Deputy Willie says: Woof woof! Minor ***SPOILERS*** ahead!
I was just about to go to bed after a long day of tinkering with the site when I came across the following video lecture by Matt Weise, lead game designer from the GAMBIT Game Lab. GAMBIT is a research/academic/development collaborative program between MIT and the government of Singapore, "created to explore new directions for the development of games as a medium". Weise is both a film school and MIT grad who has been working with GAMBIT since 2007. The lecture took place on September 17, 2010, at the GAMBIT USA Lab on the MIT campus.
Now why would such an organization bear mentioning on a fansite about Deadly Premonition, a game that, by most industry standards, doesn't deserve to have more than five minutes spent thinking about it, let alone forty-five? Because that's almost exactly how long Weise talks about DP, to a crowd of curious, murmuring onlookers who seem both amused and intrigued by the low-poly machinations Weise is demonstrating onscreen. He is lecturing to people who have never played the game before, so the bulk of the video is spent on reiterating things fans will already be familiar with. But it's the short bursts of insight between the familiarity that makes this worth watching, and why I've dedicated an entire page of the site to the video. (Don't worry, Zach. Your favorite cartoons will be back in just a moment.)
The video is called Deadly Premonition Is "Interesting" with GAMBIT Lead Game Designer Matthew Weise. "Interesting" is a word you will hear a lot of in the lecture. He spends the first few minutes introducing the game by describing its polarizing review scores, followed by a brief challenge to the audience to try and sum up the premise of Twin Peaks, two factors which Weise seems to know are crucial to contextualizing DP's success. Early on, he dismisses other critics' tags of "so bad it's good", then follows up by saying, "My position might be more controversial... I just think it's good. I don't think it's bad at all... Wait, that's not entirely true. I do think it's bad. Not bad at all... Uh... I think that the game combines bad and good in interesting ways."
DP is not exactly a popular game- at least among "mainstream gamers", whatever that means- and probably some of Weise's comments won't be, either. He thinks DP was more interesting as a simulated world than Red Dead Redemption and "a hundred times more interesting than Uncharted"; he finds Half-Life's triggered story elements "incredibly boring"; and he frequently cites Nico Bellic as an example of why York's character goals seem so much more internally consistent with his side-mission diversions than in Grand Theft Auto. Those are some of gaming's biggest, baddest AAA titles he's throwing up there; in some circles, them's'd be fightin' words. Note that he does not use the words "good" or "bad" when comparing these games to DP; only "interesting" and "not-interesting", from certain design perspectives. This is a crucial distinction.
Part of this he admits can be chalked completely up to personal taste- the man has an obvious passion for the concept of living, breathing worlds that "don't behave like theatrical plays where the other actors are waiting stage left for the player to arrive"- but another part of it can be summed up in the final words of his lecture:
"Sometimes, to me, a flawed, experimental game is more interesting than a perfectly crafted game that I've seen a million times before."
Weise has no illusions about the technical quality of DP, either; he makes the same remarks I've read in countless other articles, about the graphics, the sound mixing, etc., much to the amusement of the crowd. But he has read the GDM post-mortem, and he understands how the ambitions of the developers must have collided with the limitations of the console's processing power to create the oddly selective "realism fetish" of DP, where having turn signals in all the cars was apparently a bigger priority than polishing the model animation.
The point is that Weise believes the game, for all its perceived flaws, has elements that work effectively on a design level. This guy is not a game critic, nor a casual blogger. He's a game designer from MIT working to develop and analyze the medium with a critical and serious eye, on many different fronts: The Gaming community, Aesthetics, Mechanics, Business, Innovation and Technology. He plays and makes games in order to understand the medium and the surrounding world, and he is part of an initiative to help others do the same. So if Weise can appreciate that there may be some aspects of DP that most games don't bother to explore or haven't explored enough, aspects that mainstream developers would do well to take note of, than I'd hope that gamers too might at the very least share some of these considerations.
For example, the concept of a player avatar that reinforces the gaming narrative by calling attention to itself, rather than breaking it apart. Realistic temporal persistence in a simulated environment. The importance of internal narrative consistency and external context when playing a defined character role. Having a plot and character dynamic that lets the player mediate comfortably between the large-scale world of limitless options and the focused necessity of a linear storyline. Note that little, if any, of his analysis concerns the emotional thrust of the story and characters, nor the "quirky humor", which most people will tell you are the ONLY things worth playing the game for.
These ideas, Weise argues, are things DP plays with that 95% of other developers don't even attempt to investigate (well, with the possible exception of Majora's Mask), let alone try to cram into a single game. DP's execution may be flawed, its production priorities misplaced, and SWERY may have broken just about every design rule in the book in order to get his vision across... But, as Weise says in the video, if Access had done what most sensible people would have in the same circumstance (say, sacrificing their sprawling, bizarre sensibilities for the practical concerns of having better tree textures), the extra polish probably would not have produced a game nearly as valuable or fascinating as the one we ended up getting.
It's a refreshing attitude, and one that I wish were more represented by the gaming industry and community as a whole: The possibility that a weird, low-budget product like DP might have technical or narrative merits that its bigger-budget brethren lack should not be as foreign a concept as it is. Instead of scorning DP for what it does wrong, developers and gamers should be picking out what it does uniquely right, and using that knowledge to build on the medium; a process that I believe should be true for every title. As the creators and patrons of a nascent art form, we have everything to gain by it; and what could we possibly lose, except maybe personal prejudice?
Deadly Premonition is not Matt Weise's GOTY 2010. It's probably not even a personal favorite of his. But he does think it's... interesting. Not the most inspiring advocation for the game's virtues, perhaps... But I, for one, would take it over hi-def space marines any day.
ADDENDUM: Matt Weise recently sent me a message clarifying his position. Apparently we shouldn't be fooled by the formal, analytical examination of the game demonstrated in the video: He is in fact a big fan, and counts Deadly Premonition among his personal favorites. He intentionally reserved his personal feelings about it for the benefit of the audience, attempting to get them to view the game on a more critical, intellectual level, so keep that in mind! I am actually very appreciative of the more formal stance he took, but I'm equally glad to know he enjoyed it as a fan as well.
For more in-depth examination of Deadly Premonition, check out the ARTICLES AND ANALYSIS section of the Links page, particularly Daniel Weissenberger's ongoing series "Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year".