What happens when games become movies?
Street Fighter 2, Super Mario Bros., Resident Evil, Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat: what do all these games have in common? Besides being fine examples of their prospective genres, each of these games prove the one almost incomparable fact concerning interactive media: video games and movies do not mix. Like putting tomato ketchup on a jam sandwich, video game movie adaptations will confuse, disappoint, and quite often make you physically sick!
But what happens if the actual video game itself wants to be a movie? In this case will the rule still stand? If we look at Hideo Kojima and his outstanding Metal Gear Solid series, the answer is no. Games presented as interactive movies, if well executed, will usually succeed, while movies based on games will always be doomed to fail. A simple explanation for this is that whilst everyone wants to play at being in a movie, hardly anyone really wants to watch a video game that they themselves can’t control.
US: Jul 2007
Indigo Prophecy, however, is a different beast: it actually presents itself as a movie. Hideo Kojima was one of the first to refer to himself as a “director” rather than a producer, and although the story and vision of the Metal Gear series was cinematic in scope, he never referred to any of his titles as anything other “games”. With Indigo Prophecy the producers have taken a different approach, and this is evident from the game’s opening tutorial. In an innovative turn the tutorial is narrated by the director/writer of the game, and you, the player, work through this tutorial playing as a crash test dummy on what appears to be a movie set, complete with props and a bluescreen for CGI shots. It’s an interesting segment, orientating you with the in-game controls, whilst providing a sort of ironic distance. In a sort of obscure way, you are almost aware of the game’s production, and of its intent to be seen as more than just a game.
As for the actual plot, it fits somewhere snugly between a feature length episode of CSI and earlier episodes of The X-Files. The story centres round Lucas Kane, wanted for murder and hunted by the detectives assigned to the case: Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles. Playing from all different perspectives we follow Lucas as he attempts to prove his innocence, Carla and Tyler as they attempt to crack the case, and, to a lesser extent, other ancillary characters. The structure of the game works much like a well written suspense novel. For example, you control Lucas until he makes a climactic discovery, before switching seamlessly to the perspective of the detectives—whose police work can have them either working together (in which case you can switch between the two in the same scene) or working separately on different aspects of the case. This technique is well executed, effectively turning Indigo Prophecy into the gaming equivalent of a page turner, whilst simultaneously adding the extra depth of some situational irony as a sub-text (playing as the detectives you often find yourself retracing the steps that you have already taken as Lucas).
The plot and story, in many ways the game’s major trump card (being adequately scripted, and pretty well acted), can often expose weaknesses in the game’s mechanics for a number of reasons. For example, the game design, whilst hinting at a non-linear universe where the slightest of choices can lead you down totally different paths or narratives, is remarkably stiff, basically the slave of tight, plot-driven gameplay. Quite often the different choices you are offered make little difference as the game stumbles from one expositional scene to the next.
Indigo Prophecy does, however, attempt to allow the player interaction in the story as much as possible, with varying degrees of success. The control system, whilst far from being revolutionary, is pretty innovative. Instead of using a generic action button, Indigo Prophecy allows players to use the right analogue stick in order to bring your character to life in a more interactive manner. Actions which would usually be signalled by a simple push of a button are activated via analogue stick movements, which attempt to mimic the movements you would make in reality. For example, climbing a fence has the player using alternating left and right quarter circles. Like all new methods of control, there is a slight learning curve, but it quickly becomes intuitive.
As mentioned before, the game is often cut scene heavy, and to counter this designers have implemented a Shenmue-esque control system which allows the player a little control over what transpires during cutscenes. Using both the right and left analogue sticks, one has to once again mimic the movements shown on the screen. While this sometimes creates the feeling that you are indeed controlling the on-screen movie, more often than not it is a very alienating, hum-drum experience which actually detracts from the impact of the cutscenes themselves. How are you supposed to follow the PaRappa the Rapper-like commands (which are placed directly over the action) whilst watching the scene itself? And vice versa.
Despite some interesting innovations, control in Indigo Prophecy is generally clumsy, harking back to the days of PSOne titles like Resident Evil and Tomb Raider. The frustrating 3D camera implemented doesn’t help either. Often, in more open environments, you have access to a free roaming camera, but in enclosed spaces (where most of the game plays) you have to be content with a fixed camera, which you can flip using the trigger buttons. The camera would be disastrous if this game were anything other than a slow paced adventure title. As it is, however, it is a minor distraction and doesn’t detract too much from the overall gaming experience.
Had writer/director David Cage produced Indigo Prophecy as a movie rather than a game, it would feel distinctly low budget. That is not to say it’s a bad game, just that areas of the script seem weakly written, voice acting is often cloying, and the graphics are of a lower standard than we are used to. But as much as the producers want us to think Indigo Prophecy is a movie, it is a game. And by those standards it works well. Invigorating players with an original, workable control system and a stimulating story Indigo Prophecy does many things well. The main problem is that the game lies to us. It claims to be open ended, but it isn’t; it claims to be a movie, but it most evidently is a game pretending to be a movie. As a gamer, this, much like the slew of video game to movie adaptations, originally stimulated my interest, but ultimately left me disappointed and unfulfilled.
Editor’s Note: Indigo Prophecy is better known as Fahrenheit throughout Europe.