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.