[25 June 2010]
Inspired by L.B. Jeffries’s post last week (“Plot Twist Overkill in Indigo Prophecy, PopMatters, 15 June 2010), I replayed a fair bit of Indigo Prophecy, and as much as I enjoy the game, his critique of it is spot on. The game’s narrative downward spiral is infamous amongst the gaming community, and it stands as a powerful reminder of what not to do with a game’s story. However, the reason that its ending is so confusing and so infamously bad is because it has such a strong beginning. The first level of Indigo Prophecy represents the Holy Grail of branching narratives; it presents you with a problem and gives you a variety of ways to solve it. However, every choice has obvious pros and cons. Unlike most games with branching paths, there isn’t a “best” choice given the situation. The game’s lack of direction in telling us what to do and our own lack of certainty regarding what we should do make the opening scene of Indigo Prophecy one of the most memorable moments in gaming.
The game opens in the bathroom of Doc’s Diner. An older man is standing at a urinal, and the protagonist, Lucas, is sitting in a stall holding a bloody knife, deep in a trance. As the first man moves to the sink to wash his hands, Lucas attacks, stabbing him over and over again. Then he snaps out of the trance and we gain control, standing over the dead body, blood all over our hands, and Lucas thinks to himself, “I have to get out of here”.
At this moment, we’re faced with two major decisions: run or clean up the mess. Both have obvious benefits and consequences. Running gets us away from the scene of the crime but leaves the bathroom full of evidence. Cleaning may erase some potential clues but also incriminates us further. Adding to the tension is the fact that we’re under a time limit. There’s a cop near the front of the diner, slowly making his way towards the bathroom. No matter what we choose to do it may seem like a good idea to first wash the blood off our hands but even that leaves blood in the sink for police to find. Leaving the bathroom without washing causes Lucas to run into a waitress, which only gains the attention of the cop faster. Once in the diner itself we’re faced with even more options: call Lucas’s brother for help from a payphone, leaving a number for the police to trace; run out the back door, adding a homeless man to the list of witnesses; or we can just leave through the front door, with or without paying. Every choice has a clear benefit and drawback that we understand instantly, something rarely achieved in these kinds of games.
This opening scene feels even more versatile when you realize there are no “gamey” instant fail moments. If Lucas is still in the bathroom when the cop enters, it’s not an immediate game over as long as we’ve taken the right precautions. If we hid the body and knife and cleaned the blood from the floor and our hands, we’ll have about thirty seconds before the cop notices a light bloody trail leading into a nearby stall. That’s more than enough time to flee, though now our guilt is guaranteed. In most games when we’re presented with a choice, we’ll either see consequences right away or some time later but rarely both. In the opening scene of Indigo Prophecy, we’re able to see the immediate benefits of a decision (hiding the body) while still being aware of future consequences (incriminating ourselves). Our actions are both good and bad, and we realize this as we’re making the choice, not afterwards.
Yet this clairvoyance has nothing to do with how the choices are implemented or presented, rather it’s because the set up for the story is so common across all forms of media that every player has a wealth of pop culture knowledge to immediately draw clues from. Indigo Prophecy begins like any good “man on the run” murder mystery, a bystander is framed for a killing and forced into the role of detective to prove his innocence. While the game adds a supernatural twist to the story, this general premise is something that we’ve all seen or read countless times before, so we know (or mostly know) how it will play out. We already have context for our choices because of this background knowledge. At this point, all the game has to do is give us a few options that fit our preconceived ideas of what to do in this situation and the world will automatically feel more real and familiar because it’ll seem to follow a very natural logic. Indigo Prophecy just goes a step further, giving us a bundle of options that fit our preconceived ideas of what to do.
Unfortunately as you get further into the game you realize how little those choices actually matter to the story. Soon the supernatural elements of the plot become central, and all our knowledge of murder mysteries is rendered useless as the world suddenly feels less familiar. By the time that you hit the first “Simon Says action sequence” (as L.B. Jeffries so perfectly described them) you should stop playing. It’s all downhill from there.