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Fahrenheit - E3 2004 archived preview

Before I even get started with this preview, I want you to follow this link and download the trailer for Fahrenheit (free registration with GameSpot required). Fair warning: the trailer is disturbing and adult-oriented in content. Watch it anyway. Don’t come back until you’re done.

Now go downstairs and retrieve your jaw.

Our genre has failed dramatically, and repeatedly, at the one important purpose that it has: telling an effective and compelling story. For whatever reason, stories in modern adventure games are abbreviated, disjointed, and generally altogether unfulfilling. Which is why I nearly wept openly in a fit of happiness on the floor of E3 2004 when a representative from Vivendi Universal Games showed me Fahrenheit—for here we truly have a revolution in storytelling.

As you may have gathered from the trailer (which you did watch, right?), Fahrenheit takes place in New York City, circa 2009. It tells the story of a series of ritual murders taking place, and the lives affected. The primary character in the story is that of Lucas Kane, a fairly normal guy who wakes up to find his arms covered in blood, and his clothes lying near him similarly stained. Oh, and there’s a bloody knife for good measure, so it’s clear something went horribly wrong. Meanwhile, Manhattan is paralyzed by an early winter as the temperature continues to drop and snow falls at a frenetic pace. “The countdown has already begun.”

Immediately, Fahrenheit is wildly innovative. In the scene that was demonstrated for us, you as Lucas Kane wake up with the aforementioned evidence around you. The clock is ticking before the police inspector arrives at your apartment. What will you do? Will you leave everything as is? Will you pick up the knife and wash it off? Will you shower? Will you wash your bloody shirt in the bathtub? The interface (called the Physical Action Reaction System, or PAR) is unlike anything ever seen before, assuming you have a dual-stick pad. One stick will be used to walk around; the other is used for interacting with objects. Want to open that book in front of you? Slide the right stick forward. Now you’re looking at the book. Want to turn the pages? Slide the stick to the right, then roll it around the top half to the far left—the same motion you would use to turn a page.

If this all sounds completely unintuitive, don’t worry; icons at the top of the screen will always indicate not only what objects you can interact with at any given moment, but what stick motions you can use to accomplish interactions. You’ll never find yourself guessing what you’re interacting with, or how to accomplish a certain task. Also, the game will be playable with the standard keyboard and mouse as well.

So, back to our protagonist’s apartment. There is no inventory in the game, which is intended to add an element of realism. You’ll only have whatever you have in your hand. So, pick up the bloody white shirt. Now you’re holding a bloody shirt; what are you going to do with it? You can’t do much else; you’ve got to deal with this darn shirt in your hands first. If there’s one ridiculous thing we just accept about adventure games (other than it should always be impossible to die), it’s that there’s always room in our pockets for more inventory; whatever size, whatever shape. Fahrenheit confronts that un-reality head-on.

At some point, you will either decide to leave your apartment, or your time will run out and the police will arrive. Here is where the game really gets interesting: at this point, your player-character will become Inspector Carla Valenti, inspecting the recent ritual murder. Lucas Kane is your suspect, and here you are at his apartment. You’ll be seeing the apartment exactly as you just left it—if you had Lucas wash his shirt, you’ll see the clean shirt. If you had Lucas take a shower, you’ll see Lucas with clean arms. Quantic Dream calls this the “Bungee Story”; actions that you take have a direct effect on the plot, and not in a yes/no way; the story will evolve and move in different directions based on the decisions you’ve made as one character.

By the end, you will have played multiple scenes through multiple perspectives; a total of four characters take the role of protagonist during the game.

As expected from this storytelling device, there are multiple endings, but they are not the “death sequences” that Sierra games are famous for. Sure, you can screw up so mightily (and so obviously) that the game will end early; i.e. walking out of your apartment as Lucas with a bloody knife in your hand. But there are other, more subtle ways to screw up; if you do this, you may play the game for about four hours before reaching an unsatisfying ending. Eventually, after a great deal of replaying, you’ll reach the final “hero” ending.

All of this is absolutely fraught with possibilities—and pitfalls. How strong will your motivation be to clean up an apartment if you know that it makes it harder for your police detective character to succeed at their goal? The game’s official page describes this as “The possibility to control multiple characters that have different motivations, and sometimes contradict themselves and have their own characteristics and visions of the same storyline,” so it appears that it is an attribute being embraced at this point.

In any case, progressing through this story is not at all like a normal adventure. I’ve tossed around the word “cinematic” to describe some of the great adventures (Full Throttle, Grim Fandango among them), but what we saw of Fahrenheit blows every previous definition out of the water. The game is heavily influenced by the brilliant film Memento and the equally brilliant television series 24; throughout the game, split-screen camera techniques are employed to great effectiveness. There are times when you will be controlling your character, but will also need to be watching the smaller frames to see if something important is happening (i.e. your partner is questioning a key suspect). This MultiView mode, as it is called, will definitely allow for much more dynamic scenes to unfold. (see examples below)

Interacting with objects can also sometimes lead to unexpected, and often jarring, flashbacks that fill in backstory of the various characters. Many of these flashback-trigger interactions might be missed the first one (or three) times through, so for most players there will always be new facets of the story to fill in as you replay. All of this is framed by a perfectly dark and cinematic music score. No expense has been spared to make Fahrenheit live up to the designation of “interactive movie.”

I know that at least one prominent adventure site is designating Fahrenheit as an “action-adventure,” and while there’s at least more validity to that here than there is with Dreamfall, I still think it’s a very sad mischaracterization. There are a few lengthy action sequences, but they are completely isolated from the adventure portions, in much the same manner the action sequences in old Space Quest games were. There is no action or twitch gameplay of any sort during the normal adventure gameplay; in fact, the demonstrator wanted very much to emphasize that this game bears no resemblance to Silent Hill or other survival-horror games. The action sequences are similar to the “action moments” of Broken Sword 3, except a series of those moments strung together; you have just a quick second to respond by pressing the proper button, and thus you avoid taking a hit. The interesting thing about the action sequences is how branching they are. You are allowed three “hits” in every sequence before having to start over, but with each new decision the sequence goes down an entire new route based on whether you took a hit or not. Even in action sequences, Fahrenheit attempts to bring a new sort of cinematic realism to the table, and the action sequences thankfully never bleed into the adventure elements at all.

Now, the sad news: there is still no North American publisher for this game. Vivendi Universal has secured international publishing rights, but a deal for North America is not finalized, and all V.U. would say is that “a deal has not been ruled out.” Clearly this is the sort of rare adventure experience that won’t be passed up entirely, but the sooner a deal is inked the sooner I can breathe easily.

In every area, every element, Fahrenheit is simply a revolution in cinematic storytelling, and may really earn the designation of the first true “interactive movie.” We didn’t learn about a great deal of the story, but what we do know is absolutely intriguing. So kill some time until the game’s release by watching that trailer about a hundred more times. If you’re anything like me, and you love a well-told story, you won’t get tired of it anytime soon.

Fahrenheit is scheduled for an international release on PlayStation 2 and PC in the fourth quarter of 2004.


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archived preview