Indigo Prophecy: Setting the Stage

I come to my senses in a restroom, covered in blood.  I don’t know how or why, but a man is dead…and I killed him.  Hailed as an “interactive movie” by creator David Cage, Indigo Prophecy is a supernatural thriller that attempts to bring the best of cinema to video games.  While certainly cinematic in its presentation, the real strength of Indigo Prophecy is in its ability to construct a realistic world that immerses the player in the lives of the characters as a minute level.  It’s perhaps a little ironic that a game that wants to make a movie-like video game excels in what makes video games so unique: their capacity to directly involve the player in the world before them.

Let’s back up for a moment.  With the release of Heavy Rain, Quantic Dream’s latest effort in cinematic storytelling, a lot has been written on the nature of video games and whether or not they should even try to emulate movies.  Some see the association with cinema as a positive thing, as a validation of video games as art form (we need our Citizen Kane of gaming!), while others argue that video games should be celebrated for what sets them apart from other forms of media such as the ability to directly involve its audience in the events that unfold (even if they are scripted most of the time).

We don’t ask books to be more like movies, in fact many would argue that something unique to prose is lost when books are adapted for the silver screen, and we don’t ask painting to conform to the rules of music.  That’s not to say that there can’t be some cross pollination between various forms of media, but we generally tend to accept these genres for what they are rather than what they should be.  This doesn’t always tend to be the case with video games.  
 David Cage

With that said, let’s get back to what Indigo Prophecy does best: immersion.  The early parts of the game are concerned with crafting a mood and environment which the player will live with.  
The game’s music is primarily of the orchestral variety with string compositions creating a real sense of melancholy.  In terms of tone Indigo Prophecy is reminiscent of Remedy’s Max Payne where the city itself looms ove r in the story.  In both games New York is in the middle of the worst snowstorm in history, creating a real sense of oppression and isolation through much of the narrative.  It’s hard to imagine that a world exists beyond the screen of white.

In order to maintain this tense atmosphere Indigo Prophecy often requires that the player completes a task within a certain period of time.  This is present not only in the dialogue system, but also during longer scenes where the player has to perform a series of tasks before the timer runs down, such as the early scene in which the player has to hide the evidence of a crime before letting the police into his apartment.  Indigo Prophecy rarely indicates what is required to successfully complete these scenes, making for moments of frantic desperation as the player scrambles to figure out how to proceed.  At first this may sound frustrating, but the level of unease maintained throughout much of the game goes a long way in immersing the player in the world.

Running from the Cops
As if to reflect the player’s own feelings, the characters of Indigo Prophecy have status bars that reveal their mental state which ranges from Neutral to Wrecked (anything below that and the game ends).  Every action has an effect on the mental status on the characters whether it’s playing the guitar to relieve stress or feeling tense after fighting with your girlfriend.  It’s interesting to see how various choices impact the psychological state of the characters, especially since there’s almost no way to tell ahead of time how a character will react.

Indigo Prophecy goes to great lengths to create a tangible world for the player by incorporating simple day to day activities such as showering, dressing, taking pills to relieve a migraine, listening to music, and checking the news.  The game’s control scheme is designed to add weight to the player’s actions, requiring precise movement in order to perform from opening a door to scaling a chain link fence.  It’s not that the player can do anything he or she can think of, but what is possible helps ground the story in a world that is immediately identifiable.   

The game’s story is told from the perspective of three characters, Lucas Kane, Carla Valenti, and Tyler Miles, with the player alternating between each in order to progress the story.  Lucas Kane is the first character we meet, the one who begins the game after having committed murder in the bathroom of Doc’s Diner.  These first few minutes with Lucas are truly impressive as the player identifies with character’s confusion and desperation as they make their escape from the diner without attracting the attention of the cop sitting at the counter.
 Where Families Dine

The game’s other two protagonists happen to be the detectives tasked with solving the murder committed at Doc’s Diner.  The dynamic of working the case from the perspective of both the hunter and hunted is fascinating.  Playing both sides of the case requires that the player not only stay one step ahead of the police in order to prove Lucas’s innocence, but also that the murder investigation is pursued with the same level of determination. This results in some of the game’s more interesting moments such as when the player has to sketch out the face of the suspect for the police (how accurate do you want to be?) and a point later in the game when Carla and Lucas come face to face for the first time.

The implementation of the game’s Quick Time Events is where the careful construction of Indigo Prophecy’s world begins to falter.  At key points in the game the player is asked to mirror actions of the characters.  Sometimes this works, such as when the player has to vigorously match the feats of strength the character is performing with button presses on the controller.  

 QTE for...sitting?
Where the gameplay is far more hit or miss is in the Simon Says style Quick Time Events; color coded circles flash on the screen and the player is required to match the pattern in order to advance the action.  The biggest problem with these events is that the presence of the circles on the screen, preceded by a flashing “Get Ready!” announcement, breaks the immersion.  There’s no subtlety to the implementation.  There are instances when these QTEs aren’t too problematic, such as during extended action sequences, but there are other times when the game requires players to play these pattern games during scenes of dialogue.  If these QTEs are supposed to represent the character’s concentration, not only do they not succeed, they distract from what is happening.  It’s as though the developer didn’t trust the audience to not get bored during these dialogues and decided to include some element of gameplay just in case.

Though Indigo Prophecy stumbles in some of its execution, it cannot be faulted for its vision.  The delicate crafting of mood and atmosphere via purposeful action allows for a truly immersive experience.  Though the story becomes bloated to the point of being ludicrous, the opening chapters focusing on the two sides of a murder investigation are fascinati ng to navigate.  Indigo Prophecy is at its best when reveling in the minutiae of ordinary life and it will be interesting to see how Heavy Rain compares.    
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