threads began to coalesce and the world grew burdened with a heavy weight; waiting for you to relieve it. I had played enough adventure games to realize that when the characters began making that “final push” that would fulfill their destinies, it was a portent that your time in that world is drawing to a close. But then, something went wrong. At the grand stage of the concluding chapter, an unexpected event happens and then instead of resolving everything and going out on a high, the game ends. Just like that, the longest journey me and April had traversed together ended and left nothing but emptiness within me.
That day, as I experienced my first anti-climax to a fictional narrative something broke inside me but in the emptiness it had left in its wake, I realized I had stumbled on something beautiful and deeply meaningful beyond anything I could comprehend then.
The Resolution of a Narrative
We often forget that narratives aren’t bound to a single, rigid role. They can serve a variety of purpose — to describe a character’s journey, a world’s state or even create a space where the viewer (or player, in the case of games) is allowed to participate in a discussion with a creator surrogate (generally a narrator, but can also be a central character defining its’ major themes) about the narrative.
It is disappointing that despite knowing such a fact, resolution in narratives has grown to be a vastly desired quality to the point it’s almost taken granted. How many times have we seen people lament on the lack of a resolution, a rushed ending or an unsatisfying conclusion?
Granted, in the “Age of Sequels”, anti-climaxes are almost too easily attributed as an excuse to milk the narrative of a franchise and conveniently delay the impending resolution. We have seen this happen all too often and the “Great Machine” chugging out sequels on the assembly line is to be blamed for it.
But I’m not talking about endings constructed knowingly of the fact they were already a part of an ongoing series. I’m not referring to the cliffhanger ending of Halo 2 which knew it had Halo 3, at the very least, to justify its’ narrative. I’m talking of the infamous anti-climatic resolutions of an entire journey that leave every fan fuming. The most recent infamous example, in case of games, would be Mass Effect 3 – a trilogy which gloriously caved in due to the mistake of trying to conclude with a single, grand, universe-altering event, inadvertently repeating the same mistakes of its’ sci-fi contemporary, Battlestar Galactica.
But can a history of failure be a justifiable excuse to brand a narrative element as a pejorative? Does our inherent wish for resolution of character arcs’ and fictional world issues counter against a narrative’s drive to leave it open-ended?
We conveniently use the word “open-ended” when it works and “anti-climax” when it doesn’t, but the problem doesn’t even lie in the two-faced usage of words for a single intention. The problem lies that our wired expectations of what a narrative should be often conflict with its’ own intention and can prevent us from truly appreciating it and inducing apprehension within creators’ who wish to attempt to construct narratives that don’t tie up every thread neatly.
Approaching the “Tying Conundrum”
I did an online workshop recently with a group of writers where one would write a chapter before passing it onto the next writer who was tasked to continue the story on their own terms. This would continue with each of us reading what others had previously written — a story complete with contrasting tones and conflicting directions we wished to take our common cast of characters and then adding our own contribution to it. When all the seven of us had written a chapter each, we gathered for a Skype session to brainstorm and discuss the story we had chronologically constructed thus far and plan for the eighth and the concluding chapter.
The discussion began with a fairly typical “So, how should we wrap this?” and before we knew it, words like “tying the threads”, “a closing statement” were being thrown across the chat room casually. A thought began ruminating in my mind then,
“Why do we think of conclusions and resolutions as the sole and natural end points of a narrative?”
The immediate analogy my mind made was of life itself — the journey in which we are the central character and one which despite what we may go through will always conclude with a predictable but definite end.
But in the context of consumption of narrative worlds and stories such an analogy made less sense. Just because we finish consuming a fictional narrative doesn’t mean it has actually ended. Internalized thoughts, forum discussions and fan-fictions are the most common examples of universes and characters persisting beyond their natural, determined end — both of which make a key point about the nature of narratives. It’s a common belief that no matter how much of an authorial stamp a creator has on its’ work, no art can be consumed without an indelible mark being left behind by the participant (or the audience, if you may so wish to call).
It is this mutual space where fictional worlds and characters exist and as fan-fictions show, those worlds no longer belong exclusively to the creators. Extending that point to its literal conclusion, just because the original source of the fictional idea has pulled the plug doesn’t mean that space in which the narrative exists should collapse.
All of this is obvious — we have known it ever since we began dreaming what the characters of our favourite childhood TV series would end up becoming. But strangely, despite knowing such an inherent habit we continue to seek for satisfying conclusions. As demonstrated by that Skype discussion, we have an almost wired inclination to discuss conclusions as the process of “tying up” threads as if it’s a rigid process all must go through.
The argument that I’m trying to make here is this: maybe the lack of a resolution is a good thing. That maybe, when Lost ended on an infamously “incomplete” note, it may have resulted in not just countless frustrated groans but also in resultant charged-up conversations between its fans’ as they tried filling up the gaps and loopholes (of which there were many) which its’ creators never did.
What I’m arguing for is that maybe anti-climaxes can be a good thing.
And The Longest Journey proves that.
An Absurdist Interpretation
It was years later, I grasped what exactly I’d felt about the game and its’ anti-climatic ending.
That Dag Hammarskjöld quote seems far too much of a coincidence to not be related to the game’s conception, particularly considering The Longest Journey was developed in Norway and Hammarskjöld was a popular figure in the entire Scandinavian region. The quote in a sense fits thematically with the game and general nature of character-centric narrative arcs — the adventure is the journey of development of your personality, of your identity. The Longest Journey may have been largely about the strangely parallel worlds of the fantastical Mercuria and the sci-fi Stark but it was ultimately about April’s inward journey. How she grew from an unsure college student lost in the tide of time into a confident woman capable of making brave, life-altering decisions.
The twist here being that The Longest Journey ends on an unresolved note with an anti-climax. Both the player and April go through countless hours of adventuring and puzzle-solving to find out that the purpose of their journey was ultimately beyond their grasp. That your mutual destiny in the fictional universe will remain unknown.
The very nature of an anti-climax can be viewed through the lens of absurdism — a branch of philosophy which describes a conflicting desire of humans to find a greater meaning and their inherent inability to do so. Albert Camus best describes it in his “Myth of Sisyphus” — that maybe there is a semblance of meaning in the distinct lack of any meaning. Maybe simply rolling the boulder up the hill is part of the answer we’re looking for even if ultimately the said boulder always falls down. Death will ultimately bring an abrupt end to our lives, but maybe what we have lived may very have its’ own self-contained meaning.
The Longest Journey puts April through an incredible number of trials –the personal stakes of each of them incrementally being raised as we neared the end and she had to dig deep inside her in times of crises to pull through. It’s no surprise that “April’s Diary” remains one of the writing highlights of the game, so wonderfully creating a distinctly original “voice” for April right from the start while evolving from a bored, apathetic youth to a determined adult.
By abruptly ending its’ protagonist’s inward journey for purpose and meaning, The Longest Journey describes an absurdist way of looking at April’s journey, at life and at anti-climaxes in general. In the grand event where she’s supposed to rise up and take her destiny in her own hands, it’s declared that it’s not her destiny after all. She is destined for something else, a purpose that is beyond her grasp. But in such a case, is it right knowing The Longest Journey stood for her internal quest to suggest that April’s journey came to an anti-climatic end? Is it apt to imply that it was ultimately a failure?
Anti-Climax of Our Own Narrative: Death
After all, won’t all our lives eventually end with an anti-climax, of death itself? Our own narratives conclude with a sudden and an abrupt end to our dreams and wishes, an event that may be mysterious in its timing but is always definite and predictable in its’ outcome. But does such an anti-climatic end to our lives render our entire narratives worthless? Does the fact that we are going to die, make the very process of living worthless? Not really.
An argument some fans made for Mass Effect 3 in the wake of the “Retake” controversy was whether mere fifteen minutes of a poor ending were enough to render the preceding 100 hours of journey worthless. For mortal beings whose own narratives always wound up with an anti-climax with tons of “loose ends”, we sure are very stubborn in how we want our fictional narratives to be.
Maybe, the Lost finale may have left tons of frustrated fans, but it also ensured that it was continuing the show’s legacy of feverish speculation — where every time two Lost fans meet, they discuss what they really thought happened. And sometimes, that’s more than you can ask for.
Ultimately, a fictional universe continues to live beyond its’ designated conclusion — in the collective imaginations, in the coffee-table conversations or on forums that live on for years after the creator brings it to its’ end. And while an ending which resolves every plot thread by “tying” everything neatly is an ideal scenario, sometimes as is the case with our own narratives, anti-climax has almost a naturalistic beauty to it by describing the incomplete nature of our own universe.
April may not have found her destiny, but she found herself. And that was something that made The Longest Journey inward all the more satisfying.