Sunday, February 28, 2010

You Caught A Garbage

My current video game love is Deadly Premonition. It cost me $20. It's an open world murder mystery game with survival horror elements. It's heavily reminiscent of Twin Peaks. Some folks claim it's a bad game. They are wrong. Some people claim the game is "so-bad-it's-good." These people are even more wrong. This is not a piece of accidental camp. It's a game that's aware of just how absurd it is. It's aware that it's a flawed game on many levels, but many of its flaws end up becoming strengths, while others are easily overlooked because they don't get in the way of what the game does well.

Deadly Premonition is a better Shenmue. A Shenmue made with zero budget rather than the largest in video game history. A Shenmue made by a Yu Suzuki who spent his formative years obsessing over David Lynch and B-movies instead of guitars and sports cars. A Shenmue where the infrequent action sequences play out like a low rent Resident Evil 4 rather than a low rent Virtua Fighter. A Shenmue where the cast is comprised solely of bizarre, creepy characters not due to ineptitude, but by design. It's a design that lifts wholesale from 20-30 year old American films, which is usually a strong negative, but here it works. Because in the end this is a video game that's cool with being a video game, rather than a video game that wishes it was anything but.

To me that distinction is what makes or breaks a game that places an emphasis on story. I suspect Deadly Premonition is at least partially influenced by Grand Theft Auto 4, which was very much a self-loathing video game. Its attempts at drama were spoiled by terrible writing and a lead character whose behavior during cutscenes clashed terribly with the actions required of the player during the scripted missions, and its obsession with "realism" crippled the game on nearly every level. You had this amazingly detailed world but there was absolutely nothing interesting to do in it.

Deadly Premonition is guilty of many of the same sins as GTA4. Awkward controls, goofy car handling, a huge game world without much to do. Yet I can forgive Deadly Premonition because its world is interesting, and it's interesting largely because it's so wrong. GTA4 is filled with uncanny valley game and world design that highlights the narrative's flaws and foils any sense of immersion, but the wrongness of Deadly Premonition's environment is a strength. It's the Pacific Northwest modeled by people who have probably never been to the Pacific Northwest but watched a whole lot of Twin Peaks. And since this is a game that so badly wants to be Twin Peaks this awkwardness meshes perfectly with the game's themes and narrative. The interiors of the homes have bizarre dimensions, with rooms that feel like they're the size of gymnasiums and staircases that lead to nowhere. Your car's speed tops out at 55MPH, leading me to suspect that the devs heard Sammy Hagar's "I Can't Drive 55" and took the song a bit too literally. Items are priced as if one yen was equivalent to a dollar rather than a penny, with a cup of coffee costing $16.50, a fishing rod running $125.95, and if you need some bait for that rod you're paying $119.34 for run of the mill earthworms -- dig the arbitrary change tacked onto the end of every price tag. Business hours are also bizarre. One morning after waking I headed to town to break my fast at the local diner. I arrived past 9AM only to find it closed. Same deal with the bar when I quit my investigation later that night -- the watering hole was shuttered before the clock had even struck 10PM. The town of Greenvale has some strict blue laws, I guess.

So when you're presented with a world so very off-model it makes total sense that half the residential mailboxes in town are filled ammunition. It's not jarring at all when you open a refrigerator to discover it's empty aside from a trading card for a Turkey Sandwich -- a sandwich which is, according to the card, a most excellent turkey sandwich, because its meat is moist, but not moist enough to make the bread soggy. Game-y bullshit is both acceptable and welcome when the lead character is a goofball FBI agent who regularly speaks out loud to his Split Personality/You. He's fond of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes and Fred Ward's filmography, and he wants you to know all about it. So it seemed perfectly natural that we'd conduct our first interrogation in the middle of the street. I stood in front of the suspect's car. I knew he was a suspect because he had a giant balloon that said SUSPECT above his head. Our conversation was drowned out by the honk of a car horn. The suspect's car was the only one in sight, and he had both hands on the wheel, so it must have been his horn malfunctioning. It makes sense that Agent York would just ignore it, because the character is insane, and whether this was a known bug that was intentionally left in or a happy accident isn't relevant -- either way it enhanced the scene, making an odd, entertaining conversation all the more bizarre. You'll find lots of moments like that in this game, enough that it quickly becomes apparent that they're not the result of ineptitude but a developer who sees the value of happy accidents.

To me the ultimate sign that the game's effectiveness is due to intentional design choices rather than camp ineptitude is the lack of incongruity between my Agent York's actions, the behavior of the scripted Agent York, and the goals of the side missions. This is a rarity in the genre. My Agent York is a goofy fellow who likes to take naps wherever he can. His favorite spot is the cot behind the log cabin in the graveyard. My Agent York appreciates that he can shave in any sink he finds, but prefers to deal with his five o'clock shadow in the Greenvale Police department's kitchen. My Agent York peeps into every window he finds, hoping to get a glimpse at some naughty business going on inside. He has yet to find any. Just kids doing their homework and bearded, lumpy men sitting in bed. And my Agent York is the kind of guy who gets fined for being a "stinky agent." He went a few days without changing clothes, OK? It happens. No big deal. Just had to rush back to the hotel to change before the big town meeting. Couldn't give my introductory speech to the townspeople with flies swarming around me, y'know? These are all actions that are totally in-character for a guy who talks out loud to his imaginary friend during police lunches and reads fortunes into the shapes formed by the milk in his morning coffee. Compare this to the aforementioned Shenmue, where super-serious Ryo Hazuki is so going to track down those sailors once he finishes buying capsule toys and playing Hang-On. Or GTA4, where angst-ridden Niko is fed up with killing and swears he'll quit once he can afford it, yet my HUD shows I've got millions in the bank and nothing to spend it on. Deadly Premonition may look cheap and have stupid fucking QTEs, but SWERY is ten times the writer the Housers or David Cage is solely because his characters are batshit insane on purpose.

I'll probably be posting about this game a lot. Maybe my enthusiasms are premature. Maybe it will fall apart near the end. I pray it doesn't. I love this game.

1 comment:

  1. Bravo.. Deadly Premonition just jumped into my top five favorite games for the 360.

    My Agent York drives with the windshield wipers on, no lights, and the left turn signal a blinkin. Always.