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Plot Twist Overkill in 'Indigo Prophecy'

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Tuesday, Jun 15, 2010
You can’t just tell a player to care about someone because they’re your friend or it will save the world. Spoilers abound.

Of all the things that Indigo Prophecy represents in its contribution to video games, consistency is not one of them. A bold and clever experiment at times, the game’s heavily authored narrative fails to sustain its coherence after one plot twist and bizarre character interaction too many. Yet there are still a lot of interesting moments in the game worth focusing on, including the moment where the game becomes a train wreck.


The game design is basically a subjective adventure game interface with random mini-games. The chief limitation to your actions is what the designer will allow you to do or touch, there is no real agency outside of this conceptual space. Discovering what you can interact with means walking around the room until the options light up. What’s interesting is the game’s willingness to let these normally limited interactions include the mundane. For each character, you can walk around their apartment, fix a drink, play guitar, watch TV, or a variety of other tasks. The fridge and cabinets are all operable along with the bathroom. Iroquis Pliskin points out that these moments, “succeed in communicating this idea that your protagonist is a regular human being who’s trying to cope with the bizarre events that just transpired. It’s the most successful sequence in the entire game” (“In Praise of the Mundane”, Versus Clu Clu Land, 12 February 2009).
  
Driving the game’s story is what David Cage calls the “elastic band” narrative design in his post-mortem. He explains, ““The idea of bending stories consists in considering the story as a sort of elastic band that the player is free to stretch depending on his actions. The story retains its structure but the player can modify its length and form and thus participate in the narration. In reality the story does not change diametrically from one game to the next, all that changes is the way it is told. However, the player can see parts of scenes and obtain different information depending on the particular path he follows” (“Postmortem: Indigo Prophesy, Gamasutra, 20 June 2006). For example, dialogue will often have a timer forcing you to choose topics, limiting these to only three or four before the NPC forces you to making closing remarks. This amounts to always missing a few conversation options but always getting the same conclusion. It creates a sense of agency because you’re choosing to miss out on things, no matter how minor they are.


At times, the interface is coherent because it’s a 1 to 1 interaction. One button equals performing one activity, so you start forming connections and a sense of authorship in the same way that the right trigger always becomes the option to shoot in an FPS. Other moments, like the Track & Field button mashing moments are surprisingly vivid by forcing the player to keep the bar centered while focusing on other tasks. The claustrophobia sequence with Carla is remarkable for creating tension and mood by making the player juggle, centering a bar while solving a maze puzzle. But as soon as the “Simon Says” action sequences start, this all falls apart. Unlike a QTE in God of War where X clearly makes you do something, the “Simon Says” sequences have no real relevance to the interaction. You just have to get a percentage of taps right to complete the event. It doesn’t help that most of the action sequences last far longer than they should. After dodging the tenth thing in Lucas’s apartment during a psychic attack or the never-ending Matrix fights, I found myself wishing that I could just watch the movie instead of fooling with the button interactions.


Most of the game is just talking to people, picking up items, or performing a minor challenging activity. Decisions are given weight via a sanity meter, which goes up or down depending on how depressed your conduct makes the character. Go too low and it’s off to the asylum. The game is broken into chapters from each character’s perspective and each generally lasts about ten to twenty minutes, which prevents boredom from lack of meaningful activity setting in. The game’s story is tightly paced so that there is always some dramatic tension motivating you through each brief chapter.


The problem with Indigo Prophecy is that if you’re going to create a heavily authored linear game, there are certain kinds of stories that work better than others. The distinction is that since the player is the one driving the plot, you have to maintain coherent motivation for them at all times. You can’t just tell a player to care about someone because they’re your friend or it will save the world. In a game, there’s going to be a lot more desire to understand the plot and why these things are important if the tension is to be maintained. That’s a point that Jordan Mechner harps on in his guide for writing games and it breaks down in Indigo Prophecy as soon as the game’s last third kicks in. (“Designing story-based games”, Jordan Mechner, 8 November 2009)



The problem with Indigo Prophesy is the plot twists and the unfortunate reality that in video games they can cause a lot of trouble. It takes a lot of resources and energy to get a player invested in the story of a game. Dozens of tiny moments, missions, art assets, and design work must go into creating a sustainable world and driving narrative that will keep a player going through the motions. This consumes a lot more time and energy than a book or film, since they can ditch one motivation for another without much explanation since there is no agency in the viewer. A plot twist in a game, which generally involves revealing a massive deception, undoes all of that labor to create a driving goal for the player. Take Bioshock, the plot twist with Andrew Ryan effectively kills the game’s narrative. Nothing is very compelling after that point, particularly if you’ve been harvesting Little Sisters and for some reason they’re suddenly helping you. The game compensates by putting the player in immediate danger and imploring them to kill the new villain, but this moment is hardly as engaging a story as the first portion of the game in which we’re trying to save Atlas. There are obviously numerous examples of games with solid plot twists like System Shock 2 or Planescape: Torment, but they’re effective because they don’t change the game’s overall motivations or they save the twist for the ending.


Indigo Prophecy has one too many plot twists. For example, one character suddenly develops Dragonball Z powers. You also find out that the internet is sentient and has been leading you on all along. The villain is actually an ancient Mayan priest killing people so he can find a little girl who can grant the power to DESTROY THE WORLD just by whispering some secret. Did I mention that in the last third of the game that one character becomes a zombie, the world is going to perish in a snowoclypse, and the female lead character is now suddenly in love with the zombie? There are so many changes and reveals that the game’s original compelling story is torn to pieces. All that’s left is a barely coherent conspiracy theory with some sex-filled fan fiction. As Shamus Young puts it in his summary of the game’s story, you have to wonder why they didn’t throw in space aliens while they were at it (“Indigo Prophecy: Plot”, Twenty Sided, 26 May 2008).


The plot was always problematic because of its heavy use of stereotypes, but in the last section of the game, it quits trying to even make them work. Cage explains, “All these simple characterization elements enabled us to present the characters very quickly while giving the player the impression he has always known them,” which is good logic if you’re making an action game where the player isn’t focusing on plot much anyways, but in something as plot heavy as an adventure game that doesn’t have puzzles to solve, it’s going to cause problems. We are judging these people’s conduct by much stricter standards.


I really have to emphasize the point that the guy on the bottom is dead or mostly dead.

I really have to emphasize the point that the guy on the bottom is dead or mostly dead.


Tekanji at Shrub.com praises Carla Valenti for being a professionally minded female character that is not defined by her relationship to a man. Tyler, as an African-American cop, is in a healthy relationship and is generally engaging as a character. (“What’s in a character anyway?”, Official Shrub.com Blog, 2 February 2006) They’re initially good characters along with Lucas and are engaging to play when the game’s story is still intact. All of this goes to hell after the plot twists start rolling in. Carla falls in love with a zombie, who she also believes is a murderer. Blogger Pat Miller points out that between Carla’s unnecessary T&A moments (walking around in her underwear) and the game ending with her married and pregnant, she ends up being just another “push to cater to the ‘typical’ 18-24 year old video game audience” (“On Indigo Prophecy, Part 2: So Bad It’s Racist”, Token Minorities, 26 December 2006). Ultimately, it’s tough to even credit the game for having a strong female lead considering that the other female characters are a mute little girl, two people’s girlfriends, a waitress, and an old lady who is actually the internet. Tyler ended up being my favorite character overall since he’s smart enough to leave the game’s story by going to Florida. Whatever positive attributes that you want to assign to these characters, they’re voided by the story shoving them into unlikely or ridiculous situations.


There really are some great moments in this game. The asylum sequence, along with the claustrophobia puzzle, are great examples of simple game design producing tension with music and visuals. Hiding evidence from the police, then switching to the officer to find that evidence is clever and weirdly exciting. Cage’s willingness to experiment means that some of the hits and misses of the title have to be expected. After playing through Indigo Prophecy and parts of Heavy Rain, I hope that Cage keeps making games if only to see what weird ideas he comes up with next. I only suggest that he hire a decent writer next time.

Tagged as: indigo prophecy
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