How could someone like Handel improve an audacious and divisive masterpiece like his Messiah? It's hard to believe now, but one of the most well-known pieces of music in the world was once the cause of derision, confusion, and outrage. Filling some with heavenly emotions, roiling others with its references to God (as it wasn't being performed in a church), the piece was penned by a perceived out-of-favor artist, then premiered in the artistic hinterlands of Dublin. And though the reception was warm enough to convince the city of London to host it a year later, Handel was convinced and/or bullied into making repeated changes over the next decade to suit the tastes of his audiences.
Just like Handel, the digital craftsman Hidetaka Suehiro seems equally excited, baffled, and reluctant to continue work on his most successful game yet, Deadly Premonition—a game that, dare I say it, could be a similarly-praised work hundreds of years from now. The game is being re-released this March as a PlayStation 3-exclusive entitled Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut. I was lucky enough to be able to sit down with the man and his producer, Tomio Kanazawa, last week to discuss the details. It was an event that was sometimes as intentionally mysterious as the goings-on in the game's fictional hamlet of Greenvale, but thrilling nonetheless.
If you're unfamiliar with the original game, all you need to know is that it just so happened to be GameCritics.com's 2010 Game of the Year. It is indeed that good, and certainly, in the tastes of this writer, a game that deserves every bit of its praise. It's an absolutely ridiculous mess of a game that gleefully flies right off of the calcified "gamer's expectations" rails, yet charms, delights, and provokes like nothing else.
So, with all of the "so bad, it's good" talk surrounding the game since its release two years ago, a remake seems like the perfect way to reach out and convince the general gaming population of its greatness—a way to rectify some of the technical hiccups and make it a little more mainstream. Oddly, this new edition will only be available to PS3 owners, but that seems to be doing double duty for Swery (Suehiro-san's nickname). "When we were producing the original game," he says, "we simply didn't have the time or budget to complete the PS3 version. Now, we get to bring it to [those players] with an enhanced edition."
So, what exactly is new? Fans who are returning to Greenvale will immediately see that the game has been given a shiny, new coat of high-definition paint that makes a pretty noticeable difference. The off-putting low-resolution graphics have been brought up to speed with current graphical expectations. While some of the animation and character models remain rough and belie the small nature of the team working on the game, the visual buff goes a long way in improving the game's look.
The other immediately noticeable addition was shown in last week's preview event, as well—a new framing story (in the guise of a prologue and epilogue) that adds a new character and a few new wrinkles to the plot. The prologue features an unseen old-timer in a rocking chair who introduces the happenings in Greenvale as a story told to a young girl with a teddy bear. What was shown of the prologue seemed very short, and it's unclear whether there would be more seen of it when the game ships. As for the mysterious old man, I asked if he happened to be the game's main character, Francis York Morgan. I was then instructed to "look at the teddy bear's tie." Unfortunately, as soon as I turned to look, the prologue had ended. Swery was non-committal about how much impact the new character would have on the story.
How about the now-infamous combat that was such a turn-off for so many gamers? I had to ask about it. For gamers who didn't like it, would it be completely skip-able or turned into simple QTEs? The short answer is good for any fan of the game: combat will be simplified in every aspect.
"When we were looking at things to improve in the game, we saw that combat was a complaint that came up over and over again, and an aspect of the original game that we never completely satisfied with," said Swery. "For this new version, we decided that it was important to make sure that every player who is interested can see the end of the story. Combat has since been made easier on all accounts. There is less of it, it runs smoother. Enemies, for example, are easier to kill. Quick Time Events are now a little less complicated. The game also now features a ‘universal control scheme.' We took a look at what many action games were using as their button layouts, and we modeled our new control scheme on that, making the combat sections vastly more intuitive," he continued. Tomio added, "In addition, we also employed a fully customizable control scheme."
"You can assign buttons as you see fit," I asked.
"Absolutely. Any way you like."
All this talk about combat got me curious, so I had to ask, "Combat was not originally at all part of the game, then added in later, correct?"
Tomio responded, "That is correct."
"Was there an idea that it might be cut out of this new version, to make the game more like what was originally intended?"
Swery thought a bit at how to answer this question. "While this game refines things of the old game, we weren't able to rebuild the game completely. As much as we would like to, this new game had to be a port. At this point, if we took out the combat, it wouldn't be the same Deadly Premonition that the fans had come to love."
All of this smoothing-out of the combat in service of the story is a welcome refinement of the gameplay. The difficulty selection has also been removed completely, which I think most will also applaud; the game's combat would probably always be called "frustrating" over "challenging." And simply put, Deadly Premonition has a fantastic story all the way to the end. Anything done to coax along the interested is the right idea.
Other gameplay changes include that oh-so-pesky map. Is it going to be easier to access and read this time around?
"The map is much improved," a satisfied Tomio responded. He went on to show how it was not only easier to make out landmarks, but how it also includes a mini-map that can be brought up outside of the game's menu with the simple press of a button. It's going to make traversing the length of Greenvale much easier.
And speaking of length, Tomio and Swery revealed, surprisingly, that one great new addition to Greenvale is that the town is now about TWICE as big as it was in the original (!).
"Wouldn't that detract some players who felt that there was maybe too much driving in the original game," I asked. Tomio answered that he and the production team at first insisted that the map be made more compact. Swery then visited some small towns of America's Pacific Northwest as research to see just how close he was the first time around in the town's scale. Ever the perfectionist, he came back and insisted that the size should grow rather than shrink to reflect the spacious nature of these towns, much to the shock of Tomio and co. Though they remained tight-lipped as to whether there might be some added locations in the map, I don't see the addition as being an issue; from time to time, the act of driving around Greenvale did become a peaceful experience for me.
"What about the side quests," I asked. "Certain people were frustrated that they were tied to very specific time windows, and had to be approached in a certain order."
Swery wasn't fazed by this: "The side missions will remain the same. They are meant to be exactly that—side missions. You don't have to do them to complete the game, and they are a bonus addition to the story. If you find them, that's good. If not, it doesn't affect the game's final outcome."
"Also," Tomio added, "you can replay any chapter of the game to complete them if there are some that you want to go back and find."
The insistence of Swery to continually stand by such decisions—ones that are potentially frustrating for certain gamers—speaks volumes about his commitment to vision. On that, I applaud him. With that, though, it seemed like the nuts-and-bolts of the game's changes had been revealed. They did announce some eventual DLC featuring "new costumes for York, new residents of Greenvale, as well as usuable items to aid in your investigation," but no further details were given on those.
So is this Swery's ultimate version of the game? Is there anything else he'd fix?
"I could make changes to this game, forever," he said with a weary grin. "Unfortunately, we don't have the time or money to do all we'd like to do. Plus, there are so many other ideas for games in my head that I've got to let go of Deadly Premonition some time, ...or maybe not."
"Oooh, does that mean that you're not opposed to carrying on the story of the red seeds in some other form in the future," I asked.
"Absolutely," Swery responded. "I'd love to continue the story and many other stories I have. It is a matter of time, now. I don't know what will come and what won't."
He then went on to describe some things that had to be left out for this new version. For one, York was going to be able to use perfume when he wasn't able to send his suits to the dry cleaners. Also, sadly, there were reams of new driving dialogue for York written by Swery that were cut to save both money and time.
Speaking of cuts, I asked Swery about the content cut from the original release here in North America, which he confirmed. Apparently, there were some scenes that were deemed too graphic to release on this side of the pond. This actually came as a real shock to me, considering how the game's climatic scene disturbed me more than anything in recent memory. Is there any chance that some of this lost content would be re-instilled in the PS3 version?
"Sadly, no," Swery says with a laugh. "We wish we could have done that, but Sony was very firm that the content remained as it did with the original version."
That was certainly sad to hear, but it lead me right to my next question. "Did you expect the game to be such a cult hit here in the States? Was it equally successful in Japan?"
"It was not very popular at all in Japan," Swery admitted, then trailed off for a bit. "...It was made for a Western audience, and in Japan, they even think it was a Western-made game!" We all had a laugh at this one. "As for the popularity here, I am happy with its success. You want any level of success you get, so we were pleased with its reception, considering its limited release and the time we had to put it all together."
"Well, now that two years have passed since the original release, and you've been working hard on updating the game, do you feel like you're a different director than when you started? Are there things you'd do differently now if you were just starting Deadly Premonition?"
Swery carefully considers his words here. "Yes....I would have made fewer concessions to the producers of the original game. If I could do it again, I would make sure that certain things I wanted done were done in the way that I wanted. I gave in too much the first time around." I respect that outlook in this current "me-too" AAA game world.
This also reassured me that the possible "accidental" genius of the game was not simply that. I pursued this line of thinking: "So, detractors would say that the game is terrible, in that even the very tone of the game seems off. They might say that the relationships are very poorly conceived. Those who love it, though, like me, might say that it's very much like a David Lynch film; there is an air of mystery in every conversation. Was this intentional?"
"Absolutely," says Swery. "We were conscious about adding that mysterious tone to all of the interactions. David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers, so his influence is certainly part of my work."
"Would you say that the game owes a large debt to 'Twin Peaks'," I asked.
"I prefer to think that it is a mixture of many different ideas and themes," he said.
Feeling frisky, I had to posit the following: "Since, we're on Lynch and all that, I have to ask: is Emily based on Naomi Watts, or what?"
He paused, thinking, and said, "I must say that Mulholland Drive is a perfect film." I agreed with him wholeheartedly.
"So, specifically in the dialogue, were you conscious of the strange tone that was present throughout? That Lynch-ian tone that walks the line between otherworldly and unbelievable?"
"That is all intentional," he said. "We did many, many takes with our actors for days and days. My voice director said to me that I was asking so much of them, over so many takes, that it was like I was Stanley Kubrick in my direction." We laugh again. "That is also great, because he is another huge influence on me."
All of this is incredibly inspirational to a fan of Deadly Premonition. To know that is not just an accidental "so bad, it's good" game means the world to me. Perhaps it's a "so unashamedly bonkers, it's great" game. Whatever it is, it's certainly hard to quantify. That the game had so many rough edges is also part of the charm, for sure, but this new PS3 version looks to smooth out some of the most glaring, leaving it a pleasantly-flawed monster of a game. Here's hoping that it lives up to its promise.
So, yeah, Handel changed his masterpiece. Faulkner rewrote and edited novels after they were published and on the stands. Swery goes down a side road to tinker with a gaming "drive-in" classic. Our favorite things are never perfect—that's part of the appeal, but we know them because they are instantly, irrefutably ours.
My thanks, of course, to Hidetaka Suehiro, Tomio Kanazawa, the staff at Rising Star Games for the meeting. Additional thanks to @PestiDurden, Dan Weissenberger, @ThiefOfHearts, @Sajon77, and Brad Gallaway for their additional questions.