July 17, 2007

Lessons of Indigo Prophecy, part 2

by Noah Wardrip-Fruin · , 12:50 am

When those cops got the drop on me, I knew it was the decisive moment, when it all came together, the turning point of my life. Never would a game of two-handed Simon mean more…

Lucas with the cops in Indigo Prophecy

Yes, it’s time to continue the discussion of Indigo Prophecy (aka Fahrenheit) and in particular what it can teach us about the fit between gameplay and story. Last week I started out by saying how engrossing and different I found the initial scenes — first covering up for a murder my avatar (Lucas Kane) committed, then investigating it (as my two police officer avatars, Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles), with good atmosphere and a nice take on dialogue trees. Then, in the next scene, things started to go wrong: irrelevant fiddling encouraged by the environment, mundane activities encouraged by the mental health meter, navigation away from the site of action encouraged by hidden Tarot cards, and one special issue left for this post: the directional-input challenges.

As pictured above, directional-input challenges superimpose two circles over the fictional world’s image on the screen. Each circle is composed of four differently-colored segments — up and down, left and right, resembling nothing so much as the game Simon. And the gameplay, it turns out, is quite similar. Quadrants of the circle light up, in different orders, but (rather than having to remember and repeat whole sequences) the challenge for the player is to follow along as quickly as possible, moving the two analog sticks in directions corresponding to the most recent lights while watching for the next.

During that first scene in the apartment, successfully completing the challenge results in channeling a premonition (of the sort mentioned in Malcolm’s comment). In other parts of IP this same gameplay is used to determine success at concentration during a guided meditation, boxing, basketball, magical combat, dodging oncoming cars while running down the street, dancing, dealing with the cops pictured at the top of this post, and so on. As this list may suggest, many of IP’s gameplay challenges having nothing to do with the story. We’re left to wonder why our intrepid police take time off for boxing and basketball at this point in their investigations. More importantly, making boxing and basketball things we must successfully play through to continue the game is as puzzling a choice of focus for Indigo Prophecy as the simulations of personal grooming.

Less obviously, this method of gameplay does something unfortunate to the game’s fictional setting: it makes it superfluous. In Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PoP) we pay attention to the world depicted on the screen even if our sole interest is in efficient play — because it depicts the player character’s position relative structures and combatants, helps us decide what actions to take next, and gives feedback about which actions were successful. The fictional world of IP, on the other hand, is separated from its directional challenge gameplay. Not only does the world provide no help in playing, but during intense play the fictional world and events within it become a distraction for which no attention can be spared. In later sections of the game I have only a vague notion of what happened, fictionally, during moments of action. My attention was entirely on two rapidly-blinking colored circles and the movements of my thumbsticks.

In other words, this “interactive drama” got my undivided attention at its most mundane moments — and got none at what should have been its climactic action high points. While some complain that the use of cut scenes relegates story to an interruption of gameplay, surely this is better than placing it in simultaneous competition with challenging gameplay. After all, in such a competition gameplay will always win, because the player simply can’t continue in the game without successful play.

Tyler, of course, is the basketball avatar in Indigo Prophecy

On a different note, in the comments on my previous post I was interested to see the differing views (of Chris and Malcolm) about playing both Lucas and the police. At first I was quite surprised by this turn in the game — but IP gave clear feedback that I should try to succeed at every task, whoever I was playing, so I quickly adjusted to this unfamiliar game scenario.

[Begin Spoiler]

Which only made me more disappointed when this was later rescinded. Later in the game we play Lucas as he is being questioned by one of the officers. During the questioning he is plagued by monstrous visions. In an earlier scene these same visions appeared and could only be survived by playing the directional-input game well. During this questioning, however, I played the directional-input game perfectly, repeatedly, only to have each success result in the police being more suspicious of Lucas and his mental health deteriorating. I played through this scene repeatedly. Each time, I played so many directional challenges so well that I ended up in an insane asylum.

I had to resort to a game guide to tell me that the only successful route through this part of IP is to intentionally fail at the directional input game, apparently as a simulation of ignoring the visions. At that point, the game had broken the main rule that had allowed me to enter into its unusual arrangement. In the wake of that frustration and its resolution, most of what was left of my emotional and narrative engagement dissipated. I played through the rest out of professional curiosity.

[End Spoiler]

Of course, while it may not be obvious at this point, I write all this with motivations other than complaint. I think the failures of IP illuminate issues that may be harder to perceive when playing games that integrate story and gameplay more successfully. Here are some lessons I think we can glean from Indigo Prophecy:

First, if story is important to a game, do not highlight events through gameplay that are distractions from the story. In IP we see this at scales ranging from the high-level structure (non-optional sections of the game that are unrelated to the story, such as the boxing and basketball sequences) to the moment-by-moment (encouraging small gameplay decisions that run counter to the story, such as pointless meandering in search of Tarot cards).

Second, conversely, choose things to make playable that are related to the story. When it happens, this is some of what works best in IP, such as the hiding and finding of evidence in the first two scenes.

Third, make the game’s fictional world a resource for successful play, rather than putting the two in competition. In IP, this works well with dialogue tree gameplay and poorly with directional input gameplay.

Fourth, if you have an innovation that is tied to your narrative goals (such as IP’s requirement to play characters with conflicting interests) help your audience build up a new play model quickly (such as IP’s encouragement to succeed at every task presented, even if some work against what was accomplished in earlier tasks) and then don’t violate this.

Of course, all of this could be seen as just the story-specific version of common advice about games in general: Players focus on what they can play — and especially on what the game structures encourage them to play — so these elements should be the very ones that strengthen the experience the designers want to create. The designers may want to create a moody, mysterious experience; a chaotic, free-for-all experience; an open, exploratory experience; or a tense, action-packed experience. In any case, what the game makes playable should be the elements that contribute to such an experience. The opening of Indigo Prophecy was largely like this. I await the story-focused game that continues as strongly as IP started.