This week I went back to play a PS2 title. Sitting on my shelf for a couple years, Indigo Prophecy represented one of those “You have to play this!” pieces of entertainment that I dutifully buy, but never find the time or sufficient desire to play. This past weekend, it made its way into my Christmas video game season.
What a good time. My company over the holiday was a great interactive story, with literary storytelling devices seldom seen in games. And interesting characters. I killed someone and tried to solve the mystery of why. When I entered Del’s Diner as Carla, trying to solve the murder that I had just committed as Lucas, my mind flipped over.
Don’t know Indigo? Indigo is a near-current gen adventure game, almost a point-and-click adventure game, with a lot of QTE to spike up the action. More about that in a moment. As far as the adventure side goes, it stood out a as a good game of that genre. While attractive, the environment isn’t really that interactive, and the game designer has a story to tell that’s wholly linear. As far as I could tell, the story doesn’t branch significantly until its epilogue. It’s all pass-fail progress. This is fine — one school of thought on game design expressed fully. This game intends to take you for a ride, and provides only a moderate illusion that you’re the one in control.
A criticism I do want to talk about are those less-open moments: the QTE. But it’s not the one you think. I don’t mind button-mash cinematic gameplay sequences, either here or in any of the dozen games I’ve played that have them. To be honest, if they are done well, I enjoy them. No, they are not the height of interactive game design (Dragon’s Lair is calling), but–look, here’s the deal. As best I can tell, today’s audience with its big screen TVs and special-effects laden action films (which I also enjoy) wants similar production values–awesome art, great realistic characters and animation–in its video games. For games to look as good as film.
A reasonable desire, but it comes at a cost. If you want all that beauty, you have to accept some limitation on the gameplay side. We can’t yet stage a close-quarters fight from the Matrix movies with two high-res, 25k-poly, 100k animation, ultra-realistically shaded characters–at least, not if you want free controls over the action and a spectrum of possible outcomes. Shooters we can do, but brawlers? No. And even if we could, those controls themselves would be a big issue…
So today we end up with the compromise seen since laser disc games to the more recent Force Unleashed (yeah, I went there). We get game choices scoped to a small range of predetermined results. You get your cinematic moment, but you don’t get to really drive the game. Until some game proves me wrong, anyway…
Back to Indigo Prophecy. The problem with its QTE is that the interface hogs the damn screen. If you’re going to do cinematic sequences blended with light gameplay, fine–then let me watch the motion-captured cinematic action you’re so proud of! Also, don’t lay this thick UI over the screen for every moment of the action. Put up the UI, make me mash some buttons while the character looks challenged on screen, then get that UI gone for a while so I can see the payoff. In Indigo, the sequences are frequently so long, and so persistent, that you just can’t focus on or enjoy the visuals. It wasn’t until I watched the “bonus materials” footage included on the disk that I got to see the sequences that were playing. I was too busy paying attention to the stick-input UI game.
The good news is that the developer appears to have learned this lesson too, judging by the preview footage of Heavy Rain.
To my friends of the last few nights, Lucas and Carla, I am sorry I’ve been negative for a while, but I’m not quite done. [SPOILER WARNING] Lucas, you had a girlfriend that died during the game, because of your actions, and you seemed broken up about it… but I guess not so broken up to stop you from getting involved with Carla a few days later. Carla, it’s weird enough that you ally up with the murdering perp who you just collected all the evidence against, but, .… why do you suddenly want to sleep with this cold guy, much less fall in love with him? The love story was pretty forced and unnecessary. If you just have to have the male lead and female lead get together, the romance should have been sold as, and seen for the characters as a carpe diem, the world is ending, so for this one-night sort of thing.
So there we are. Typically, I’ve spent more time discussing gameplay issues and finding faults with the game I liked instead of extolling its virtues. Go read a three-year old professional review or something. Me, I loved it. So, if you haven’t already played it, the last thing I have to pass along is: “You have to play this game!”