Here's my impression of David Cage brainstorming ideas before making a game:
"Okay, it shall be set in a regular city, slightly in the future. Our character must get through his day, while becoming embroiled in a strange mystery. A peculiar girl is stuck in a tornado, and the player must rescue her before all the water in the world turns to stone. Aliens attack. At the end it rains cars."
While Heavy Rain stayed in reality, Omikron and Fahrenheit begin with a facsimile of a recognisable life, and then dive headfirst into a swimming pool of insane.
Technically I've replayed Indigo Prophecy rather than Fahrenheit, since that's the version on Steam. It's the strangely censored version of the European cut, sex scenes removed, nipples erased, and, most amusingly, bikinis worn in the shower. But otherwise it's identical, the tale of Lucas Kane attempting to recover from committing a murder against his own will.
It's a stunning start. After Cage's hilarious tutorial, in which he appears as an animated version of himself and explains the game's lunatic controls, you watch a scene in which Lucas stabs a man to death in a diner bathroom.
The scene is brilliantly put together, rapid near-subliminal shots of key clues flickering as Lucas staggers like a poorly operated marionette. A cloaked figure surrounded by candles, a crow, a small child, all invading a grisly murder. Then when the victim is dead, stabbed through the heart, we take control of Lucas as he appears to wake up. We've done a bad murder.
Here you can choose how to act. It's possible to burst out of the bathroom door, covered in blood, and crash through the emergency exit of the diner in the most attention-grabbing way imaginable. Or you could choose to wash your arms (you're bleeding yourself, having involuntarily carved markings into your forearms), and calmly return to your table, pay the bill and leave.
Better still would be to make some attempt to hide your crime. However, there's a cop in the diner, so there's not too much time. Here you can hide the murder weapon, drag the body into a toilet cubical, mop blood from the floor. It's up to you. However, here the first use of the game's brilliant split-screen appears, as you see the cop plodding towards the bathroom door.
The body is discovered at some point, and an absolutely intriguing opening becomes even more fascinating when the next scene has you playing as the two homicide cops called to investigate.
Should you have hidden the knife, the cops will have to hunt for it to get important fingerprints. If you moved the body, mopped the blood, then the cops can figure this out too. As Carla and Tyler you speak to witnesses, gather clues, and begin your pursuit of the killer.
When the game first came out in 2005, such an opening created incredible expectations. This was utterly extraordinary - you were playing against yourself. You were hunting for yourself, hiding from yourself, seeing both sides of a cat-and-mouse pursuit. What a remarkable idea for a game. It would have been.
It's interesting returning to it, knowing that not only will this back-and-forth only play a small part throughout, but that it was to be a constant descent into lunacy. The thrill was still there. The opening is still such a great idea, and it's still a treat to play it.
But this is less a game than a collection of ideas for other games to borrow. Or ignore. It's as if Cage looked at gaming, across many genres - adventure, first-person shooter, third-person action, rhythm-response, RPG - and attempted to abandon all traditions. The result is a hodgepodge of brilliance and idiocy, inspired reinvention and downright awful ideas.
Playing two cops, each has different skills. Carla's a much better police officer than Tyler, but Tyler will spot a detail or have an idea Carla may miss. You use them differently, but they work as a team. Heck, playing multiple characters is still a novelty, let alone conflicting characters. Here you play Lucas, his brother Markus, Carla, and Tyler. And perhaps most significantly, you're not only sympathetic to the murderer but playing as him, attempting to get away with the crime.
Cage's obsession with representing regular life appears whenever characters are at home. Lucas's apartment offers such wild opportunities as drinking a glass of water, turning the CD player on, or having a sit down. But these mundane activities all contribute to maintaining each character's stress levels. It's important to maintain their mood through what become increasingly traumatising times or they will simply lose the will to carry on.
And wee. Boy oh boy, is there a lot of peeing in this game. You don't have to, but it will relieve stress for your characters if you do, and there's an abundance of toilets around. Tyler can even wee right in front of Carla in the murder scene. There's a criticism to be made of other narrative-led game characters never needing to go to the toilet, and Fahrenheit appears to be trying to make up for all of them.
And of course private lives involve relationships. Tyler's girlfriend is concerned for his safety while at work, and needs to be reassured. Carla's gay next-door neighbour offers a friendly ear and some threatening Tarot reading.
Most significant is Lucas's ex-girlfriend, who comes to his apartment to collect the last of her things. Depending upon your actions, and your timing, this can be a simple exchange of cardboard boxes, or may end in sombre goodbye sex. (In the UK version this involves a particularly awkward sex mini-game of which the censored version is relieved.)
Ah yes, those mini-games. They predominantly involve a Simon Says system in which two circles of four colours rapidly flash, and you must mimic the pattern along with it to, well, do all manner of things.
This can result in your simply continuing to watch a cut-scene, playing some basketball, performing on the guitar, or telepathically hearing another's thoughts. Or running along the side of a building and jumping a helicopter.
They're interchanged with Track & Field frantic key hammering which is tedious to perform (although extremely easy). And both have one rather enormous flaw.
If you're having to watch eight different coloured bars, and tap eight corresponding keys at the same time, there's very little chance of your seeing whatever's going on in the background. But Fahrenheit doesn't seem to realise this, decorating such moments with Matrix-inspired fight scenes, or vital plot-developing sequences. It's completely barking mad.
Then there's a bunch of other mini-games that appear here and there, the most notable being Carla's claustrophobia. When stuck in dark, confined spaces, in order to stay calm you must remember to breathe for her. This involves tapping the left and right arrows as you move around in first-person, performing tasks and solving puzzles.
It's absolutely intriguing. Breathing too quickly will have her hyper-ventilate, not breathing at all will clearly cause similar trouble. So you have to maintain steady puffs and not be distracted by the other tasks.
And then... Well. Now we're in spoiler territory. Watch out.
Wow, does it go off the rails. A game about people, which spent time in their lives and dealt with the trauma of not only committing a murder against your will but then developing crazy visions and psychic powers, would have been fascinating. A game about an ancient Mayan Oracle fighting with a physical manifestation of the internet in a battle over the life of a small girl who has the answer to all of the questions of the universe... Pardon?
But that's where it's going, and there's nothing you can do to stop it.
As Lucas becomes more powerful, he learns more of who took control of him. It seems that an ancient Mayan force has caused people to kill others for centuries, the killer then going mad and committing suicide. But Lucas is different! He's special. And he's special because when he was a kid he snuck about a lot.
Oh good gravy, the dreams about his childhood are awful. They're a stealth game, in which Lucas and his brother Markus must run around the military base on which they live, attempting to sneak into places where they shouldn't oughtta.
This involves tiresomely avoiding the stare of guards and searchlights, with scant few checkpoints and crappy controls. But struggle through and you'll learn that Lucas saw an... oh good grief, I don't even want to type it after "Mayan Oracle" and "physical manifestation of the Internet". A... an alien artefact. There. Happy?
It's like Cage put all his ideas for game stories into a box, then on his way to his desk tripped up (presumably because he didn't press RED GREEN RED in time) and spilt the entire lot across the floor. Looking down at the resulting jumble his brain spasmed and he said, "Yes! That's it!" That wasn't it, David. That wasn't it at all.
There are other flaws. Tyler, an extremely nice guy, is perhaps not the most nuanced portrayal of a black man in a game. He likes soul music, you see, which he listens to in an apartment that looks like a tribute to a colourblind pimp's hideout. But he's good at basketball!
Carla's gay friend may as well just say, "LOOK! I'm a gay character in this game, and no one minds! See how no one is minding! Isn't it shocking that no one minds!" Um, no. He has one particularly horrible line about how hard it is for him to be gay, which he says apropos of absolutely nothing.
While the acting is great, the dialogue does paddle about in the bland end of the pool, occasionally descending to lines like, "Feels as though somebody shoved a steel bar in my brain and then melted it."
However, let's look at what has been taken and run with: the conversations. It's only now, five years later, that games are noticing what a splendid idea Cage had.
When chatting with people a series of options appear, each represented by a single word. You have barely a few seconds to pick one of them (using a mouse gesture, as so much of the interaction does), and often times picking one will mean you never get to hear about the other two or three.
It makes the conversations feel real, alive, and lively. You can't just sit back and watch the scenes play out, nor click through the list of all the dialogue options, as is most commonly the case. You have to be alert, involved, and sacrificing one area of knowledge to gain another. Alpha Protocol is the most obvious recent adopter of this, with Mass Effect 2 employing some of it for its own dialogue.
It's also a game that understands mise-en-scène. There's a subplot that's pretty much unexplained about the world getting colder. But this begins with simple winter, with reports of heavy snowfall to come. It gives the game a colour and a tone, and emphasises the path Lucas, Carla et al are on.
The further you get, the more colourless the world becomes, washed out whites and greys dominating. Should you manage the "happy" ending, then for the first time vivid greens appear in an Eden-like scene.
What's disappointingly not been well adopted since Fahrenheit is the use of split-screen. Of course 24 had been on TV for a few years before the game came out, but neither seems to have inspired many others to use it as an effective narrative device, not only allowing you to see multiple perspectives, but also developing tension in situation of pursuit.
I like to remember Fahrenheit/Indigo Prophecy (let's ask the obvious question yet again: why was the game name changed for the country that still uses Fahrenheit as its measure of temperature?) as a game in which you can put dirty clothes in the washing machine, rather than one where you outrun helicopters after stealing a girl from an orphanage in order to prevent the internet or the Mayans from taking over the world while somehow having your pursuing cop fall in love with you without having met you.
I like to remember it for its remarkable use of motion capture, making the characters move in stunningly realistic ways, rather than for how Tyler has freakish arms that are wider and longer than his legs.
If only someone else had been in a position to edit the story, to point out that perhaps it didn't need to be about ancient curses, alien devices, and the bloody internet turning into an old lady/robot. It was doing rather well as a mysterious possession/murder story.
I like to remember it for being absolutely bursting with ideas, whether they work or not. I love that David Cage was bold enough to make this game, and willing to push things farther than perhaps works. It's how you find the limits.