July 11, 2007

Lessons of Indigo Prophecy, part 1

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 2:10 am

I remember my avatar murdering a stranger — and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Then another couple of my avatars came in to investigate the crime scene. A large black bird watched it all happen.

Lucas hiding the body in Indigo Prophecy

Yes, that’s right, recently I’ve been thinking about Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit, outside the U.S.). I realize it’s not exactly a new release, but games are not fruit, either. And I think there are some useful lessons to draw from this ambitious, flawed 2005 release from David Cage and Quantic Dream.

I’m interested here, primarily, in thinking about the relationship between gameplay and story. Cage’s ambitions in this area have been discussed by Andrew in his more timely GTxA post on Indigo Prophecy. Cage’s goals might be considered a less-risky version of the “interactive drama” vision that guides Fa├žade: the gameplay can change the story in significant ways, but the system ensures the story retains an essential shape and pacing. In other words, the story becomes playable, rather than something that happens between moments of play.

That, however, is not what I want to talk about here. Rather, I want to discuss the fit between gameplay and story. Most games I think about in terms of story haven’t brought such issues to the fore. Consider, for example, Jordan Mechner’s Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time. Here a non-playable story does what one would expect — motivating the action, providing a context for play, etc. The story requires a swashbuckling prince to move through a ruined palace, toward a particular point, fighting monsters along the way. The gameplay, as one might expect, is focused on platforming and combat. PoP:SoT is better than average in some important ways (e.g., plot twists that also force changes in play) but I’ll take its kind of story/gameplay fit as a baseline here.

This brings us to the story and gameplay of Indigo Prophecy (which I’ll try to cover with minimal spoilers). The game begins with a ritual murder, which is investigated both by the confused murderer and the police. As players we begin as the murderer, just after the crime, and the initial gameplay involves hiding evidence and escaping the scene. This is pretty creepy and effective, managing to teach us IP’s control scheme for simple physical actions (in the image above, the icon on top shows how to move the analog stick to drag the body) while maintaining an atmosphere more like a noir film than a training level.

Next we play the police. This took me by surprise. I was already rooting for Lucas Kane, the semi-innocent murderer I’d played in the first scene, and I wasn’t sure if I should deliberately play the police (Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles) poorly. But the game gave positive feedback for playing them well — finding evidence, questioning the witness with sensitivity — so I did that. Being in the flow of the story seemed to help me choose better conversation options (represented using short prompts, selected between with the same analog stick movements as physical actions) which I took as a good sign. Also, I had to choose between conversation options quickly, before a timer forced the default, and this made the dialogue trees feel a little more like conversations unfolding in time. At this point I was definitely getting into Indigo Prophecy.

But in the next scene, playing the murderer waking in his apartment, troubles began to brew. These very same troubles would boil over dramatically, making a rather spectacular mess, before I finished the game. There are four particular troubles that I’d like to discuss.

First, I was encouraged to do a lot of irrelevant fiddling. For example, there are a number of things that can be done with Lucas’s computer in this scene — but none impact the game structure and most distract from the story. Many future scenes would provide many opportunities for such fiddling.

Second, I started to feel that unwelcome, mundane elements of The Sims had been dropped into my previously dark, mysterious game. While I wanted to get on with the story, the game encourages taking Lucas to the toilet to urinate and to the shower to get clean. You’d think an “interactive drama” (a phrase Cage has used) would elide these undramatic activities. Instead, a mental health meter for each character encourages players to constantly skew characters from the paths of their investigations to play music (on the stereo, on the guitar), drink (milk, coffee, wine), rest (on the couch, on the bed), and so on.

Wine improves Carla's mental health in Indigo Prophecy

Third, this scene also introduced the Tarot cards hidden throughout the game. I found this scene’s card floating in one of the kitchen cupboards. These cards provide incentives to slow the characters’ investigations further by checking every out of the way space in the game. In most scenes you can count on a tarot card being in some place in the opposite direction from the part of the space in which the story continues. Since this sort of traversal of space involves no gameplay challenge (in most instances) and runs counter to the story’s movement, I found this puzzling.

Fourth, and most importantly, this scene introduced me to IP’s biggest source of gameplay challenge: directional-input challenges. This is the topic I will take up in my next post.