Twin Peaks. Bizarre. Humorous. Open-world. Survival-horror. Divisive. Cult game. So bad it’s good.
None of the above provides an accurate description of Deadly Premonition. Some of it unquestionably describes certain aspects, but nothing that summarizes one’s complete inherent experience with the game.
What is Deadly Premonition then, and why is it considered ‘so bad it’s good’?
Hidetaka Suehiro, known to his friends and fans as Swery, is a Japanese games designer, producer, writer and director. He’s worked on games such as The Last Blade, Tomba! 2, Spy Fiction, and Deadly Premonition; the game he will perhaps be most known for. Cancelled around four times, Deadly Premonition is an inexplicable concoction that resembles an early Suda51 game, with elements of Majora’s Mask, Silent Hill, Resident Evil and of course, Twin Peaks. The story follows Agent Francis York Morgan, who enters a small Washington State town to investigate the murder of a woman supposedly killed in a ritualistic manner. Seemingly resembling Twin Peaks too much, and called Rainy Woods in development, an artistic change was taken to distance it from the cult TV show. Luckily, it found its own identity in the process and as Jean-Luc Goddard once said, “It’s not where you take things from – it’s where you take them to.”
The term, ‘so bad it’s good’ has been used (I would argue unfairly) to describe Deadly Premonition from the beginning. I deem this classification to be inaccurate, and believe that a lot of factors contributed to Deadly Premonition’s pejorative branding. The contrast between high and low scoring reviews, the Giant Bomb endurance run play through, comparison to other eccentric Japanese games, and thus the word of mouth. These all shaped the opinion of Deadly Premonition and consequently it became known as ‘that’ game, the game that is ‘so bad it’s good’.
YouTube was my first port of call after hearing of the game, for which I was then greeted with many videos referring to Deadly Premonition as ‘weird’ and ‘funny’. The video that forcefully dragged my attention straight to it was a cut scene involving the main protagonist in a small American diner. The scene featured an obscure sandwich; a wheelchair bound old man brandishing a skull-like gas mask, and awkward dialogue and animation. My first impression, as a self-proclaimed Suda51 fanatic, was euphoric. Back then I hadn’t seen Twin Peaks, so it reminded me of Suda’s Flower, Sun, and Rain, a game that Swery himself was inspired by.
Suda and Swery is a comparison that most will undoubtedly make, as Suda’s Grasshopper Manufacture appears to be the last bastion of eccentric Japanese game developers able to reach an international spotlight. When one understands both of their methodology to writing though, a clear distinction can be grasped. Suda 51 is far more interested in meshing style with meaning, and like a French New Wave film director, adopts an unconventional and disconnected feel. Swery slightly partakes in some of this, but his storytelling is far more competent in the conventional sense. The relationships, drama, characters and emotion are far superior in Swery’s writing, which was evident after completing Deadly Premonition.
After the reviews, YouTube, and the Suda 51 comparison, I understood how someone could perceive Deadly Premonition as ‘so bad it’s good’. In a time where the west has become industry standard, games like Deadly Premonition can only be seen as the antithesis of these western ideals. It’s hard for people to see past the incredibly out-dated and generally inferior graphical presentation, and when they do, it’s seen as humorous at best.
The director’s cut was my first time experiencing the game, and after finishing the last three chapters in one sitting, I realised why Deadly Premonition is so well-loved by its minimal fan base. Like a Trojan horse, the game creeps its way in through its ‘so bad its good’ perception, later revealing its true magnificence. Once complete, one can see how the meticulous design comes together as a complete package, with an emotionally charged payoff.
So if Deadly Premonition isn’t ‘so bad it’s good’ then why is it actually good?
Instead of the usual focus a developer takes, with their refined and linear cinematic approach, Swery and his team went in the opposite direction. They could have polished the game with higher quality animation, textures and lighting, but instead focused on what is arguably more important, the experience of those playing the game. Is having the ability to shave and eat and smoke worth the time implementing, when it isn’t particularly that important to the gameplay? Well, according to Swery’s ‘Game Design in the Coffee’ GDC talk, yes, it is. Swery implemented these features in a way which enriches the player’s experience outside of the game. Inextricably, these actions are tied to real life, as if you were to shave or smoke in real life, you might remember doing the same in the game. This therefore means you’ll think of the game, when not even playing it. In my opinion, that is far more important than striving for perfect graphical polish.
The primary strengths of Deadly Premonition lie with its approach to narrative, and the interactivity wherein. It’s a lot subtler than with other games that strive for the same thing, such as Jonathan Blow’s Braid. I believe this subtlety can be classed as a reason to why the audience is less familiar with what Deadly Premonition has achieved. Whenever someone discusses Braid, the ending is regularly mentioned, and is often cited as a clear and concise example of story being game-play. Deadly Premonition in contrast to Braid, refuses to be so forthright and instead keeps the drama and characters in the spotlight. There is a scene near the end of the game, where a major plot point is given to the audience through a section of game-play. It’s not the most mind-blowing Braid-like experience, but nonetheless it’s story being game-play. Personally, this scene did not get through to me at first, like most of the game. It was after finishing the game that a lot of it sunk in, which was incredibly fulfilling, as it allowed me to piece it together myself, rather than the game telling me straight up.
Possibly the most intelligently designed aspect of Deadly Premonition is Zach, Francis York Morgan’s invisible friend/second personality, who he constantly talks to throughout the game. At first this is humorous, notably interesting and feels like a bizarre design choice, which it is. Succeeding this mind-set, the player realises that Zach is actually you, the player. This continuing understanding of Zach, perfectly highlights the brilliance of the game and respectively showcases the importance of interactive storytelling.
With video games, there can sometimes be a large disconnect between player and character. It’s different in other mediums because we do not control any aspect of the narrative, other than how we perceive said narrative in our mind, so any disconnect is minimal. In games however, a player has direct control over a character in a virtual world, therefore the gap between player and character is larger, because the player cannot fully connect to the game as a result of the limitations the game itself presents. Zach is an ingenious attempt at bridging the gap between player and character, and acts like a narrative system that empowers the player.
Zach is essentially a glove which the player fits in to. In the story, Zach and York have been together for a long time, so the player is Zach during the game. Zach existed before the game takes place and presumably after too. This is not an attempt at meta-humour or addressing the fourth wall, as the player adopts an already existing personality, like an actor donning a role. Swery has completely turned interaction on its head: instead of focusing on the player interacting with the game; the game interacts with the player directly. Zach is me, so when York talks to Zach, he’s talking to me. For this simple reason, the character of York is infinitely more likeable. He interacts with me, has conversations and even confides in me. Usually, a likeable character, in any medium, is liked thanks to some element resonating with the audience. York, as a character, does resonate with the audience; however the inclusion of Zach introduces another dimension on top of his already likable persona.
There is plenty more of Deadly Premonition that I would’ve liked to address, but, understandably, it was decided to keep this piece generally spoiler free. Some of these topics include; a relationship that, for a video game, is believable, organic and even tragic; a Majora’s Mask style routine system that acts as the game’s beating heart; and generally lots of narrative related implementations that are best when experienced. One property that I shall lastly discuss, however, is the soundtrack and how it’s used.
Possibly the most alike Twin Peaks, the soundtrack is used as a juxtaposition of the different emotions and atmospheres present in the game. Going from a pure supernatural-horror induced section, to a mundane, realistically materialised American town, is only that much more contrasted through the joyful music. The whistle theme, titled ‘Life is Beautiful’ is arguably the main theme of the game. Possibly the catchiest video game theme since Super Mario Bros; this piece is used to score a large amount of the game, just like many of the other main musical themes. This reliance on a small amount of key themes truly accentuates their diversity in regards to emotional range. ‘Life is Beautiful’ is simple, honest, comedic, nostalgic and genuinely astounding. It doesn’t rely on a bombastic orchestra, lyrics, or any gimmick to get the point across. One can listen to it without even knowing it’s from a video game, and enjoy its presence. It’s safe to say, that after finishing Deadly Premonition, this theme will stay with you. Think of it like a cheerful present, given to you by the game as a remembrance of the good times you had together.
Deadly Premonition is a human game. In a time where society is training us to become more and more machine like, where review aggregate sites are used as a supposed authoritative decree in what the audience should buy, it’s such a relief to experience some humanity. Resembling the Persian rug weavers, who purposely stitch imperfections into their rugs, Swery has crafted a flawed experience that reminds us of our limitations. It’s not designed to get a good Metacritic rating, or focus tested to appeal to the masses, it’s designed to speak to the living, breathing human we ultimately are. Don’t you agree, Zach?