Search The Inquisitive Gamer

Monday, 24 October 2011

Deadly Premonition, Context, and the Suspension of Disbelief

One of the problems that I am wrestling with in the early stages of my PhD is, how does one study games in a such a way as to end up with meaningful and useful data at the end of it? After all, what works for one genre doesn't work for another; likewise what works for one game, heck even for one player, doesn't work for others. This, to be fair, is one of the primary reasons that I wanted to follow the meandering path of the games researcher; too often have I seen sources both from media and from academia that assumes a black or white approach to the medium of video games. Where a line can be drawn between 'good' and 'bad' game design. That just isn't ever going to work, and is never going to be a practical approach to studying something so fundamentally diverse that people are able to respond to in a multitude of different ways.

As a case in point I would like to focus on a game that I have just finished playing through for the first time - Deadly Premonition, by Rising Star Games. This game manages to single-handedly show an enormous range of responses - and indeed justification for these responses - that people can have to a single product. Reviews have rated this game at both extremes of the scale - from a paltry 2/10, right up to a perfect 10/10. But what is it that makes some players 'miss the point'? How can one game divide opinion so much?

Well the initial issue is that of production values. This is a term I have a problem with, because those players that have referred to the game's poor production values inevitably focus on its PS2-era graphics and clunky control system. This criticism of visuals has become so utterly mundane in this generation that in my opinion, it is hardly worth listening to. These players ignore the fact that production values extend far beyond mere graphical fidelity, stretching into the realms of narrative, camera work and characterisation, and these are areas where Deadly Premonition works its magic.

Agent Francis Morgan is both insane and brilliant all at once.
Not only does the game lovingly reference a multitude of classics, from Twin Peaks and Psycho, to Silent Hill and The Shining, but it does so in such a way that, even if you can see the stark similarity, it never feels out of place. The game's story is like a wonderful montage of past classics, reworked and wound around a genuinely intriguing murder investigation.

My other main gripe with the majority of the negative reviews is that they again tend to single out the fact that many of the game's components seem to be in a constant discord with each other; many serious or gruesome cutscenes are accompanied with amusingly light-hearted jazz tracks, for example. Playing as the main protagonist, you will often find yourself fighting hordes of shadow creatures mere feet from where other NPCs are standing oblivious to your plight; you, apparently, being the only one capable of seeing the monstrosities.

This is where my argument for context and the suspension of disbelief come in. When compared to a more 'standard' horror title (although that terminology in itself is flawed, but that is a whole other debate) this game seems to break down on every conceivable level. If however we consider the world that the game is presenting us with, and we base our interpretation of events in that particular frame of understanding, things start to become much more aesthetically pleasing and everything begins to slot into place. The main character is wonderfully eccentric and ever so slightly crazy. The majority of the town's inhabitants are similarly odd, with a plethora of bizarre personalities and quirks. The town itself is full of strange locations, none of which seems entirely out of place, but merely awkward. The technical problems in terms of art, animation and sound actually become instrumental in the creation of this world.

Shots like this convey the overall style and mood of the game perfectly.
The thing is, odd, bizarre and awkward perfectly explain everything that this game is trying to be in my opinion. Nothing quite fits together, but that is why it is so effective. Not to mention that eventually, the story does a reasonably good job of explaining just about everything that occurs in this strange world. Even the most ludicrous of plot elements makes way for some impressive twists that even someone as cynical as I usually am didn't see coming. All the game really asks is that you suspend your disbelief and throw out all of your preconceived ideas of what a game ought to be for the duration of your journey through the township of Greenvale. As a reward, you will be treated to one of the most genuinely impressive pieces of narrative design and world design that I have ever played through.