A few things have happened in the video game world in the last few months that, to me at least, have set a marker as to where exactly video games currently fit into the pop culture and artistic landscape. Firstly, Roger Ebert once again opened up the “video game as art” debate. When he initially did this a few years ago he could almost (but not really) sound like he had a leg to stand on. This time around however, he really didn’t. His article in and of itself is not worth much nor is it very interesting, but the absolute deluge of comments calling him out on his stubborn and misinformed opinion pretty much sum up exactly how wrong-headed he is in this particular view. The second thing that happened is the release of Deadly Premonition.
There is a certain irony here that the most respected and well-written movie critic of the last 20 years should come down on video games so hard in the same general time frame that the games themselves have hit such a stride of marketability that they have come down to low-budget and high-budget titles just like the films. It should also be noted that, like films themselves, the low-budget videogame, forced to deal with the constraints of having a finite amount of resource finds its stride in the ancient art of good writing, rather than the latest technology. Call it “The Hurt Locker” vs. “Transformers 2” – or in this case “Deadly Premonition” vs. “Dante’s Inferno”.
Deadly Premonition was originally called Rainy Woods. The title was presumably changed when a similar high budget game named Heavy Rain shared the same release time-frame. Rainy Woods is a sucky title, but appropriate since in the small, forest town of Greenvale, where the game takes place, it is raining more often than not and as you progress through the game a major plot point hangs on the rainy weather. Deadly Premonition is an altogether terrible title that really sells the game short. The only thing more terrible than the title is the horrible cover art. Really they should have just called the game after the town of Greenvale. After all, it worked for Twin Peaks which is exactly the homage the game is going after.
What Could Have Been…
I think its important here to mention that I’m a huge Twin Peaks fan. A friend recommended the series to me in the late 90’s and even loaned me his 2 seasons worth of video tapes. I had been going through my big life-changing break up at the time and its mix of humor and tragedy completely fit the bill. As television has evolved in the last ten years, the quality of the writing improving ten-fold over what once was – shows like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, House, Freaks and Geeks and Fringe come to mind although really the list could go on and on – all of these shows owe their success to Twin Peaks. Twin Peaks was, I believe, the first show to truly take television from a mere “show” to a continuing saga filmed like a true movie. Of course, it could be argued that shows like Dynasty and Dallas also did this. But Twin Peaks one upped them by being a cinematic masterpiece. In its short two seasons Twin Peaks changed the audience expectation of quality. And with this expectation, shows were forced to adapt.
All of this Twin Peaks talk is basically to say that Deadly Premonition is admittedly imitating Twin Peaks so much so that merely playing the game whetted my appetite for the actual show again. Whilst playing the game I actually watched the entire first season of the show again, and am gradually getting around to the second season. Reminded of its genious, I also sent the show to two separate birthday recipients off of Amazon.
The plot of the game is not the same as the plot of Twin Peaks. In fact, as the games plot certainly takes a completely different direction from Twin Peaks at the half-way point. But the first half and the entire initial set-up are so reminiscent of Twin Peaks that anyone playing it who is familiar with the show will marvel at how well they work homages and reminders in.
Here’s a short list of similarities I noticed:
The plot revolves around the arrival of FBI Agent York to the town of Greenvale to investigate the murder of Anna, a young lady working as waitress at local Northwest mountaintown diner. Agent York, a well-spoken, yet brief, and always interesting agent with a love of coffee finds himself in dream sequences in a forest of red leaves and Anna is there. The town also has a bar in which we are treated to an actual performance of a full-length song. Just watching the Twin Peaks pilot is enough to see its influence of this game as all of these similarities I’ve mentioned are in the pilot episode as well as the first couple of hours of the game. We even get a log lady in the form of a pot lady who provides a special mission in which her pot is getting cold and you must rush her back to her house to warm it up before its too late.
In many ways Deadly Premonition is more of a piece of cinema than it is a video game. It is very plot oriented with cutscenes stacked upon cutscenes that at times took up to 20 minutes. Ultimately, they are the reason to play the game. They contain decent enough animations, characters that are more three dimensional than most video game characters, and often mind-bending teasers. For instance, Agent York through-out most of the game talks to “Zach” – who is never actually present. Throughout most of the game I assumed that Zach was me, the video game player. It harks back to Agent Cooper’s conversations into his tape recorder with Diane – which lead me to the question of who the hell was Diane? It is all very “Meta”.
All of this adulation being heaped on it by me is completely deserved – but it is also not. The game is terrible. There’s not a whole lot to look at – miles and miles of country-side that the game forces you to drive through for 10 minutes at a time. There are a few bosses here and there which are problems. One of them was pretty tough and you had to defeat him multiple times within the same battle with nary a save point for over a half-hour. And this was on “Easy”.
Many of the mechanics are barely workable, some of the levels are too long, the graphics which would have been considered pretty good on the PS2, are actually just passable by todays standards.
All of these horrible, horrible things can be read here, at IGN’s 2 out of 10 review of the game.
But, if like me, you long to see a game as more than just a bunch of pretty graphics and combo-hits – a game that is not the sum of its parts, but rather a narrative masterpiece of a videogame, (a rare thing indeed) than you may want to read this review over here at Destructoid which gave the game a 10 out of 10.
Now, I’m not going to take sides with which review I agree with, mainly because I can’t. They are both completely credible, and completely correct. And that’s what makes Deadly Premonition as special as it is. It totally sucks, but its so awesome.
Both Agent Zach and Agent Cooper love their coffee. In that spirit I leave you with a ton of coffee scenes from Twin Peaks.
Agent Zach’s Coffee often gives him a fortune. Check it.