The triple-A title does not seem on the outside to be struggling all that much. By far the most lucrative releases are those in established franchises such as Call of Duty or Assassin’s Creed. The truth, however, is that the triple-A and the underlying assumptions behind large-scale game development – primarily that a game should aim at fluid play and good graphics to compel people to play it – are being challenged with increasing regularity. On the one hand, the sort of casual gaming promoted by the Wii, and taken up in earnest by the sorts of titles released on iOS, has introduced a new generation of ‘gamers’ into an entirely different notion of what gaming is and how far its boundaries extend. On the other, there is the art gaming scene, which has gathered particular momentum in the past decade or so, and which enjoys painting itself as gaming’s avant-garde. The rise of both non-commercial and openly ‘artistic’ games and casual games has been aided by the financial crisis, which has encouraged large-scale developers to tighten their belts and rely more heavily than ever on established franchises and formulae. At the height of the crisis, for example, generic Modern Warfare clones abounded.
In my view, the shortcomings of most triple-A titles are numerous. These days, only the worst fail graphically, but behind this veneer one is struck by the trite unoriginality of a massive proportion of them. Many games use tried and tested mechanics for running, shooting and jumping; they are serviceable but not particularly interesting. They justify this running, shooting and jumping with narratives so thin and characters so decidedly wooden that they might as well not exist. Of course there are exceptions, such as Red Dead Redemption or BioShock, but for the most part ideas that lacked much substance to begin with are recycled endlessly, each time a little glossier, more realistic, and with better physics engines.
Unfortunately, neither the art nor the casual games present a viable or desirable alternative to the fundamental problems of gaming today. There are of course exceptions to this general statement. Braid is one of the most beautiful, ingenious and affecting games of the past ten years. But it is not so strong that it can carry the torch for the indie games movement on its own, and its brethren by in large fail to carry their weight. Casual gaming is, I think we can all agree, something one does to pass the time, and does not represent a pursuit in the way that gaming as a hobby would be considered. Who honestly plays Angry Birds seriously, for example? Yet the art game professes to offer a serious alternative to the triple-A. To understand why it fails, let’s use some dubious analogies.
The average triple-A title is, in literary terms, a novel. Gastronomically speaking, much meat clings to the bones of virtually every triple-A. The novel may not be of the best quality, the meat may be horse or just a poor cut, but there is no denying that a lot of ‘stuff’ constitutes a triple-A. On the rare occasion that this stuff is good, the result is a gaming experience that can be many things at once. I will refer again to gaming’s Citizen Kane (BioShock), which was tense, challenging, well-crafted, well-written, and thematically deep. A tenuous parallel might even be drawn between the vast emptiness of Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu and Rapture, but obviously the parallel goes far beyond such literalism.
Conversely, the art and indie game is never a novel. Occasionally, such as in the case of Braid, it becomes a short story, but mostly art games are sentences, slices of meat so tiny they can scarcely be tasted. They are regularly based on one of two things: an exploration of a single mechanic or an abstract theme. Jason Rohrer’s Passage is regularly cited as a turning point in the ‘games as art’ debate, and is a prime example of the thematic strain of art games.
For those unfamiliar with Passage, it is a free, low-tech game about mortality which lasts a few minutes. I recall the first time I played it, utterly unsure of how I was progressing, and how I grew concerned watching my little avatar age. I was shocked when he died, although I shouldn’t have been. It was certainly a touching and affecting experience to play a game that dwelt on death, which we are so often exposed to in games but which we rarely reflect on: the enemies we kill are expendable, the ‘death’ of our character rarely has a sense of finality thanks to ‘lives’ or ‘re-spawning’. Passage doesn’t really ask those questions, but from this epigrammatic memento mori they do follow quite naturally. Unfortunately, if the first play through packs a punch, then the second time is more like a limp-wristed slap, and subsequently the game becomes utterly redundant.
Sadly, Passage differs from most art games in only one respect, and that is that it has a clear vision and executes it well. Many art games suffer from Passage’s shortcomings – limited scope and size, including an absence of replay value – without ever having any of its advantages to begin with. Molleindustria is a prime example of games being used to express in a more longwinded and tedious manner what could very nicely be summarised in a sentence – the essence of Every Day the Same Dream is far more engagingly portrayed in Ibsen’s play The Doll House (which is an existentialist play first, a feminist text second, as far as I’m concerned). Some art games are like a Damien Hirst installation: they try so hard to be ‘artistic’ and ‘meaningful’ that they end up exposing their own vapid meaninglessness inadvertently. I have in mind the nonsense oeuvre of Rod Humble (I refer only to his homemade games), which he mistakenly tends to craft around a title. In my eyes, this is artistic failure of the first degree: if we look at Veronese’s The Family of Darius before Alexander, the title does not even properly tell us who we are looking at (is the man in red or man in black Alexander, for example?), and instead we are left merely to appreciate the forceful body language of the Greek men as against the submissiveness of the Persian women. We can appreciate these contrasting dynamics without any knowledge of context. This is the true art, not making something obscure that can be illuminated only by its title, which is more like a terrible brainteaser than art.
For quite some years, this troubled me deeply. The triple-A title has waned in my estimation just as it has is most people’s, but I have also lost the hopes I had of five or six years ago that art games provide a viable alternative.
The timing of Deadly Premonition’s release three years ago now came just as my interest in gaming reached its nadir. By early 2010 I hadn’t been excited by a triple-A game since GTA IV almost two years prior, and in desperation I had returned to my RuneScape account for gaming sustenance.
You may at this point be asking exactly how I had my confidence in gaming restored by a game which I bought on the back of Jim Sterling’s Destructoid review, which in spite of its 10/10 score called it a “beautiful trainwreck” (or something to that effect), and which my trusty games™ gave a mediocre score to, citing poor graphics and inept mechanics.
The answer is really quite simple, and disappointingly short given the length of my preamble. Deadly Premonition was my first experience with a formula of games design, which I’ve yet to see codified or articulated coherently by anyone, which represents a happy medium in an age of extremes, where consumer choice is so often limited either to showy set pieces or equally showy pixel games with little actual gameplay.
Firstly, and this is something many people have picked up on and written about at length, Deadly Premonition is a standout example in the games industry of good writing. I have often said, and oftener think, that as a result of the relative failure of games to translate the size of the industry into any form of clout or even respect in wider Western society, a person looking to be a writer in entertainment goes to film or television instead of games. And although film or TV writers do not necessarily make good game writers, the aspect of being able to write for the mechanics of gaming is not an issue our writers today have, but rather they lack the ability to script characters competently, develop plotlines, and other skills which seem to have emigrated to the film and television world. Deadly Premonition taps into a very specific type of writing which has been compared to Twin Peaks time and time again, but which I think goes a little further; rather than being a direct borrowing, I think Deadly Premonition mixes Twin Peaks with a sort of exaggerated campiness we might expect from an Almodóvar comedy (and one of the good ones at that). At first I thought the far more overt bizarreness of the characters in Deadly Premonition was a weakness of its writing – that because the supporting cast is less varied and less nuanced, it was somehow an inferior piece of writing. I was wrong on two counts. Firstly, because I was attempting to make a straight comparison with Twin Peaks without acknowledging that there was more to the game than that, and secondly, because I was not factoring in other aspects of the game’s design which could not have worked if the game were identical to Twin Peaks.
For example, in places Twin Peaks was a rather atmospheric series. Deadly Premonition could never have achieved this thanks to its rather sub-par graphics. Thus it moved away from the atmospheric bizarreness of Twin Peaks to a more overt form of comedy. If it had tried to be too dark, then the game would have failed, and similarly the graphical quality of the game added to and enhanced the comedic aspect of the writing in a way that is unique to games – the jerky animations or the driving controls, which veered to the left like York was the victim of a paralytic stroke, are devices which only games can employ (but unfortunately rarely do). Similarly, the manic saxophone part of the soundtrack takes on a new dimension in a game when you have to use the terrible controls to defeat a horde of zombies using a knife which inexplicably runs out of life juice, or whatever that meter represents. Swery knew how to enhance the sense of comedic ineptitude, even if he did so unintentionally, beyond simply cut-scenes and dialogue, to create a sort of comedy unique to games.
I also felt, though this may be a rather tenuous point given that I’ve never seen anyone else make it, that the outdated graphics of Deadly Premonition did rather a good job of making you feel as though you were in the 1990s. I’ve never been too struck on the photorealism which the triple-A games of today inevitably aim for, which is not good enough to achieve much beyond giving every game of that ilk a vaguely similar appearance and feel. This is not to say that the graphics of Deadly Premonition are directly evocative – far from it – but that the PS2 era graphics and old-fashioned mechanics evoke a sort of nostalgia which indirectly helps to conjure up the feeling of playing a game from the 1990s. To gamers too young to remember the period, the device fails, but for those of us who can remember and who subsequently make this association the feeling is a warm and fuzzy one.
Great artistic achievements always say or show something. Many games in the indie current sort of do this. Every Day the Same Dream by Molleindustria does say something about our existence, but it does nothing beyond this. It is so fixated on demonstrating its silly little political point that it neither entertains nor even makes its point particularly well. Deadly Premonition explores the issue of the player-character relationship, and does so almost as an aside. Games and gamers alike rarely reflect on the connection between the person sat in front of the screen and the on-screen object they are in control of. Although some games break the fourth wall, they very rarely reflect on what they’re doing –breaking the fourth wall is often a cheap device to shock or get the attention of a player. Rather than opt for such a blasé approach, Deadly Premonition integrates into the game the idea that York, the on-screen character, is a schizophrenic who takes advice from Zach, who lives in his head. On the surface, it’s a mechanism inspired the tape recorder Diane from Twin Peaks, but in reality it goes far deeper – by using mental illness as a metaphor for the interaction between players and their on-screen representations, it encourages the player to look at the notion of interaction in gaming, without being dogmatic and giving answers, and not at the expense of practical concerns. York’s insanity makes for hilarious dialogue, for example, and besides that it also bypasses clunky on-screen instructions and tutorials. Just as a great drama film asks questions about society whilst focussing primarily on some heart-wrenching scenario, Deadly Premonition gives us campy comedy-horror which also happens to raise questions about the nature of interaction within gaming in the most unobtrusive and integrated manner possible.
I think I should probably stop now, but not before I say this: far more than any game labelled ‘art’ or ‘indie’, Deadly Premonition is the strongest challenge I have seen to triple-A dogma thus far. Perhaps I am exaggerating, but I truly believe it marks one of the most quietly significant landmarks in gaming in the past ten years.