If the Coffee is Good, Who Cares about the Graphics?
Deadly Premonition, Twin Peaks and Cult Fandom
by Nate Garrelts
When it was released in the United States and Japan during the Spring of 2010, the game Deadly Premonition (Xbox360) received a disparate set of reviews. Notable among these were those featured on two popular game sites, IGN and Destructoid. The IGN review written by Erik Brudvig began with a quip that the game was “the definition of a system seller. Once you play it, you’ll want to go sell your system.” Brudvig continued to criticize the controls, camera movement, sound, graphics, and every other element of the game except the characters, voice acting, and story. His overall score for the game was a 2.0. Considering IGN’s reputation for doling out mediocre scores, this score was an insult.
The Destructoid review couldn’t have been more different; reviewer Jim Sterling argued that the game was “compelling and excellent despite its quality.” On the characters and story, he said the game “stumbles, psychotically, from one unbelievable scene to the next, managing to be shockingly tasteless, flagrantly stupid, and subtly self-aware at all times.” He likened this to “watching two clowns eat each other.” Yet, in the end, Sterling proposed that the value of any game is not its individual parts but “how much you laughed or became excited, and how long you spend thinking about it after it was finished.” For this, he gave Deadly Premonition a perfect 10—an uncharacteristically high score for a game reviewed on Destructoid.
Of course, the community response to both reviews was as divisive. To date, there are 189 user responses posted on IGN to Brudvig’s review of the game. While many of the first responses supported Brudvig’s position, most recent posts express appreciation for the game and hope for something more from the game industry. On the other hand, the 402 responses to Sterling’s review were largely positive from the start, with supporters arguing the intentionality of the flaws and the satirical nature of the game. Currently, the popular site Metacritic gives the game an average of 8.4 based on 149 user ratings.
When the game was released in the United Kingdom and for other regions on October 29, 2010, the fervor over the game once again surfaced. On November 8, the UK based newspaper the Guardian published an online interview with game creator Hidetaka Suehiro, often referred to as Swery. When asked why he thought the game “split critical opinion so wildly,” he responded by pointing to the balance between the needs of the audience and the needs of the creator. He said the game was “heavily skewed toward what [he] wanted to create” (Stuart). The implication being that the game is criticized because a portion of the audience fails to recognize the value of what he presented. As the interview continued, Swery reflected on the game’s pacing and again posed that games are “free and unique media” and that there is “nothing wrong with games with this sort of pacing existing alongside the others” (Stuart). It seems the disagreement over Deadly Premonition is less a disagreement about technical competency, as Swery likewise acknowledges some shortcomings, and more a fundamental disagreement about how and what one values in a digital game.
While the cry of “art” or even “auteur” in defense of any piece of media is certainly suspicious, one need only look to the richness of the intertextual play between Deadly Premonition and other media texts to verify that Swery is intentionally trying to push the boundaries of the survival horror genre. With its emphasis on completing mundane tasks, driving, killing zombies, and collecting clues all in real-time, the gameplay in Deadly Premonition pulls elements from ground-breaking titles such as Shenmue, Grand Theft Auto, and Resident Evil.
The most prevalent and important references are to David Lynch and Mark Frost’s early nineties television series Twin Peaks, which provides the basis for the characters, setting, much of the plot, and the overall aesthetics of the game. Unfortunately, the Twin Peaks references are often mentioned but understandably glossed over by reviewers who may not be familiar with the now twenty-year-old series. Swery himself neither denies nor embraces the connection the multiple times he has been asked. Although it is not unusual for a video game to draw on television, film, or another game, it is uncommon to include more than a passing reference, cameo, or single element of gameplay. The way in which Deadly Premonition uses its source material is much more direct than the clever satires and cameos we have recently seen in the Grand Theft Auto and more in line with the complex intertextuality of Bioshock. But to what end?
The series Twin Peaks, which ran for two seasons from 1990 to 1991, followed FBI agent Dale Cooper as he unraveled the mystery surrounding the murder of blond and popular high school student Laura Palmer in the fictional Washington town of Twin Peaks. The town itself was both picturesque and quaint, with mountains, towering Aspens, a waterfall, a rustic gas station, bar, and small dinner. All of this was accompanied at various times by cool jazz music with deep bass lines and finger snaps. The music is so prevalent that at times it draws as much of the viewers attention as the characters.
In the series pilot, Laura’s body is discovered wrapped in plastic next to a river, and the townspeople struggle to deal with the loss. Agent Cooper is first introduced, driving a car while talking into a tape recorder to someone named Diane. He quotes W.C. Fields, discusses the weather, and comments on the coffee and cherry pie he ate earlier. Although he looks like a typical FBI agent, he is clearly odd. Throughout the pilot, for example, he abruptly changes the subject of serious conversations to comment on coffee or to ask about a species of tree or rabbit. Eventually, he calls a town meeting in which he advises the people keep their children locked up at night. The pilot ends with a bar fight between local teens and one-half of a locket being dug up. The series itself eventually gives a supernatural explanation for the murder.
Similarly, Deadly Premonition opens with two flannel clad twin boys discovering the body of a topless blond named Anna crucified on a large tree. A few scenes later gamers see Agent York Morgan, who looks very similar to Twin Peak’s Agent Cooper, driving in the rain, smoking, looking at images of the crime scene on his computer, and talking on the phone and then later to his alternate-personality, Zach. All the while 70’s action film music plays in the background. After crashing his car, he discovers a bloody dog, zombies who walk as if they are doing the limbo, candy, donuts, and aggressively growing red ivy. Eventually he makes it to Greenvale, a lumber town in the Pacific Northwest that looks very similar to the town of Twin Peaks.
The next day, after having several cups of coffee at his hotel and commenting on their flavor, he goes to the police station where he meets Thomas Maclaine, the effeminate deputy who is a clear reference to the very sensitive Deputy Andy in Twin Peaks. Agent Morgan learns that 18 year old Anna was a recent high school graduate who hoped to leave town to model. The music shifts to a happy jazz theme featuring whistling and guitar as York comments on how much he enjoys the biscuits baked by Thomas; like Agent Cooper, coffee and food seem to be a preoccupation for York. After investigating the crime scene and several other locations, York calls a town meeting where he meets several townsfolk, including Roaming Sigourney who always carries a pot with her—a reference to a women in Twin Peaks who carries a log.
The game alternates between investigation of crime scenes, battling zombies at night and during random moments in the game, and seemingly mundane conversations between the townspeople and York; many of these conversations revolve around food and family. Like Twin Peaks, while the game pretends to focus on solving the mystery of Anna’s death, most of the drama results from York interacting with characters who struggle to cope with abuse, alienation, and loneliness. At the same time, the horror of it all is made quasi- palatable through mundane activity (shaving, changing clothes, getting gas, sleeping, etc.), the strangeness of the dialogue, and comic prevalence of the soundtrack.
The significance of the Twin Peaks series is discussed at length in David Lavery’s edited collection Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks (1995). In his introduction to the book, Lavery discusses how Twin Peaks acquired cult status more quickly than any show up to that point in television history. Using the theories of Umberto Eco, Lavery explains that despite having the quirky, dark, comedic marks of Lynch as an auteur and being “clearly more authored” (6) than most television, Twin Peaks still managed to exhibit the “living textuality” Eco says is necessary to garner a cult following (Eco qtd. in Lavery 6). This was achieved primarily through intertextual references created by careful casting, cameo appearances, and allusions to Lynch’s films. The series also provided viewers with a “completely furnished world,” replete with so much detail that books, character cards, a prequel film and other ephemera were easily created to enhance the audience’s understanding (Lavary 7). At the same time, much of the content of the series took on significance for viewers apart from its importance in the narrative, with people enjoying strange details of the mis-en-scene such as a carefully arranged donuts, a flickering light, or a character’s obsession over curtains. Almost despite its idiosyncrasies (and there are many), Twin Peaks was nominated for 14 Emmys in its first year and fans formed a petition to prevent its cancellation (Lavary 2).
Thus, for those who are initiates in the cult of Twin Peaks fandom, Deadly Premonition’s use of borrowed content invokes a particular way of scrutinizing, connecting, and wallowing in details that goes beyond the typical critical position one needs to successfully complete a game. And fans are not disappointed when they begin to unravel what the game has to offer. Like Lynch and Frost, Swery has created not only an intertextually rich experience, weaving his original story with familiar references, but a living world that invites exploring every area, collecting cards, completing side missions, etc. It stands to reason that for fans of Twin Peaks, some elements that can be criticized in the game, such as the slow pacing, unexplained supernatural phenomena, and red herrings are appropriate diegetic elements.
While one could argue that the game would have been more effective and certainly better received with some improvements to graphics and game mechanics, the fact is that these shortcomings incidentally complement the already bizarre nature of the game to the point that they almost seem intentional. For example, because Agent York (like Agent Cook) says and does inappropriate things with regularity, it is hardly noticeable when the game mechanics prevent him from being easily maneuvered down a stairwell. The moonwalk that ensues as he becomes stuck could almost be part of the script. This wouldn’t work for every game, but it certainly works for Deadly Premonition.
In short, Deadly Premonition references a moment in television history and popular culture in which an auteur confronted a genre and the public didn’t know what to make of it, but they liked it. This intertextuality invites the same type of close reading as the source and complements both the gameplay and narrative, justifying it in many cases. For those unaware of the Twin Peaks series, the borrowed content lends Deadly Premonition the same strange aesthetic appeal, with gamers marveling at the spectacle as much as they appreciate the story. It is no wonder that fans of Deadly Premonition have started web pages, faceboook groups, and regularly blog about the game and their favorite moments/lines. In referencing cult media so heavily, Swery, like Lynch and Frost, has created the conditions for a Deadly Premonition cult to emerge. If this is the case, bad reviews really don’t matter much do they Zach?
Brudvig, Erik. “Deadly Premonition Review.” IGN.com. 22 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.
Lavery, David. “The Semiotics of Cobbler: The Twin Peaks Interpretive Community.” Full of Secrets: Critical Approaches to Twin Peaks. Detroit: Wayne State UP, 1995.
Sterling, Jim. “Review: Deadly Premonition.” Destructoid.com. 27 Feb. 2010. Web. 27 Nov. 2010.
Stuart, Kieth. “Deadly Premonition: The Interview.” Guardian.uk.com. 8 Nov. 2010. Web 28 Nov. 2010.
About the Author:
Nate Garrelts is an Associate Professor of Languages and Literature at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. His scholarship focuses mostly on media culture, and he has edited two collections of essays on digital games: Digital Gameplay (2005) and The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (2006). He is also a regular contributor to Bad Subjects.