Format reviewed: Xbox
Developer: Quantic Dream
Upon completing his first game, the acclaimed The Nomad Soul, David Cage began to speculate about why the evolution of videogames was limited to technology, and didn’t spread to the concepts behind them, which he perceived as being pretty much the same since he was a teenager. The idea behind Fahrenheit was to tell a story in 50 scenes that could be moulded to the player’s will, with situations they tackled using instincts and decision-making skills.
He also expressed frustration at videogame narratives being among the least-developed ideas in game design – Fahrenheit would show publishers and gamers how actually engaging with the characters creates a powerful connection to the gameplay. Building a control scheme based around tactile movement of the analogue sticks known as MPAR (Motion Physical Action Reaction – sigh), this particular design choice sought to let players lose themselves in the story and not be burdened by control mapping that had to be learned or practised.
To help sell the atmosphere of the story – a seemingly innocent man, Lucas Kane, murders someone under supernatural circumstances against the backdrop of a noir-esque New York – the developer enlisted the talents of Angelo Badalamenti in his first game project, after working on treasured David Lynch projects like Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Vivendi initially picked the game up for release, but this quickly changed behind the scenes. When Atari grabbed the game in a publishing deal, both feedback and money came from the company to help Quantic Dream round off the project to its satisfaction.
About a third of the way into Fahrenheit, there’s a sequence where detective Carla Valenti heads to a firing range to question a former detective about a case. During it, almost as an aside, as a means of getting him to talk, you take control and play as Carla in an arcade-style FPS mini-game. Mechanically, it’s as familiar as any bare-bones FPS since Quake, but the way it’s presented as an organic part of Fahrenheit’s complex story feels refreshing. On one level, you’re shooting enemies to get a high score, but on another, you’re being fed a story through this style of play; depending on how you do, the cop you’re questioning will comment on your performance. And this is just one small part of the game.
That’s the true merit of Fahrenheit – you reach the next scene and there’s usually something else you haven’t seen before, or, better yet, something you’ve seen in a videogame loads of times, used in a way you’ve never experienced until then.
In Fahrenheit, we’re absorbed by the small moments of the story, as well as being shocked by the bigger events. With meters displaying the psychological condition of each character – would-be killer Lucas Kane and the two detectives, Carla Valenti and Tyler Miles – every decision contributes to the overall make-up of the characters, even if it’s just in a tiny way. The way Fahrenheit takes the mundane parts of life and gives them significance really grounds you in the lives of the characters; this means that when it comes to those moments like the shooting gallery, or any of the extensive life-and-death hallucinations of Lucas, we’re able to feel connected to the situation, which we perhaps wouldn’t even in the best games that neglect narrative.
Later on, the Fahrenheit tale swerves into utterly bizarre territory involving ancient orders and even otherworldly life, yet, even then, it’s intense and engaging, because you’ve never had anything like it before. The story is a diamond in the rough, but the interaction, and the way that’s used, is so broadly experimental that Fahrenheit absolutely still deserves our attention, especially given how refined and readily available the Xbox port is. Fahrenheit built on the foundations of the point-and-click genre, took a stroke of inspiration from Lynch films and offered solutions to lots of issues associated with videogame storytelling. It also gave us a few new problems. But, in a landscape of mostly identikit sequels and prominent licensed games, at the very least it started conversations about what the role of the interactive narrative could be.
Why It’s A Future Classic
While the world of motion capture has changed the way stories in videogames are presented, letting them get closer to the likes of movies and TV shows, it’s Fahrenheit’s fascinating relationship with gaming as we understand it that means it’s worthy of Future Classic status. It turns things we see as being the point of playing games into fractions of a larger story, where every interaction has a psychological effect on each character. More than that, though, it’s highly intelligent in the way it brings its strands together, and the way players can have entirely different experiences and discuss how their game turned out.
This kind of sophistication still isn’t commonplace in videogames – usually, decisions are moral-based and arbitrary, but Fahrenheit wants to show you that everything matters, and that it can’t just be measured by a couple of outcomes. As we live through Lucas, Tyler and Carla, we’re made to feel consequences, and these can sometimes be as simple as listening to a friend over a bottle of wine or being honest with a character. It’s still a hugely refreshing experience.