There’s a series of games that almost everyone I know likes and that I hated. I hated them so much that they put me off the whole Interactive Movie genre. Those games are the work of David Cage and his Parisian based company, Quantic Dream, of which he is the founder, co-CEO, director, lead game designer and screenwriter (he’s also a freelance musician and possibly Head of Keeping it Real). Basically he’s more important to QD than Miyamoto is to Nintendo. He’s thought of as one of the great auteurs of gaming, an innovative creator who blurs the frontiers of what games are. He’s fetéd, showered in awards and is one of those guys who not only believes his own press, but probably wrote it, too.
The games I’m going to talk about in this series have all been critically acclaimed and have collected 21 awards between them, including three BAFTAs. They were all bestsellers and, in the case of the last two games, were all near the top for Pre-Orders in the year they were published. The games I’m referring to are Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy in NA), Heavy Rain, and Beyond: Two Souls.
Those particular games irritated, bored and horrified me in equal measures and I just could never see what my friends saw in them. They left me so bemused that I just thought I’d never get away with a genre that seemed to be watching a half competent story and occasionally spamming X to navigate a Quick Time Event. “Not a problem.”, I thought, “It’s not like anyone likes every genre of anything, not even famously easy to please idiots like yourself.” And then I played Until Dawn and laughed so hard and had so much fun that I had to watch four solid hours of Bob Ross to calm down. I’ve played through that game six times now and always delight at murdering the hapless teen horror stereotypes that Supermassive give you to play with. It’s a great ride, jam packed with people you hate, horror movie clichés turned all the way up to eleven and basically no gameplay at all (My buddy and I always howl with laughter at a scene where you have to add logs to a fire, because you have to do three things in a row, the most work the game ever gives you).
This got me wondering if I had been wrong about David Cage and his output for the past 12 years, had I been maligning him with accusations of rank hackery for nothing for over a decade? So I thought I’d replay them and cast a critical eye on not just the games themselves, but my reactions to them. I decided not to play any remasters and to play them on the machines I played them on first. I also decided that I would play these games sober, but I now believe that task to be impossible.
So the first game I played is also the first game to call itself an Interactive Movie and was one of the first games (if we exclude Dragon’s Lair and their ilk) to make QTEs a huge part of the experience. The game is Fahrenheit and I’m actually dreading replaying it so much that I nearly drop the disc putting it into my trusty PS2.
The storyline is told from three perspectives (well four, actually, but one of those is such a small part of the story and plot that, not only am I not going to mention it… I’m not sure I’ve ever heard anyone else mention it!), that of Lucas Kane, an IT manager at a large bank; Carla Valenti, a tough as nails Lieutenant in the NYPD; and her partner Tyler Miles, a pretty laid back officer whose outlook on life will take a more downward trajectory as the game progresses.
Our story begins in a New York diner on a bitterly cold night when Lucas, in a trance, brutally stabs a man to death in the restroom. After coming to his senses, Lucas flees the scene and attention shifts to Carla who investigates the murder. Lucas then navigates a visit from the cops and heads to work where he starts to have terrifying visions of giant beetle creatures attacking him, which obviously has an adverse affect on his mental state and sends him looking for answers to the terrible things that he has started to see and to do.
Disturbed by everything that has been happening to him, Lucas seeks out the help of a medium named Agatha, who places him into yet another trance to try to ignite Lucas’ recollections of the murder. During the trance he remembers that he was approached by a shadowy figure in the diner who then seemed to be controlling his actions at the time of the crime. Buoyed by the fact that he seems to be getting somewhere, he leaves Agatha and vows to return tomorrow for yet another Trance session, to further investigate himself. However, when he returns he finds Agatha murdered too and a trap set for him by the police who have by now fingered Lucas for the murder in the diner. Lucas escapes, showing off new, super-human abilities, now being able to do anything Neo can do in the final reel of The Matrix. He dodges bullets, leaps around like The Hulk and escapes by jumping on top of a moving subway train.
Around this time we find out that Lucas has, since childhood, had visions of future events but since he went all stabby in the diner toilet, he’s been having more of them
The weather worsens, New York becoming gripped by an icy storm and the streets become emptier every hour. The whole city has a haunted, fragile look and the bleakness of the weather starts to take a real emotional toll on all the characters.
Things are looking just as bleak for Lucas as the police close in and he starts to worry increasingly about figuring out what has been done to him and to his mental state. Luckily, Agatha’s ghost turns up with some pointers for him and leads him to a specialist on the civilisation of the Mayans. Around this point, I would have given up on my own mental state and would have gone to bed for a year or so, but Lucas is made of hardier stuff than I and disguises himself as a journalist (NYT Ancient Civilisations Desk, I presume) and goes off to meet Dimitri, the expert who tells him that the murder he committed was actually a part of a Mayan ritual, to open up the Realm of the Dead, so that the leader of the ritual can search for the answers they seek there. Dimitri also tells Lucas that, usually, the possessed perpetrator of the murder also kills himself, and that now, Lucas is a loose end that the Mayan Magician will be looking to tidy up.
In order to flush Lucas out, his ex-girlfriend Tiffany, is kidnapped by the mysterious man who approached him in the diner, who we now discover is a Mayan Oracle searching for the Indigo Child, a child who holds a secret that will give whoever hears it great power. Lucas attempts to save Tiffany (I wouldn’t bro, exes are exes for a reason, you know) and it doesn’t go that well with both himself and Tiffany being killed. Bummer. Just when you think our melancholy hero is no more, he and his estranged squeeze are brought back to life by a group of AI called The Purple Clan, one of whom has been pretending to be deceased fortune teller Agatha all along.
Lucas convinces Carla that he’s innocent and that he’s the victim of an ancient magical hoodoo designed to find the Indigo child and that not only do AIs exist, but that they can be ghosts if they want and that they’re looking for the child too. Hard-nosed detective Carla swallows this as easily as a sword swallower going to town on a butter knife and agrees to help Lucas.
Lucas finds the Indigo Child and takes her to a military base he grew up on where a climatic battle between himself, The Purple Clan and The Oracle ensues. The game has three different endings all set up from this final scene.
So that’s the story. Not all of it, I mainly kept it from Lucas’ point of view because it’s the main viewpoint and one that really shows the astounding leaps of logic the game gives you as a matter of fact throughout its time. I find the story to be incredibly ham-fisted and strangely lacking in emotion, but it isn’t as bad as I remembered. It has emotional beats that do resonate and it also uses some game mechanics to keep the pressure on, such as having a good, bad, and indifferent answer to most questions you are asked that are timed and always pick the ‘bad’ answer by default if you dawdle.
However, the actual gameplay is so frustratingly bad that I longed to play something with a better control system like Superman 64 or an actual Space Shuttle. Before you even start the game David Cage actually shows up and tells you how to use the controls in person. I know, I know, the nuts on this guy, right? However this part makes it clear that he wants you to use the analogue sticks to give more weight to your actions. He tells you to move it slowly for more feedback from the controller. He’s at great pains to point out how well the analogue system will be used and it’s all smoke and mirrors. Movement is your standard two stick affair with holding down X to run. That’s all fine, I can and do live with that in almost every single game I play; what I can’t live with are the QTEs. They’re completed by pushing one or both sticks (not the d-pad, never the d-pad) in the direction shown on screen by two absolutely massive homages to that Simon game we had as a kid, that completely covers the screen during the large, pre-scripted action sequences. During those sequences you get a set number of lives and will fail often at first and then, instead of getting less frequent, your failures start to happen more and more often as the QTEs get ever more manic. Look at the state of this. Look at it.
This aspect of the game is more maddening than almost anything I’ve ever played, it’s comparable to having an army of ants under your skin with tiny needles for legs, shitting salt as they walk. I was less frustrated by Brexit. The sheer awfulness of this system is incredible when you think that it came out in the same year as Resident Evil 4, which also had QTEs throughout, but which didn’t make me pull my testes off in an uncontrollable fit of rage. I remember hating the controls at the time and now I can see why. While they aren’t broken as such, they certainly don’t work as intended and the problems they have would easily be overcome if the QTEs were mapped to buttons and not sticks. The sheer thumb gymnastics the game put you through are truly, horribly torturous.
Actually playing the game is a strange experience and actually does contain more traditional game elements than I recalled, such as lives during the QTEs, dialogue trees that actually seem to matter and a meter that keeps track of your emotional well being, that fills up when doing relaxing things like eating, shitting and disposing of bloodied evidence against you and plummets when stressful stuff happens like starving, being discovered doing something bad and leaving out all the evidence against you for anyone to find. I like this element a lot and it reminds me of Eternal Darkness’ super Insanity Meter, but it eschews the cool effects that game gives you for going insane and simply ups the mopiness levels of everyone involved.
The graphics are pretty good for the time actually and was one of the first games to use motion capture for movement and, as such isn’t too terrible, even with people that look more suited to Minecraft nowadays than to a gritty action/horror. The voice acting is pretty excellent across the board and Angelo Badalamenti’s score is as good as you’d expect from one of the masters of his craft, bringing real tension and weight to most moments and providing a lonely feel as the icy storm grips ever tighter around New York City. The use of some actual licensed songs for the soundtrack is a problem though, sounding tinny and less impressive compared to the game’s natural score and the use of angst ridden Nu-Metal for a lot of Lucas’ parts dates the game horribly and made me long for something with more emotional resonance with which to tie to my main protagonist.
Playing the game through, something becomes wildly apparent. David Cage likes to wear his influences on his sleeve. Whether that’s the multiple screen viewpoints that pop up picture in picture at almost every point of this game that are clearly ripped straight from 24, the scene at Lucas’ bank where he first first hallucinates which is reminded me so strongly of a similar scene in The Matrix that I checked to see if it was a direct copy (it wasn’t) and a scene in which Carla interviews a patient in a mental institution is shot by shot cribbed from Jonathan Demme’s direction the first time Clarice Starling meets Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Honestly, it’s a direct crib of every part of that scene, minus the dialogue. Se7en features prominently too, with lighting and angles taken directly from it. Usually this kind of blatant plagiarism would be the worst thing about a game, but the dialogue in this game is of The Room levels of stilted awkwardness.
Let’s be clear here, judging by the dialogue in this game, David Cage doesn’t have the talent to write ‘bum’ on a bathroom wall. I tried to write down the worst offending lines but honestly all of it is just really bad. Here’s one of the AI: “Oh, I forgot to mention one small detail. When we brought you back to life, we added a module within your cortex. It’s impossible to kill you as you are already dead. I can, however, annihilate you. A simple touch from me and you will be erased forever. There’s no use trying to resist, I have control of you now.” or how’s about this from Bogart, talking about The Purple Clan: “Ah, we’ve only become recently aware of the Purple Clan. We know almost nothing about them. We suspect that some AIs acquired a sort of consciousness using the net during the ’80s. They want the Indigo Child in order to become the dominant life form on the plant. First the dinosaurs, then Man, now Artificial Intelligence.” Even the mundane lines sound like they were written by an algorithm that has only been fed B-Movies and the poetry of every 15 year old boy on the planet. When allied to a plot as utterly nonsensical as this, it’s hard to take and a waste of some fine voice acting.
The story itself, as utterly daft as it is, together with those little ‘hurry up’ mechanics I mentioned early keep the game surprisingly compelling though. Far more so than I recalled and some of the set pieces, most notably the tense opening inside of the diner, are incredibly tense and compelling, but as soon as I was getting into the game at any point, it was invariably followed by yet another random exercise in QTE frustration.
The game is riddled with problems, you’d have to be a fool not to admit it, but I will say that I enjoyed it a lot more than I was expecting. However, seeing as I was looking forward to it about as much as I’d look forward to jamming toothpicks down my pee hole that isn’t saying a lot. It’s a game that pretends to have boundless ambition, but instead has dialogue that wouldn’t feel out of place in a social drama from the 50’s, gameplay that would try the patience of a rock and that has stolen most of its ideas and settings from popular movies and TV of the time. All in all it’s a game that would probably be thought of as average, now, if it didn’t have such glaring problems that it can never overcome.