Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)

Posted: March 19, 2012 in Gaming
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A year ago, I played Heavy Rain on the PS3: a title which I had almost unilateral praise for on account of it being so strong a champion for the cause of games as a legitimate form of narrative. Despite its seven-year vintage, therefore, I was more than willing to try out Quantic Dream’s previous effort (and Heavy Rain’s spiritual predecessor): Fahrenheit – or “Indigo Prophecy” as it was somewhat stupidly rebranded in North America – released for the PS2 back in 2005. After my first hour or so with the game, this clemency seemed well-rewarded: the story is involving, the thrills thrilling and the mysteries suitably mysterious. How this murder mystery cum occult thriller devolves into a battle between an ancient Mayan cult and a clan of virtual cyborgs is, therefore, a mystery in and of itself – and also a tragedy. To wit: the tragedy of how I would come to hate the second half of the game roughly equivalent to how much I loved those first, halcyon hours I spent with it.

This is the last time I answer a Craigslist ad for “no strings fun”.

Fahrenheit tells the story of humble IT manager and unwitting protagonist, Lucas Kane – who, within the first five minutes of the game, has murdered a perfect stranger in the restroom of an East Side diner. The problem: he has no memory of the crime up until the point where he snaps out of a seeming trance and finds himself standing over the body with a bloody knife in his hand. The game immediately relinquishes control of Lucas’ fate to the gamer; tasking us to hide the evidence, flee the scene or turn ourselves in as we see fit. It’s wonderfully cinematic and, after the first minute, utterly frantic.

Suddenly, the game provides a split-screen: contrasting our harried actions within the bathroom to that of the unassuming police officer who’s gotten up from the counter and is making his way towards the restroom in imminent danger of stumbling upon the hellish scene we’re desperately trying to cover up. This is just one in a series of brilliantly-paced set pieces that will eventually see you evading the police detail as you break into your girlfriend’s apartment, clearing the evidence from your office before an interrogation and, in one particularly tense moment, in the middle of a mental asylum right when the power cuts: the lights – and locks on the patients’ cells – along with it. There are plenty more twists in store as Lucas attempts to uncover the supernatural force behind his possession – and that of the countless other citizens who have unknowingly committed identical crimes in a series of murders that appears to span for decades. And, had they but stuck to this storyline, Quantic Dreams would most certainly have been onto a winner.

Lucas is quite the multi-tasker, juggling his involvement in a murder investigation and time on Cam4 with ease.

It’s worth mentioning at this point that the game plays near-identically to Heavy Rain – or, more accurately, that HR would come to play near-identically to this. We ultimately take control of four characters involved in the central mystery: Lucas; his brother, Markus; and detectives Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles who are assigned to the case. The game deftly weaves between their perspectives as they varyingly help and hinder each other’s efforts; which can, at times, feel a little counterproductive, such as when Lucas dumps some damning piece of evidence into the trash only for Carla to fish it out in the very next scene because we were, in both instances, the ones doing it.

Carla takes some time out for drinks with her gay bestie.

Fahrenheit keeps track of Lucas and co.’s well-being through a fairly novel “mental health” bar, which rises through positive activities like eating, urinating (um?) and NSFW sexy fun times with significant others (scenes, I later read, which were cut from the North American version of the game). The bar correspondingly plummets through negative activities, such as answering questions incorrectly in a police investigation, or murdering old men in public restrooms. It’s sort of like taking care of a small clan of manic depressive Sims: with mental health meters which can go down to “wrecked” but – for some reason – never rise above “neutral”.

The controls, too, are an obvious precursor to Heavy Rain‘s, but make almost sole use of the twin analogue sticks: left for movement and right for context-sensitive actions. The game also makes liberal use of quick time events, which – I will state right now – are the bane of my existence. For whatever reason, I am impossibly bad at pushing buttons on screen that correspond to those on the pad – as my friend Colin will readily attest after repeating certain sections of Resident Evil 5 to the point of torture because I couldn’t hit one stupid button fast enough. Fahrenheit further exacerbates this issue by having you slog through several button-bashing sequences that go on waaaaay longer than is necessary – Lucas playing the guitar to impress his ex before the aforementioned sexy fun times, for instance, or a scene which involves avoiding every single piece of furniture in his apartment as it flies towards his head. (But literally: every. single. piece.)

’cause he ain’t no hollaback girl.

Another shortcoming that quickly becomes apparent is that while you can go the honest route in those opening moments and confess your crimes to the nearest cop, the game will unceremoniously end at that exact moment. This is true of most major decisions you make along the way, and whilst Heavy Rain literally allowed for any possible outcome (including the deaths of any and all of the main characters), Fahrenheit will greet you with the Quantic Dreams equivalent of a game over screen should you steer too far off the predestined course. That’s not to say that it doesn’t allow for a certain amount of variation (and indeed, what would probably be considered an impressive amount at the time), but there were numerous times when I wished the game would allow me to just suck up my poor decision-making rather than have me repeat the same, god-forsaken sequence until I got it “right” as dictated by the story. (A certain flashback scene on a military base springs to mind.)

Even grading on a curve, the game is also pretty ugly – and don’t give me that “It was 2005!” excuse, because it has Shadow of the Colossus, Resident Evil 4 and God of War for peers. These graphical shortcomings are initially forgivable when you’re otherwise engrossed in the storyline, but become progressively less so the more that falls by the wayside. Adding insult to injury, there’s one scene that calls for you to make a facial composite of Lucas based on the eyewitness testimony of a waitress in the diner. The game informed me that my likeness was terrible to which I would ask:

…just how far off the mark could I have been when this man’s face is about ten polygon away from a Lego piece? Case in point: this is apparently right and this is completely wrong. Yes, I see now the error of my ways.

A criticism that would be more fairly directed at its successor, however, is that Fahrenheit plays so similarly to Heavy Rain that entire scenes and story elements appear to have been borderline cut-and-pasted from one to other. The plots are significantly different of course (not least because one is a legitimate serial killer murder mystery and the other starts as a serial killer murder mystery and ends up being about a Mayan cult versus a clan of virtual cyborgs) but it’s hard not to find more than a passing similarity between, to list but a few: a series of connected murders; four main characters (a “normal guy” – frequently seen with his arms bandaged – who’s also the lead suspect in a murder investigation, a cop, a female insomniac…); a flashback involving two children that plays into the overall story; the symbolic importance of precipitation (here, snow rather than rain); and even silly, superficial things like sex and shower scenes. It almost feels as if Heavy Rain is a second, heavily edited draft of what Fahrenheit could have been rather than an entirely new concept – though it must be said that I’m grateful, then, to have played the later game first since it is so patently the better of the two. Also because I would otherwise have spent half my time thinking, “Wow, they totally stole this from Fahrenheit.”

A far graver problem for the game itself, however, is that Fahrenheit suffers from the most baffling and ruinous genre confusion I have ever witnessed in a single title. About halfway through the storyline the focus switches to pure science fiction, consequently derailing the mystery that may have had you enthralled until this schizophrenia occurred – because, gentle gamer, it was magic all along. The change is utterly without precedent and while Fahrenheit appears to think of itself as deftly straddling the border between occult thriller and sci-fi blockbuster, it ultimately succeeds at being neither.

To give but one (somewhat spoiler-ridden) example of how this ruined one of my favourite sequences in the game, Lucas eventually finds himself exploring the creepy old house of full-time mystic and part-time crazy crow lady, Agatha – replete with some fantastic ersatz Hitchock in the camera movements. Agatha takes him on a journey into his own psyche; and back to the diner where we discover Lucas talking to someone who, we suspect, must surely be responsible for driving him to murder. Could it have been the police officer? The waitress?! No, dear gamer: it is ultimately revealed to be an anonymous, hooded prophet whose identity one could never have guessed from any contextual clues provided by the game and who undermines any guesswork you might actually have been doing up until that point.

Actually, Lucas, it’s exactly like that. Which is nothing compared to the fact that you’ll be an undead super-being by the game’s conclusion.

Possibly, I could have bought into this nonsensical plot twist had they somehow prepared me for the idea of ancient warlocks and computer-based enemies along the way. The problem is that it comes completely out of left field and, from that point onwards, expects players to suspend their collective disbelief as if Lucas were always going to be battling flying angels in a church and fending off virtual arthropods. Whilst I could have dealt with “ancient Mayan powers” as a plot device (which would, at least, have been magic in the Silent Hill-esque, occult sense), I was considerably less willing to accept “We are the purple clan and we have been hiding inside your computer for centuries despite the comparatively recent creation of such technology but please ignore that gaping plot hole”. We also discover (fairly major spoiler ahead, though why you’d still want to play the game at this point, I’m not sure) that both of these forces are competing for possession of the “Indigo Child” – a plotline which is obviously integral to the whole storyline and also its biggest anticlimax. The entire future rests on saving her and hearing her message! But we will never tell you what she had to say or bring it up again once the final battle is won because none of our writers came up with anything clever enough.

It’s a shame really because Fahrenheit had the potential to be a great game – and, arguably, became one when it was reworked into Heavy Rain several years later – but in this particular incarnation, no amount of nail-biting tension in the first half could make up the absolute nonsense that the plot regresses to by the end. Usually I admire a game that can provoke a visible response on my part – but I don’t think any developer wants the acclaim of being the first game to include a flying Matrix fight on top of an orphanage that physically made me cringe.

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