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.

JPG: You mentioned you finished the game even though you didn't like it. What was the primary factor that led you to do that?

Switchbreak: There is something about the game that is, for lack of a better term, adorably broken. Plus, I continually hoped against hope that somehow all the insane disparate parts would be brought together in an ending that acknowledges the insanity of what happened previously. Instead I get Goku Sheriff George and a rote ten-story tall boss monster. The ending was insane, but in a "you're watching a bad anime" sort of way, not a "holy shit" sort of way.

JPG: Yeah, I kinda felt the same way, at least about the "game" parts of the ending. Like with LOST's last season and especially the finale, it all of a sudden felt like I was watching a different kind of show. The X-Files conspiracy theory/future-science track was essentially abandoned for this immortal demigod/purgatory stuff that came out of nowhere. "No Olympics For You" George and Mega-Kaysen were a pretty clear reminder that, hey, JAPAN, you know? What disappointed me about those boss fights was that by nature of what they were - protracted, climactic battles against quintessentially Japanese mutant monster men - they took me out of that symbolic David Lynch mode of interpretation and shoved me back into the (as you said) rote boss-fight mode.

So from your perspective as a designer, what was the worst design flaw in Deadly Premonition, and why? What would you have done to fix that flaw?

Switchbreak: I think the biggest flaw was the disconnection between all of the parts of the gameplay. My one favorite anecdote to relate about the game to explain my feelings on it to people who haven't played is the scene in the hospital near the beginning. This is one of the scenes where the jolt in being yanked between the multiple different games that you are playing is strongest.

In the hospital, you start out in Game 1: the open world adventure game. This game-within-game is the one that, to me, yielded all of the actually interesting parts, though by itself it's somewhat shallow and ridiculous. You're first tasked with exploring the oddly labyrinthine hospital, and then given a chess-related puzzle by Ushah in order to gain access to the basement.
Once in the basement, you leave Game 1 and go into Game 2: the story. Then, after watching the murder mystery play out for a while, comes the hardest gearshift in the game. When you go to walk back to the lobby, you are without explanation or apology dropped into Game 3: the combat. This is a shitty game. Outside of the frustration of actually playing it or the mind-numbing lengths of time it forces you to slog through it, the way it functions in the game is merely as an utterly generic obstacle to unrelated goals. In the case of the hospital level, your goal is to walk to the lobby, meet up with your friends, and leave. The combat doesn't provide any twist to this goal - as soon as you are done shooting the hospital full of lead, you are brought to the lobby, where you and everyone else act as if nothing happened. The existence of Game 3, this insane reality-breaking segment where you stalk through the corridors of a civilian building in a small peaceful town firing round after round of submachine gun ammunition into undead horrors from beyond the grave, provides no twist to your goal of walking to the lobby besides making it take longer. You might as well have taken the elevator.

JPG: This is a brilliant analysis! Let me see if I understand you correctly:
  • Game 1: open-world tooling around, sidequesting, exploring Greenvale, racing, collecting trading cards, fishing, etc.
  • Game 2: the main murder investigation storyline, conveyed mostly through cutscenes and occasional controllable sections (canvassing people at the town hall, finding keys in the police station, locating clues in the paintings in the gallery, etc.)
  • Game 3: Other World combat 
Where the line gets particularly blurry, for me, is between Games 2 and 3. The Other World sections bleed into the profiling sequences, which to me are really Game 2 territory. I completely agree that Game 3 feels poorly shoehorned in and would be far better implemented as a Silent Hill-style exploration mechanic. They could even keep the Raincoat Killer chase sequences.

Switchbreak: The thing is, Game 3 is a game mechanic and nothing else. It has nothing to do with the world you're in, nothing to do with the characters, and nothing to do with even the more insane aspects of the story. It takes up the majority of your time and keeps you from any of the interesting parts of the game. Every time you enter Game 3, you enter it in pursuit of some unrelated goal, and the only effect it has is to make that goal take longer to accomplish. The abrupt jumps into and out of it are both dissonant and, because it's no fun to play, dismaying. In a game full of design choices that are at least somewhat delightful for their idiosyncrasy, the combat doesn't seem intentionally or ironically out-of-place, it feels like a failed attempt at mundanity. It feels like the developers played Resident Evil and Silent Hill, copied those games into their own very poorly, and then didn't bother trying to integrate it into the rest of what's going on.

JPG: I don't know if I fully agree that you always enter Game 3 in pursuit of an unrelated goal - unless you count the "spirit maps" sold by Keith, which are totally tangential. The goal of the Other World sequences, by and large, is to collect clues (the key flags), which York then mentally assembles in the profiling cutscenes, which lead to story cutscenes. So in that sense Game 3 transitions right into Game 2. (You could even argue that Game 1 makes its presence felt in Game 3 via the conveniently-placed rooms where York can sleep, eat, shave, change, etc.)

Switchbreak: The profiling sequences themselves are done in quick flashes of still images and sound that you have to watch multiple times, which led to me always skipping until I hit the last key flag - and in general I very rarely felt worried that if I skipped that last one that I would be missing anything important.

JPG: I did that too. I was a neat idea at first, to present this cinematic that would gradually get clearer as you found more clues, but after a few times, you realized it was pointless to watch it until you'd found all the clues.
Switchbreak: The flashes of insight that York has after those sequences are silly, too ("I think this might have been ritualistic!"), as compared to the bigger insights of his, like the scene in the hospital or when he realizes that George is the Raincoat Killer, which don't require any profiling at all.
JPG: Yeah, that and George's license plate, "HESTHE1."
I also never got the huge insights York had after profiling, because they were pretty damn obvious 90% of the time. Although I have to wonder if that was intentional, too: If the game's meant to be uncanny in that David Lynch way, it makes a weird sort of sense that York is only able to suss out these blatantly obvious things when the player (Zach) figured them out ages ago. This obvious disconnect kept making me think that all this was taking place in York's mind; like, duh, it's ritualistic, did the bloody altar not tip you off? "FK in the coffee" is ridiculous not only because...well, it's ridiculous, but also because the second you meet Kaysen, you've figured out he's somehow behind all this. Again, uncanny.
Switchbreak: In many of the cases, though, even when you do have a profiling sequence adding a story-related goal to the combat, it is definitely not a time in which York should be searching for clues and profiling the crime scene - he should be getting to the victim before George shows up and makes a big show out of "accidentally" finishing her off in front of you. So even in those cases, 90% of the time the goal the combat is serving is orthogonal to the goal that the story has put in front of you.

JPG: Which brings us back to Game 3. You're right that there's a very weird lack of acknowledgment in Games 1 or 2 that Game 3 is happening, aside from the combat-related rewards for sidequests (e.g., the invaluable Infinite Wrench).

Switchbreak: At first, the fact that it goes unacknowledged seems interesting, and leads the mind in a lot of cool directions. [In the case of the hospital scene], was that crazy experience actually real or was it in York's mind? If it was in his mind, how did he actually get to the lobby? What is he doing with that MP5 military assault weapon, and what happened to all that ammunition that is suddenly missing from it? Why won't he tell the others? Is this an actual supernatural event, and if so, why does York seem so unfazed by it? Everything else about the case seems to astonish him, yet he marches into combat like he does this every day.
JPG: I agree that Game 3 largely sucks, and the zombies/wallcrawlers are at best only somewhat related to the main storyline. But in the game's defense, I do think it mostly tries to use the combat as a way to satisfy the publisher's demands (see below) while also ratcheting up the fear factor/surrealism of the story. And, I guess, revealing more of the "defense mechanism personality" about York, in that he can empty 500 clips into endless zombie ghosts and walk out calmly, cigarette in hand. But yeah, the logical loopholes in the story are large and plentiful, no doubt.
Switchbreak: Not until I neared the ending of the game did I realize that [the story's loose threads] were dead ends. York makes a big production of telling Emily his secret, but that secret is the existence of Zach, not his intermittent teleportation to a hell dimension in which he murders thousands of zombies. Surely this is a more important detail to disclose if you are willing to risk letting someone know that you might be insane, no? You meet the Raincoat Killer in there, so you expect the story of the town's history to offer some explanation... but no, the make-everyone-evil gas can't be it, because these guys can walk through walls and don't leave behind a lot of dead bodies for the police to investigate afterward. Plus the Raincoat Killer just turns out to be George, all cranked out on super-seeds that don't actually make him immortal as advertised. So wait - does that mean he knows about the zombie world the whole time? Also, half the time you go into combat you've just left George with Emily, so how did he show up in demon world too? You can't be both places at once, so why can he? Then Forrest Kaysen turns out to be some kind of god, so maybe he is in charge of zombie/demon dimension - but if he is, he never mentions it.
JPG: lol @ "intermittent teleportation to a hell dimension." Um, yeah, could definitely be a relationship deal-breaker.

As I mentioned above, I've read that the combat was a last-minute addition forced on the developers because Western audiences supposedly wouldn't accept a protagonist who didn't carry a gun. Does this change the way you think about Game 3?
Switchbreak: I read that about the combat as well, and it does explain a lot, I think. Still, I'm not sure how much game would be left without the combat. The adventure game is interesting, but it has a lot of the same problems as the combat does - every time it's time for a Game Mechanic, any context of reality is dropped and you are given a puzzle to solve that serves no purpose beyond making your goal take longer to reach. The interesting part of the game mechanically is the exploration aspect, I feel, because this is the one part that feels connected to the world in which the story of the game is taking place. But if everything but the exploration was stripped away, how much would be left?

JPG: How well do you think the story was told? Were there any design elements or moments that you think particularly helped or hindered the delivery of the story? For example, I really liked the flashback sequence where all of a sudden you are the original Raincoat Killer.
Switchbreak: There were aspects of the storytelling that I really liked. I liked a lot of the character building, at least on the three main characters - everyone else in town rode a little to far on the campy side of the campy/endearing line for me. I loved the one segment where you run through the town at night chasing after the ghost of Anna while every kind of demon attacks you and acoustic guitar music plays. It has a beautiful dreamlike quality that reminded me of the better parts of Silent Hill 2, and it is the closest the game gets to incorporating the game-parts with the story-parts. The part where you play as the Raincoat Killer was one of those things that was a great concept, and would have worked better for me if it had been better incorporated into the plot of the game. As it turned out, that bit of town history and in fact that specific Raincoat Killer were tangentially (at best) connected to the case at hand - much like everything else in the game.

JPG: Uncanny, isn't it? 


  1. I can understand being turned off by the combat, camp acting, animation, etc. But I think Bredon is overly flippant about the narrative "not making sense". He seems convinced, based on his immediate first impression, that SWERY "obviously" put no thought into his dream imagery, metaphysics, etc. I think what he really means is *he* put no thought into it. If I were to adopt the same dismissive attitude, I could blow off Silent Hill 2 as easily as he blows off Deadly Premonition.

    Again, I've got no problem with Bredon not liking the game. Whether or not the story is "good" is a separate issue from whether or not it's "random". If it's "bad" it at least deserves to be thought of as bad for things SWERY did on purpose, not things Bredon imagines he did by accident.

    The playable Raincoat Killer scene is a great example, which Bredon totally blows off as offering no real insight onto the story, but which seemed to have quite a lot to me. He ignored the fact that it is a past-present match for York racing to the clock tower. This draws a parallel between the motivations of the two characters, suggesting that, in that moment, they are "the same". The use of Amazing Grace is really interesting here, suggesting the killer's state of mind. The fact that the player is expected to realize, on their own, that the goal of this scene is not to kill people but to reach the clock tower before the 13th chime, also says a lot about the mental state of the killer. It's as if the player were his humanity, cutting through his madness. The whole sequence serves to illustrate that the "killer" was really fighting the effects of the poison, and that he tried to stop Kayson all those years ago, which suddenly paints him as a tragic, redemptive figure. The fact that, in the same moment, we are invited to read him as a mirror image of York (also, in the present, racing to the clock tower) is an invitation to consider York a similarly tragic figure... which is actually a nice bit of foreshadowing.

    It's stuff like this that makes the narrative universe of DP feel well-planned and interesting to me. I suppose the game failing to tell me point-blank why zombies can walk through walls doesn't seem very important. I'm surprised that Bredon hadn't considered the possibility that the "other world" scenes were all taking place in York's mind, especially considering how the "zombies" seem to beg for death (like his mother did). Sure, the fact that Emily sees it suggests it is happening, but, unlike Bredon, I didn't take this fact as an eye-rolling example of more randomness, but a contradiction that deserved to be taken seriously given how well-thought out the rest of the dream logic was.

  2. Also...