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.

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