Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Cleared For Takeoff

NOT York.
Deadly Premonition might have been fun to play and write about, but did York ever surf a plane? Thought not.

The game I spent the most time with while writing the GOTY series, mostly in an effort to maintain my sanity, was Just Cause 2. I'd borrowed it from the library over the summer and finally bought a cheap copy a month or two ago. What a fantastic piece of B-movie candy that game is.

In case you're not familiar with the premise, you star as Rico Rodriguez, secret agent of some indeterminate type, who's sent to the fictional South Pacific island of Panau to blow shit up in the name of freedom and democracy, or something. The story is unapologetically shallow. By sabotaging military equipment and government property, you earn "Chaos," which translates into new missions and money. The game's a completionist's nightmare, with a massive map featuring 368 locations to discover and destroy.

Yet it miraculously never stops being fun. Traversal, that bane of open-world games, is never monotonous, mostly because of the unique mechanic for getting around. By deploying Rico's arm-mounted grappling hook and infinite parachutes in rhythm, you're able to slingshot your way across hundreds of meters with ease. Appropriating a passing vehicle - even, say, a fighter jet - is a breeze, thanks to your trusty grappling hook and a few well-placed punches to the erstwhile driver's face. And of course, if you tire of your current vehicle, you can always grapple onto something else or bail out using one of your parachutes.

Naturally, just tooling around Panau is the big draw. It also doesn't hurt that the environments are gorgeous to look at.

There's something refreshingly endearing about Just Cause 2's approach. It's so cartoonish and over the top that pesky issues like adherence to the laws of physics or the limits of human anatomy can safely be ignored. Those, and the whole clandestine imperialist sabotage of a sovereign nation thing.

One of my favorite things to do in Just Cause 2 is hijack airplanes. Competent piloting skills aren't required when you can ditch your ride at any time. Most of the aircraft you typically encounter are military - various kinds of helicopters and fighter jets. It wasn't until probably 15 hours into the game that I realized there were commercial planes to steal as well. Presumably with full loads of passengers on board.

After a bad experience with engine trouble over the Pacific a few years back, air travel and I have not been great pals. The last thing I should be joking about is plane crashes. So it was pretty weird to hear myself addressing my terrified passengers over the imaginary PA as my onscreen avatar commandeered their aircraft. "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your hijacker speaking," I crooned to the screen. Watching me, Mrs. JPG was convinced I was having either a psychological breakthrough or a psychotic break.

Fortunately, it was the former. I even managed to work up some of that banter into a little riff for Kill Screen.

Writing that goofy piece was oddly therapeutic. The worst part of fear of flying, most sufferers will tell you, is feeling a lack of control. It doesn't matter that you are far more likely to die in a car crash on your way to the airport than you are in an accident on a commercial airline, or that you'd have to fly once a day for 22,000 years to die on a flight operated by a U.S. company. Statistics lose meaning when the heart starts racing. You're still putting your life in someone else's hands.

Just Cause 2 provided a strangely welcome inversion of that fear. I could literally swing in through the cockpit window if I felt like taking the yoke. Or I could surf on top of the plane, Teen Wolf-style, while the pilot guided it to its destination. Or I could hijack the aircraft, toss out the pilot, and then surf on top. Captain Rico was in command.

Thing is, I never bothered trying to land stolen F-14s. Panau's mountainsides and rivers are littered with their carcasses. I was content to send flaming helicopters plummeting into gas stations, chuckling as the resultant fireball sent bodies flying. I've probably killed 2,500 soldiers this playthrough, some by means as exotic as "crushing with a giant stone statue head winched to an SUV."

And yet the only time I mourned the loss of virtual life was when my Aeroliner 474 missed the runway at Panau International Airport. That's one fireball I'm not proud of.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Wrapping Up Deadly Premonition, and a Special Conversation

A full month(!) of posts later, it's time to raise my glass and toast Deadly Premonition goodnight. Turns out there may actually be other games worth writing about. Who knew?

But before I bid York adieu, I want to share one of the many great conversations I've had about the game. Shortly after finishing Deadly Premonition, I enlisted fellow GWJer and indie game developer Bredon "Switchbreak" Clay - who did not like the game - to share his thoughts. His analysis of the game is quite sophisticated, and forms a great counterpoint to my own. Because it's all kinds of spoilery and pretty lengthy, our interview is hidden behind the jump. Again: If you haven't yet finished the game, please don't read this just yet. Spoilers aside, it may not make a lot of sense until you've seen how York's story plays out.

One more thing: I want to say a quick thanks to all the folks who have inspired and supported this series, which has been a blast to write. So, to Bredon, Matt Weise, Danny Weissenberger, Brad Gallaway, Darius Kazemi, Courtney Stanton, Jeffrey Matulef, Kirk Hamilton, Chris Pruett, John Kenneth Muir, Ian Miles Cheong, Simon Ferrari, and anyone else I've forgotten - may your coffees be ever full of FK. 

Special thanks are also in order to the proprietors of two Deadly Premonition fansites, Whitney of Welcome to Greenvale and Animagess of Planet REDWOOD, for their terrific collections.

Now be careful, Zach. Spoilers ahoy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

GOTY Reason #7: Embracing Ambiguity

"Hey, 'member when you were with The Beatles?...That was AWESOME."

Were I to interview Commander Shepard, it'd play out like an episode of the Chris Farley Show.

Hey, Commander Shepard. Remember...'member when you died saving your crew? And then they, like, cloned you back to life or whatever? And you got right up and started blasting robots and stuff?


JPG: That was AWESOME. And, um, 'member, 'member when you went around the galaxy, like, getting all your team together? On those sweet missions? And The Illusive Man was all like, "I'm Creepy Martin Sheen" and you were all like, "You're not the boss of me!" You 'member?

SHEPARD: Uh, sure.

JPG: That was AWESOME. And 'member when you went to see Wrex on his planet, and he was all like "SHEPARD." in that deep voice? And then you got that other Wrex guy who also said "SHEPARD." when you talked to him? Do you remember? You remember that?

SHEPARD: Yes, yeah. I remember.

JPG: Frickin' AWESOME!

"Douche chiiiiiilllll!"

As much as I enjoyed the game, I can't have a conversation with
Mass Effect 2. I can't say much about it other than "...that was awesome." To use fancy academic terms, I can't interrogate it as a text.

My experience with Mass Effect 2 was very much like my experience with J.J. Abrams' reboot of Star Trek: It was a really fun, well-produced, entertaining piece of sci-fi action, and absolutely nothing about it was ambiguous.

The story, for all its branching narrative threads and customizable paths and expansive universe, was pretty damn straight-ahead. Sure, you can split hairs about whether Mordin's response to the genophage or Shepard's alliance with Cerberus were morally justifiable, but come on. If you understood the previous sentence, you have an idea of how hard it would be to convince anyone else that particular quandary was worth debating, especially without sounding like the Comic Book Store Guy.

And here's where, seven entries in, we finally get to the biggest reason I chose Deadly Premonition as my Game of the Year. I can talk about it.

In my last post I discussed what a risk Deadly Premonition is on a number of levels, especially because of its subversion of genre. But probably the riskiest thing about the game - and the factor that endears it to me most - is that it embraces ambiguity. It gives you problems that are unsolvable. It takes what should be a fatal flaw for any videogame and makes it a key selling point. Those unsolvable problems are precisely what makes the game so ripe for discussion, as players who experience the narrative differently develop their own theories and try to support them using evidence from the game. Let me try to list a few of these unsolved mysteries without trespassing too deep into spoiler territory:
  • Who - or what, exactly - is Forrest Kaysen? Why is Greenvale such an important location for him?
  • What is the precise relationship between Greenvale and the Other World? What is the mechanism for passing between them? Why do only certain characters appear to be able to do so?
  • What are the Red Room and White Room and Forest Room meant to represent? Why are the particular objects and people that exist within them there?
  • Does the trauma in York's past give him the ability to perceive things others can't (the "premonitions" of the title)? Is this related to his ability to enter the Other World?
  • What is the nature of the Ingram twins' seemingly extra-sensory abilities? Is this somehow related to Kaysen's interest in them?
Look, I realize there's a very high risk of Comic Book Store Guy nerdery involved in trying to answer any of these questions, too. I don't mean to unfairly dump on Mass Effect 2; as I wrote previously, Deadly Premonition's story is just as absurd. And yes, there are a few elements of Deadly Premonition - such as Michael only speaking in rhyme - that I'm fairly confident are not meant to be problematic issues for discussion as much as weird shit SWERY threw in to make Greenvale full of weird shit.

But unlike in Mass Effect 2, where any ambiguity in the story or characters is at best tangential to the player's enjoyment of the game, ambiguity is the centerpiece of Deadly Premonition. The game presents the player with ambiguity at every turn, actually forcing the player to enact ambiguity through their in-game actions - in particular, in the "Amazing Grace" sequence, but in plenty of other places as well. (Contrast this with the ambiguity in Mass Effect 2, which is largely reported after the fact in conversations with characters about their backstories. As for enacting it, a simple good/bad choice option does not make for a layered presentation of ambiguity.) Many, if not most, of Deadly Premonition's plot events, characters, and symbolic elements can be interpreted in multiple ways and from multiple viewpoints. This is clearly intentional and not, as some critics have suggested, weirdness for the sake of weirdness. Witness SWERY's symbolic mental map:
Even SWERY's diagram, which he presumably drew to illustrate the relationships between the various symbolic forces in the game, doesn't definitively answer any questions, although it suggests avenues of interpretation. It does, however, prove that there was clear authorial intent here: Whatever the game's failings, there is a complex and rich symbolic underpinning to it. The Mass Effect universe, like many RPGs, has a dense backstory, but the type of complexity presented by lore is very different (and, I think, less interesting) than the complexity presented by symbolism. The backstory of Deadly Premonition is only relevant inasmuch as it informs and makes ambiguous the current plight of the protagonist, whereas the backstory of most epic sci-fi universes is far more sprawling than necessary for the main narrative.

Whoa. Should have put a "verbosity" trigger warning on that paragraph.

Let's pull back a little. I want to come back to why I've spent so many words on Deadly Premonition, and why picking a Game of the Year was, for the first time, a truly meaningful exercise for me.

I played more videogames in 2010 than I'd ever played in a single year before, including some landmark AAA titles. For the first time, I had the budget, hardware, amazing public library system, motivation, and friendly enabling to make my hobby a priority. So I had a lot more material to choose from than usual. And it's maybe because of this increased access that I came to the realization that a game has to be more than "fun" for me to truly love it. It also has to make me think.

If this series of posts has been any indication, Deadly Premonition has given me plenty to think about. It's forced me to reevaluate what I want and expect from a main character. It's compelled me to examine design decisions more closely. It's shown me a new way of telling a story that prizes the storytelling over the actual content of the narrative. It's made me more curious about how business and project management constraints intersect and conflict with authorial ambition. It's given me a new perspective on player "agency." It's asked me to define how much gameplay frustration I'm willing to put up with in service of a greater purpose. It's challenged me to interpret a game - a game! - on a symbolic level in the same way I would a David Lynch film.

It's also given me the ridiculous and unforgettable Sinner's Sandwich, "Life is Beautiful" theme, and "FK in the coffee."

I'm particularly grateful to SWERY, though, for inspiring so many great conversations. Through talking and writing about Deadly Premonition, I've made a lot of valuable connections with terrific people. Ironically, this single-player game has been more "social" than any multiplayer experience I've had. And that's more fun than any game alone could ever be.

Talk about your douche chills...

I'll have one more post coming up wrapping up Deadly Premonition with one of these conversations. And then, I promise, we'll put York to bed.

Monday, January 17, 2011

GOTY Reason #6: Outsize Ambition

For a game made by such a small team (an average of 25 people), with such a small budget (per SWERY, "not very much"), and with such an inordinate number of obstacles (unclear console specs, multiple near-cancellations, lack of technical expertise), Deadly Premonition has no business being as ambitious as it is.

Ambition is a difficult thing to assess in game development. Witness the above sentence: There's always a qualifier. It's difficult to find a review of an indie game, for example, that doesn't contain some variation on a sentiment like "for such a small team, this game is great." Conversely, there's an assumption that the BioWares and Rockstars of the world, with their infinite resources, should be able to crank out expansive 100-hour works of genius with zero bugs while innovating on every aspect of the medium.

Okay, maybe that's putting it a little strongly. But the fact remains that we typically judge a game's success relative to the resources that went into creating it. I don't think there's anything wrong with that approach per se - more resources do often translate to more opportunities for creativity and polish - but it can blur our understanding of what we mean by "ambition."

Ambition, to me, does not necessarily entail innovation. Just because a game doesn't do anything new with the medium doesn't mean it's not ambitious. Minecraft is an innovative project, combining the randomly-generated worlds of a roguelike with the freedom of a map editor or LEGO set. Super Meat Boy, on the other hand, is not especially innovative - it's pretty much a platformer - but it is ambitious in its approach. By ratcheting up the difficulty and tightening the precision of the controls, Team Meat established their unique vision of what the genre can be and challenged players to come along for the ride.

That almost antagonistic "let's see what you got!" attitude toward the player, I think, is what defines Super Meat Boy's ambition. It's a risk. Especially at a time when games seem to be getting progressively easier, it's ballsy to build a game around the idea of punishing difficulty. Yet Super Meat Boy ended up dominating the platformer conversation in a year in which Super Mario Galaxy 2 was released. Clearly, the ambition paid off.

But ambition - which I'll define as risk-taking with a purpose - does not always have to be fulfilled to be noteworthy. Failure can often be more instructive than success in this regard. (Listen to Three Moves Ahead's dissection of what went wrong with the spectacular bomb Elemental for proof.)

Aside from the York/Zach conceit, I'm not sure Deadly Premonition does anything especially innovative. In fact, there's a lot about the game that is pretty baldly derivative. The Other World conceit is cribbed from Silent Hill; the stand-and-shoot combat from Resident Evil; the labyrinthine sidequest structure from any number of JRPGs; the open-world exploration (and attendant ephemera) from any number of sandbox games; and the surreal atmosphere from David Lynch. And in every case, the source material is better implemented.

Where I think Deadly Premonition is especially ambitious - and successful in fulfilling its ambition - is in its world-building.

Given the challenges facing the development team, it's remarkable Greenvale is as engaging a setting as it is. In the post-mortem on the game in Game Developer, SWERY even admits his project - "replicating an entire rural American town from inside Japan" - was "rash." But it's not for the reason you might expect. As game designer Chris Pruett notes in his terrific analysis, "chalking Deadly Premonition's strangeness up to the cultural divide is a vast oversimplification." In other words, whatever discordant notes Deadly Premonition hits are not due to, as Chris says, "normal 'Japanese insanity.'" They are, by and large, intentional, meant to evoke a surreal feeling.

SWERY again: "For the story, I kept as much sense of reality as possible while embellishing it with a somewhat dreamlike milieu. As a result, I believe the sections depicted as reality have a dreamlike feeling, and likewise, the actual dreams are given a sense of realism - we were able to smear the boundary line. There are very few video games so particular about depicting such things, and I think Deadly Premonition may have become a unique example among them."

While the textures and animations in the game are often ugly, there is a different type of detail present in Deadly Premonition that's more important. As SWERY explains in the Game Developer post-mortem, each NPC has a 24-hour pattern of activities, specifically designed to reveal characterization. Peer into Thomas' apartment in the morning to observe him at his morning rituals. Follow Nick and Olivia around and you may uncover a possibly adulterous soap opera in progress. Head to Emily's house after hours and help her become a better cook.

What works particularly well here is that because Greenvale's cast is small and memorable enough for us to become interested in each character - and because this is a mystery, where our protagonist is expected to investigate - observing NPC behavior leads to meaningful conclusions. NPC activity patterns are constructed in service of not only a more realistic setting, but also of layering the story with additional complexity. (By contrast, it's debatable whether the same could be said about NPCs in Red Dead Redemption.) Examining this aspect of the game, Danny Weissenberger goes so far as to claim Greenvale is "the best-realized location in the history of video games."

Even ignoring the constraints of budget and technical expertise, it's quite a risk for a developer to spend so much energy and time fleshing out NPCs, especially when the bulk of the player's interactions with them are optional. Yet it's all in service of the game's vision of its world. SWERY: "I was insistent that the content of our side missions always draw upon aspects of the NPCs' personalities, thus adding further depth to the world of the game." And there's the key to an ambitious game: The risk-taking has to have a purpose that furthers the larger goals of the game. (To some extent you could argue that the loyalty missions in Mass Effect 2 operate on a similar principle, but not only did those have tangible rewards, they also never felt truly optional. They weren't all that risky.)

Of course, the entire Deadly Premonition project was a giant risk. Here was a detective game that was part talky adventure, part survival horror, part open-world, and all kinds of Lynchian crazy. How to sell this thing? The North American box cover is a misleading mess, billing the game as much more of a horror title than it truly is; one wonders if that was a marketing tactic meant to sell to the Silent Hill crowd. It's ironic that the other big measure the publisher took to mitigate risk - compelling the dev team to insert combat - ended up being one of the game's major turnoffs. And yet, even there, SWERY's ambition is evident: Although the "hold your breath to avoid zombies" mechanic is kind of broken and unnecessary, it was an interesting and risky attempt.

My other GOTY candidates, Mass Effect 2 and Red Dead Redemption, are both obviously bigger in scope and far more polished than Deadly Premonition. But with respect to the outstanding efforts of those development teams, neither game was as ambitious, as risky, as SWERY's. A sprawling space opera with intricate dialogue and moral choice systems? Kind of a BioWare specialty. A massive open-world shooter with incredible detail and freedom? Right up Rockstar's alley. Both games were based on existing, established IPs. Neither deviated too far afield from a proven formula. Both had millions of dollars of marketing capital to burn, and both were created by large studios with hundreds of experienced developers. By its nature, a videogame is a risky product, but these particular games were always going to be safer bets than most others.

So sure, there may be some element of rooting for the underdog at play here. But I think Deadly Premonition's ambition speaks to the thing SWERY has his team nailed: "we poured our love into the game." Due respect to other games, but the love that went into Deadly Premonition is more tangible than in most AAA titles.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

GOTY Reason #5: "Lovely Useless Elements"

In an interview with the Telegraph, SWERY said that given a bigger budget, he'd have included more of what he calls "lovely useless elements" in Deadly Premonition. As it happened, he managed to include quite a few regardless. And they're one of the reasons I love this game.

For the purposes of this discussion, I want to define "lovely useless elements" as two things: mini-games and (for lack of a better term) Easter eggs, little details in the environment or interface that serve to enhance the fiction. I'm not sure if that's exactly how SWERY defines them, but the idea is that these features are entirely optional and have no immediate practical application to core gameplay.

Generally, I'm of two minds about incidental features. On one hand, I appreciate the opportunity to jump into a mini-game every so often as a brief diversion from the core gameplay and/or story. Especially in open-world and RPG games, where it's easy to get overwhelmed with quest after quest, it's nice when the game encourages you to take a break and play some poker or compete in a race. Generally there's at least a tangential connection to the setting or plot, like Marston playing Liar's Dice in one of Red Dead Redemption's saloons or Chuck swatting golf balls in a sporting goods store in Dead Rising 2. Those mini-games make sense in the context of the setting, if not the story.

I've always been a fan of environmental storytelling, since I think videogames are uniquely positioned to do this effectively. BioShock is probably the easiest and best example: I spent just as much time examining propaganda posters and constructing the stories of tableaux I happened upon - like the corpse I found laying next to a pile of suitcases - as I did in combat. Often, I'm all for developers stuffing their games chock-full of flourishes in the environment or UI to build my connection to the fiction.

On the other hand, sometimes it's all a bit much. Just Cause 2, which I am still loving the crap out of, is decidedly not a racing game. Yet Panau is littered with vehicle challenges - which, again, are totally optional, but which also clutter the map as glaringly unfulfilled objectives.Yes, I understand that completing challenges nets me more cash and helps unlock more missions. It's the same with the hunting and outfit-collection challenges in RDR. It feels a little too obvious, like the game is saying, "right, here's the requisite driving mini-game, here's the obligatory on-rails gatling gun segment." The fact that there are tangible, practical rewards for participating in these mini-games doesn't dispel the odd tension that these games, which thrive on completionism of various sorts, create by including the mini-games in the first place. When completing a tangential challenge is as worthwhile or meaningful as completing a story mission, is there a point to investing the player in the story at all? [To Just Cause 2's credit, I think that game says, very clearly, "Nope! So go have fun just screwing around!"] Shoehorning in too many mini-games, as I think RDR does (although its implementation is superb), risks devaluing the narrative; ironically, this is especially true when practical rewards are attached to the mini-games.

The same risk applies to environmental flourishes. I don't know many people who claim BioShock is a terrific shooter, despite the nearly-universal praise it's gotten. In fact, that's the biggest knock on it, right? It's an amazing world and an okay game. One might make the same argument about RPGs like Dragon Age: Origins, which sometimes feel overloaded with lore. There's a delicate balance between game, environment, and story - so delicate, I think, that it's nearly impossible to seamlessly integrate all three.

Let's come back to Deadly Premonition. First, let's look at some of the mini-games (or, I guess, meta-games) it includes:
  • Racing. York can drive his car around the streets of Greenvale in a few timed checkpoint racing challenges. Completing races nets you Trading Cards (more on these in a bit).
  • Fishing. Once he obtains a fishing rod, York can head to watering holes marked on his map and cast his line, initiating a truly bizarre Press Your Luck-style game that results in a variety of prizes. Buying special kinds of bait can increase your chances of getting quality loot. In some cases you'll get Trading Cards.
  • Darts. After purchasing a Dart Gun (really?) from Richard, York can try to beat the high score on the machine in Richard's bar. The reward for getting high scores: more Trading Cards.
  • Peeping. Seriously. At most locations, York can peer into a building's windows and watch its inhabitants going about their business. These sequences occur in a first-person viewpoint and involve almost no player activity beyond moving the camera. The reward for peeping, and the game actually says "reward for observation," is Agent Honor (cash - again, more on this in a bit).
  • Shaving. Again, seriously. When he has access to a sink and mirror - sometimes in the middle of the Other World sequences! - York can earn Agent Honor by shaving. Shaving also prevents him from looking disheveled, much like...
  • Dressing. York can purchase a variety of suits throughout the game. Not changing his clothes every so often and not shaving will make flies buzz around him, and other people will like him less (though how the game articulates that I'm not sure).
  • Sleeping and Eating. Much has been made of the fact that York has a Sleep Meter and Hunger Meter, which can be replenished by sleeping and eating, respectively. York will collect various foodstuffs (jars of pickles, turkey sandwiches, lollipops) as he explores Greenvale (though I'm not sure how eating smoked salmon found in a disused locker in a nightmarish hell version of the police station could restore anyone). Sleeping restores health, and yes, you will get to sack out on some conveniently-placed cots in the Other World.
These last few aren't mini-games per se, but I've included them here because the player receives rewards for them. Notice a theme in the rewards? Generally, they're either Trading Cards or Agent Honor.

First, the Trading Cards. Aside from an Achievement for collecting all of them, these are demonstrably useless rewards. They contain maybe a sentence or two about the character or object pictured, with only a few revealing details the player/York hasn't already intuited or observed.

Agent Honor badges, found randomly around Greenvale and in the Other World, and especially when breaking crates or fences, grant York a small amount of cash. The economic system of Greenvale is erratic at best; a turkey sandwich costs $100, and calling the FBI on a nearby phone will set you back $1. York can purchase new suits, food, bait, upgrades and ammo for weapons, and gas for his car - but there's not a very robust economy in Greenvale, to say the least. Given that York receives cash every time he kills an Other World zombie (I don't even want to try to parse why, since that seems like a blatant extra-diegetic "game mechanic" thing), and that he will kill hundreds of zombies, the Agent Honor badges are essentially worthless.

There are also a few environmental/UI flourishes I want to highlight:
  • Turn Signals and Windshield Wipers. The latter is only useful when driving in first-person view, and the former is not useful at all.
  • License Plates. Each character's license plate reveals some hint about him or her, with a few being outright spoilers. If you want to, you can trail characters as they drive around Greenvale.
  • Smoking. York can light up a cigarette to pass the time while he waits for a sidequest window to open or for the next chapter in the case to begin.
  • Coffee Fortunes. " the coffee!" is a commonly-lampooned moment in the game, sure. But York can return to the hotel's dining room any time to read a new fortune in his coffee, fortunes which occasionally provide hints about sidequests.
  • The Pause Screen. Press the start button to enter a Lynchian nightmare room, complete with taxidermied deer head THAT TOTALLY BLINKS AT YOU.

In the August 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine, SWERY comments on some of the incidental features. Discussing the turn signals and GPS system in York's car, he says, "Features like these may seem extraneous, but I truly believe they accentuate the game's sense of reality."

In a way, I agree: I've never had a "turn signal button" in a game before. However, when maybe two other cars are on the road in a five-square-mile town at any given time - and controlling my car is like trying to ride a rhino with ulcerative colitis - to what degree can a turn signal possibly be "realistic"?

I don't want to put words in SWERY's mouth, but I think what he may be getting at - and what he discusses in the Telegraph interview - is not reality, but surrealism. He says: "it is my contention that without incidental elements, you can't create this dark, fearful side behind it." Going back to David Lynch films: the truly disturbing element, I find, is that before they veer too sharply into the surreal, they create a plausible simulacrum of reality. They put you in the real world before transporting you to the nightmare world. I think SWERY is trying to accomplish the same thing. [Whether he is successful is up to the player to judge, but I find it remarkable that he is even attempting this.]

There are two key things happening, I think, with SWERY's "lovely useless elements." The first is that Deadly Premonition, unlike RDR or any number of other games, is telling the player outright that these elements are indeed useless - and that's okay! As I said above, the rewards the mini-games offer are only marginally useful at best. The game is telling us that it's okay to do these things for their own sake, not in the guise of obtaining a new combat buff. That's kind of refreshing, actually; the idea is that simulating this weird reality is its own reward, instead of enforcing the common paradigm of handcuffing every mechanic to some kind of pseudo-tangible "progression." [BTW, this is why I find the sidequests that result in new weapons for the combat sections particularly grating.]

The second is that, like Lynch's work, Deadly Premonition depends on synergy. The whole is more than the sum of its parts. The story missions would not be nearly as meaningful had the player (as York/Zach) not had the opportunity to clandestinely observe potential suspects in Greenvale, or pursue them at whim around town in the car. The game mechanics, by virtue of their transparent worthlessness, become more meaningful than they ought to be. Unlike RDR, they throw into stark relief the fact that they are, in fact, useless.

I love the phrase "lovely useless elements." Why? It conveys what I think every fan of Deadly Premonition intuits: the love the creator has for the game. Whether the creation is successful in comparison with other games is, to some degree, irrelevant; there is a clear auteur at work here, and that curiosity alone is worth examining.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

GOTY Reason #4: Absurd Story, Great Storytelling

Story is commonly cited as one of Deadly Premonition's key (and, some say, few) strengths, but I have to disagree. The story is patently absurd. By the end, the absurdity is so thick even Shinji Mikami is ready to take his ball and go home.

And yet, Deadly Premonition is one of the best examples of storytelling I've ever seen in a videogame.

In Japan, Deadly Premonition was released under the name Red Seeds Profile (and on the PS3 in addition to Xbox360) - a title that, while not immediately gripping or grammatically elegant, is far more fitting. Like the single letter first found under Laura Palmer's fingernail in Twin Peaks, the red seeds found on, near, or in each victim in Deadly Premonition function as the recurring clue that engages the audience in the mystery along with York. The red seeds are the (David) lynchpin on which the plot is fastened. [Wow, I'm really, really sorry for that. (Not really.)]

But as with Twin Peaks, the narrative is so fragmented that you end up wondering if the red seeds are not just a MacGuffin. While linear overall, the plot of Deadly Premonition veers off into bizarre territory pretty regularly. For example, there's the scene where York has a, yes, premonition that the only way he will be able to retrieve missing documents detailing the history of the Raincoat Killer case is to literally fish them out of the river. So he...fishes them out of the river. With a fishing rod.

Because the game presents a pseudo-open world - while organized into Chapters, there is still plenty of room for York to hop off into sidequests and exploration between story missions - Deadly Premonition suffers from a similar narrative disconnect as Red Dead Redemption. I'm not the first to point out how badly, say, stopping to pick flowers or chase bounties breaks Marston's "have to get back to my wife and kid" conceit. But because York is so unswervingly weird, and the atmosphere so surreal - and because we've been conditioned to question reality via the Red Room/White Room and Other World sequences - we learn to expect, and eventually embrace, the absurdity and cognitive dissonance. Of course York would fish the case files out of the river. That makes sense in this world.

There's also the fact that much of the insight we get into the characters and world of Deadly Premonition is delivered in a seemingly incidental way. The sequence where York joins the local cops for an awkward dinner, or where George discusses his traumatic childhood with York at the bar: These are entirely optional scenes, initiated with a QTE, yet so much more revealing than most main story sequences. Similar arguments can be made for many of the sidequests; for example, completing Quint's engagement ring sidequest makes what happens in the main story even more tragic. Yet looking back on the story after completing it, it's hard to argue these sequences are not essential to a full appreciation of the logic and progression of the narrative. The main story missions, in which York searches for clues in Other World sequences and then mentally connects the dots to profile the killer, are ironically often the least interesting or emotionally significant. Instead, it's what happens after or between these missions that's resonant.

As a consequence, I'd argue, Deadly Premonition is basically telling the player the plot is secondary to the player's emotional connection to the characters and world. While I absolutely love just tooling around in Red Dead, and while I agree the game encourages you to do so, it's hard to make the same argument; in signature Rockstar style, the ancillary characters (save Bonnie and the Marston family) are largely satirical ciphers. While the player may develop genuine sympathy for the plight and passion of Luisa, for example, that connection is totally negated by the ironic pompousness and indifference of Reyes. While the story missions in RDR are generally less meaningful than the incidental ones, there's not as much emotional payoff as there is in Deadly Premonition.

That's not to say we're not interested in the mystery, though. We still want to discover the identity of the Raincoat Killer, understand the nature and purpose of the red seeds, unpack the York/Zach relationship, and figure WTF is up with any number of other oddities in the main plot. It's just that the structure of the storytelling itself prioritizes our emotional connection to the characters, not the main plot itself. It's a scenario oddly reminiscent of LOST.

It's interesting, and I think totally intentional, that the promo image above is a patchwork of characters' faces. There are more dramatic images that could have been used to advertise the series throughout its six-year run, but nearly all of the promo materials had the ensemble front and center. LOST may have had a supernatural mystery at its core - what is the Island, and why are these people here? - but the producers and writers never forgot that the characters are what kept viewers hooked. Their innovative storytelling structure - the flashbacks, flash-forwardses(?), and flash-sidewayses(??) - was perfectly suited to a series that was much more about asking questions than providing answers, and much more about people than about plot.

Like Deadly Premonition, the story of LOST was absurd, and became increasingly more so as the series went on. By the time the show entered its time travel phase and concluded with its spiritual gumbo of a finale, the plot had gone so far off the rails that having the characters meet in the afterlife - a writing cop-out if ever there was one, if you ask me, but that's another topic - felt like one of the only options left.

But for the majority of its run, the overwhelming success of LOST was never its story, but instead the way it parceled out information to the viewer. By focusing on a different character (or pair of characters) each episode in both the present/Island setting and the past/future/sideways/Mainland setting, the show encouraged the viewer to patch together its disassembled narrative, using character backstory as a hook to entice him to put in the effort. For the more devoted fans (yours truly included), there were any number of tantalizing in-show Easter Eggs and assorted multimedia ephemera to keep us invested in the characters and the mystery after the TV was off. [Author Amelia Beamer's article "LOST as Hypertext" analyzes the show's storytelling technique, and is a terrific read for fans of both LOST and Deadly Premonition.]

From the beginning, LOST was dedicated to engaging the viewer in the construction of its story. That its story was absurd was irrelevant. It was that it gave us all these avenues into its world that was meaningful, the way it exploited the tension between authorial control and audience participation. This, I think, is also what Deadly Premonition does so well, and what is unfortunately often overlooked about the game.