There's been this notion floating around for quite a while now, at least as far back as Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, that someday we'll be inside the movies we watch interacting with the characters and events. From the early days of computer games that's been a frequent promise. The Sega CD system had Night Trap, where Dana Plato from Diff'rent Strokes went undercover at a slumber party and encouraged you to ambush invading vampires. The grainy live-action video promised interactive storytelling at its finest, but instead delivered a stinky sack of poo. Other efforts have not fared much better.
In all of this, a question is rarely asked: Why bother? Movies are just fine as they are. Is turning them into a hugely expensive Choose Your Own Adventure book really what we want? In the hands of master storytellers, movies are an enveloping experience—expertly paced, beautifully shot, movingly acted. Would Citizen Kane have been any better if you could have walked around Kane's mansion poking through his cabinets?
Indigo Prophecy is the latest attempt to tilt at this particular windmill. Developer Quantic Dream puts you in the role of four different characters at different times; for some periods of the story, you can choose which character to play next or even flip between a couple of them. You're an amnesiac murderer; the two detectives on his trail; and his brother, a priest. Picture-in-picture or split-screen segments reveal knowledge your character couldn't have, such as showing a policeman walking up to his front door. The game plays with narrative in this way, using a cinematic convention (cross-cutting) while allowing for interactivity. The result is a story that is both a first-person tale and an omniscient account. Lit majors should be able to squeeze a few papers out of this one.
Gameplay is simple enough: You walk around interacting with characters and objects. At times, action sequences demand that you press buttons in response to on-screen indicators, a convention familiar from Shenmue as well as the old Simon electronic game. The developers use this in some odd but effective places: One character is claustrophobic, and you must tap keys in rhythm to control her breathing while simultaneously moving through an enclosed area; another time, a séance lasts only as long as you can maintain your concentration with steady button presses.
The effect is surprisingly good. While button mashing doesn't sound like true interactivity, it forms a connection between your narrative sense and your motor skills. When you are tense because you're trying to keep up with the buttons, your character is tense because he's learning about the supernatural mystery. It's interesting.
Indigo Prophecy is not the amazing voyage through interactive cinema that we're all apparently waiting breathlessly for. But it is an intriguing exercise in fractured narrative and sensory storytelling that is definitely a change of pace. If the future looks like this instead of Doom XVI: Yet More Hell, we'll all have a lot more fun.