Deadly Premonition, a Twin Peaks tribute open-world horror/adventure game for the Xbox 360 and PS3 by Osaka-based Access Games, is absolutely incredible. You have to take a moment to consider the definition of that word.
in·cred·i·ble [in-kred-uh-buhl] –adjective
1. so extraordinary as to seem impossible: incredible speed.
2. not credible; hard to believe; unbelievable: The plot of the book is incredible.
The game follows an FBI-agent assisting the local law enforcement to solve a bizarre murder mystery in a small rural town. The game takes on strong occult overtones, and features a bizarre collection of townsfolk, all of which behave nothing remotely close to normal.
I'd followed Giant Bomb's "Endurance Run" of the game, which lampooned the title for a pair of full play-throughs. A curious thing happened during that long stretch of gameplay; As the game introduced them to its menagerie of ridiculous characters and spaced out protagonist, they laughed at it, while groaning at the awkward controls, terrible localisation, bad graphics and silly audio production. However, as the endurance run stretched on, you could notice a subtle change in atmosphere. The game, with all its flaws, endeared itself to the players. By the end, it was even the centerpiece of a heated discussion on the site's 2010 game character of the year award.
When I found a copy of the game for myself, I was ready to laugh at it like I'd laughed at Ed Wood's nonsensical cinema. Instead, I found myself drawn to it, and the shocking revelation dawned on me that this piece of muddled auteur debris was genuinely entertaining. Even more so, it was making me look at other ostensibly more competent titles in my collection with a new-found disdain; How boring!
This is Deadly Premonition, a game so overflowing with unchecked ambition and self-indulgence, so broad in scope and in its generosity, its urge to entertain, so perfectly singular that it has become, in my mind, close to what the gaming press has been clamoring for for years; "our" Citizen Kane.
Scope, art and budgets
Games like this aren't made anymore. They just aren't. Historically, the scope of a role-playing game is balanced directly against the budget allotment for asset creation. Games such as The Elder Scrolls II, which offered a frankly ludicrous amount of terrain to explore (twice the size of Britain, allegedly), did so by repeating a limited collection of assets. Its scope was allowed to grow unchecked because the very design and ambition of the game treated art assets as a means to an end. Spiderweb software's Exile series of RPGs offered players *vast* worlds presented by a collection of a few hundred tiles and characters that didn't animate. As the complexity of game engines grew and artists were given more tools, the amount of time spent on creating art clashed directly with the conceivable scope of a title.
When Neverwinter Nights launched, it attempted to utilize repeated assets to offer players a vast world while maintaining the visual standards of its day, and Bioware was criticized for the repetitive visuals. This occurred again more recently with Dragon Age II, which is practically notorious for its repeated scenery. You have to sympathize with RPG developers like Bioware and Bethesda, who have to offer players vast, dense worlds, yet still have to compete directly with titles like Call of Duty who can commit its "art budget" to a very constricted set of assets. Creating an RPG that can appeal on the same visual level is an almost impossible task, and so procedural asset generation and other such techniques are very much in the wind as Bethesda prepares to launch its next Elder Scrolls title our way. In more recent years, Spore offered a vast universe of strange creations by leveraging procedurally created assets. For the most part, however, players have become accustomed to beautiful, custom art.
Deadly Premonition has terrible assets. It barely blends between animations; nudging the stick forward sees the protagonist slide slowly across the floor, while still walking at a full clip. Walking by a supermarket fruit counter, the textures are crude, flat photographs of fruit; They aren't even bump or normal mapped! The soundtrack seems to consist of a grand total of 6 poorly mixed songs.
Deadly Premonition's developers, at some point, must have fully come to terms with their budgetary restrictions, yet they still managed to offer an open, living world filled with things to do and explore (whether these things are interesting or fun is another matter). Their goal, apparently, became to deliver scope. If it was intended or not, the way Deadly Premonition almost spitefully subjects you to assets that are *clearly* bad, actually has the effect of adjusting your expectations to the point where it all sort of snaps into place; The poor dialog, the silly music, the controls, and the assets.
Once you adjust to it, everything about Deadly Premonition seems just right in a very rare way that effectively grants it a carte blanche; It can do no wrong.
"Just call me York; that's what everyone calls me"
You can't discuss Deadly Premonition without paying close tribute to its protagonist; FBI special agent Francis York Morgan. Clearly an attempt at replicating Twin Peaks' Dale Cooper's quirky charm, the effect misfires completely as York proves himself a bit of an arrogant, self-obsessed prick, with so many obsessive-compulsive ticks and strange behaviors that you come to the early, intuitive conclusion that he is absolutely bonkers. This, again, has the effect of making you doubt his claim to be an FBI agent; That he appears to lapse into dream worlds where he kills zombies and monsters, before discussing 80s cinema in the car with his imaginary friend Zach makes everything he says feel unreliable.
The interesting thing is that this works. York becomes the friend you hang out with just because he's unpredictable in a safe way. He clearly means well, but his conduct is like a steady stream of ticks and non-sequiturs. You giggle at his madness, but you're genuinely interested in where he's going with it. In this way, the player takes the part of Twin Peaks' Harry Truman, being puzzled and amused by this foreign figure, but we can't deny his methods somehow get results. We're the straight man.
In fact, the game appears to break the fourth wall regularly, with York's constant discussion with his imaginary friend Zach, some of which appears to directly adress the player. It's as though York includes the player in the game by making you a character. When York talks about his love for the film Tremors, I couldn't help but fall into character. Few games have inspired so many out-loud responses from me (though perhaps that says more about me than it does about Deadly Premonition...).
"Red Ivy, the shadow thing, the generator, it all makes sense!"
Few things in Deadly Premonition are satisfying. A chess puzzle is so simple you feel almost offended when you solve it, yet York discusses it as a "battle of wits". Firing a weapon , which you can do at any time at anyone, with absolutely no effect unless it's a zombie, feels so weak any visceral joy from the gunplay is completely lost. The game even manages to undermine any seriousness to the combat by having York constantly mutter to himself whenever you score a good hit. Driving around is equally ridiculous; Every vehicle feels like it spins around its center axis, and seem to have a top speed of 50mph, and a turning radius of a full block. Crashing into anything, living or dead, simply stops the vehicle dead with no other effect. As York solves the mystery, the way in which he does it is disjointed and random, with a logic only apparent to him.
The compound effect, however, is of a disconnected, dreamlike consistency. As York falls in and out of a horror-themed riff on Silent Hill's "dark side", either side feels equally unreal. After all, this is a game in which you are paid an FBI salary with bonuses for shaving and peeking through windows, and penalties for being "stinky", before you go riverside and go fishing for submachine guns. Pretensions towards normalcy and realism in this game would have created a number of dissonances with its ridiculous story that the game escapes cleanly by being a bit shit all around. Instead of complaining about the poor driving physics, you learn which cars behave in which ways, and learn to manipulate the system for the best possible outcome; I dare say at this point I'm a pretty effective Deadly Premonition driver.
Not too long ago, Remedy released Alan Wake, a Twin Peaks influenced game with stellar production values and a frankly ridiculously long production cycle. Released to much expectations, the game, for me, fell flat for a number of reasons. The biggest of which is that the game is about a horror writer, and features some absolutely horrible writing in spite of taking itself seriously. Guys, you can't do that. Horror is in itself inherently ridiculous. Successful horror stories in whatever medium are without fail dreamlike or extreme, and get to us by manipulating and sometimes transposing our understanding of reality and its rules. Twin Peaks worked as a horror story of sorts because it took its viewers to a strange place where the rules were fleeting and nobody acted anything like a normal person. It effectively used the soap opera format to emphasize the strangeness of its characters and mundanity of its setting to emphasize the ugliness of its dark edges.
This is something Deadly Premonition *nails*. It becomes an unnerving experience because of its flippancy, which is often countered with frankly disturbing actions and stories. This is a game where a rocker guy constantly and frantically snaps his fingers while carrying on a perfectly normal conversation, and also one where characters discuss serial killers that urinate in and drink from the victim's skull, as the background music consists of whistling and kazoos. It takes you and your sensibilities to a place where their value becomes obscured.
What's interesting to me about laughter is that it's primarily a nervous reaction. We laugh to communicate our insecurity to the outside world, and we want our laughter reciprocated because that lets us know everything is alright. Who hasn't been freaked out by a noise or movement, only to laugh to ourselves when it proves to be nothing? The best comedians deliver ideas that challenge our world view, and do so without a smile. We are left to laugh because we subconsciously *desire* the balance a smile would lend the situation. We love to laugh together, because the more of us that laugh, the safer the situation. We're just animals, after all.
Deadly Premonition makes me laugh all the time. I've sat by myself, simply driving around the game world, bursting into laughter for no discernible reason. It's consistently wrong, and my brain, conditioned by modern and more polished games, finds it hard to deal with the internal consistency of modern game design and how Deadly Premonition seems completely uninterested in any of that. This dissonance is absolutely core to the experience, as the absurdity of light-heartedness reaches a kind of balance with the absurdity of the horror it presents. Zombies moan ridiculously in low pitched voices, but as the game goes on even this becomes tuned to the vibe of the game world to the point where it starts actually being unnerving.
The net result, successfully emulating the Lynchian weirdness of Twin Peaks, is that the game is simply a joy to experience, for reasons that become hard to rationalize. Alternating between being disturbing and being ridiculous, you're put through an almost literal rollercoaster of emotions. One moment you're desperately running from an axe murderer in a section so long it actually becomes physically exhausting, and then you're peeking through a motel window to watch an effeminate man dancing like a stripper.
About the only thing the game genuinely lacks is a sense of emotional attachment to any of it, instead casting you as a kind of disinterested observer. You get the sense that this would be going on with or without you, as the game frequently directs you to carry out tasks for no intuitive reason. Why am I pushing this button? Why did I pick up this object? You're guided by the game to simply perpetuate its content. You aren't York. You're the player. As a result of this detachment, the game is more interesting than immersive, which is starkly divergent to the current trends towards personally immersing the player and urging us to inhabit the player character. Deadly Premonition is absolutely fine with leaving you a viewer, even adopting TV-like mechanisms such as a "previously on..." segment when loading a saved game.
The notion of perfection is strange to any art form. Outside of the realm of science, where something can truly be described as perfectly matching to an ideal, in art the definition progressively loses its purpose with every new observer of a piece. Deadly Premonition is notorious for receiving wildly divergent review scores, ranging from a 2/10 at IGN to Destructoid's 10/10 "perfect" score. Personally, I feel the game is perfect, in that it takes its budget, its scope and its vision and combines it to form a sweet spot where they all are appropriate. It's a game that offers something no other game has offered me; A genuine B-game experience that tells a story unlike any other in a form factor unlike any other. It's so unique it's practically punk rock, evoking Grasshopper Manufacture's games and to a certain extent the work of Platinum Games. With Deadly Premonition, Access have become the anti-Platinum, equally perfect in its imperfection. They've created their own playing field, and they have no competition.
The game is perfect, singular and so unique in its time that it escapes all meaningful comparison. For quirky, surreal, open-world murder-mystery-horror games, Deadly Premonition is the absolute gold standard, and I can't imagine it will ever be bettered.
You can pick it up for a song and a shuffle today, and I can't recommend it enough. This is a game I feel everyone interested in the subject of video games should play. It'll broaden your horizons and challenge your expectations.