The first act plays like a psychological drama written by M. Night Shyamalan. (The Sixth Sense.) The second act plays like a stupid action movie by Jerry Bruckheimer. (Armageddon, National Treasure.) The third act is a swirling vortex of disjointed blatherskite, as if from the mind of Ed Wood. (Plan 9 From Outer Space.)
The first third of the game is a careful exploration of actions and consequences. The plot moves forward through conversation and examination of the game world. Lucas is trying to unravel what happened to him, why he blacked out, why he killed that man in the bathroom, and why he’s having strange dreams and visions.
Meanwhile Carla and Tyler – the police – are investigating the murder and slowly realizing that it is one of many. Over the years there have been several strange, seemingly unrelated murders. One person will kill a total stranger in broad daylight with three stabs to the heart. The murderer then (usually) kills himself. What is the connection between these crimes? What is driving these people to kill? And why is Lucas special, in that he didn’t kill himself afterwards? This is a compelling setup and those questions do a good job of driving the player through the first third of the game.
A lesser site might simply assert that the plot was lacking, without offering any supporting evidence. I will demonstrate its shortcomings by simply writing it all down and allowing you to read it for yourself. At this point we pass the signpost marked, “Here there be spoilers.” This is assuming it is possible to “spoil” the plot of a game which is already rotten.
Let us begin this grim work now:
They have The Oracle looking for the Indigo Child, who is a little girl with a perfectly pure soul who has never been incarnated, and thus she… holds all the secrets to life. (It is exceptionally difficult to get through these scenes without shouting “forty-two!” at the game.) If she tells the Orange Clan her secrets, they will gain godlike powers and rule the Earth, “enslaving all of humanity.” (Which seems to come after killing everyone. I’m wondering if they thought this through?)
Questions may come to mind. If she has “never been incarnated” then why is she currently uh, incarnated? I do not think that word means what they think it means. How does having a pure soul lead one to having all the secrets of the entire universe? How does knowing those secrets lead to godlike powers? Why doesn’t the girl herself have any powers whatsoever, if her knowledge is so potent? What exactly does the Orange Clan want with the Earth, anyway?
We’re dealing with a fictional reality with no discernible rules, bad guys with no motivation, and prophecy with no purpose. The answer to all of the player’s questions is thus: Shut up and do another action sequence.
So then some stuff happened…
In order to find the child, The Oracle goes around mind-controlling people and forcing them to kill other people according to an ancient ritual. While the victim is dying, The Oracle is able to peer through “The Snake” and see into the afterlife… which somehow… lets him look for a girl who is alive and living in upstate New York? Whatever. The Oracle is looking for her and every time he wants a peek he has to arrange for somebody to kill somebody else. This is a very messy and convoluted system. Given the incredible supernatural powers of The Oracle and Orange Clan, is this the best they can do?
It turns out that Lucas was exposed to a radioactive artifact in a military base when he was growing up, which filled him with The Chroma. The Chroma was dormant in his system for most of his life, only occasionally manifesting itself in the form of clairvoyant visions. After his contact with The Oracle, The Chroma gets stronger and he begins to get super-powers, which are gleefully pilfered from The Matrix movies. He has all of the powers of “The One”: Wall-running, kung-Fu, bullet-time, super jumping, and muttering stupid melodramatic nonsense.
Meanwhile the temperature is dropping. At the start of the game New York is in a period of unusually cold weather, but by the start of the third act the whole planet is freezing over in some cataclysm of ice and snow. The change is abrupt. We go from “Gosh it’s cold” to “OMG the world is ending!!!” without any real transition. It feels like we’re watching a movie and we skipped a reel. (For which we should express relief and gratitude.)
Lucas goes to an amusement park to save the life of his girlfriend, who was apparently kidnapped by The Oracle. He falls at the end and we’re not sure what happened to him, but the next time we see him he’s pale, cold, and wearing rags. He is (I’m not kidding) undead, but otherwise lucid.
Undead Lucas eventually teams up with Detective Carla, at which point everything we know about her character is thrown out the window as she joins up with a (dead) wanted criminal to help him look for the aforementioned Indigo Child. He looks like a zombie. He’s got dark circles under his eyes. He’s chalk white. He’s wrapped in bandages and he no longer has any body heat. Carla manages to fall in love with him anyway, without any real reason for doing so. Like the snowpocalypse, the falling in love happens between scenes. One minute she’s just met him, and the next time we see her she’s expressing all these feelings for him.
And then some other things happened…
Lucas rescues the Indigo Child, and has a huge battle against The Oracle. At the end Lucas runs away, and leaps into an apartment window at random trying to escape from The Oracle. Inside he meets yet another player in the battle for the child, the Purple Clan. The Purple Clan is a glowing yellow form that reminds me vaguely of Tron. It doesn’t look like something you’d expect to see in a story pitted against Mayan Shaman. Purple Clan reveals that it was the one who reanimated Lucas, so that he would get the Indigo Child. It also wants the Indigo Child, so it can get her secrets and… (all together now) gain godlike powers so it can rule the Earth. It brought Lucas back because… I guess it thought he would get the kid and hand her over?
The scene is pure comedy. They do the cliche anime thing where the bad guy tells you what his powers are and what he’s going to do before he does it, so the audience knows they’re supposed to be feeling suspense. The Purple clan has the power to destroy Lucas with a single touch. It could just poke him, and walk away with the kid. But instead it asks for the kid. Then it threatens Lucas when he refuses. Finally it tells Lucas about the one-hit kill power it has, and only then does it try to make with the poking. After a couple more finger-joint eroding action events, Lucas escapes. Again. Or rather, he continues escaping. He was already running from The Oracle when he entered this apartment, although the writers seem to have forgotten about that.
Lucas is led into the sewers by a new ally – The Invisibles. They’re a group that has been fighting against the Orange Clan for thousands of years. Their members are all homeless people. They welcome Carla, Lucas, and the Indigo Child.
The Indigo Child is the Macguffin here. She doesn’t speak or act of her own volition. She doesn’t act like a kid and nobody ever treats her like one. They just haul her around like luggage.
The Invisibles recap the plot for us, and then they explain that the Orange Clan is a powerful organization that controls the world banks and governments. So wait – they already rule the world? I thought they were trying to rule the world? I guess they want to rule it more, or harder, or something.
The Invisibles also reveal that the The Purple clan is (brace yourself) a sentient AI, formed during the 80’s on the rudimentary beginnings of “the ‘net”. I guess this explains why the Purple Clan is so incompetent. If it came into existence during the 80’s it means it was spawned by networked Commodore 64’s and Timex Sinclairs. The poor thing probably has the intellect of a Basset Hound.
And then it gets kind of uncomfortable…
Carla and Lucas sneak off to a subway car, get naked, and have sex. Unlike the other love scenes in the game, this one is inevitable. (The once malleable plot has gone rigid by this point, and forms a railroad track leading to the conclusion.) It’s cold enough in the train car that Carla can see her breath. Her man is room temperature. She has sex with him anyway. Ew.
They get in a big snowplow and drive the girl to the midwest, where Lucas was originally exposed to The Chroma. Both the Purple Clan and the Orange Clan are waiting when they arrive. Lucas has to bust out more supernatural kung-fu, and we are treated to the final climactic showdown between Mayan Wizard, Tron, and Zombie Neo.
Assuming the player hasn’t succumbed to carpal tunnel syndrome by this point, Zombie Neo wins and and the Indigo Girl whispers the secrets of the universe into his ear.
Cut to some months later. The world is warm again. Lucas is happily living with Carla, although he hasn’t changed out of his rags and bandages and he still looks dead. Apparently being in possession of godlike knowledge and powers hasn’t given him the capacity to secure a clean shirt, much less correct his unfortunate condition. Not that it matters. Being dead doesn’t seem to affect his life in any way, as evidenced by the fact that Carla is pregnant. Ew. Again.
I didn’t cover everything, but throughout the game we have:
- Superhero powers borne of exposure to a radioactive artifact.
- 2,000 year old Mayan Shaman with magic powers.
- A shadow government conspiracy to cover up a series of public murders.
- A psychic (Carla’s gay neighbor) giving a tarot card reading that tells the future.
- A blind old woman who uses psychic powers to coax out erased memories.
- A Golden Child with all the secrets to the universe.
- Sentient AI that can manifest itself as a glowing Tron thing and reanimate the dead.
What, no space aliens?
I hope you enjoyed reading that, because it caused physical pain to recollect and set down. Once the plot went sideways, the game abandoned all the exploration and experimentation gameplay we’d come to love in the first act. It became a series of cutscenes which you advanced by enduring lengthy Simon Says action button-mash events. The deliberate and thoughtful dialog of the first act was replaced with absurd b-movie dramatics. The carefully planned scenes like the one at the start of the game vanish, and we’re left with events that don’t make sense and aren’t consistent from one moment to the next.
I will always wonder what happened with this game. The tone of the story changed abruptly and radically. So did the gameplay. David Cage (who actually appears in the tutorial of the game) is the only writer / designer credited, but it’s hard to imagine how someone talented enough to write the first act could make the egregious blunders we witness in the third. Was this the plan from the start? Did the budget get cut? Was there some creative conflict between team members?
As bad as it was, I’d still take a chance if developer Quantic Dream came out with another game. That first act was something new and rewarding, and I’m eager for another dose of it.