Updated: 12/11/05; 10:53:02 PM.
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Sunday, December 11, 2005

Indigo Prophecy

I've been curious about Indigo Prophecy (also released under the name Fahrenheit) since I played Quantic Dream's first game, Omikron. Omikron was an interesting adventure game that, unfortunately, had crappy FPS and fighting games as an integral part of the experience. Indigo Prophecy is also an interesting adventure game, and this time, only has a little bit of crappy gameplay impeding an otherwise great experience -- but more on that later.

In brief, this is a great but flawed narrative experience. Emphasis on "narrative" -- the game aspects of the game are minimized, mostly to the experience's benefit. In many ways, this is an adventure game, but unlike most examples of the genre, the puzzle solving, pixel hunting, and tree exploring aspects are almost completely eliminated. Instead, the game puts pacing in front of exploration -- many elements of the game have a timed aspect to them, keeping you moving forward through what feels more like a cinematic experience, with the game elements mostly in the service of breaking down the barriers to your emotional involvement in the story.

So what does that mean? While there are non-timed, exploratory elements, a large part of the actual story of the game is told in dialogue sequences with a time element. A character speaks to you, and then you get two to five different keywords that will lead to dialogue from your character. You have some amount of time -- usually on the order of a few seconds -- to make a decision about dialogue, and you'll usually get to explore about half of the conversation options before the game proceeds forward. The conversation tree won't let you miss crucial information, but ticking clock means that the conversations feel more "normal" -- you can't go outside of game time to obsess over the right decision, so the pacing of the conversation is maintained.

Another way the story unfolds is in action sequences, which (with two notable exceptions) consist of tapping keys in sequence while you watch the action sequence unfold. The most typical way this happens is a kind of "Simon Says," where you tap left/right/up/down keys to match a sequence you see on the screen. This is actually more effective then you might think -- often the directions correspond with the actions on the screen, so you (a) are getting the adrenaline reaction of reflex reactions while you watch a well-choreagraphed wire fu scene, and (b) are getting reinforcement between your actions and your characters actions, without actually getting bogged down all the way into an action game. You're not playing an action game, you're playing an adventure game, so not having to switch gears into a totally different kind of gameplay experience works well.

There's another gameplay element: a sanity meter for each character. Various actions you perform can cause improvements or disruptions to the well-being of the characters. Letting sanity hit zero will cause failure. What's interesting is that one of the ways to improve sanity is in fact to attempt to do normal, everyday things in the face of the horrible events that are unfolding in front of you. Drinking water or coffee, for example, can calm you down. Going to the bathroom.

There's almost no getting stuck in inventory puzzles or logic puzzles -- puzzles are there, but the pacing remains steady and forward moving. However, there are two exceptions to these gameplay elements, one good, one bad. The good one uses the elements above in conjunction with the puzzle solving elements in a well-welded way in order to convincingly simulate being claustrophobic in a scary basement. The bad attempts to replicate Metal Gear Solid-style "sneaking," but in a really poor way. You can't skip it, and since you can't save your incremental progress, you end up hitting a metaphorical brick wall.

While we're talking about the bad, there's also a storytelling nit to pick -- there's a point about 2/3 of the way through where it felt like they knew where wanted to get to, and couldn't quite connect it up. There's also a weird resolution to one of the emotional journeys in the game. But these are minor nits -- overall, I really enjoyed the story.

So much of this could just be "watching cut scenes" -- when you get right down to it, you aren't influencing the story direction in any way. The straight hallway of story that you're following is perhaps more obvious here than in other games, but, instead of attempting to misdirect you from the fact that you're riding a story on rails, you're instead invited to just feel more emotional engagement with the cutscenes as you watch them. You're making minor flavoring choices to the story as it unfolds, but that supplies a substantial amount of weight.

Another interesting note is the way you pick options and interact with the environment -- you click the button, and then push mouse in the appropriate direction. This is usually intentionally matched up with a direction that makes sense for the action -- down for sitting, left or right for opening things to the left or right -- and again, this subtle echo of the physicality helps with the suspension of disbelief.

The story unfolds in a parallel way -- you play both as a man who commits a violent act while in a trance state, and is now trying to find out why, and as the cops chasing him down. I feel like I should say something clever about this, but mostly what I have to say is that I liked it a lot. The best bit is when the two sides confront each other in an interrogation -- it really works.

Obligatory comment on graphics & audio: the voice acting is great. The graphics are clearly designed to play on a PS2, so they suffer for that (mostly in terms of low-res textures). But there's still some great visual composition (lots of great snowy scenes), and wonderful motion capture and facial animation. It took me a while to find the graphic options on the PC version, but once I turned them all way the hell up, I was really happy with how it looked.  10:51:44 PM  (comments []  

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Last update: 12/11/05; 10:53:02 PM.