1up has a diary feature written by Director David Cage. It’s long, detailed, and worthwhile to read, if you haven’t done so already. My favorite quote from it:
Storytelling in videogames is usually very simple. We use stories in basically the same way as porn movies: a bit of story to set up the context and introduce the characters, then the big action scene. Another bit of story to set up the context for the next scene, then another big action scene. No one cares for the quality of the story, because no one is really there for that. The story is just a minor device wrapping action scenes.
I took, what my wife has graciously described as a well-deserved break this weekend and spent some quality time with Indigo Prophecy. Basically, I played the crap out of it Saturday. I played through as close to opposite of the way I played through the first time, figured out how to get all three of the endings, and fiddled around with variants on a few choice chapters. Here’s what I found out:
Sadly, contrary to impressions that I conveyed in my last entry, Indigo Prophecy is a very linear game. Of course, that statement needs some clarification. The general story arc is fixed. There are no significant story branches that change the way the game is played out. You will always play the same chapters, in the same order, with the same basic outcome. (I should point out that you are always given the opportunity to decide what order to play chapters that occur simultaneously.) As a matter of fact, while there is a slight branch that occurs in one of the latter chapters, which only affects the setup for the final chapter, the only substantive branching occurs in the final chapter and those choices alone determine which ending you will get. There had been much debate on this topic before the release of the game – just how much control will you have over the story – and I’m sad to report that popular and cynical expectation that your choices would only have minor impact on the details of a fixed story was correct.
It’s not a bad thing, however. Indigo Prophecy has always billed itself as an interactive movie, and that is exactly what it is. While there are a some chapters (mostly later in the game) that only have one possible outcome, there are plenty of other chapters that give you a lot of freedom as to how they play out. But, unfortunately in my mind, none of those choices you make have any real affect on the game. So, if you let someone die, while it affects the mental health of your character, it has no real repercussions on the game. In essence, all of the choices you make, instead of affecting the story itself, only alter the telling of the story.
The main “health bar” in the game is the character’s mental health, which is indicated as a percentage, with 100% being labeled “Neutral”. As negative things affect your character, their mental health will deteriorate, slipping through states labeled “Stressed”, “Depressed”, “Wrecked”, etc. It turns out, that besides the story-telling aspects, the only real effect of the choices you make in playing the game is how they impact the mental health of the character. If you are “Wrecked” you may have to work hard in the next chapter to figure out a way not to fail the main task, lest you become mentally unhinged and terminate the game. And sometimes, the only way to do that, is to fail. Which is very cool.
From early reviews, I was under the impression that failing some of the action sequences would create branches in the story. In a chase scene, you control the escaping murderer. If you succeed, he gets away in a rather dramatic fashion. My understanding, with similar situations, was that if you failed part of the tasks the outcome would be different and you would have to do something else to get away – a story branch. But no, the scene rewinds and you start again from where you erred – in most cases.
Everyone has always said that the main reason more games aren’t made with branching story lines is because you have to basically make a separate game for each significant branch. For the same amount of cost, you effectively divide the length of gameplay by every major branch. And gamers seem to think that an eight-hour game isn’t worth it (unless it is about gears of a solid, metallic nature). But what Indigo Prophecy attempted, and I think successfully, required a lot of internal branching. The chapters may all be the same and in the same order, but your freedom within the branches is sometimes incredibly open. The developers had to surmount the challenge of scripting all of these possibilities so that the player couldn’t fail the ultimate goals, yet retain a realistic feel of control. One chapter where you play as Lucas in his apartment, probably plays out one way by most people who play it. But, if you are clever, you can extend the scene with some major benefits for the poor protagonist. Later, you can even skip the final sequence by deciding to go back to bed. Do these choices change the story? No, but they do alter what information may be made available to the player, and they affect the precarious mental health of the characters.
The developers also had to artfully figure out ways to keep the story moving without handing you things you may have missed. It is possible, by either playing a really smart criminal, really bad investigators, or some combination thereof, to wind up without enough evidence to link the suspect to the crime. But the developers give you an out, you just have to figure out what that is.
I suppose in conclusion I must say that the replay value isn’t as high for this game as I had hoped. It is still a wonderful ride, and you can replay chapters as many times as you want to see what can and can’t be done. But with only the same story available, it does grow weary after awhile. Indigo Prophecy remains a solid game, and is quite addictive the first time through. But knowing that the story itself doesn’t really change takes some of the excitement out of playing the whole thing again. But as David Cage said, the genre is uninvented, and this is just a first step, a setting of the bar. For what it is, it is quite good. The expectations that it didn’t attain, well, those are things that can be addressed by the next ambitious game in the genre…