June 23rd, 2008
I finally picked up, and had a play through of, Indigo Prophecy (alias Fahrenheit, renamed in the US because Micheal Moore made a movie about terrists and we're absolutely mortified here of offending anyone, which coincidentally is also why everyone in this game showers in their underpants). Within the first five minutes I could tell it was the kind of game that should have defined a genre, and could have, had anyone taken its best aspects and run with them.
From my perspective, there's a fundamental contradiction at the core of Indigo. In game design, I consider there to be a spectrum, one end defined by total openness and freedom where the developer doesn't force the player into anything, and the other by the developer more or less vicariously playing the game through the player by strapping him down and telling him what to do at all times (games are currently trending towards this end). Indigo somehow has uncomfortably planted one foot at either extreme.
Choices in the early game affecting the late game is such a depressingly rare feature at the moment that I was happy to play a game that let me do anything at all, and the way that this game let you explore your way through the story imperfectly, reflecting those imperfect decisions in later chapters, really helped make the experience feel more participatory and reactive to me. I would have loved to see choices that cause the plot to truly branch, rather than make tangential little dives away from the rails, as if yearning for freedom, but I'll take what I can get.
The anxiety and suspicion meters were also wonderfully fresh ideas - the idea of constraining the decisions a player makes in an adventure game by making each one affect his mood in positive or negative ways would seem to open up a whole new dimension of possibilities, but it was difficult to make it genuinely affect any outcomes in Indigo, unless you played to lose or just failed extra hard. (Plus, it's always good to know that if you're ever on the verge of anxious breakdown you can recoil from the brink by chugging some milk and having a pee.)
Instead they went with mechanics that didn't work so well, I felt: the actiony bits. I know it's vogue for PC gamers to hate on Quicktime Events, which I agree with on principle (directly telling the player what button to push literally defines the far end of the design scale that I most heartily disagree with) but up to this point I've not really minded them at all in games like God of War, because there's more to do in them than just press X when instructed to.
In the case of Indigo I grew weary of them rather quickly, because they represent nearly all of the actual gameplay. I never lost the game because I hadn't mastered the story mechanics - nobody went insane or commited seppuku or anything, even though I paid little to no attention to keeping anyone happy, and the investigation is nigh-impossible to fail or bungle because the plot must marcheth on - but I lost plenty of times because I couldn't rapidly press A and D long enough without my forearm cramping up. This is fundamentally at odds with the freeishform story and the game's way of not telling you at all what button to push, ever, and seems tangent to the kind of experiences that a game in this format could really provide: story as gameplay, rather than as framework and/or excuse for it.
I have now managed the hilarious feat of stating that I really like a game and then having nearly nothing good to say about it, so I should probably reiterate that I did in fact like Indigo Prophecy, a lot, because I can forgive a lot of mistakes when a game tries something new. (I won't fault the game at all for not being beautiful and detailed and visually stunning, because every game release that is those things and nothing more makes me care less and less about looks, but if I had to pick something to bash in that regard it would be animation. For a game with such surprisingly good voice acting, the sometimes terrifyingly stiff or outright Garry's-Mod-esque face and head motion were at times cringe-inducingly difficult to ignore.)
Next on the list is Psychonauts, because anything with status as 'cult favorite' tends to ensure greatness.