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Deadly Premonition: An Open Letter

November 15th, 2010 by

An Open Letter To Swery, Access Games And The Team At Rising Star Games

I’ve just powered off my 360 after another three hours (making a grand total of about five) of playing your latest release, the Japanese horror title Deadly Premonition. I am afraid I can go no further, this is me admitting defeat, your game has beaten me and I am fairly confident I’ll never see its final moments or indeed the rest of the twenty or so hours my colleagues and peers have informed me it takes to complete.

I. Am. Done.

I won’t be scoring your game – as we traditionally do so at Midlife Gamer – because I don’t feel that it necessarily is possible for me to do so. This isn’t due to not having finished the game, it’s not because I’m too lazy to dig deep and analyse how I really feel about it, it’s because I genuinely feel you have published a piece of work that is beyond the realms of attributing a numeric value. You have created a title that is ‘art’ and it would be ridiculous to suggest that any form of fine art can be empirically measured. Nighthawks is not a ’10/10′ painting…

That is not to say that I like your game. Deadly Premonition is a work of genius, there’s no doubt in my mind about that, but the sole reason that I put just five or so hours into it, is because at almost every stage of the design process, choices were made that are aggressively anti-player. Visually your game is a mismatch of PlayStation 2 era character models and animations, utterly bland current-gen ‘effects library’ SFX and a world so dull that the biggest threat to the person holding the controller is that of dying of tedium. Ears are brutalised by some of the worst voice acting of the last five years, music that is totally at odds with its action and audio level balancing so poor that there were frequent occasions in which I was glad I couldn’t navigate through your awfully constructed menus to turn off the subtitles, such was the clarity of dialogue.

Dialogue ambling forward a story that, on the surface, is a nonsensical yet painfully obvious tale of a small town affected by a supernatural force manifesting itself in the Raincoat Killer and his ghostly brethren. Stephen King after watching 30 hours of Twin Peaks under a hefty dose of meths, scrawling down whatever rubbish first pops into his mind would produce a better structure and plot.

Player movement of the lead protagonist Francis York Morgan feels stiff and cumbersome, a combination of Silent Hill’s awkward cameras and Resident Evil 4′s over the shoulder combat, none of which is anywhere near as good as the source material. The in-car navigation between areas of the town feature the worst driving model of any game I have ever had the misfortune of playing, compounded by a map so useless as to be detrimental to the player’s awareness of orientation and a vehicle that runs out of fuel remarkably fast. Once you finally reach a destination, all that is to be done there is either very weak combat against an enemy with thought routines that stretch the definition of ‘AI’ to its absolute limit or finding keys (or objects representing keys) to open doors (or objects representing doors). Everything in Deadly Premonition mechanically has been done infinitely better elsewhere, most of it at least one generation of hardware previously. Truly, the one commendation I can attribute your game’s technical prowess is that it, fundamentally, isn’t broken, everything in it works. Just.

And yet…

And yet it feels like all of the appalling choices made in the design process were made, bewilderingly, on purpose. At this point in games design, there are certain things that are standard, certain dos and don’ts that 99% of the games made today adhere to. When making a first person shooter, don’t include lengthy platforming elements. When making a game that has an intentionally high level of difficulty, make restarting an area fast. When making a puzzle title, ensure to explain the rules governing victory obviously clear. When a developer ignores these fundamentals on purpose, deciding to go in a different direction, the question must be asked… why?

The menus, for all their bewildering lack of structure, are fast to navigate, you can reach everything quickly, if you know what you’re doing. The controls though stiff, can be overcome, burnt into the mind to give you a degree of flexibility of movement, zipping through the corridors of the game, popping enemies, moving on and the excruciating driving model can be dealt with, the satisfaction of learning to drive safely immensely rewarding. Graphically the game is boring and jarring, but if the town in which the game is set existed, it would be a bleak place to be, if a cult had fixed upon this sleepy place it would be a disconcerting environment. Sound is off-kilter for similar reasons and the VO arguably isn’t poor, it’s campy, actors telling this pantomime of a story through the hammy lines they’re given and indeed playing them dead-pan would be a far worse decision for a director to make.

So I think I’ve figured you out Swery (and by association your team and UK publishers Rising Star Games). You haven’t produced a game, you’ve made a multi-tiered statement. You’ve taken the genre and gone back to its roots, exploring the nature of horror in video games. How can we as an audience really find Dead Space or Fatal Frame unnerving when we wield extraordinary future weapons or when characters fumble over depressingly shallow, unrealistic storylines? Why should we be scared of what might be round the next corner when we can just pause the game and walk away?

When Agent York discusses schlocky 80′s fright flicks, he speaks about them warmly to the player – represented by the other side of a split personality in Zach – reminiscing at how crude they were, but how they still had the power to affect the viewer. There are moments I have experienced in my comparatively short time with the game that have moved me, have struck a real nerve despite the rough presentation; a screaming woman under a surgical sheet, one particular use of the ‘Profiling’ flashback mechanic that implied to me a particularly aggressive rape, an enemy shoving their hand down my throat as I try to desperately escape their clutches. It’s a testament to the game that with such crude tools, such a powerful emotion can be evoked.

Each character I interacted with in this sparsely populated world was vivid and memorable, the beautiful but tough tom-boy cop Emily Wyatt, Thomas MacLaine: the weakest man in law enforcement, the painfully shy Freckly Fiona, the voracious Gina The Rose and your own straight talking, unconventional genius Francis York Morgan. This level of personality enforces that, though you may only see a few people in this near-abandoned lumber town, you engage with them more, you become invested in their lives. In turn the town becomes familiar and even warm, despite it being barren.

Therein lies the rub Swery, you made Deadly Premonition to be bad on purpose and it made me want to stop playing it before I felt I could review it thoroughly. You, your team at Access Games and the wonderful people of Rising Star Games have published a title so brilliantly realised in its concept, so excellent in its perfection of imperfection that I simply cannot play it any longer.

Keep up the good work.


19 Responses to “Deadly Premonition: An Open Letter”
  1. avatar Phizzy says:

    … Is that man eating the dead person’s hand?

  2. I’ve got it waiting for me downstairs.
    I now await starting it up tonight even more so

  3. avatar David Murphy says:

    The second and last paragraph seem to me to be contradictory? In the former you state the games art like qualities are beyond numerical quantification. Yet in the latter you state that the game is simply (whether purposely or not) unplayable to you. I suppose what I’m really asking is, did you like the game?

  4. avatar craigieh says:

    Superb reflection on the game Xero; couldn’t agree more. Everything about the game tells you to stop playing it and waste your time with a better quality game experience, but something about that story and the characters and the world just draw you back. It really tests your patience and I too am not sure if I going to be able to make it all the way through to the end of the game.

  5. avatar Martyn Hackett says:

    I’ve read discriptions of this game comparing it to “A one-eyed beauty queen” and “Watching clowns eat each other”!

    Not got time to actually play it, though. I recommend watching the first couple of parts of Giant Bomb’s “Endurance Run” video playthrough. You have to see this game for yourself…

  6. A truly intriguing article Xero, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. You’ve made me want to play this game more than ever before. Bravo!

  7. avatar Thesir says:

    I have been moved to go buy this game simply on the basis of this review as soon as I can scrounge up enough cash. I look forward to my misery.

  8. avatar nemesis2k says:

    My game of the year… I loved every minute. It oozes that Suda 51 feel, if you like this play Flower, Sun, Rain on the ds… It will blow your mind!

  9. avatar xeroxeroxero says:

    @Nemesis2K – I just finished Flower, Sun and Rain the other day. Great game.

  10. avatar Discobeaver says:

    Massive well done with this Xero, had my eye on this title for a while (Jim Sterling of Destructiod fame is a big advocate) and now i want to play it even more.

  11. avatar Chopper says:

    Another interesting review. I finished the game last week, and it has stayed with me since I put it down.

    I find it amusing that almost every review devoted a paragraph to the driving mechanics – I mean, come on, it’s not THAT bad. It’s not as if you have any difficulty whatsoever getting from A to B. It’s not great, but it is functional. Similarly, do graphics actually matter in a game?

    That said, the combat in this game is woeful (boring more than anything else), and I found the Quicktime events unbelieveably irritating. I suspect it is the combat that made the reviewer stop playing. I felt like that a few times myself, but the strength of the narrative kept me going.

    I think the combat is the sole weak point (admittedly it’s a major point). Apart from that, the game is funny, entertaining, unsettling and narratively powerful. I played it in the middle of a Fallout: New Vegas game, and when I went back to F:NV, I found myself thinking, “Ok, here I am in the Sunset Sarsparilla factory, checking another filing cabinet in the hope of getting some shotgun shells. What the fuck am I doing?” Fallout was so anodyne and meaningless after DP, that I stopped playing. Hopefully I can pick it up again soon, but I found DP such a deep experience that it made the supposedly narrative-rich F:NV seem like a child’s toy.

    Disclaimer: I’m a middle aged gamer, enjoyed the first few episodes of Twin Peaks when they came out years ago but don’t really remember anything about them, I’m not into Japanese games etc, so I have no predisposition to this game (I couldn’ be described as a fanboy, is the point I’m making), and am surprised at the effect it had. But for me, GOTY for sure.

    I’d encourage anyone who enjoys games with strong narratives to get this game.

  12. Sooo many interesting comments here.
    I’ve got through the prologue and into the first full chapter.
    Not had to drive anywhere yet.
    Combat isn’t too bad although I do question the amount of pistol shots it takes to drop an enemy compared to a bat to the face.
    QTE don’t seem to give me enough time to win first time around, that with the harsh restart points can frustrate me.

    But going back to what this games does best….. the narrative and just plain creepiness of the world if making me want to see more

  13. avatar Azrial says:

    I thought this little gem was one of the creepiest games I’ve played in years, and it’s cheap too. Phizzy, the Zombie/creatures walk backwards bent over, and attack you by shoving their hand down your throat, it’s actually quite disturbing.

  14. avatar Phizzy says:

    That’s NEAT. I’m buying it right now.

  15. avatar EvilLandlord says:

    To “Chopper” that posted here:

    Chopper was an old Internet pseudonym of mine and when I first registered here at MLG I started the account “Chopper”. I use this one now instead so if you want me to give you the password for the old one I can..

    Nice review BTW. Can’t wait to play it (I think)!

  16. avatar Benjo321 says:

    It’s a real shame you couldn’t manage more than 5 hours Xero as I think this game is a real gem. I can totally understand any and all complaints about the game, be they sound, mechanics, graphics, presentation but the superb story and well drawn characters really pull it through for me.

    I admit, I was feeling the same near the start but the game becomes much less combat focused and things really start developing at the end of Chapter 1 (I’m guessing that was about 7 hours in for me). There’s a couple of easy side missions that make the combat and travel much less tedious so that you can get down to what matters in this game – enjoying the story. The best advice I got about the game was to play it on easy. If you’re doing it any harder on your first go then you’re bound to get put off. I’ll probably go back to try other difficulties now I know what’s what.

    If you’re on the fence about getting the game, I say just do it!!! You can get it for about £15 and as long as you understand that it’ll be a bit janky you should have a great time with it. Currently my game of the year hands down. So says Mr Stewart.

  17. avatar Chopper says:

    Ha ha, EvilLandlord is a big improvement! Thanks for the kind offer, but I doubt I’ll post enough to use it.

    Still thinking about Deadly Premonition, several weeks later. Gamecritics have good coverage, including a podsast, for those who are interested.

    Playing Nier now; it’s not grabbing me though.

  18. avatar Jim says:

    both thumbs up – I’m really mesmerized by this game and am very thankful that it was released in EU.

  19. avatar basch says:

    all together I thought it was an ok game. I mean it was made by Americans’s so I am surprised it made it that far. Sadly Now that Silent Hill belongs to Americas corp; The game series is probably ruined. The producer of the game is pathetic tho; he wants money to make another installment of this game; whihc I definitly don’t think its worth a sequel. This type of game is worth playing maybe once; and thats it.

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