I Liked It More When I Wasn’t Playing

I don’t think I’ve tried to like any game as hard as I’ve tried to like Deadly Premonition. Ever since I read a couple of blog posts earmarking it as one of the under-appreciated, undiscovered gems in recent games, I wanted to play it. After seeing a YouTube video of a particular sequence early in the game, I thought it looked utterly brilliant. Eventually I picked it up for cheap at the local game store.

There’s a lot to love about it from the very beginning. It has some of the most awkward and bizarre dialog you will probably ever encounter in any medium. The scoring of the various scenes is utterly hilarious. The animations and character models are digging a trench at the bottom of the uncanny valley. And so on. Those quirks, some likely intentional, some not, are extremely charming.

The main character talks to you as if you’re his imaginary friend, Zach, and he’s very particular about his coffee. The story is set in a town built around a lumber mill. There’s a tough-guy sherif and a ditzy male deputy. The influence of Twin Peaks is worn on the game’s sleeve, and it wears it rather well. Although it never achieves the genuine eeriness of Twin Peaks for me, I do appreciate the kind of absurdist comedy that it takes from the show.

There’s a problem though. Deadly Premonition is one of the most boring games I’ve ever played. I wrote a while back about the pleasure of the banal that the game indulges in, and that does work for a significant amount of time – but the banal palls, unsurprisingly. When that happens, and when the only “action” involves some painfully slow and unimaginative shooting of zombies, everything falls apart. I swear I have tried and tried to find the game interesting, but each time the “nightmare zombie shooting” sets in I throw up my hands in despair. And as the novelty of driving a car around and peeking through windows in town wears off, there’s really very little to do as a player.

Hilariously, then, Deadly Premonition is at its best when you aren’t playing. The cut-scenes and dialogue are consistently odd and titillating, whether it’s Agent York talking to you in the car about his favourite 80s moves or the inane conversations he has with other characters. I genuinely find myself wishing that this game could somehow be set on “movie-mode” so that I wouldn’t have to play it at all and instead I could just watch York go through the story on his own, skipping most or all of the zombie shooting and focusing on narrative progression.

In a way, that’s a startling achievement for a game.

3 May 2011
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