Thursday, October 20, 2005

Indigo Prophecy: Impressions

I finished Indigo Prophecy.

Actually, I finished Fahrenheit, because I was playing the import, but with the exception of a deleted sex scene, they’re the same game.

I don’t finish many games. I’m guessing ten percent, and that might be high. At some point, most games become repetitive or boring or just plain stupid. That doesn’t make them failures, necessarily, because I’ve greatly enjoyed some games that I didn’t finish, but it does mean that at some point they were no longer cohesive enough for me to continue playing.

So when I say I finished a game, it means the game has a quality that is lacking in the vast majority. And Indigo Prophecy has a quality.

That’s not to say that it’s a great game. It’s rough-edged and flawed, brilliant one moment and totally exasperating the next. The story is generally so wonderful and entertaining that I kept going, but it was a rough ride.

I will say this, though: it’s a game written by grown-ups for grown-ups. This is some of the most sophisticated storytelling that has ever taken place in a computer game. Yes, there are some clunky moments, and the story borrows liberally from everywhere, but in general the writing is very strong.

The writing also features some unique techniques employed in the telling of the story. You’ll play from the perspective of multiple characters, as you will be both the pursued and the pursuer. It’s very clever and feels very fresh.

It’s not just the writing that's high quality, either—the voice acting is generally outstanding, the soundtrack is first-rate, and the cinematography is excellent.

There are also some fantastic design choices. Selecting from multiple possible actions is accomplished via mouse movement, and it feels very natural. Multiple conversation choices are time-limited, so you must think and respond quickly. You also won’t get a chance to ask everything that’s listed as an option, so you’ll have to make choices about what’s most important. The effect it creates is that conversations feel much more dynamic, and that’s very good game design.

There are two additional ways that Indigo Prophecy distinguishes itself, and they’re both important. First, it avoids the obtuse, pixel-hunting mechanics of traditional adventure games. The puzzles are also logical, and they’re plot driven. You won’t be using a butter churn as part of a sixteen step sequence to trigger a thermonuclear explosion. Again, that makes the story feel more natural and less contrived. That sounds like an easy thing to do, but even the best adventure games seem to have a terribly difficult time with it.

The second distinguishing element is that in Indigo Prophecy, the story is the game. Previously, most of the excellent writing in games has been discreet, lore-driven, static texts that tell the back story of the Land of Something Or Other, but that back story is less important to the game than the game mechanics. In most games, certainly, the game mechanics are the game. In Indigo Prophecy, though, the story is the game, not the mechanics.

And that’s a very, very good thing, because some of the mechanics are awful.

It’s a mind-bending mix, really. Some of the game mechanics are wonderful. Your possible actions are shown via small pictures at the top of the screen, and the mouse movement needed to trigger that action is shown just beneath. It’s unobtrusive and works extremely well. There are also certain actions (like climbing) that are simulated by the mouse (with a left/right rhythm). So the use of the mouse is very thoughtful and sophisticated in a design sense. It’s fantastic.

Then there’s Simon.

Do you remember Simon? It was a toy that was all the rage in 1978. Here’s a picture: Basically, it was a round device with four separate colored panels inside. To play the game, you watched the panels flash in sequence and then touched the panels to duplicate the order.

That’s very close to what you do in Indigo Prophecy. When an “action sequence” is about to begin, you see a “GET READY!” prompt on the screen, two circles are placed on the screen.

They're ugly.

Inside the circles are squares, and each side of the square can light up as a different color. You must press the key (or gamepad button) that corresponds to the flashing color as quickly as possible. You don’t wait until the full sequence has been displayed, but it’s very Simon-esque.

And annoying as hell, certainly.

In addition to the flashing colors, there is audio feedback to let you know if you pressed the correct key within the time limit.

There are several problems with this game mechanic. One, it’s used far too often, and gratuitously. There’s a wonderful anniversary scene with a surprising emotional impact that’s essentially destroyed by using Simon as part of a slow dance. So the atmosphere of the scene, which is fantastic, is utterly ruined. Instead of listening to a perfectly chosen Teddy Pendergrass song, you’re hearing “Boop! Beep! Beep! Boop!” There are also several dramatic sequences near the end of the game with some very intense events, and you’re forced to (quite lazily, actually) hit keys as it unfolds. The problem is that your character isn’t even IN these scenes, and there’s no reason for Simon to intrude.

Two, since it’s real-time, you wind up focusing on the circles and not what’s happening on the screen. Because of that, it tremendously mutes the impact of what’s happening, which is a shame, because there are some powerhouse sequences going on behind the booping and the beeping. And some of these sequences are extremely long--twenty keystrokes or more. It's remarkably tedious.

It’s not just Simon. There are two other ways that action sequences are controlled, and although they’re used much less often, they’re just as annoying. One is simply to push two keys in rhythm as quickly as possible. Track and Field, in other worlds. The other is to keep an indicator between two extremes by pressing either left or right when necessary for balance. Neither one is any more effective, they’re just as contrived, and they ruin the atmosphere in a few key scenes as well.

Sometimes, for a special dose of hell, they mix these mechanics together in the same scene.

It just doesn’t work. And that's surprising, because so many other design decisions in this game work extremely well, even brilliantly.

I understand what the designers were trying to do—make the game as dynamic as possible—but this wasn’t the way to do it. They tried to shoehorn a mechanic into a wide variety of situations, and they failed.

What could they have done instead? That’s a tough question. I think playing Simon up front, then watching what happens in the action sequence based on your Simon performance would have been better. Not seamless or natural, but less intrusive than having it happen during the sequence. So much drama is absolutely wasted through the Simon sequences because you just can't pay attention to the scene.

The ideal way to handle these sequences, at least conceptually, is to use mouse movement without an artificial indicator on the screen—i.e., the character’s own movements cue the player when and how to move the mouse. I know, that’s a very difficult idea to use successfully, but it would have been the one way to not shackle the compelling images with onscreen distractions. And I think it would have been the difference between the 85's this game is averaging in reviews and the 95's it otherwise deserves.

There’s one other thing to mention, and it’s a little late for this, but I wanted to at least mention that this game features one of the biggest plot incongruities I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t ruin anything, but unless I missed something major, it’s completely nonsensical. So if you see something toward the end of the game and go “What the?” I’m right there with you.

I will say this, though, even with my complaints about the game mechanics: this is a game that tried to be different, and it succeeded. It’s compelling, it’s entertaining, and I enjoyed the story so much that I gritted my teeth and fought through the game mechanics. It’s in my Top Ten list for the year (around number five), and I hope it sells well enough to get Quantic Dreams (the developers) more attention, because they deserve to be recognized. They're creative, they take chances, and we need more developers like them.

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