GET READY! (This article does contain spoilers… even if they are five years old)
Some time in November ’09 I browsed through XBLA’s collection, and found that in their Xbox Originals they had Fahrenheit (or Indigo Prophecy if you’re American). Being as I was a bit excited for Heavy Rain (I don’t own a PS3 personally, but I’m hoping to get a go on a friend’s copy) it seemed natural for me to pick up one of Quantic Dream’s previous game and the prototype for their multiple narrative, contextual controls, QTE action sequences, and cinematic storytelling. I also had an inkling (with the potential for discourse over what path to take, and given my past experiences with QTEs in games – and the way the person playing doesn’t get to actually see what’s going on) that it was a game best played in a group or at least with one other person. With this in mind my girlfriend and I have been playing this gradually, about 2 hours every three weeks since November. I feel as though I should share my experiences of the game, now that we’re finally at the end and until I can play Heavy Rain it might be useful to put down all the things I hope are fixed in its spiritual successor.
Hi, I’m David Cage… And I’m going to be all over this game.
Fahrenheit goes to great lengths early on to convince you that you’re not playing a game, or watching an interactive film, or any of the other boring ordinary things things you want to call. It’s a bit pretensious about this actually: If you select the opening tutorial a mo-capped model of David Cage, voiced by David Cage, explains to you that he is David Cage and that he’s the director of “A world where anything can happen.” That’s quite a bold claim. The general tone of the tutorial is that he wants you not to think of it as a game, but an interactive storytelling experience. Cage makes no secret of the fact in interviews he wants you to not think of his games as games either. Only they are games, really. Like Omikron – The Nomad Soul was a game (though a game with David Bowie in), and how Heavy Rain is still a game.
This is fine. Pride may be a deadly sin, but there are many good games out there that have the stamp of an auteur. Tim Schafer, Hideo Kojima, Peter Molyneux, Ken Levine – these are all auteurs of the gaming world, and each have more than a few ground-breaking titles under belts. The problems arise with Fahrenheit when David Cage decides not to make a game, but then doesn’t know what to make instead, or how to go about making it.
I move him with my thumbs…
As you will have seen from the tutorial the controls are pretty idiosyncratic. The analogue sticks control most everything, with context senstivity and on screen-prompts. Triggers are used in button mashing, or rhythm based minigames. The face keys are only used when interacting with the menus or with in-game computers. The bumpers, too, are largely ignored. As a system, standing alone from the context of the game’s narrative – as if to pitch it in a meeting – it sounds good. It’s simple. There’s not much for the player to learn, therefore it’s more accessible. Especially to those without prior gaming experience, who have no associations with more common control setups. You get the feeling that this is the audience the game was after. Especially when we consider the plotline.
Down the rabbit hole…
Fahrenheit was released in September 2005. For some reason since The Matrix was released in cinemas in 1999 there have been scores of movies, games, comics, tv shows and general media that have, in some way, tried to capture the spirit of that franchise. Mainly with bullet time and Kung-fu. Deus Ex (Ion Storm, 2000) had the black trenchcoats, the shootouts, and the conspiracy theories. The Christian Bale movie Equilibrium had the fighting, and gunplay and the stoic cold protagnoist. Recently the movie Wanted was still clawing after The Matrix associations with it’s bullet-time style effects and ludicrous gunplay (which I believe wasn’t even in the comic it was based on). I don’t know why this occurs still now, what with the two pale sequels being recognized as general downturn in quality, but I can sort of see why Quantic Dream may have been keen to throw it in a game released in ’05. Firstly, the game was in development from 2003. The films were still coming out. And they’re not actually that bad. More importantly, The Matrix was ubiqutous in western media at the time. You couldn’t move without it being homaged or parodied somewhere. Secondly, it’s just one of the many things Quantic Dream threw into a crowded plot, and given what he was trying to accomplish – spectacle, drama, and a character who attains godlike power, it was more or less the obvious route considering the general tone of Hollywood (remember this is a game that wants to have the “storytelling” of a movie) and the technical feat of accomplishing this with a fully motion captured game.
But as I say, that was just one of the many strands that exist in this game. David Cage has spoken in interviews that he spent a year writing a huge design doc for Fahrenheit, a bible for the fiction – for other writers to use, and a 2000 page script, with the view to releasing it as episodic content. Clearly what can be gleaned from that is the game was meant to be bigger. It unfortunately shows as you play it. Cage reveals that the mellower scenes in the apartments of the main characters are hangovers from the writing of the episodes (where you’d have more time to flesh out the characters) and while there are a unique and interesting part of the game, the lack of exposition or development for them makes these somewhat hollow. They also, unfortunately, affect the pacing unfavourably. These are minor gripes, however, compared to the main issue – what kind of story is Cage trying to tell? And what kind of game is appropriate for it?
I was enthralled in this game’s opening. You watch a cinematic (with somewhat hammy noir dialogue alas) which leads you to a diner. Your character, Lucas Kane, is having some kind of fit in a bathroom stall, then he suddenly, in some kind of weird trance, stabs a man to death. The scene has impressive motion capture, and they certainly made an effort placing the cameras for the scene. The interesting part is the tense moment you take control of the scene. There’s a cop in the diner, and he’s probably going to want a wee soon, so you had better clean up the floor, hide the body, ditch the weapon, clean yourself, and get out of the diner. Oh, you’d better pay for your bill, too. There’s a split screen that kicks in really hyping up the tension, and this is the only game I’ve played where hiding a body isn’t as simple as picking it up and chucking it into a shadow. Bits of monologue trickle through as you perform each action, and you really get the feeling that you’ll be able to play this scene several ways. It’s a brilliant opening gambit. It is also, unfortunately, the best part of the game.
The problem is, the game has set itself up to be a crime thriller, with a slight case of paranormal. The next scene is you controlling the cops at the scene conducting inteviews and looking for evidence. The leap to paranormal happenings is sudden and great, with little time spent on building tension or mystery. That isn’t so much a problem at first. The crime element is still ongoing, and if it were those two things it wouldn’t be perfect – the ending would still be completely mental, unformed, and inchoesive, but at least a lot of the guff would have been cut out. The problems lie in the “supplementary scenes”. There are a number of scenes in the game that, at first glance, take place for no real reason in the narrative, that feel like demos, which drag the plot off into needless territory that weakens it, and confuses the player as to what it’s trying to achieve. This isn’t helped at all by some of the characterisation, and what I hope are cinema tropes that have been thrown in for the sake of making some kind of “game homage to western cinema”. I fear that isn’t the case, but I’ll give Quantic Dream the benefit of the doubt on this until I can prove otherwise.
Two of this game’s sins are in its two detectives you control. Carla Vallenti and Tyler Miles work for the NYPD (this game is set in New York 2009 but for some reason all of the street cops are wearing uniforms that look more like Italian ones than NYPD. I wouldn’t normally be a stickler, but since they’re one of the most often portrayed forces in fiction, it’s somewhat jarring to see NYPD officers so unusually dressed) and they’re investigating the murder your other character, Lucas Kane, has just commited. They each represent an instance when the game went too far in a needless direction.
Tyler Miles is black. Nay, he’s not just black. He’s ridiculously black. Every time he walks into a room a funky beat starts playing. If you look around his home he ignores most of the objects, but declares that he wouldn’t sell his Motown records for all the money in the world. He says “Damn!”, can call his girlfriend “Baby” withoug sounding like a tosser, and he’s in love with his basketball. He’s a caricature of every black cop in a movie ever, and his existence as a main character weakens the strength of the plot. Almost to avoid a racism backlash they’ve given him a white girlfriend (though she also falls into the same pitfall as Carla, I’ll discuss shortly), but they needn’t have bothered, as it’s impossible to really care about him as he’s so underdeveloped. He also provides one of the most infuriating pointless action sequences in the game – a 1 on 1 basketball game you have with another cop over a wager that has nothing to do with the rest of the game. All of the sequences are tied together with the Mental Health mechanic (see tutorial) but I think its a lazy excuse for a scene if it can add nothing more to the game than a boost in a stat that had little impact on my experience of the game.
I mean come on:
Then there’s Carla Vallenti. She manages to avoid any racial stereotyping for having an Italian surname. As a character she is perhaps not as nuanced as you’d hope (no one is), but generally she’s okay. I suppose you could say that for a trained police officer with six years experience on the job who claims to have “seen it all” the fact she claims to be useless around gore, or the fact you can’t put her in a darkened room without having to literally breathe for her, is a bit suspect. Making her have weaknesses as profoundly at odds with her profession is a bit of a slap in the face for feminine law enforcement, but she ends up doing much worse for feminism. In this game all three of the protagonists take a shower. We only have to watch Carla’s. It’s overtly sexualised, and for no good reason (I won’t even get into the fact that last gen graphics mean there’s nothing particularly alluring about blocky pologon ladies). Then she has a natter with her gay neighbour about how awful she is with men, but wants a baby. As though no woman in any form of employment can possibly survive without wanting a man, a baby, and someone to hold their hand in the dark. Tyler’s girlfriend is also overtly sexualised. My girlfriend and I were a bit shocked to find that one of the unlockables is a video of her performing a dance for Tyler then culminates in a striptease that continues once she is naked. Add to that the sex minigame that you can initiate if, as Lucas, you convince your ex-girlfriend to stay over and you have to wonder what’s going through their minds at Quantic Dream. What is the game trying to be? Is it a police procedural? A 30something comedy drama? A raunchy bit of soft porn? The cracks from the change of format are beginning to show.
The choice of what scenes made it into the game, and how it was crafted into a single game as opposed to a number of episodes seems to be an unhappy compromise on what could have been an interesting, if demanding, experiment. Cage has clearly been aware that he only has so much data he can fit into the game, and he was convinced that, perhaps to get the chance to make Heavy Rain, he needed to make a statement of intent with Fahrenheit. It is unfortunate, again, that a game built upon storytelling should have such a batshit mental plot. There was clearly a lot going on in this universe, the plots and subplots weaving all over the place but, like cutting through spaghetti with a knife, those strands have been delivered in a single mouthfull – loose, and incomplete. There are principle players who are only introduced in the final scenes who serve to be a poor Deus Ex Machina, which seems like poor management of assets when considering the pondorous and needless scenes in the gym, playing basketball, dancing with a girlfriend, two torturously dull stealth missions in your childhood at an army base, and generally not figuring out the cause of the murders. David Cage tried to show us you could make a game where the little moments were interesting. It is just a pity he did it with a story with too many big moments that were ignored.
If it seemed like the story didn’t know what it wanted to be, then it’s not suprising that the game’s mechanics themselves had a similar problem. Cage knew that he wanted the mechanics to be at one with the narrative. I respect his intention in this regard, but when the narrative is confused and frustrating, the mechanics are too. He had his control system, and he had his little moments, but it feels like he was still bound to gamey tropes. The bonus cards, the hidden “extra lives” both seem really at odds with any scene in which you encounter them. The girfriend and I took to doing a mock-celebratory “Yay!” every time we found a bonus card. I understand that there is a lot of unlockable content but since some of it is revealed only by your progress in the game, why not all of it? Why bother with such a mood breaking device? Minor quibbles compared to what you spend most of your time doing:
Quick… time… events.
As you can see in both the tutorial, and much more fairly and representatively in the basketball scene, the quick time events rely on you following on screen prompts with the analogue sticks. The prompts appear in the middle of the screen, obscuring your view to anything else. I couldn’t possibly be less engaged in the experience. It’s like presenting a case in court and being told that instead of making an arguement you just have to play a round of Tetris. Then when you finish the court case is magically over. I had to continually ask my girlfriend what had just happened specifically, and her response would always be “He just ran around a bit. Ducked and stuff.” Which to me sounds a lot like these sequences, while they technically took a lot of time in mo-cap and (in the making-of videos) lots of wire work, they are just tools to extend the playing time of a scene. Retreading a concept (he jumps out of the way) a ton of times for content (he jumps out of the way about ten times, and then it goes away for no reason).
The sequences involving the left and right triggers are a bit more tricky. Those, at least, are trying to synergise the actions and physicality of the player with the character. They are not always succesful (I really hate the breathing sequences – as there are other things to be doing at the same time and no one thinks to breathe, and the balancing one isn’t particularly engaging so much as it is distracting from what’s occuring on screen) but the ones requiring fast clicking of the left then right in turn do bring feelings of exhaustion to the fingers that make you feel the exhaustion of the character. Their weakness is that I broke my engagement time and time again by moving in my seat, positioning the controller in such a way as to use my arm muscles instead of the finger muscles to do that one thing.
What the game excels at is the converstations. The collecting evidence, and remembering what you’d done. The beginning chapters where you’re dealing with having commited the murder, and trying not to raise suspicion as Lucas, and pursuing the killer as Carla and Tyler, are the most interesting parts of the game. My partner and I discussing the best course of action, while under the clock, provided us with the best experience. The QTE system more or less ruined our enjoyment of the latter half as they become longer and less worthwhile (there is a one where the prompts are so slow there is really no point in it being there, a dog could do it), as did the plot going thoroughly off the rails. Carla having sex with an undead Lucas while declaring her love for him (even though in my game they met like three times), and the world being nearly taken over by the internet in the form of an old lady made no sense whatsoever, and I can only hope Heavy Rain hasn’t done anything near as mental with its storyline.
Here’s one of those Matrix moments I was on about. It’s fairly late in the game though:
I suppose I like the idea of this game. A game where you control all the characters. Shape a story around how they interact and what you decide to do. However, I think if that had been concentrated on, and the control scheme maybe not led down a path of QTE sequences, then the game would have been a better product. As it stands, Fahrenheit will always be known as the prototypre for Heavy Rain. The weird ancestor with the crazy stories who looks strange in all the old photos. It’s worth playing if you don’t have a PS3 and you’re considering a purchase for Heavy Rain, and it’s also worth playing as an experience in original game design. There’s only one man making them quite like this, and it’s certainly worth trying. I’ve been rather harsh in this blog about it, but it’s only because I wanted this game to be so much more, to deliver on its promise and potential, that I’m driven enough to write so much about it. That must tell you something.
If anything this game teaches you there is love after life.
Wait. That’s not right…
This article written by Cage himself is also a useful read.