Postmortem: Indigo Prophecy
June 20, 2006 Page 1 of 4
[Published in edited form in the June/July issue of sister magazine Game Developer with magazine-exclusive concept art, Gamasutra is proud to present the full, extended postmortem for Quantic Dream's fascinating Indigo Prophecy/Fahrenheit, as described by creator David Cage.]
Working on an original project is both the worst curse and the most exciting thing that can happen in this industry. It's a curse because you go through periods of terrifying doubt. For two years you abandon all notions of a private life and forgo many hours of sleep because you are permanently looking for the right path, being simultaneously haunted by the idea that you may be completely mistaken and may be taking enormous risks.
It's also a fascinating experience because an original project allows you to construct your own vision, to test your convictions on the ground, to experience an extraordinary professional and human adventure with a team, with all the alternating periods of torment and euphoria that this implies.
Indigo Prophecy was all of that. This adventure taught me an enormous amount of things by forcing me to think about my vision of the future of this medium and how to make it evolve, sometimes by remaining true to its still-young traditions and sometimes by breaking away from them.
To sum up such a rich and intense experience in just a few pages by dividing it between positive and negative is a challenge that is almost impossible to meet. If I nonetheless try to do so, it is first of all because I have a special affinity for the impossible and also because I imagine that others may be able to learn from this experience with its share of successes and errors.
|Unused Cover Art for
What Went Right
1: The Story - Playing with Archetypes
The writing of the scenario itself required a considerable amount of work (the final game design ran to more than 2000 pages…) and it was very well received (except for the end of the story, a point I will soon get back to).
My main aim was to write a story that would be capable of "absorbing" the players into the experience, making sure they kept a firm grip on the controller until they knew what was going to happen. The story thus became the driving force of the experience, both the main motivation inciting the player to play and the reward for playing.
I deliberately chose simple and popular starting points: an American city today, an ordinary man who finds himself confronted with extraordinary events, a series of unexplained murders. It seemed to be essential for the story to be easily and immediately accessible, without any need for explanations.
Characterization was my second priority. Initially I set out to create strong empathy with the main character without the players even realizing it was happening.
The idea of the hero being a murderer in spite of himself generates spontaneous sympathy in the player. The stress situation imposed from the very beginning immediately plunges the player into the story and simultaneously making him Lucas Kane's accomplice (I had to fight hard with the Marketing Department, convinced that the player would not feel any empathy for a murderer, which proved to be wrong as it turned out. The narration enabled us to get over this difficulty without any problem).
But I still had to convince the player to take an equally rapid interest in the other characters (apart from Lucas Kane, the player could also control the two other main protagonists, police officers Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles). My goal was obviously for the player to have no "favorite" character, but to be equally pleased each time he encountered them.
I chose to use classic archetypes in order to work on my characters: Carla is a tough young police officer but discreetly sexy, totally immersed in her work to compensate for the lack of any emotional life. Tyler Miles is a cool young black cop who is sincerely attached to Carla, full of humor but serious in his work.
|Concept Art for Lucas|
Many other secondary characters followed the same rule, the gruff police captain, the still-in-love ex-girlfriend, etc. All these simple characterization elements enabled us to present the characters very quickly while giving the player the impression he has always known them.
The danger with archetypes is that you have to avoid caricature (I hope I succeeded), otherwise the story loses all credibility and the player loses all interest. Most of my work on characterization consisted in enriching the initial archetypes in order to give them some real depth. Lucas Kane has self-doubts and has a complex relationship with his brother, a priest. Carla suffers from claustrophobia and chronic anxiety. Torn between his strong sense of duty and his love for his girlfriend, Tyler is involved in a complex relationship.
I also presented the main characters in their personal lives to give an idea of their context and emotional relationships. This aspect of the writing enabled us to quickly give them an added dimension: the player could see them operating in the context of the story, but he could also discover their private and personal lives, which helped contribute to the illusion that they actually exist.
Thanks to these simple techniques the player quickly feels close enough to the characters to share their feelings on an emotional level.
Among the writing techniques that I developed for Indigo Prophecy, Bending Stories definitely received the most attention from the press. The basic idea was to solve the classic difficulty of telling a truly interactive story without generating an excessively complex tree structure. I had to find a way to enable the player to make significant choices with consequences while still maintaining the quality and pace of the story, as well as feasibility in terms of production.
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.
Another important decision was the option to work with small, closed sets rather than trying to model all of Manhattan. This decision was no doubt the hardest of all to make. However, my choice was based on solid conclusions: above all else I wanted to offer the player a sustained paced, brisk action, short scenes and frequent changes of location and context. The last thing I wanted was to have the player wandering about for hours in sets that had actions every hundred meters.
I therefore decided to opt for smaller, more closed sets but with a higher action ratio per square meter. As it so happened, this decision worked out well.
2: Concepts and Game Design
The Director, the Only Project Head
People often oppose creation and production, creators being supposed to have great ideas but no consideration for production constraints, producers wanting to be on time and on budget but having no interest in quality.
This opposition becomes particularly palpable in an original project, where many unknowns derive from the nature of the concept.
I chose to structure the project around two simple ideas:
- GAME DESIGN RULES! (GDR) (Yes, I love silly acronyms…): it is the experience that dictates what is going to be developed. It is a reasonable and rational dictatorship of the game design in terms of technical choices and artistic direction, based on the initial budget and time constraints.
- THE DIRECTOR IS THE ONLY MASTER ON BOARD AFTER GOD! (DITOMOBAG).
He is the guarantee of the global consistency of the vision. He makes sure all the elements of the game contribute to creating the same emotion. His choices can/must be subjective. They may be debatable when taken individually but it is imperative that they form part of a global vision that is clear and consistent.
The purpose of this organization was to have an "auteur" approach to game creation i.e. to create a context that gives one person full power to express his/her vision. This specifically made it possible to adopt strong-willed stances without constantly seeking compromises at all costs, which would have been disastrous for a project that claims to be innovative.
For me it is fundamental to have the director embodying the vision of the project: it is extremely rare for a truly original game to be developed without the creative vision of one person (from Shadow of the Colossus by Fumito Ueda to Psychonauts by Tim Schafer or Killer 7 by Gouichi Suda, or also Metal Gear Solid by Hideo Kojima).
For me this is going to be a strong trend in the industry in the years to come, making it necessary to question a certain number of preconceived ideas.
Reconciling Narration and Interaction
One of the key points in Indigo Prophecy was the idea of getting interactivity and narration to work together. Most games oppose these two concepts or rather, they develop them in turn: a cut scene to advance the narration, then an action scene, then another cut scene for the narration. The structure of this narrative process is very close to that of porn movies.
The greater part of my work consisted in reconciling these two, first of all by eliminating the dichotomy from the design. More often than not a game is designed by a game designer who establishes the game play mechanics. A screenwriter is then called in to find a story to make the link between the levels.
More than anything else I wanted to break with this logic by designing the story and the interactivity simultaneously. My aim was to allow the player to "play" the story, to enable it to progress directly through player actions rather than jumping from cut scene to cut scene.
It was very difficult to find a solution to this problem, particularly because it demanded that each scene contain an interesting proposition in terms of the scenario and game play.
One scene in particular was a veritable revelation for me, the one where Tyler wakes up in his apartment at the start of the game. The player shares in Tyler's personal life in the morning before he goes to work: showering, getting dressed, drinking coffee, putting on some music, having a serious discussion with his wife, then kissing her before taking his coat and setting out for work.
When I wrote the scene on paper I spent whole nights in a cold sweat: what was the player going to play in the scene? Where were the mechanics, why should such a scene have even the slightest interest in terms of game play?
After months of soul searching I was very surprised when I finally saw the scene assembled, with dialog, animation, music and directing. And to my great surprise, the scene worked. It wasn't based on the traditional mechanics of video games (objective, obstacle, ramping, reward) but on something else that I still find hard to define.
I believe the scene is based entirely on the interest of sharing in the character's personal life, developing an attachment for him, becoming slowly immersed in his story.
In my opinion this is one of the most interesting scenes in Indigo Prophecy. No stunts, no artifice, just "being" a character in a simple context.
That scene finally convinced me that it is possible to create an interesting experience without weapons or cars.
Getting Rid of Patterns
The unnecessary character of game play mechanics was also a great discovery for me. Most video games are based on a series of patterns that the player has to acquire in a certain order in accordance with a certain timing and over different levels (e.g. press at the right time the right button to shoot, run, jump, move about, etc.).
The logic of patterns is totally opposed to the notion of narration, which evolves and is therefore non-cyclical by its very nature. It is therefore essential to abolish the rule of patterns in order to tell a story.
Of course Indigo Prophecy is not totally devoid of all patterns. The action sequences are a classic example of patterns and certain game play gimmicks also reappear regularly in the game. But generally speaking, the narration is based on a structure and a mode of interaction that is essentially contextual or, to be more precise, driven by the story.
In one scene Lucas has to hide evidence while in a split screen he can see a police officer knocking at his door. In another scene he explores the scene of the crime by alternating between Carla and Tyler. In yet another he will have to combine the actions of three characters in real time by switching from one to the other. What is the common denominator of all these mechanics? They serve the purposes of the narration, are not repeated at regular intervals and occur only once in the game.
Pacing/ Structure of Scenes
For me the pacing of the experience was an essential element in a game based on the narration. I had to avoid a slow and laborious narration at all costs and give priority to changes in pace, climaxes, and dynamics. I also had to rethink the adventure format in order to adapt it to consoles.
Two elements were essential in this respect. The first was to structure my scenes differently. I wanted short scenes that followed each other in quick succession so that the player would not have the time to get bored. Sets, characters and situations had to change quickly in order to kick-start the narration regularly, exactly like editing a film.
Each scene was structured as a mini film with a "hook" (to get the player immediately into the scene), two climaxes with increasing dramatic intensity and an epilogue.
We can see this structure in the very opening scene with Lucas in the Diner: the murder constitutes the hook, the climaxes are the waitress' call or the police officer standing up (depending on the player's actions), the scene concludes with Lucas' departure. The scene is a mini story in itself.
The player could thus turn on the console to play for ten minutes and have a satisfying experience, whereas most narrative games necessitate considerably more continuous investment before they provide satisfaction. This structure provided a sustained pace and very considerably contributed to the impression of fluidity that the game gives.
The other decisive element was the increased number of pace changes. Generally, I left relatively few scenes in free time. I did not want the player to wander about for hours in a set and thereby destroy the pacing of the narration (thus the quality of the experience). This is why there are many events in each scene to break the pace.
I tried to multiply the situations where the phone rings, someone enters or an unexpected event takes place, in order to set the pace, but also because they create the illusion that the other characters really exist and behave in their own right.
The interface was also the subject of intense reflection all through the project. My first intention was not to turn it into a remote control as often happens in adventure games, nor an exercise in skill but rather a tool for immersing the player physically in the world.
The idea of MPAR (Motion Physical Action Reaction, did I tell you about my silly acronyms?) developed quite naturally. It consists in offering the player the possibility of accomplishing the same movement with the right analog stick as the character on the screen. The system enabled us to unfold the animation progressively, providing a feeling something close to Inverse Kinetic but without the disadvantages. The system also had the enormous advantage of being easily contextual, enabling us to use the same interface to take an object, open a door, have a drink or play yoyo.
The principle of MPAR then governed all of my reasoning with regard to the interface. With the help of the controller I wanted the player to physically feel the same thing as the character. The Track&Field interface (derived from the eponymous game) applies the same principle: as soon as an action requires force or endurance, we ask him to tire himself out alternately on the triggers. The bodybuilding scene is a fairly good illustration of this principle, with the player suffering alongside the character in order to finish the series.
The conclusion of this work on the interface was that we could create real physical immersion thanks to the interface. More than just a control mode, it becomes the physical link between the player and the experience.
After a few minutes' play most players have completely forgotten the existence of the interface because it is simple and intrudes minimally on the screen, allowing them to concentrate solely on the story and the characters.
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