Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fahrenheit - Thoughts

[contains spoilers]

I like Heavy Rain. I like Beyond: Two Souls. Both of these games have glaring flaws, but they allow the player to live out scenarios of both the mundane and extraordinary. The intense decisions you have to make as a father in Heavy Rain can lead you to question your own morality, and the day-to-day tribulations of a girl forced to endure the malevolent whims of her ghostly companion in Beyond are intensely compelling (well, before it delved into the whole military thing). Say what you will about the "gamey" aspect of these titles; it's a rare occurrence in video games when you're placed into a girls' shoes and are forced to determine what to wear, make, and listen to for a romantic dinner with your teenage crush, and just for scenarios like that, those games are a welcomed change of pace.

With that said, I will warn you that the following will be a relentless diatribe against Quantic Dream's sophomore effort, Fahrenheit. If I was to liken David Cage to a writer (though perhaps film maker would be more apt), I could easily compare Heavy Rain and Beyond to something like thriller novels that dip into the supernatural, while Fahrenheit is rushed, middle school-grade drivel. I mean that whole heartedly—the story is a disheveled, untangled mess of half-baked ideas.

Where to begin? The start of the game is the best part of the experience, opening with a very enticing scenario—you awake after killing a man in an unexplained altered state, and now must clean up the evidence before the police arrive. There's a bit of a twist here as you're allowed to play as the detectives after the scene, picking up the trail of the main character and hunting him between perspective shifts. The protagonist/"antagonist" push-and-pull system would later be utilized to a much more clever degree in Beyond, but I must credit Fahrenheit with originating this inspiring idea. However, this is about the best the game has to offer, and begins its downhill tumble into madness just an hour in.

I was fully onboard for the spirit possession murder mystery at the start—pondering as to why the vicarious killer severed the arteries to the heart was quite a conundrum. Once the murders were explained as part of an ancient Mayan ritual, I still remained interested despite the odd Mesoamerican twist. But then the spacetime-bending super powers were thrown in, and the tip of the iceberg melted away to reveal more and more unconscionable lunacy. Whether it be the baseless prophecy that leads to global cooling, random zombification of the main character, the Mayan oracle serving the Illuminati, the blind mystic revealing herself to be an unchained artificial intelligence (not a robot; a personified AI), the celestial pool of boundless energy that gives the power of prophecy to embryos, or the shy child that could whisper God's secrets—merely the inclusion of one of these would render a story as inane, let alone all of them in the final two hours. The difference in information between the very first cutscene and the very last cutscene is so vast and unimaginable that it's hard to accept that they belonging to the same game.

And that's not even touching the minor details sprinkled throughout the story that just sour the experience further. Besides being torn directly from the 60s, Tyler's character remains a giant question mark on the plot, barely contributing anything to the story other than a few smarmy smirks at a pretty consistent rate. The romance between Lucas and Carla comes directly out of nowhere, as one cutscene shows him (weakly) convincing her to trust him and the next shows the two waking up after a night together. This is made more absurd as she admits her love to her zombified boyfriend despite the paucity of onscreen time or chemistry between the two, making Ethan & Madison's relationship in Heavy Rain seem like an exquisite saga in comparison. Visions of irradiated bugs and marble angels attack Lucas without proper explanation, and super powers are only used whenever the plot deems them fit (the Mayan oracle can teleport and possess people with a word, but a locked door is too much for him?). Pentagrams adorn Lucas' apartment for no reason, cars try to drive into Lucas for no reason, men that dress as hobos know the secret workings of the universe for no reason, and the AI, oh lord, the inclusion of the 80s-born AI that "continues to haunt the net" even after it explodes into luminescent confetti in a mock-Area 51...

While I feel I could write forever about just how awful the narrative became in the game, I do feel its important to mention its dull mechanics. Granted, Fahrenheit was impressive for the time due to its cutscene integration and split interface during many of its key moments, being one of the first big in-game rendered "movies you can play". The controls are unapolegetically terrible however, ruining any kind of "cinematic" feel you could experience behind the wheel. The camera is the key offender in this drunken struggle you'll have with your characters; there were multiple times where I found myself holding down to go up, or right to go bottom-left. Rare few games are honestly as bad with player controls as this one. Not only that, but when you are prompted to perform actions in the game, they'll be one out of a handful of gimmicks that go on entirely too long, making you wish you were watching a movie rather than required to input a series of loosely-tied Simon Says joystick directions. And when it's not that, it's stealth segments that have some of the worst design I've experienced, complete with a minimap that fails to properly convey just how far guards can see. Sure, there's a few fun moments in here (like putting Theory of a Deadman on after your ex-girlfriend takes her stuff back from your apartment), but it's drowned in monotonous and deadening gameplay.

I praised the general design of the game at the start, but that poisons itself eventually too. Playing both sides of the investigation was interesting, but since the game had multiple fail states for Lucas getting caught by the authorities, it becomes frustrating figuring out what you're supposed to do. In one specific instance, Tyler is interrogating Lucas at his job and the player is given no context about what they should do—to proceed, Lucas must lie to Tyler to avoid going to jail, but when the player controls Tyler they must find evidence that will incriminate him. This ambivalent struggle continued for far too long in the game, pushing you on with the detectives when you know getting caught will end the game, yet failing to get caught will also end the game, until you reach the unspecified point when the two team up.

The dialogue design is interesting at first, but letting you choose only 50% of the answers becomes irksome when you're trying to understand the story. Every group that says they can explain what's going on, from Agatha to the Mayan oracle to the Invisibles, only answers a few questions, leaving many things in the dark (I will never know why an elderly chinese man at an antique book store was using a fake accent!). Ironically though, even when they do try to explain the plot, concepts like The Chroma and The Wave are mentioned briefly and then taken as common vocabulary thereafter. I could also write about how the mood meter, lives, and amount of restarts spoil the games pacing and drama, or how direct movie ripoffs from Silence of the Lambs, The Matrix, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon ruin the game's ingenuity, but I think my penance for this entry has been paid.

Though there are experiences I've been disappointed with this year (like Lone Survivor and The Wonderful 101), I can still recognize the merits beneath their rough exterior, the good ideas shinning through like illustrious pearls. Fahrenheit has no such silver lining—it is a rotten product through and through. It's a great piece of fiction if you enjoy absurd/unintentional comedy (at times it's like The Room given video game form), but otherwise it's largely unplayable today. Perhaps more baffling than how this product was made and shipped out the door, is the critical success it achieved from reviews and gamers alike at release. If not for Heavy Rain and Beyond's general solidity and competence, I would have been tempted to write David Cage off as a buffoon. As for now though, I can only hope Quantic Dream's next project never comes near what I just suffered through.

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