October 9, 2007

Indigo Prophecy through Simon‘s Eyes

by Nick Montfort · , 11:15 pm

A lot has been mentioned on here about Indigo Prophecy already – by Andrew, by Noah (1 2), and by commenters who followed up those posts.

I want to add two things: First, an argument that Indigo Prophecy is not an adventure game, and second, a defense of its Simon-like gameplay.

IP not an Adventure Game

When I say that Indigo Prophecy isn’t an adventure game, I don’t mean that it more closely follows the genre formula of something like a first-person shooter or a platformer or a dating sim. And of course I don’t mean that the story is incidental to the experience. I mean that this game isn’t mainly about exploration, puzzle-solving, and, you know, adventuring – something which could also be said about Ramses. And the game (as writer/director David Cage pretty much admits) is not very multilinear in terms of either its underlying story or the way it is told.

Really, the game is not even a very good example of an intrigue, as Espen Aarseth classified Deadline. In an intrigue, we expect the player to be able to figure out what is going on by investigating, testing theories against the world. In Indigo Prophecy, all the player can do is swizzle the sticks on the controller and hear what is revealed. That doesn’t mean that Indigo Prophecy is lame; it just means that the enjoyment of it must come from something other than figuring out, detection, connection, and mental effort of that sort.

While I don’t dispute that this game should be shelved with adventure games, I would probably call Indigo Prophecy an interactive thriller or describe it as offering interactive suspense. You have to meet some challenges, sometimes ones that are reasonably connected to the main actions, to see what is going to happen next. This isn’t interactive drama as it is usually imagined. Still, I think the game does this pretty well – not without flaws and frustrations, but not entirely oafishly.

Simon-says Good

There are many earlier examples of the integration of “Quick Time Events,” akin to those in Dragon’s Lair, into an adventure game or similar framework. The first really prominent game to do this seems to be Shenmue, which also gave us the QTE designation. Mikael Säker pointed out that the Simon interface can work well during action sequences. I think it works well during certain narrative sequences, too.

The interactive routine that is required may be meaningless, but it changes the way that the player views the image on the screen, and this can be interesting. The Simon game requires that the eyes be fixed on the two circles in mid-screen, so that the scene that is playing out can only be viewed peripherally. In some cases, such as when Agatha is taking Lucas back to see what happened in the diner, this new demand of viewing can be powerful. Sure, moving the analog sticks around doesn’t signify anything. But needing to watch the screen for instructions changes the way that the player views the screen, can make things go further out of focus, can heighten tension, and can make the strangeness of a scene even stranger.

That said, I agree with Noah that some Simon sequences, such as the boxing and basketball ones, were gratuitous and did not contribute to the game. There are two arguments that could be advanced in their favor: First, that they helped train the player so that future skill challenges were more enjoyable and more easily overcome, and second, that these let the player associate with the characters in quotidian situations so that later control of these characters in dramatic situations would be more meaningful. I don’t think these two arguments overcome Noah’s objections, though. If these were the real goals, why not have the characters undertake some tasks that are at least slightly meaningful and related to the story rather than completely unrelated? Tyler’s waking up in the morning and puttering around the house is at least slightly related to the overall game, I imagine, while his playing basketball really isn’t.

I wouldn’t ban the Simon control from all future games, though. Even if the way the player operates the controller doesn’t mean much, it can offer an interesting and effective reconfiguration of viewing that can be used to good effect.

5 Responses to “Indigo Prophecy through Simon‘s Eyes”

  1. Dan Shiovitz Says:

    Hmm, I think of a lot of modern IF as being just there to see a story, not really to adventure or explore. Would you classify Photopia or Vespers or Shade as adventures?

  2. nick Says:

    I guess you’re right – I probably wouldn’t call those “adventures.” Maybe this is why I don’t use the term “adventure” as much as “IF.” Whatever the names for the categories, I would say that IP is doing something more like these games and less like Adventure, Zork, King’s Quest, or even Myst.

  3. JeremyDouglass Says:

    I have a couple reactions on the strange disconnect of the kick-boxing, basketball, and skating sequences.

    I enjoyed them. They were fun, and they did train me in the interface without making it feel like training. Second, I liked that they were games-within-games – essentially consequence-free for the larger story, but fun to explore the outcomes. They really give parts of an otherwise very dark work a light touch, particularly ice skating at the edge of apocalypse – all in all, a whole lot of whistling in the dark goes on in Indigo Prophecy, and that helps separate it from other genres.

    The scenes also do specific characterization work – the cops having slightly different fighting styles and radically different skating abilities, for example. All that said, I agree that they feel disconnected – they felt like fragments of a much, much larger game, in which what one learns about the characters (e.g. that both are fierce, but one is more agile) might have some significance in choosing one to take on a later task, or if patterns learned in the boxing ring recur when a cop is trapped in an alley fight. But it just isn’t that kind of game.

    I would definitely play another game by David Cage with even more QTE Simon, especially if that involved not only martial arts but conversation and quotidian moments. In the end, however, I think the problem with the QTE characterizing minigames is that they belong to the first half of the work, and the story world goes so hugely off the rails in the second half that it is hard to understand why the personality of an off-stage cop matters to the genre-conflagration, let alone that personality as shown in a basketball game. Before the final stages, I felt quite differently – but finishing the work pushes me to either see large portions of first half as pointless or else imagine a different work with a different ending. I love the potential in the first half of Indigo Prophecy, so I tend to do the second.

  4. noah Says:

    Nick, I certainly agree that IP doesn’t match the normal genre expectations of an adventure game.

    As for the Simon game, I think you’re right that it can be interesting to force the player to look somewhere else than at the things they most want to see. What if I really wanted to see who was stealing my car, and where they were taking it, but I had to keep my eye on the tightrope I’m walking? I could see something like that working in a story-focused game. Or, closer to IP, what if it was a challenge (requiring the two analogue sticks) to keep looking Agatha straight in the eyes, while things I want to look at more happen all around behind the image of her head? These things would be fine with me. But I regard it as a complete failure to take the most important narrative events of the game, in a story-focused game, and prevent me from seeing them so that I can stare at blinking colored lights that have no role in the narrative.

  5. Chris Lewis Says:

    Honestly, I find it very hard to buy any sort of defence of the QTEs in IP.

    1. They were *punishingly* hard (see: rooftop fight), which seemed to only serve to pad out the incredibly linear narrative.

    2. The actions had no relation to what your character was doing. Almost all “good” QTEs have some implied action, so you can at least feel some form of connection to the button-presses. Shenmue is good at this, when you need to hurdle over something you press a button, when you need to move around someone you press left. As far as I remember, the QTEs in IP were simply a game of Simon Says for the heck of it. You may as well have answered maths questions for the amount of on-screen connection.

    I guess that they thought they were adding some sort of haste or action element to the proceedings, which was really not achieved. However, one of the most heart-racing moments in games occurs in IF when you’re asked whether to jump into the frozen lake or not. You have 3 seconds to decide… *That* was an adrenaline pumping piece of action. Seeing as most people would only have played through once, the changes in the story when confronted with such choices could have been entirely cosmetic and affected the narrative not one iota. A good 50% of the QTEs could have been replaced with something like that.

    As I said in my comment in Noah’s post; Tyler’s morning routine was actually one of the most touching parts of the game for me. The basketball was not. If they were trying to “train” you, it doesn’t stop the QTEs being utterly unrelated to anything. Again, they could have trained me to answer math questions with long division. My GRE test score might go up, but I’m not getting any closer to solving the riddle of Kane’s murderous episode!

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