Friday, 30 December 2011

Greenvale Revisited: Engagement and Playabitlity in Deadly Premonition

Playing games these days can often be like indulging in amphetamines. It’s not uncommon for specific moments to rush past and get lost in the endless hours which themselves pass within seconds. Nights of playing Halo Reach slip by in a psychedelic scree slope of death and victory. Death is quick but the respawn is just as instantaneous. Digital figures zip between and over shimmering purple structures. And you either struggle to keep up, or swing the disembodied gun, through a flick of the thumb, and watch as the stick-man enemy flips and collapses.

Recently I departed on a trip entirely different from that of Reach’s kaleidoscope of death – and from that of many other recent videogames (for one reason or another). To say that this trip was into an open-world wouldn’t amount to much - for who hasn’t been enjoying the open-world game recently (what with Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim and Arkham City recently being released) – but nevertheless this open-world remains unique. Its distinctiveness is initially discernable as an unexpected flashback to the textures of the Play Station 2 era. Grass looks like blurry sandpaper, textures pop-in irregularly, and all the characters have a somewhat unnerving quality to them – mostly down to their swaying bodies and uncomfortable twitches.  

The place of course is Greenvale: the location for Access Games’ 2010 budget horror/mystery/comedy, Deadly Premonition. Greenvale is a lovely, juddery place where you’ll find many a colourful character, some great turkey sandwiches and a near endless supply of limbo-ing zombies who don’t want to die (and aren’t afraid to tell you). An eccentric place, so much so perhaps that it threatens to sink into a mire of unplayability. But we shouldn’t be fooled; Deadly Premonition is a profound game, not simply because of its open-world ambitions (on such a modest budget) but because of the knowing contradictions which run through the game’s heart. This is a game which experiments. While Deadly Premonition's art design remains relatively realistic, thematically it explores some intriguing ideas - one of these is the relationship between the videogame itself and the game player.

 First of all it’s worth noting that for many critics Deadly Premonition was a failed attempt. IGN initially gave the game a score of 2.0 (strangely this has changed recently...) saying, “Deadly Premonition isn’t just outdated in its look. It’s fundamentally bad” – a justified assessment perhaps, and one which outlines the game’s main hurdle. Its gameplay mechanics and presentation are both below average, clumsy even, meaning that at once the game is hard to approach for the contemporary gamer. Harking back to Playstation survival horrors such Resident Evil or Silent Hill, combat is charmingly awkward at best - dull and pointless at worst. Yet this isn’t the worst of it; driving round town is arguably more tedious still - a mechanic so bad it results in involuntary groans from even those ready to embrace the game’s numerous quirks. 

But if these often tiresome, incoherent elements demonstrate a game which is unable to fulfil its ambitions, then they equally contribute to something a lot more engaging. The quirky ineptitude of Deadly Premonition’s general gaming experience is matched by an equally idiosyncratic script and cast of characters. Taking cues from Lynch’s enigmatic series Twin Peaks, Greenvale is almost exclusively populated by eccentric miscreants, not least the principle protagonist Agent Francis York Morgan. Agent York (as everyone calls him), along with delivering some of the best lines in videogame history, also allows the player a unique point of entry into the game’s narrative and world. 

Throughout Deadly Premonition’s thriller/mystery narrative York addresses the apparently invisible character of Zach. It doesn’t take long for Zach’s character to become clear. He is of course the player – a friend and influence on York himself. York converses with Zach on varying topics, some related to the case, and sometimes he simply philosophises on cult film and video rentals. In one instance he tells us about his love of Deadly Spawn, at another we are asked whether we remember Blue Thunder – at which point York says: “Zach, if you disagree with any of my opinions about movies, just come out and speak your mind ok, just speak your mind.” 

York's direct address to the player is an interesting device which extends into the game as a whole. What this seems to achieve is an awareness of the player within the game – allowing the York to establish an actual, knowing relationship with him/her. Lead Director of Deadly Premonition, Hidetaka Suehiro (also known as SWERY) says “the character we were aiming for is established the moment York and the player become true friends, joined through the conduit of Zach.” Zach therefore has the dual purpose of pulling the player in – through the relationship they directly develop with York – whilst also distancing the player from complete immersion in the fiction. If York is aware of the player’s presence than surely so is the player. Writing the player into the script in such a conversational way means that we are also distanced from our control over the character. York is a man unto himself; capable of his own opinions and willing to openly share them with us directly. We control him, but only up to a point – his thoughts and personality are purposefully distanced from our own (for who prefers the first two Superman films to Star Wars?), which we are constantly reminded of by his awkward conversations with other characters.

This is perhaps why combat is so often perceived as disappointing. All the wittiness and knowing nods of the script are lost to slow awkward shoot-outs or mindless QTEs (I find it hard to agree with Jim Sterling when he says that the QTEs are “shockingly well done and manage to keep the game refreshingly spooky”). But once taken into the context of the game’s dual approach to the player’s engagement, the combat becomes an interesting addition. Outside of combat gameplay revolves around York’s interaction with Greenvale’s residents. By completing side-quests with them you witness their daily habits, their programmed routines, and become entangled in their individual worlds. The game encourages the player to simply watch these characters by supplying the voyeuristic mechanic of ‘peering’ through windows in houses and shops. Again we are simultaneously distanced and drawn in by the fictional lives of Greenvale’s characters. Our ability to directly interact is reduced when we watch them, yet our engagement with the characters as believable is increased – mirroring our engagement with York’s individuality. 

The game is therefore developing a dual engagement with the player; one of absorption and distance. Combat could therefore be seen to work as a distancing method. The clumsy pastiche of Resident Evil or Silent Hill makes us well aware of the limits of the game’s interactivity. While Resident Evil used this stilted control to scare the crap out of us, Deadly Premonition uses it to remind us of the limits of our control – the overall simplicity of videogame interaction; stripping it down to stand and shoot.  

 Deadly Premonition, through varying methods, encourages us to engage with the fictional world of Greenvale while simultaneously pushing us away with its self-aware joshing and clumsy gameplay. Whether or not the Deadly Premonition fulfils its ambitions to be a respectable and enjoyable open-world videogame is unimportant – there are many games which have already succeeded in doing this. One of the many things Deadly Premonition does succeed in doing is producing a world which allows the player to become immersed while also being aware of the game itself. So while Halo Reach might outshine Deadly Premonition in terms of polish and playability, Deadly Premonition’s very clumsiness forces us to slow down and think about the actual process of gaming and our part within it. This approach makes Deadly Premonition a genuinely experimental videogame. One which openly addresses the relationship between the game and the player. And for that reason Deadly Premonition deserves our attention. 

Thankfully Deadly Premonition doesn’t look like it’ll be forgotten anytime soon. The fansites still buzz with amorous comments and endless quoting. Furthermore according to various sources (i.e. the Metro, via Jim Sterling, Destructoid) SWERY is planning an updated re-release and perhaps even a sequel, all of which points to a very welcome return to Greenvale’s juddering and slightly nauseous textures – textures which nest within them a unique world of rough yet ambitious creativity. 

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