Mini-Review: Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy)

Review written by Andrew Plotkin

I am several months late to the Fahrenheit party. So I figure everyone has already tried it, said "well, that was different" (in some variety of positive or negative tone), and then gone on to the next thing.

I have no problem doing the same. But in case you managed to miss all the previous reviews, let me summarize Fahrenheit's game model. There are basically three Things You Do:

(A quick note: this is one of them "mini-reviews", which means I'm not talking about every aspect of the game. In particular, I'm not talking about the story. Yes, Fahrenheit has a story. It's nice. Particularly after some recent plotless wonders we could all name. Fahrenheit is decently told, it's got good characters, it seems to be missing about six chapters out of the middle. You'll know what I mean when you fall headfirst into the pit of "huh?" -- and not the good kind. But that's all I'm gonna say about the story.)

The game itself is organized in a slightly nonlinear way. "Nonlinear" is one of the most egregiously abused words in game development (right after "free-form", "open-ended", and "innovative") so let me poke at it.

What They Mean: Not every scene forces you to try it over and over again until you get it exactly right. Only half of them do that. The other half, you can finish in several ways or to several different degrees -- some better than others.

What They Also Mean: It doesn't make that much difference, really. An old coworker of mine called this the Plot Funnel of Doom. Many choices, but they all merge back into the same storyline. Some detail text changes later on; or maybe there are a few parallel variants of a later scene.

And is that bad? No, of course not. As usual, the question is not "Are my actions changing the course of the story?" but rather "Do I feel that my actions are part of the story?" And -- mostly, kind of -- I did.

When I first heard about Fahrenheit, I was actually worried about a different problem... or I should say, the opposite problem. I tend to be a perfectionist and a completist, when a game gives me choices. I hate leaving a bonus or a potential tool behind. (In GTA, I find all the packages first.) If there's a good and a bad way to end a scene, I'm going to want to retry it until I succeed at the good way.

Fahrenheit neatly led me around this pitfall; I was willing to let each scene lie where it fell. And it's fair to say the game did this by convincing me that the choices I was making weren't overly important. That is, everything I did was (more or less) right. I was playing imperfectly, but I wasn't destroying my hopes of finishing the game well.

(And, because I wasn't retrying various scenes to discover different outcomes, the game wasn't under any obligation to provide any. It's not like I would have noticed, right? There were a few areas where the plot branched out significantly (albeit temporarily), but I didn't know that until I finished the game and started reading walkthroughs.)

How did Fahrenheit provide this level of comfort? It used a couple of nifty tricks. For one thing, it had no qualms about using "succeed or die trying" scenes, mixed in with the multiple-outcome ones. Once I realized that fatal mistakes were clearly marked by the game -- and came with a "restart scene" button -- I stopped worrying about making hidden fatal mistakes.

More interestingly, the game is told from multiple viewpoints. The first scene is the "primary" protagonist, fleeing the scene of a murder. The second is a police officer, finding evidence which (naturally) points in the direction of the first guy. So what's a perfectionism for? Every scene which ends well for one character bodes ill for another. You can easily find yourself struggling to hide evidence, and then moments later be struggling to find it. You can root for one side or the other (or, with a bit of perspective, both) but there's clearly no one ideal path through the game. I got that early on, so I was able to kick back and enjoy the ride.

The conversations are another example of this. Normally, when I run into dialog menus, I feel miserably obligated to run through every choice -- otherwise I'm Missing Stuff. In Fahrenheit, not only do you have limited time to choose (which increases the "hey, just pick one" factor) but you often can't try every option. You get a couple, and then the scene moves on. If I thought the choices were important, this would be frustrating. But that's not how it worked out.

Now, the negative side of all this is that I sometimes wasn't deeply involved in the story. The designer was clearly trying to put interactivity in wherever he possibly could. Sometimes that was fine, and sometimes the illusion broke down -- I would roll my eyes and think, right, time to do my bit. So I'm not saying that this torrent of non-choice choices was free of cost; only that, overall, it's better than letting me run the game into a ditch.

And this brings us to the challenges. Which I figure is what all the other reviews talked about. (Other reviewers not being as obsessed with menu dialogs as I am.)

I am wildly ambivalent about these button-tricks. It is nice having a uniform game mechanic for all sorts of challenges. (Dodging cars, playing the guitar, beating up flying ninjas, observing clues during an autopsy -- all via the same joystick-matching game. The walkthrough tells me that I missed the sex scene. I am, to be honest, grateful for this.) I can't imagine fitting a good ad-hoc interface for each of these activities onto a game controller. So a single learnable interface for the game is a clear win.

I know, I'm abandoning my adventure-game principles. Usually, I'm all about the creative, explorable game interfaces. But action games aren't adventure games. Once you get beyond the basic "dodge this", a good action interface is a detailed thing, with an inherent learning curve -- you really need to spend the entire course of the game introducing it. (As most action games do.) So you spend the whole game swinging your sword or climbing up walls. Or both, but no more than those two things. If a game is going to introduce as many different kinds of actions as Fahrenheit, I think this kind of abstraction is necessary.

On the other hand, there is very little connection between what you are doing, and what the protagonist is doing. Oh, there's some. The designers do all they can to vary the feel of the button games. A hard dodge to the left requires you to pull both sticks left; the joystick game for guitar-playing is a steady one-two-THREE beat. Combat is fast furious stick-playing, whereas sustaining a dream vision is slow and meditative. But it's still only minor variations of matching colored lights, or pushing some buttons really fast. So it's hard to maintain a sense of involvement.

(God of War had the same problem, but at least those button-game sequences were short. Compare the recent Tomb Raider, where the buttons matched actions you'd already learned in the regular game interface. Plus, the sequences were short.)

In fact, many of the challenges are so hard that they distract you from the story. I had to ignore what was going on in order to pay enough attention to the blinky colored joystick lights. (Yes, I was playing in easy mode.) That is a clear lose.

On the other hand (sorry, I'm going to go through several hands), the common interface offers some neat opportunities for character development. ...No, really!

The best example, unfortunately, is not part of the game per se; it's a bonus scene that's available after you finish. It's an ice-skating challenge between two of the characters. See, one of them glides out ("get ready!") and starts doing a balletic skating routine. You're bopping the joysticks along, and she's doing swoops, spins, leaps -- impressive stuff. If you succeed, she completes the routine.

Then the other guy goes out on the ice. ("Get ready!") And he's a complete klutz. You're bopping the joysticks along, and he's wobbling all over the place. He staggers, he slips. He yells "whoa-oh!" You're working as hard as you did before -- and if you succeed, he makes it through without landing on his ass.

This is a sneaky use of game mechanics to convey background. It puts you in two different people's skins (or skates). I like it. I wish the body of the game used more of that stuff. You get some of the same effect when the characters do different things; one plays the guitar, another plays basketball. But not that direct contrast -- at least, not in my run through the game.

On the other hand, when the end of the game came around, it was two strength-tests and a skill-test. I mean, that's what I had to do to win. Some variations in feel, but you couldn't call it a revelatory moment; there was nothing I had to realize or understand in order to complete the game. So, chalk some serious anticlimax onto the interface's bar tab.

I think that's enough hands for the moment. Fahrenheit is an interesting experiment. The interface allows lots and lots of story to fit into a videogame, because the player can be drawn into any activity in the script. (Try to do that much stuff in non-interactive cut scenes, and you might as well be watching a movie.) However, the button games and dialogues dominate the game; the puzzles and sneaking scenes are infrequent intrusions. And I don't think the button games and dialogues are really strong enough to carry an entire game by themselves.

So, keep the idea but use it differently. Hopefully the designers of Fahrenheit will get the chance to try again. Although I suppose that the idea is out there now -- as evidenced by the other games I've compared Fahrenheit to -- so I will get my wish either way.

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