Sunday, December 26, 2010

GOTY Reason #2: Emotional Investment

It's hard for me to describe this scene without indulging in spoilers, but I want to tell you about my favorite moment in Deadly Premonition.

York has come to Greenvale to investigate the murder of Anna Graham, whose mutilated body was found suspended from a tree, clearly with some kind of sick ritualistic intent. As you might guess, Anna will not be the only victim in this story. Other characters York meets will be slain in similarly grotesque ways by the mysterious Raincoat Killer as well.

And now for the hopefully light spoiler: Toward the end of Chapter 2, there's a tense cutscene in which York saves another would-be victim from a grisly demise with some last-second heroics. Moments later, however, a terrifying accident - or is it, since the victim appears to be almost religiously rapturous about her rapidly impending death? - smashes the rescued individual to bits. It's a sudden and jarring twist, one that I'm sure some players might find darkly funny (or, worse, actually funny). By the time I'd gotten to that point, though, I was just horrified. After another seeming failure, the case was finally turning around. And then...this.

So we come to my favorite moment. York has just pushed budding love interest Emily, the sheriff's deputy, out of the way, saving her life as the victim is crushed under tons of stone. The camera pans from an image of the victim's arm sticking out from the rubble over to Emily's face. And Emily is in shock. Wordless, petrified, near-convulsive shock.

With York, in happier times.

Emily backs away, stumbling, mouth agape. In her expression the player can read any number of terrible realizations, as the young deputy comes to grips with - literally - the viscera of yet another mortifying crime she was unable to prevent.

And all I could think during this unnerving sequence was: Holy shit - shock. I've never seen a game so convincingly portray shock before.

Deadly Premonition is utterly committed to the player's emotional investment in the story and characters. So much so, in fact, that it makes the player role-play as York's alter ego Zach. And unlike most every other computer RPG, this one really does directly assume the player is inhabiting a role in the fiction. Hate to keep harping on this, but again, the "Zach" conceit is remarkably effective in encouraging the player to claim an emotional stake in the story. When a character talks to York, s/he is talking to Zach, too - to you. And after he's done talking to someone, York will ask Zach what he thought, engaging him/you in sometimes lengthy conversations reflecting on what they've just seen and experienced together. In this way the game demands that the player reflect on and emotionally engage with the story and characters in a way other games don't.

Finally, and this is something I'll discuss further in a future post, there are the Red Room and White Room sequences - dream-like intermissions between story chapters where the player explores weird symbolic spaces in York's mind. These scenes, which take obvious cues from David Lynch, build the player's investment in the characters by repurposing them in bizarre, surreal ways. You come out of these sequences saying, one, WTF, and two, why is York seeing [that person/those people] in that way? What could this represent? Are these the "premonitions" of the title, or something more abstract?

Like any piece of fiction, a colorful and interesting set of characters goes a long way toward engaging the audience. Greenvale is populated with an eclectic mix of inhabitants. Some of the more immediately recognizable, besides York and Emily, include amiable rockabilly convenience store owner Keith; his weirdly ethereal twin sons Isaach and Isaiah; traveling tree salesman Forrest Kaysen; kindly, deaf old hotel owner Polly; brusque, adversarial sheriff George; gas-masked, wheelchair-bound, weird-sandwich-loving millionaire Harry and his attendant Michael, who speaks only in rhyme; and SWERY's homage to Twin Peaks' Log Lady, "Roaming" Sigourney the Pot Lady (she carries an actual pot, not the drug).

Like York, the ancillary characters are instantly memorable. And unlike in Alan Wake, that other supernatural horror thriller of 2010, they're not merely props: when one of them turns out to be the next victim, we're genuinely sad, both for the victim and the characters who have to deal with the aftermath. (By contrast, what was Alan's wife's name again? Amy? Sarah? Gertrude? All I remember was the annoying sidekick Barry and the crazy lady with the paint and a bunch of demonic farm equipment.)

Throughout the main story York will gain plenty of revealing insights about his co-investigators, Emily and George, as they share intimate details of their backgrounds. These conversations were some of my favorite moments in the game, as York (and by extension, I, as Zach) begins to understand and empathize with the vulnerabilities of these people. Vulnerability is something most games portray inexpertly, if at all, and yet it's exactly this quality that audiences crave in their characters in order to relate to them.

[A brief aside: while I loved the "recruit your team" conceit of Mass Effect 2 - a phenomenal effort and the clear AAA GOTY pick for me - the vulnerabilities of characters like Jack, Thane, and Miranda rang a little more hollow for me. It's possible this is just because of the sci-fi trappings, but I think it's more likely that while the dialogue is undeniably polished and the production value is flawless, it's all a bit too Hollywood for my taste. One issue could be ME2's dialogue interface: When you can instantly (and, in my case, often inadvertently) replay the exact same lines of dialogue over and over, the emotional impact is necessarily deadened as immersion is broken. I'm not saying those characters' stories aren't rich and engaging; the emotional catharsis at the end of loyalty missions was the real reward for me, not the characters' newly-acquired loyalty. I just think it's more meaningful when there's no "game reward" (e.g. a boosted "loyalty stat") necessarily tied to characterization.]

As difficult as Deadly Premonition's side quest structure can be to parse - some only activate at particular points in the story progression, at certain times of day, and/or are dependent on the weather(!) - taking the time to meet Greenvale's characters and explore their lives can be immensely rewarding. As with any small town, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. Although some of these tasks may be simple fetch-quest affairs, the player understands that as with a good deal of the "action" sequences in the game, they're means to an end. And that end is often not a tangible reward like a new gun or improved stats, but instead a more intimate view into the strange and fascinating lives of Greenvale's inhabitants.

Characterization as a reward for gameplay may seem an odd inversion of the norm. Usually we "endure" cutscenes, which function simply as context-building mechanisms to build investment in the action sequences that follow. But, like so many aspects of Deadly Premonition, it is precisely because of this subversion that I find the game refreshing.


  1. Just discovered your blog. Fantastic writeups of Deadly Premonition! I've only encountered the game through the Giant Bomb video playthrough, and I didn't realize there was so much more available in the game. I don't know that I can make the time commitment to fully experience the game, unfortunately... but I appreciate the opportunity to experience it once more by proxy.

    On a more substantive note, I'm interested in one thing you say: that the addition of a systemic reward (extrinsic motivation) somehow cheapens the emotional experience of Mass Effect 2's loyalty missions vis-a-vis Deadly Premonition's comparable moments. I don't disagree that, in principle, games shouldn't always encourage behavior through reward systems. It's wonderful when a game is able to create a narrative meaningful enough to push the player forward without filling up some bar or other.

    However, I'm ambivalent about this in practice. Games are systems, with rules and goals. Many games still tell inane stories, and do so badly. Does relying on mechanics serve as a crutch that keeps the medium from evolving into something better? Maybe. Or maybe we'd just get self-important "interactive experiences" that fail on all the usual levels without succeeding on the gameplay either.

    Bah, I'm probably being too cautious. I just can't imagine a game that I feel truly integrates gameplay and narrative in a meaningful way, while managing to be more complex than Jason Rohrer's (wonderful but simple) work.

    Anyhow, just started Singularity myself. I'll add some thoughts on that post once it's beaten.

  2. Hi Max,

    Thanks for reading and for the kind words! The GB guys are certainly funny, but I don't think they did justice to Deadly Premonition in the endurance runs or in their GOTY roundup. Though to be fair, had I been forced to record myself playing it, you would have heard a lot of cursing from me as well.

    You make an excellent point about reward systems. I've never designed a game, but it seems like a core principle of Game Design 101 is that You Should Always Reward the Player. That gets a little tiresome, I think. As a player, I end up doing things in the game purely for the reward and not for the joy of exploration/experience. That seems kinda backward.

    But you're right to identify the pitfall on the other side as well. I'm hesitant to identify small "interactive experiences" as "self-important" too quickly; I actually think games like Call of Duty and Bulletstorm are far, far more "self-important," in the same way the popular jerk star QB of your high school is self-important. But there is a trap there, certainly, in that, as in any work, there's a fine balance between artful communication of a theme and beating you over the head with that theme. The latter is where we get into "self-important" territory.

    I wrote a review recently about a small Flash game called ...But That Was [Yesterday], which you can play at I rather liked it, although I can see how some people would think it was pretentious; I think it captures what you're talking about to some degree. Play the game before reading the review, and see what you think. The review lives here:

    Anyway, thanks again for your thoughtful comment! Look forward to hearing your thoughts about Singularity.

  3. I checked out But That Was [Yesterday], and your review. I actually do enjoy "art games"—I wrote a glowing review of Tale of Tales' The Path on my blog ( I like But That Was [Yesterday] as well, although I wouldn't say that I'm evaluating it by anything like the same criteria that I apply to games which offer meaningful player agency. I did respond emotionally to the game. As soon as I was done, I went outside and played with my puppy. Awwww!

    BTWY probably does meet my definition of a game, despite being a completely author-directed experience, in precisely the way that Ebert referenced when he questioned whether games could be art. If I contrast Molinari's QTE-like design with other art-game philosophies, I don't think he comes off well, but that's subjective. Jason Rohrer and Terry Cavanagh make games where the mechanics are more fully realized, and although their work is precisely as linear as BTWY, they don't give me the feeling of running down an empty hallway. Daniel Benmergui's games are also very different, reminding me more of little poems than of animated shorts with added interaction.

    One thing I like about the limited nature of the interaction is that it allows close reading in a way that many games don't. For example, let's start with horizontal movement, the primary measure of progress in any platformer. I read BTWY as suggesting that moving to the right represents the "moving forward" of the tagline ("A personal journey about learning to move forward in life"), which would suggest that moving to the left—or facing the left, since we in fact cannot move in that direction—represents being focused on the past.

    However, it is actually running to the right that halts progress, as the main character is apparently overwhelmed by ghosts of the past. This suggests that some crisis is created by moving forward without pausing to reflect on the past. Given the tagline of the game, this is superficially confusing. The game tasks us with moving forward, and does not allow us to do anything else, yet we cannot move forward without first looking back. I'm willing to accept this as a statement that we must come to terms with our past, but there is still a mechanical contradiction: shouldn't we be overwhelmed by powerful nostalgia when we spend too long looking back, rather than when we move too quickly ahead? That's my experience of life.

    There is a clear contrast between the brief, vivid flashes of past memories we get when diving into the wall and the softer images of our lost loved ones which appear when we move forward "properly." To give in to nostalgia is to live in an imaginary world in which we have no agency, because the choices were all made long ago; if we instead make new choices and forge new bonds in life, our past will remain with us in a positive way (the mechanics which let us progress are also echoes of the past).

    None of this reading is valid if my assumption about the left/right symbolism is wrong, but I can't imagine another interpretation. To assume that BTWY adopted the platforming convention of always running to the right as a purely formal element gives it too little credit, given how well-thought out many other small details are.

    One mark of the game's success is that the relationship between the boys, with their prep school clothes and tree climbing, brought to mind the novel A Separate Peace. I have no idea whether this is a deliberate allusion, but the fact that I can connect a small Flash game with a book that I regard highly without the book "outclassing" the game is quite an achievement.

    Games I have played that aim (ambitiously) for an emotional impact always take a very abstract approach. What is it about loosely sketching a story that works so well, vs. filling in all the details, either mechanically or narratively?