“When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry we must always pay strict attention!”
Alright, so maybe the recent announcement of the return of Twin Peaks in 2016 and the return of director Swery65, known for Deadly Premonition, with a new project wouldn’t quite meet Special Agent Dale Cooper’s standards for attention-grabbing synchronicity. But I figure it makes for a good context to discuss Swery’s infamous Deadly Premonition, a game which draws heavily on Twin Peaks and has developed a similar cult following of its own.
One of my favorite scenes in the first season of Twin Peaks is the conceptual heart of episode 3, “Zen, or the Skill to Catch a Killer.” In this scene, Cooper wows, or maybe unnerves, the local sheriff’s department by delivering a brief lecture on the political history of Tibet as background information for how he developed an intuition-based investigation method, throwing rocks at a glass bottle as the names of individuals related to the murder victim are read aloud. While the suspicion this exercise cast on Leo Johnson (spoilers) ends up being a complete red herring (/spoilers) Coop’s strategy is beneficial in that it dislodges the place of logic and reason within the investigation, and allows them to pursue unconventional routes.
Me? I read my horoscope whenever there’s a discarded newspaper I can flip through on the bus, and I’ve been known from time to time to pull out an old tarot deck a friend gifted to me in college because her hoard of decks was growing unmanageable. I don’t have faith in these things as literal, objective predictors, but their randomness and interpretability can lead my mind to consider situations in a way I wouldn’t on my own. When my anxiety causes me to obsess about a certain aspect of my life, say, the job hunt, a feel-good platitude from the back of the newspaper warning me to be mindful of my physical health reminds me to take a break and, for the love of god, eat something with at least marginal nutritional value, for example.
On the other hand, videogames (and their players) are often fixated on rules, rationality, logical progression and predictable outcomes. This is in part due to the medium. Digital programs and interfaces work with equations, systems, rules, and binary yes-no inputs. They don’t have intuition, and randomness is actually a dauntingly complex thing to ask of a computer. Within the digital medium there are certain limitations that generally dictate what a game on contemporary hardware can do but this also seeps into our attitudes about what games should be, when it doesn’t have to. I often joke about Mario Party games being the closest thing to an encounter with the sublime that the medium of the videogame has produced because it’s such a brutal demonstration of how little effect any notions of effort, strategy or skill have on a monstrous and indifferent universe.
My description is a bit exaggerated for effect, but the fact remains that one of the easiest ways to get a group of friends into a shouting match with each other and the TV is to give them a copy of pretty much any entry in the Mario Party franchise. Virtuosic skill or power gained by hours of practice and grinding is something we have come to expect games (and other gamers) to reward, not be utterly indifferent to. Fox only. Final destination. No items. Likewise the pacing and narrative of a game has to follow a certain pattern of rising tension and difficulty leading to a boss fight. It has to “make sense” within the context of increasing your skill, making the character stronger, or it’s “crazy,” “ridiculous,” “arty bullshit,” “walking simulator” and so on.
While following these formulas really really REALLY reliably cleans out the pockets (and free time) of a particular type of player, it limits games as a medium. It limits them to the story arcs, subjects, and gameplay styles that “make sense” on such a rigid structure. It homogenizes and centralizes how games are made and who comes up with their artistic direction. Of course, you get smaller, often free to play titles by individuals and small teams that consciously reject the framework of the “reasonable” game, but it’s rare that a commercial title spits so squarely in the face of convention, expectation, the work-to-measurable-reward system we’ve all been primed to crave, and throws us straight down the well into absurdity.
Deady Premonition starts with Special Agent Francis York Morgan cruising into town to investigate a strange murder (while arguing about the kink dynamics of Tom and Jerry on the phone, because what else would one do in that situation). A man with glowing eyes and a raincoat suddenly appears in the middle of the road, causing him to swerve off and wreck in the surrounding forest. Leaving the car and attempting to find an alternate way into town, he comes across some strange, zombie like creatures, and, after a bit of fairly standard puzzle solving and shooting, he escapes and meets up with Sheriff Emily Wyatt. On the surface, it’s a very standard intro to a horror game and only hints at the strangeness to come.
What really makes Deadly Premonition so charming and fun aren’t the puzzle or shooting mechanics that are central to most horror games. These sections are slow paced, and the puzzles usually consist of successful “hiding” through QTE scenes, or finding a set of items for York to “profile,” which leads to a sequence where he apparently uses his agent’s intuition (though you know what they say about agents making decisions on intuition) to discover through a series of disjointed items and snapshots, what has actually happened in the location of interest. The funny thing is that both the shooting and profiling take place in a shadowy alternate world and its connection to real life within the game is never made exactly clear. Similar to the Black Lodge’s influence on the dark events in the town of Twin Peaks, these sequences hint at a supernatural influence seeping into Greenvale. The majority of the game, especially if you take the time to explore the open world map, takes place in the kitschy small-town Americana of “real” Greenvale. Here, friendly townsfolk asking for your help with absurdly irrelevant errands, and sidequests (such as moving around stock in the convenience store or gathering the remains of an utterly unrelated murder victim) abound as you scoot about in your automobile that drives like its wheels are made of sticks of butter.
The unconventional feeling of bopping back and forth between these two poles of pacing, mechanics and tone is epitomised in what I found to be one of the most striking moments of the game. York enters the “shadow world” to investigate the sheriff’s department directly, and while there, encounters the Raincoat Killer, and pieces together via profiling that he has broken in and stolen an important file related to the case. Reasonably, York concludes that he probably discarded the file by tossing it into the local waterfall, and further, the best way to recover the files is through some good, old fashioned, worm-on-hook fishing. You’re immediately transported from a tense horror situation, to a bizarre fishing mini-game amidst a sunny and scenic (well, maybe by PS2 standards,) river backdrop. But now, it’s literally fish or die.
I struggled with this section the first time I encountered it. For a Long Time. I failed over and over to pull up the files, and was surprised that after a certain amount of time, I simply got a Game Over screen. For what? Not being able to tempt the document box with a nice worm? Even more galling than the un-rationalized Game Overs was the fact that landing on a “tool” icon instead of the document box led to York pulling, not a rusty tool or even a toolbox from the river, but the exact icon you had just landed on. A symbol which only indicates itself, some sort of strange dummy polygon breaking into an attempt to mimic the real world. A chunk of UI that came loose and fell into the gameworld. And yet, my first thought wasn’t that this game was poorly made, or clearly had a miserable budget, but that this was fascinating.
Everything about Deadly Premonition confounds the ideas of flow, immersion, rules and logic that game studies seems to hold dear. You bounce between sharply opposed worlds and mechanics, instead of flowing, you never stay in the same place long enough, or go long enough without having your confidence in how the game’s systems work, to establish flow. Deadly Premonition isn’t self-consciously recursive, it’s almost better than that. It’s a gem. And it left me wondering why we don’t see games like it more often. Sure, there are games that openly comment on what these stifling ideas of what a game should be are, but what comes after that? What kind of games are we gesturing towards that won’t need to self-consciously ruminate on or defend themselves as games? Maybe Deadly Premonition is a glimpse at what we could have if criticality moved from certain parts of the “indie” or “art games” scene and convention was purged from mainstream gaming.
Despite in-game warnings against it, York uses his uncanny intuition throughout his stay in Greenvale. He spots the initials of the killer in his coffee, he consults another personality in his head, Zach, on everything. But what makes him unique, compared to the by-the-book sheriff’s staff office that are obviously put off by his eccentric mental leaps, doesn’t give him an edge. Even when he gets the flash of genius, profiles perfectly, he’s always too late to stop the killer, and finds the next murder victim dead or dying. Even through to the end of the game, it’s unclear if his brilliant intuition actually achieves anything. A lot of people dislike the work of David Lynch because there are no easy answers. You won’t get any better at understanding Mulholland Drive by watching it a few more times. Believe me, I know. Deadly Premonition is the same, offering York no satisfaction or sense of achievement for the exertion of his skills in addition to its moments of extreme irrationality, and maybe that’s what requires it to be a cult classic amidst the present conventions of videogames.