First, we know by now I like literary mashups. I also like Bret Easton Ellis. I therefore direct your attention here.
Read it? Good, good. Now, switching tracks, play the music below while you read the rest of this post.
Let’s talk about Deadly Premonition. It’s old news, yeah, but I’m always behind on games anyway. This saves me the trouble of recapping a lot of stuff about it, since it’s been covered extensively elsewhere. Basically what you need to know is that this game looks horrible, sounds horrible, and plays horribly.
It’s also probably the best game that will come out this year. It’s my pick for GOTY, anyway.
Now of course there’s a lot of people going on about just HOW DAMN TERRIBLE this game is (I’m looking at you, Giant Bomb) and it’s pretty cool currently to play this game and be entirely ironic about it. Hipster gaming, if you will. And I’ll admit, when I bought the game I expected to be counted in this camp — the camp camp, if you will, the so-bad-it’s-good camp. And I will also admit that this approach got me through the first hour or two of the game, with its clunky controls and awkward animation and basically excruciating gameplay.
Except at some point, some mysterious juncture, the game stopped being so-bad-it’s-good and became actually good. I want to say that it’s due to the quality of the writing — which is odd, since the writing is usually pretty bizarre and awkward and the dialogue needs trimming. But the characters are so vivid and, if you play long enough to get oriented, the storyline becomes unbelievably compelling. The ridiculous elements of the game (the fact that the main character is talking constantly to an imaginary friend no one else can see, demonic dogs drop out of the sky at midnight, etc) together achieve some sort of weird gestalt where your disbelief is suspended almost indefinitely. When the narrative actually picks up and that for all its peculiarities the game is internally logically consistent to a remarkable degree, you know you have something special on your hands.
It’s a mystery. This is notable, because it’s hard to write good mysteries, and a lot of games that try to be mysteries (most things that try to be mysteries, even) tend to fall back on last-second details that basically tell you everything you need to know to solve a case. DP is a good mystery; not only is it a good mystery, however, but it also gives you everything you need to solve it almost from the beginning.
And it’s not only a mystery, but a mystery populated with oddball yet recognizably human characters. There’s a frustrated young aesthete stuck running a small-town diner, an old woman named Sigourney who is deathly afraid that the casserole dish she carries at all times will get cold, and a doctor named “Usha” who is obsessed with chess. There’s no gruff space marine or evil dictator here; all of the stock-elements of modern gaming are pretty much completely absent. One might think that the quirkiness of the characters might ring hollow, like Suda51’s takes often do, but it doesn’t.
You see, Deadly Premonition is probably the most sincere game to come out in a long, long time. Irony is the completely wrong stance to take with it. There’s more heart and feeling and humanity in this thing than the entirety of Gears of War 1 and 2; it is an example of what games can and should be, something not at all reproducible in another medium, and contains the sort of wild, nonsensical creativity that characterized games of another generation. A plumber travels through giant green pipes to a subterranean kingdom of mushrooms and fights turtles to save a princess from a particularly nasty, fire-breathing turtle; an FBI agent with an imaginary friend travels to rural Washington to solve a murder case, but takes time out of his busy schedule to fish farm utensils out of a lake, predict the future with his coffee, check the Weather Channel 50 times a day, have tea with a crazy gas mask-wearing old man in a wheelchair and his manservant who speaks only in rhyme, peep through townspeople’s windows while they sleep, and discuss the Tremors movie franchise with the player/his imaginary friend. And that’s only a fraction of the stuff that can happen.
Is the game fun to play? Most of the time, no. Does it look like ass? Most of the time, yes. But somehow it is more engrossing and compelling than any game I’ve played since Portal. As gaming becomes more profitable and more homogeneous, more cinematic and more predictable, more focused on multiplayer capability and achievments than on storytelling, we need games like Deadly Premonition to remind us what we can do with the form. It may not be the best it could, but it’s certainly better than nothing. Hopefully its legacy is a rich one.