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.

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