As I’ve stated before, I am not really what one calls a gamer. However, several of my good friends are, and so sometimes I am exposed to games that would have otherwise never crossed my path. This usually gives me a chance to dabble in certain titles every now and then, allowing me to get a sense of them without having to endure the time-suck of having to actually play an entire game through. It’s a relationship I’ve come to enjoy with gaming, as it allows me the luxury of only investing my time in the kinds of games I feel contribute to the enrichment of my own life, while still getting to see what else is out there.
While this is indeed my general modus operandi, every once in a while I allow myself to get pulled into this world a little deeper than I usually would. I was recently provided with one of those rare occasions when, during an overnight marathon session spanning seventeen hours, I watched friend, writer, and videogame journalist Brian Rubinow play the Xbox 360 game Deadly Premonition. The event was organized under the title “Where the Squirrels Sound Like Monkeys,” which is absolutely an accurate descriptor, and should give you at least a decent indication of its Ed Wood style low budget nature.
Make no mistake, low production values are exactly why this game was being played, especially in this manner. Employing a Mystery Science Theater 3000 approach, Brian figured having an audience of (fellow) sarcastic commentators would make the grueling experience a more bearable one.
This was a smart move, as there is much to hate about the game, especially judging it by normal gaming standards. The sound effects are terrible, the small collection of music is usually completely inappropriate given the events unfolding, and the action (survival horror) portions of the game were so repetitive as to become some small portion of hell, if Andre Linoge’s description of such is to be believed. There is no way around the fact that, as a contender for what traditionally defines a great (or even good) game, Deadly Premonition is pretty much a complete and total failure.
Yet, I cannot dismiss it so quickly as not having been worth my time. As an interactive story, there lies amongst the failed mechanics and shoddy craftsmanship something that has gotten under my skin and into my heart. I constantly wanted to know more about the townsfolk, to take additional side quests to understand their strange stories better. Indeed, after the initial shock of just how strange this game was, I became consistently curious to discover what lurked about its corners.
Granted, these opinions (and all that will follow) come from someone who never once touched the controller during the game’s run, let alone spent the entire period being solely responsible for each and every action, so take my thoughts for what you will. I, for one, know that Brian has found no redeeming values in Deadly Premonition. I certainly thought likewise early on, and even in writing this review I have had moments where my brain has piped up to state that I know this game is terrible. And yet my heart still draws forth these words to tell you that there is something to be admired.
My best argument for this, aside from my compulsion to delve deeper into the game’s bizarre world, comes in the form of a particularly (and relatively) well-designed level, in which you play as the original Raincoat Killer. Much of the game had been spent driving across town to get from mission to mission. This level came at one of those junctions. Of course, I expected to jump once more into a car in order to drive to the community center, which I had honestly forgotten was also the location of the town’s clock tower.
Instead, we are suddenly back in time, unexpectedly playing as a character we’d really only heard about in earlier dialogues. At first, our goal is unclear and the change of setting is rather startling, leaving us to wonder what to do. A strange but beautiful version of “Amazing Grace” begins to play and the clock tower’s bell chimes in the distance. In the center of the screen comes the subtitle “(1…).” We keep trying to figure out where to go. Another chime and the screen flashes “(2…).” It isn’t until the third chime that we realized that they are counting up to an aforementioned ominous thirteen, and that the clock tower is our goal.
All of those points that had before been merely backstory came rushing into the foreground, made important by our having been dropped into a past that beautifully connects with the present. And so we head toward the clock tower, sparking axe dragging behind, as “Amazing Grace” plays and the chimes count up and we move closer to an honestly intriguing future.
It was at this moment that I understood the game. You cannot approach Deadly Premonition with your mind; this game is all about heart. Even as my brain shouts that there is nothing worthwhile in this junk heap of a title, my heart sees its vision. The people behind the game certainly tried to cram more genres into a single game than I’ve ever before seen attempted, but they clearly loved them dearly. Sure, their execution was off, but everything they did, they did out of love. This was not some blatant attempt to rip off the public of some small fortune of cash.
And though it is undeniably clunky and flawed, I firmly believe that the bones that make up the core of the game and its story could (and indeed should) be redecorated and reworked, creating an end product that would be a shining example of the very best that gaming has to offer as a storytelling medium. Think of it as a rough draft, an initial concept, on its way to becoming a polished screenplay. Much like Neill Blomkamp’s short Alive in Joburg was tweaked (and expanded) to become the hit film District 9, I feel that Deadly Premonition could be remade into a bona fide videogame classic. The vision is clearly there, it just needs the time, money, and additional talent to make it a reality.
So, while I cannot in good conscious recommend Deadly Premonition as a great gaming experience, I do honestly offer it up as a study in what great gaming can aspire to be: bold, daring, different.
This subject has been on my mind a lot lately, ever since completing my first round of Dead Space. I was invited to play the game by David Boyd, and was subsequently delighted with one of the most incredible gaming experiences of my life. Granted, I am not what is traditionally defined as a gamer; I don’t even own a next-gen gaming system, which is why the aforementioned game of Dead Space was played at David’s house. I provide this information because I hope that it will help you, the reader, understand that this is not some fanatical general devotion that I harbor, by any stretch of the imagination. What I’m trying to say, in so many words, is that I hold no bias toward or against video games.
I suppose that the first step, given the title of this article, is to establish some rough assemblage of what a good definition of art is. Rather than resorting to simply tossing out a canned response from an online dictionary, let’s try to get at the root of it by dissecting that which is commonly referenced as art.
I’d imagine traditional art, in the form of drawings or paintings, is probably the first image that comes to mind when asked to think of what art is. At their core, these are excellent examples of individuals transferring their creative energies into physical form via pencil, pen, or brush. Some idea or experience rests in their minds that is compelled to force its way out into the world and be transferred in some manner into the mind of another. The same can be said of sculpture, music, dance, writing, acting, and film making, just to name a few recognized outlets. These recognized artists/creators use their individual or joint talents to bring forth into the world something they believe special and worth sharing.
Now, even in these established areas of art, things can go awry. If I draw a cruddy stick figure on a napkin, I doubt the majority of people would recognize it as art. If I stuck a bicycle in the middle of a parking lot and attempted to call it a sculpture, I’m not kidding anyone. So there are boundaries. I believe that good indicators are the amounts of genuine thought and skill that are put into the creation of the final product. You need to have both of these factors lined up for something to be considered art.
So, given the above, why should video games be considered as much art as any of the previously noted forms? Let’s break down the core basics of what goes into a video game:
- Characters/Environments - Someone has to design them. Established artists created these essential elements. Have you ever seen some of the concept art that goes into the creation of a video game’s world? Depending on the picture, without the knowledge of its ultimate purpose, you would have a hard time knowing it was for a game as opposed to a stand-alone piece of art. These are some seriously talented individuals.
- Music - There’s someone sitting down and composing these scores. In the early days it was simple, given the relatively primitive nature of gaming systems’ sound capabilities, but regardless, someone composed that music. There are games today that have scores which rival (if not surpass) those of movies.
- Story - What’s the point of a game if nothing happens? Perhaps games like the original Super Mario Bros. don’t have complicated plots, but there’s no denying that there’s storytelling involved in something along the lines of BioShock. In a game like that, you are basically looking at an honest-to-goodness script, no less so than for a Hollywood film.
- Programming - You can’t just take concept art, music, and a story and throw them into a game as if it were some sort of digital blender. There’s a whole team of programmers working to bring about the presentation of those elements. They build the invisible stage upon which everything else performs.
The first three I believe explain themselves. How are these elements any different from those involved in a traditional film? If the individuals that created these aspects of a game were to do so for a movie, their status as talented creative individuals wouldn’t lie in dispute. However, since they employed their talents toward a video game, their contributions are somehow seen as being inferior to those of their Hollywood counterparts. I say hogwash to that. The medium does not in any way diminish the quality of their work. Good design is good design. Good music is good music. Good writing is good writing. It’s as simple as that.
So were are left with the odd man out: programming. This is ultimately what separates video games from movies. (Especially now that CGI has become increasingly present in the latter.) Whereas a film is completely and solidly predefined by the time it reaches a viewer, a game comes with certain unknowns. Granted, players only have as many options available to them as they are given, but game developers must strike a balance between telling a player what to do (in one manner or another) and letting them have free reign. This is all part of the art of creating a game. The skill comes in letting a player make as many decisions as possible while still providing the desired experience.
As an example, I would like to use the manner in which music is presented in Dead Space. As events happen, the score alters to reflect these changes. The simplest instance of this is the basic interaction with the game’s monsters. There are haunting notes when they stalk you, loud horns while they are attacking, and an elegant transition into the ambient music when you finally kill them. The music remains completely seamless during all of these changes. Never once do you hear one sound file stopping while another begins. To your ears, it is as if the composer knew precisely when and how long your battle would be waged. But he couldn’t have known. I could have killed the creature with two blasts of a plasma cutter or been out of ammunition and had to run, extending the length of the skirmish to well over a minute. Somewhere between the composer’s music and my ears, there is the invisible, yet genius, work of a programmer. Someone (and if I ever find out who, I will write them a love letter) put amazing amounts of effort into designing a sound engine that could dynamically compose the final music you hear as you play. It takes the beautiful compositions that would otherwise be straight sheet music and rearranges them to match the player’s experience, on the fly. Can you even begin to fathom the amount of skill it takes to do that? This is not just some no-talent hack pressing a few buttons on a computer keyboard. This is someone with real skill, putting genuine thought into the final product. One would have to understand the nature of music, be aware of the experience of it, and then (on top of all that) also have the knowledge to pull off the intended result by writing lines of code. I don’t know about you, but that’s an artist to me.
And so all these elements come together to form what we call a video game. Perhaps it is trash. There certainly are horrible games out there, a complete waste of the discs upon which they are stored. But there are also equally bad movies. That’s just the nature of art. However, there are amazing games out there. I defy anyone to come away from BioShock and not contemplate the question of where humanity sits in the shadow of industry. Sure games like this are few and far between, but so are films. And that is ultimately my bottom line: Video games are an art form, which can be executed in any countless number of ways, with varying degrees of quality. They hold the same potential for intrinsic value as any painting, film, or play. All it takes is the desire to see the possibilities. Where some see a blank canvas, another sees a sweeping landscape. Where one sees a video game console, some see an experience ready to come to life.