Guest Star

Why Aren’t You Dead Yet?

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Just how many times  do I have to kill this guy? It’s a question I’ve certainly asked myself while playing various games, along with Why aren’t you dead yet? and How many damn heads does it have anyway? Everybody’s version of tedium is different, but endlessly dodging around waiting for some gargantuan horror to blink so I can poke it precisely in the left eye 11 times definitely makes my list. But a game where you have to walk down the hall to the kitchen, get some matches, walk back up the hall, take out several candles, light them, and close the curtains before some creepy old woman will tell you what the hell is going on? Apparently that appeals to me.

I’m thinking of The Indigo Prophecy (Quantic Dreams, 2005), which unfortunately seems to be a unique game. It’s unfortunate because I wish there were more games like it, but it’s also unfortunate because the end just didn’t manage to fulfill the promise of the beginning. It’s trying for choose-your-own-adventure, but while a 200 page book costs the same to print regardless of how many branching narratives it has, I suspect that creating a game where the actions you choose result in significantly divergent storylines involves a lot of extra time and money. It’s a step in an innovative direction though, and the game’s first half works really well.

It’s in the vein of Grim Fandango (LucasArts) or Shenmue (Sega), with simple gameplay mechanics that allow you to focus on the story. I was disappointed with the insufficiently executed “intuitive” controls, although I suppose they were trying for Wii with PS2 technology, but I really liked the execution of the interactive environment. Where Grim Fandango only allows specific interactions with functional objects and Shenmue allows you to interact pointlessly with all sorts of irrelevant objects, The Indigo Prophecy lets you choose amongst a wide range of objects, most of which serve some purpose, and the choices you make have an effect on the narrative.

 You begin with a scene of a guy in a bathroom stall, apparently in a trance, carving symbols into his arm. When a man comes in to use the john, the guy shambles out of the stall and stabs him to death. Okay, go! You’re left standing there holding the bloody knife. You have a mental health meter that understandably drops to “wrecked” at this point, and it quickly becomes clear that attention to everyday details is what will get you through. Washing your hands, for instance, or talking to yourself in the mirror make you feel better, and just like in real life you have no control over the turns of events that cause your mental health to crash. If you don’t find ways to make yourself less depressed, you end up quitting your job or killing yourself to the tune of the Game Over narration: “and that’s how my story ends…”

You also play two cops, Carla and Tyler, who are trying to solve the murder that you, Lucas, commit in the beginning, which makes a puzzle out of choosing what evidence to cover up or uncover. Every chapter you decide which person’s storyline to play first, and you can go back and play the chapters over again to see what changes when you make different decisions about what to say or do. The problem is that these differences seem to be leading to some significant fork in the road, but rather than diverging in the middle and taking the story to different endings, they split at the last minute and converge in essentially the same final fight with a different-looking evil being and a few narrative tweaks.

This might not have been such an obvious problem if the story didn’t unravel half way through. The game’s biggest strengths are narrative and characterization, but what starts out as an original story full of creepy supernatural realism and well-developed characters takes a turn to the derivative and clichéd, as if its mental health meter dropped suddenly and it became a stranger to reason. I don’t want to spoil the plot twists for anyone, but: Lucas was a much more interesting character when he was Everyman; tough Latina cops don’t suddenly become kittenish sidekicks; not every story needs a Very Special Child; and, really, they should have just left the blind old psychic woman in a wheelchair alone.

The Indigo Prophecy frustrates me because it had so much potential. It frustrates me because it’s like they ran out of money or ideas half way through, and if they’d followed the path they started out on it would have been a really fantastic game. It especially frustrates me because there are so few adventure games out there that try to create an alternate world where your actions and choices have consequences that are varied and visceral enough to mimic reality, and there’s a lot of untapped creative possibility in that. Despite its shortcomings, The Indigo Prophecy’s a game that made an impression on me and somehow I feel like the real ending is still waiting to be played.

~~~

in order to combat the effects of selling books to crazed holiday shoppers, alex “spookymonkey” macfadyen is working on raising his mental health meter by talking to himself in the mirror. and they say video games don’t teach you anything useful.

1 reply »

  1. I completely agree this game had potential. The beginning sequence — the “bathroom stall” scene you describe — is simply brilliant. There is also a lot of potential in having you play both the killer and the cops after him, which requires a lot of work from the designer in order to let the cops “discover” what the criminal has done. At least in the first scene, this is achieved.
    Unfortunately, the game is deeply flawed for various reasons:
    – This game plays completely on rails. What you do affects the plot only minimally.
    – Like you said, “everyman” Lucas was a lot more interesting than “mystical conspiracy” Lucas. They should have played this story straight, without involving the supernatural.
    – One particular (admittedly optional) sex scene is so out of character it borders on the ridiculous. Most of the characters have lost all their initial appeal by the end-game.
    – The “Simon Says” gameplay seems mostly appealing to the console gamer crowd; I suspect PC gamers like myself will think it’s just a gimmick.
    All of the above is a shame, but I still applaud the efforts of one developer trying to do something different.

    Like

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