This article is part of PS2 Week, a full week celebrating the 2000 PlayStation 2 console. To see other articles, go here.
In the men’s restroom of a New York diner, a dazed man stands over a corpse. He knows he killed the person but insists, to no one other than himself, that someone else was controlling him, that a moment of temporary possession had caused him to murder the restroom’s other occupant. Panicking, he struggles to hide the body in a stall, grabs a nearby mop to clean the red off the floor, washes the blood from the self-inflicted wounds on his wrists and forearms, stashes a crimson-stained knife, urinates—anything to calm his anxious mind. Meanwhile, a police officer eating at the counter stirs, eventually meandering to the bathroom. The killer, who according to his bill is named Lucas Kane, pays his tab and bolts out the door into a blizzard that threatens to swallow the city.
Looking back on Indigo Prophecy (2005), or Fahrenheit as it was known outside North America, I remember these opening moments distinctly. The inelegant controls, the designer David Cage’s insistence on calling it an “interactive film,” the feeling of being a director of the action more so than a player inhabiting the world; all of these concepts that seemed so alien over a decade ago now look like early unsure steps toward the creation of an oeuvre. While the merits of Cage’s obsession with the language of cinema are debatable, there is a curious side-effect of his insistence on putting the player in the director’s chair: despite the drama and tension of its beginning, Indigo Prophecy’s greatest accomplishment happens when the player begins to consider the mundane.
The three protagonists of Indigo Prophecy split their time between solving the mystery behind the murder that sets the game’s events in motion, and keeping themselves from falling into despair. After the player directs Lucas to hide the body and exit the diner, she takes control of Claire Valenti and Tyler Miles, two NYPD officers in charge of investigating the case. They interview bystanders, look for clues—performing all the procedural tasks as well as or as poorly as the player chooses. The tension established in the game’s first moments slows with the rhythmic predictability of an episode of Law and Order. By the time Carla and Tyler leave, the player understands the ebb and flow of the game as a mix of area investigation and conversation, all of which is controlled by analog stick manipulation with minimal button input.
The next scene, however, applies the same careful consideration to a much simpler series of events. Lucas wakes up, answers the phone, takes a shower, washes his clothes, gets dressed, checks his email. The player directs him through his morning routine with the same patterns and controller inputs that she used to help him hide a body and erase its evidence. While the sequence unfolds in context with the nightmarish events of the night before, Lucas finds some solace in the routine of the everyday, replenishing his mental health in the midst of anxiety-ridden circumstances. The tension returns when a police officer shows up at his door, but, for a moment, directing Lucas through mundane activity offers respite amid the chaos around him.
Similar instances happen with the other player-directed characters as well. Carla chats with a friendly neighbor over a glass of wine. Tyler has a conversation with his girlfriend about their possible future. They open cabinets, fix drinks, wash their faces, all of which seems on even ground with the anxiety-wracked moments of the game’s opening.
None of these actions would be of any interest, however, if not for the game’s reliance on the PlayStation 2’s analog sticks. Somewhat novel at the time, the game asks you to push the sticks in directions to move between and match each contextual action (like using the sink or opening the refrigerator), as well as to choose dialogue responses. The game later complicates these gestures to include rotation and simultaneous contrary motions, each movement further exploring the game’s tactile preoccupation with everyday objects and interactions. At the same time Indigo Prophecy asks the player to accept a new perspective from the director’s chair, it removes the well-established button-based control model that had become second-nature to most players—an especially jarring move given the game’s release near the twilight of the PS2’s console generation. Thus, the banality of modern life depicted in the game crashes against the awkward novelty of an unexpected set of controls that condition the player to rethink the object in her hand, the controller she had grown accustomed to using in an established way.
Granted, most would attribute the analog stick control-scheme to the idiosyncrasies of the game’s designer, and they would be correct. Any game that begins with its designer’s digital avatar walking the player through the game’s novel controls tips its hat in self-satisfaction. But the way that the camera lingers so patiently over the domestic spaces and mundane activities of these characters makes the gestures tied to the analog sticks all the more poignant in Indigo Prophecy. There is a fascination with the unremarkable in Indigo Prophecy that, for the longest time, didn’t appear in videogames with quite the same dedication. That crime scene investigations and apartment life are treated with almost parallel importance provides the game’s most significant step toward a videogame aesthetic of the everyday.
The irony here is that much of Cage’s emphasis on the everyday seems incidental; the inclusion of the mundane is likely a byproduct of his attempts at attaining the cinematic eye of a director. Cage himself explains that the player’s emotional immersion was of utmost concern during the early stages of development. But from the director’s chair, I always found myself too far removed from the characters—and the characters themselves too archetypically drawn—to warrant any real investment in their stories. Rather, to be immersed in Indigo Prophecy is to be engaged with the characters as actors on a set. Hence, the quieter moments meant for building empathy, inadvertently become stages in which the player can direct them in a pantomime of the mundane—drinking coffee, washing their hands, fiddling with the radio, opening and closing kitchen cupboards. Everyday life transforms into spectacle that reveals how mechanical and predictable our habits are when viewed at a distance, the same fascination with the minutiae of modern life that energizes films like Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967).
Of course, Indigo Prophecy isn’t about the mundane things humans do. It’s a murder mystery wrapped up in apocalyptic supernatural forces. Moments of quotidian curiosity pop up for the purpose of juxtaposition, making scenes of high tension (such as the game’s opening) all the more troublesome due to the player using the same controls to explore the plain, domestic spaces of the characters’ apartments. Consequently, peering into the world that these characters inhabit and directing them through their daily lives offers a distinctly voyeuristic experience. Directing a handful of characters to walk around in their underwear or guiding them toward a sexual encounter, I can’t help but think of David Fincher’s conclusion that “people are perverts,” drawing their eyes to the intimate spaces where they are not meant to wander.
Cage realizes the fuller potential of this principle in Heavy Rain (2010), a game more explicitly concerned with the perverse pleasures of viewing. The central plot, a search for a serial killer obsessed with documenting the trials of his victims, constantly draws the camera to moments of intimate vulnerability, such as a character performing a striptease at gunpoint, or filming an act of self-mutilation. But Heavy Rain also indulges in those aspects of banality that appear in Indigo Prophecy, if only for dramatic juxtaposition. Opening with an unbearably saccharine depiction of the protagonist Ethan Mars’s home life with his wife and children, the game leads the player through a day of tedium and of nuclear family idealism only to strip it away later, after the death of his son Jason. The setting then changes from playful toy sword fights in a Better Homes and Gardens backyard to boxed dinners in Ethan’s cold dank apartment as he tries to connect with his surviving son, Shaun. Even more so than Indigo Prophecy, the everyday in Heavy Rain only matters inasmuch that it can be measured against the crushing weight of inevitable drama.
Consequently, Cage’s direction misses what makes these trivial moments accidentally significant. His over-reliance on, and misguided attempts at, overbearing emotional melodrama keep him from building an aesthetic out of the microdramas that pop up in the midst of extraordinary circumstances. Lucas Kane’s morning routine, removed from the suffocating tension of Indigo Prophecy’s intense opening moments, finds the slightest spark of what makes the rhythms of the everyday worth considering and asks the player to find pageantry in the mundane, bringing it to life with the tactile movements of analog sticks and choosing the right camera angle.
Neither Indigo Prophecy nor Heavy Rain ever become the sort of paean of the quotidian, one of those cinematic experiments of Tati or Vertov, and I don’t think Cage ever meant them to be.
Nevertheless, they both come close to revealing something profound from the distance of the director’s seat. From that perspective we cannot know characters as much more than creatures of habit, and the player assists them in the boring, unsexy moments that most game designers ignore. Cage invests in the spectacle of the everyday for just enough time to deliver an impression of importance, and I find myself wanting to keep Lucas, Carla, and Tyler in these quiet moments for just a bit longer; not for the sake of empathy, but for the simple pleasure of experiencing the unremarkable.