David Cage’s Fahrenheit (Indigo Prophecy for Americans) has been much maligned over the years. Find out if any of the criticism has been justified in the Ludotempus review.
A nice snowy evening in New York City: the perfect weather to build a snowman, drink some hot chocolate, do some murders, and go out ice skating at Rockefeller Centre. Sounds great, right? If you’re not homicide-inclined, you can just leave it to this odd curio of a game: Fahrenheit, by gaming’s leading exporter in FEELINGS and EMOTION, David “Sadman” Cage. Released in 2005, Fahrenheit (known as Indigo Prophecy in North American markets to avoid confusion with Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11) was a brave attempt at marrying game and movie, endeavouring to push interactive fiction as far as it can go while adding as many “game” elements as possible to make it palatable to the mainstream audience. How did it go?
Fahrenheit purports itself as an “interactive film”, so the story had better be good, and thankfully, the opening delivers in spades, creating one of the most iconic narrative moments in the sixth generation of gaming. You are Lucas Kane, but that’s not important, as you’ve just woken up in a dank New York diner’s bathroom, fresh from demonic possession having stabbed a random old-timer. Bang; snap to reality, and Kane is straddling this innocent man’s body, and very quickly, control is passed over to you – in this dingy and blood-soaked bathroom, you have three minutes to figure out your plan of action; hide the evidence, clean the scene, and nonchalantly return to your seat to finish your meal, run out of there screaming and crying, or slip out the back door? The situational choices are yours to make, and as mocked as Cage is, the man has a fantastic grip on atmosphere and tone, in that he can manipulate players into getting as nervous as possible. He is an expert at tension, and it doesn’t shine through more than in this wonderful opening scene, vivid in nature, which is helped by the filmic presentation and soundtrack, both of which will be broached later.
In life, one must take the rough with the smooth, and while Fahrenheit glows and sizzles in its fresh approaches to some things; other elements of the game weigh it down like a sodden balloon. First, its tag as an “interactive movie”, while wildly pretentious, is also somewhat egregious: you only have input into minute situations, not the whole plot at large, so your decisions and performances within the game will only affect the way point A goes to point B, not any larger story concerns. Despite how you play each individual scene, the plot works out the same: Lucas stabs a man in a bathroom, gets away, and tries to figure out what EXACTLY just happened while two of NYPD’s finest, Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles chase him down. This comes as a disappointment: Fahrenheit sells a bill of goods that don’t come close to the final product.
Secondly, after all the goodwill that David Cage accrues in the opening minutes of the game, he deletes it gradually with lacklustre writing and nonsensical plot devices; as such, Fahrenheit is like an ice-cream cone on a hot summer’s day; initially desirable, but ends up a useless puddle of goo. We start strong with that fabulous introduction, punctuated by the oppressive atmosphere of the cold New York streets, and the irony of the white snow paving the sidewalks in the wake of a grisly murder. The detective chase starts solidly too – Carla and Tyler begin to accrue information, and an odd reversal starts to begin, even though Lucas is our designated main character, the audience might feel more aligned with the warm and charming police duo, especially as we learn (or can choose to play him in certain scenes this way) that Lucas is a bit cold and asocial. As we go on, the thought creeps in: could this guy actually have done it, and is what we have seen some sort of unreliable narration? This keeps the narrative incredibly enthralling.
Right up until we learn that Lucas has superpowers and has intertwined himself within a cyber-supernatural war between two non-corporeal armies, all centred around kidnapping “the Indigo Child”, a young girl who has the power to start a new Ice Age and wipe humanity. The plot goes absolutely doolally in short order, and it goes from being an impressive narrative and technological achievement in gaming to becoming daft and comical. What’s good in Fahrenheit is amazing, but everything else – all the narrative nonsense – will break your heart, as this game could have really and truly been a transcendental classic. Due to Cage’s schizophrenic writing, it’s a half-baked mess.
The characters are of obscene importance to this game, and thankfully, Cage crafts them decently enough to capture the hearts and imagination of the audience. The designated protagonist is Lucas Kane, a high-ranking I.T. man working for New York’s finest fictional bank. Kane’s a bit…off-centre. Slightly weird, very bookish, but eminently vulnerable and human, all you want to do in this game is (1) give him a big hug for all the awful events happening to him and (2) get him to safety ASAP. Carla Valenti is the soul of this game. She’s a clever and wry detective that stands as a legitimately fantastic representation of women in games; she is very minutely sexualised, as well as being intelligent and real; through the course of the game, she must overcome claustrophobia, but instead of the clichéd “we can do anything, let’s work gurls” attitude that gets used a lot with less nuanced portrayals of women in games, she takes a breath and says, “Okay, I can do this”. She becomes strong by confronting her weaknesses, and it honestly makes her one of Cage’s greatest creations, and by far the most roundly likeable of the game. Rounding out the main cast is Tyler Miles, the comedic but sensitive black partner to Valenti. Miles is mostly here to add comic relief to the sombre and depressing mood of the game, but part of his portrayal leaves a wrong and racist taste in the mouth; his theme is generic funk, pure Blaxploitation music, which, coupled with his swaggering gait, just comes off as unseemly. Yet, he does provide some genuinely funny moments to help pace the game, such as beating an annoying white colleague at basketball (good day for stereotyping) and some chuckle-worthy fourth-wall-leaning quips.
As a ranty and small aside, Cage does the mentally ill a huge and, frankly, disgusting disservice in this game. There’s a harrowing and frightening scene where Carla must interrogate a mentally ill man in a special facility who has had experience with the supernatural, when the lights go out, security fails, and everyone is released from their cells. Cage here portrays the mentally ill as zombified rapists, which is grossly insensitive and plainly wrong. The need to create narrative tension is understandable, but Cage achieves it in a way that might turn off players, especially those who will play it well into the future – past 2017, more and more people are likely to get switched on to mental health, and this scene will only age worse as time passes.
The backbone of this game is a creaky and crumbling one: “strenuous” sections on the game which depict Lucas, Carla, or Tyler performing physical tasks utilise the old gaming bugbear; quick-time events. Aside from navigating your character with clumsy tank controls and making choices, these make up the bulk of the game in “action” scenes, where characters fight, flee, or play basketball. You must flick both left and right sticks in the directions shown on screen in a poor man’s DDR, which is neither satisfying, fun, or either rhythmic; you’ll notice an impending sense of dread when these appear. Also, rearing their ugly heads are staggered tappings of the L2 and R2 buttons, which turns out to be extremely exhausting, and surprisingly easy to fail. Failure, while the topic is at hand, is interesting here; the game never makes it explicit that failure is an option within the game, much less a good one; there’s a scene where Lucas must keep cool under interrogation, and interacting with the QTEs actually creates suspicion which is an idea only clever in hindsight. It’s understandable that an interactive movie needs that level of interactivity to justify being released on games consoles, otherwise all you have is a movie that isn’t as good as other movies, yet quick-time events were the entirely wrong choice here to punctuate the action, and as such, a lot of the good that Fahrenheit provides suffers.
Angelo Badalamenti needs to take a bow. This man was the composer of Fahrenheit, and he and his musical work is the glue that holds the game together, serving to create the oppressive and despairing atmosphere that makes this game so initially appealing. This is more a game that doesn’t need to be played, but felt, which really asks why it should exist as a game, but Badalamenti has only done his job, and a fantastic one at that with his chilling instrumentation. Also of note is the licenced songs in the game – not Theory of a Deadman which appears in Lucas’ CD player (an awful set of records and another reason not to trust the man) but a set of bona fide 60s classics such as Teddy Pendergrass’ “Love TKO”, and a wild card track for Carla, the relatively modern (2003) “Sandpaper Kisses” by Martina Topley-Bird, which is minimalist, cold, and heartbreaking simultaneous. There’s a strain on good detail here, and most of the soundtrack hits hard, making it a light in the otherwise overwhelming darkness.
As a final note, the production of this game was spectacular. Instead of a “new game”, players can instead choose “new movie”, and this is no overstatement of the game’s capabilities. Fahrenheit uses filmic camera cuts and multiple shots on screen at once, naughtily cribbed from 24 but used to dazzling effect here, pushing the PS2’s Emotion Engine to its limits. The most harrowing use of this is, again, during the opening scene, when you must clean the crime scene, the game constantly cuts back to a police officer sitting right outside at the diner’s bar, and it uses both shots side by side on screen to emphasise that he’s coming, and time is of the essence so you’d better not mess about. You can feel your heart press into your ribcage and sternum with the tension, and for all his faults, Cage is a master at creating and building tension to an orgasm. It’s just a shame he couldn’t write a narrative here that follows suit.
Fahrenheit had the ingredients to become part of gaming’s canon, but unfortunately, the final product is limp, lifeless, and nearly unpalatable despite some fantastic elements at play. This game will get two extra points because of “showing their work”, and for the fact that 75% of it plays well. If only the critics who reviewed it at the time played it past that point, right?
Verdict: One of the most true-blue disappointments in gaming, not because it’s overwhelmingly bad, but because it could have been genuinely great. As such, Fahrenheit will only serve to leave you cold, but if you appreciate game design and ideas, there’s at least some morsels to relish here.