Thursday, July 22, 2010

Fahrenheit (Part Three)

Known as Indigo Prophecy in the States, this ambitious title was Quantic Dream's magnum opus until the release of Heavy Rain. Mere days before their newest title was about to be released, Michelle Baldwin and I embarked on the mission of playing the game through together. What was revealed over time was an in-depth analysis of Fahrenheit's timeless artistic style, characterisation and design principles. The following article contains heavy spoilers.

You can reads parts one and two: here and here.


Given the amount of games I have played with truly awful QTEs, Fahrenheit just about gets away with them, but for two very specific reasons; the warning you get about each and every QTE ahead of time is incredibly helpful -- so you have some buffer time to think and aren't just reacting to the flashes on screen. I haven't "failed" as often as I do in other games and I think this is why. The fact that the QTEs also follow the speed of the action is refreshing too, they speed up and slow down noticeably as the pace of the action on screen winds up or down. I do agree though that their duration is sometimes frustrating, some of the events go on far beyond what they should do -- the destruction of Lucas' apartment is a prime example of this, I didn't need to see the entire inventory of his flat tumble towards him in minute QTE detail, a few key pieces of furniture would have been enough. Mainly the QTEs often border on distracting; sometimes something really compelling is happening on the screen but it's so hard to tell because of the button mashing.

The gestures you've mentioned for actions are well designed, but it is difficult within the timed chat options to distinguish what you're actually choosing from one word; sometimes the topic I choose bears no relation to what I actually wanted to know, and out of four or five options why limit the player to hearing only two or three? I sense that Quantic Dream is deliberately trying to keep me in the dark at just about every stage of the game, while I do understand their reasons for doing so it feels at odds with the tone of the game. In videogame terms I'm an explorer: I like to look in all the cupboards, all the rooms, talk to everyone and exhaust all options; but there's little room for maneuver in Fahrenheit, you're basically limited to trying to keep the characters sane and it frequently feels like I don't have enough options or time to do this as I'd like to.

Without wishing to lay into the design of the game too much, I think the saving mechanism has room for improvement, it's sometimes very difficult to know when the game has saved. I appreciate that auto saving prevents the narrative of the game from being too broken up, so all that needed to be done was to make the red flashing save icon more visible and visible for longer.

I'm not disliking the change of tone to the game so far, there are moments that it could have been handled more delicately (mainly through less QTEs so I could properly see the cutscenes with the more gothic themes coming through.) This is a game that clearly wears it's influences on it's sleeves. It's been a while since I read The Tempest but that was a play with the struggle between art and fantasy at its heart, most of the early scenes are glances towards theatrical metaphor, so every character in this game is crucial adding to the mystical warp and weft of the game structure, with each decision impacting on the rest. Shakespeare's plays -- his tragedies in particular -- were frequently about discovery, particularly of the darker unexplained forces that pushed characters together. The story that's unfolding in this portion of the game may seem at odds with that dramatic, quite straight, almost beautiful introduction, but I think it explains it even more; I'm certainly not surprised that the content Fahrenheit's revealing now has confused and alienated some players, as it bends the lines between supernatural and factual in a contemporary setting. This is an uncomfortable mix even for gamers used to the far-fetched content of space operas and fantasy epics.

The interview with Tyler and Carla's boss after Lucas' escape started to show the in-game confusion about what is being seen. They both saw something happening that neither character could explain, this combined with the doubt surrounding Lucas' narration of his experience means we are unsure of either his sanity upon seeing Agatha after her death, or the full depth of what he's experiencing. Fahrenheit feels like an old, familiar story; something lifted from the pages of the old bard, challenging us to explain it away as the net circles in on Lucas.

Now seems like a good time to discuss the game's name -- as you know it was called Fahrenheit in the PAL region, but Indigo Prophecy everywhere else. Which name do you think suits the nature of the game better?


Indigo Prophecy, definitely. Why? Because it makes sense within the context of the third act, when more of the unique aspects of the game's story start to reveal themselves. Indigo gets explained through another character; prophecy through explanations of what is happening, and what has already taken place. Fahrenheit on the other hand seems harder to associate with the game. Sure, it's a reference to the worsening cold front that is happening simultaneously with the events of the plot, and it's continual decline as things progress, but when compared to the other name it comes across as a distant link that isn't as important. On a pure, unrelated to the game level, I prefer the name Fahrenheit, but that might be because I have a bias towards Mother Nature, so make of that what you will.

I have now finished the game, for a second time (remembering that I did so once when it originally released, too) and came away from my experience with some really interesting thoughts.

When everything was new and I was playing it for the first time, I appreciated it for its mature approach to both its characters and story: their personalities were filled with depth, intrigue and mystery whilst their situations were mostly grounded in reality. As the third act took place, the well-known and perhaps infamous abrupt change of pace was definitely noticeable, with some stranger things taking place, but even so I was able to take it on its own merits and accept everything that was happening. On my second playthrough however, this was different. Instead of accepting it on its own terms and ignoring some of the strange twists the narrative took, I found myself reacting to it like most people who have played it seemingly do: not only was the change in pace severely abrupt, it was immersion-breaking and arguably entirely unnecessary. Events in the story chopped and changed too quickly; what the characters did and how they reacted to what was occurring seemed at odds with their personalities developed in the previous chapters; and the information we're expected to take in is overwhelming and delivered far too quickly. This combined with the intensity of the situations and the faster pace of both the story and our interactions through it culminate in a very hastily done -- in terms of design, presentation to the player (the overwhelming information) and also what we can and can't do as gameplay -- third act that leaves you feeling confused, exhausted and uncertain as to what has just taken place.

These feelings are exacerbated by frustration with the mechanics that exist in this act, the abrupt and hasty interactions feeling like a convoluted mess whereas before it was a bit more moderate and composed. Sure, you are still performing the same sort of actions that you were before, but the added speed and intensity of these moments puts pressure on the player to focus on what they're doing while they are trying to comprehend, understand and show an interest in what is occurring in the narrative. Throw in scenes like the one with Carla in the Asylum and it just makes for a very frustrating, barely enjoyable experience. And my god, the mechanics where you must rapidly alternate between the Left and Right Triggers is just infuriating -- instead of working like they have in previous scenes, the threshold for success or failure varies depending on which interactive moment you're playing at the time. Some let you succeed when you get near the opposite end of the bar -- or in other words, the right hand side after starting from the left -- whilst others expect you to go all the way and maintain it for a prolonged period of time. Failure to do so doesn't result in just a failure of that particular quick-time event interaction, it also results in the loss of a life or complete and utter failure to progress any further in the game, resulting in a game over screen and a need to try again. Under the already overwhelming, intense pressure of the game's final moments, this is just insulting and I wouldn't be surprised if many players out there turned the game off in disgust. It's poor game design -- arguably something that covers the entire game, not just the final act -- and hinders your experience rather than compliments it. It's just such a disappointment after the first half of the game and while I was able to overlook the third act's flaws on my initial playthrough, the more critically inclined and analytical side of me can't ignore them on my subsequent one. They disrupt the flow of the game, alter the player's perception of both its story and characters and, as evidenced by many people's disdain with the final act, ultimately changes the perspective of those playing the game.

It is really unfortunate because, as I've described in our previous exchanges, I really like Fahrenheit. I admire what Quantic Dream attempted to do with, I appreciate their more mature approach with a story grounded in reality which featured characters with a lot of depth, and I really believe that we need unique, intriguing and compelling experiences like it in the videogame medium. Linear, open-world, narrative based or gameplay based, videogames have the potential to do a lot of things, and Fahrenheit demonstrates just one side of that spectrum. Precisely, then, why I'm so disappointed that its potential wasn't quite met.

But, despite all this, I still have some things I'd like to say about the game's narrative, and of course the characters as well. I'll save those for when you've finished the game though, as I'm sure you have a response to what I've covered above as well as your own thoughts on what happened to Lucas, Carla, Tyler and Marcus. I just hope I haven't tarnished your own experience with my disappointment described above, because really, flaws or not, Fahrenheit is a truly unique game that I firmly believe everyone should try at least once. Thoughts?

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