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How Games Should—And Shouldn't—Be Designed (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 11)

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

I have been accused of being a chauvinist for the cause of Deadly Premonition—that my love for the game eclipses any ability to think critically about its flaws. I don't believe this is the case, and I'm happy to admit it that the game is loaded with flaws. Real, actual, mistakes that haven't been misinterpreted by the critical press, or are actually just clever commentaries on the state of video game design. While it's rare to see me suggesting that a game needed better graphics, I'd be a fool were I to deny the fact that York Morgan would have been easier to empathize with as a character if the sight of him smiling didn't fill the human heart with revulsion:

Yikes.

The biggest flaw in the game, as I've stated before, was the terrible, terrible, overrepresented combat. SWERY 65, the game's director has been open about the fact that the combat was awkwardly shoe-horned into an adventure game in an attempt to make it more marketable, so I'm not going to spend an article criticizing a financial decision—instead, I'd like to take a moment to consider the game that Deadly Premonition would have been had this bad advice never been offered or accepted.

We've already had a glimpse of York's skills as a borderline-psychic profiler in the extremely spoilery "deadly premonition" that capped the game's first SHOW sequence. After leaving the hospital with George and Emily, York heads to the site where Anna's body was discovered, and engages in some good old-fashioned investigation:

Before getting into the more metaphysical realm of profiling:

It's in this sequence that we get a window to what the SHOW sequences could have been, without all the tedious gunplay. Whether the player interprets the SHOW as an alternate spiritual world or just a figment of York's imagination (or, in my own interpretation, a combination of the two), it's clear that he's not actually physically traveling to another location, and the fights that occur there are not literally occurring.

As this sequence plainly demonstrates, York seeing a darker, altered version of the area he's investigation works perfectly well in an adventure context. There's any number of ways to read the change, from the crime being committed there opening a psychic window to a "dark world" to the change simply being a function of York's feelings about the crime and the person responsible for it. If only the rest of the game's SHOW sequences were this restrained.

There's nothing particularly wrong with the art design in the sawmill location. It's creepy, dilapidated, atmospheric—just the kind of place that players would love to slowly walk around, jumping at each slight creak or wayward shadow. Sadly, like the old adage about golf, the atmosphere is spoiled by the fact that enemies keep jumping out of the walls, requiring tending like an unruly garden.

Deadly Premonition isn't the only game franchise to suffer from this design mistake, of course. Let's look for a moment at the franchise that most obviously inspired the SHOW scenes, Silent Hill. A series known for its unparalleled immersion and scare factor, ask any fan their favorite parts of the games and you'll likely hear references to the art, the creature design, the sense of dread that permeates every moment spent in that town.

The combat will likely go unmentioned.

Remember Pyramid Head, the series' most iconic villain? Does he still give you chills years later because the boss fight with him was so memorable, or because the player was forced to, for the purposes of self-preservation, spend the entire game running away from him?

I'm not going to embark on a tirade about horror games (like Siren) opposed to survival horror games (like Resident Evil) and the relative merits of each genre, except to say that it's important to understand what kind of game you're making. Survival horror games can't be scary—they can be thrilling, but not horrific. Empowerment and fear can't co-exist. Which is why Half-Life stops being scary once Gordon finds his first gun, and starts being thrilling.

Deadly Premonition wants to be a horror game—speaking in Capcom terms, the target is clearly closer to Clock Tower than Resident Evil. Just look at York's encounters with the Raincoat Killer:

You can debate whether this sequence is effectively designed (not that you have to—it isn't), but the intent is clear. This isn't like Nemesis' eight appearances in Resident Evil 3, each one allowing a victory over the game's main threat, so that by the end his final annihilation is a fait accomplit, with Nemmy being remembered more for his tenacity than his effectiveness at killing anything. The developers want the player to be terrified of RK—to either hold their breath while hiding or sprint in the opposite direction whenever he appears. This is fundamentally at odds with the twenty minutes they just spent blowing holes in the heads of cannon-fodder zombies.

Again, the combat fails not because it's ineptly executed (although that's obviously true), but because it's fundamentally irreconcilable with the rest of the game. Even if the game had offered tight, tuned, bad-ass Resident Evil 4-style gunplay, it still would have stood out like a sore thumb because that kind of combat offers an experience to the player diametrically opposed to what the game is trying to accomplish.

If there's one thing I'd like to see from SWERY 65 and the Deadly Premonition team in the future it's a version of the game that excises the combat entirely, and just lets players be terrified by a world where guns can't be used to solve their problems. Also, while they're tweaking things, maybe make York's smile just a little less creepy.

(shudder)

But until that special edition is available, perhaps you can console yourself by purchasing the Deadly Premonition that's under twenty dollars right now? Who knows, if enough copies are sold the publishers might interpret it as a call for a polished director's cut!

Next time, I offer a final nail in the coffin of the combat system!


Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Access Games  
Key Creator(s): SWERY 65  
Series: Deadly Premonition  
Genre(s): Horror  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Humor  

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WOULD the game be a going

WOULD the game be a going concern without the combat though? Would it stand up? I mean, the game is lots of cutscenes, interspersed by mostly optional investigation of the town. I can imagine the horror on the face of whoever insisted on putting in the combat when they found this out. After all, there needs to be SOME player interactivity, right? Otherwise it wouldn't be a game. So would it worrk without the combat?

Pedro wrote: WOULD the game

Pedro wrote:

WOULD the game be a going concern without the combat though? Would it stand up? I mean, the game is lots of cutscenes, interspersed by mostly optional investigation of the town. I can imagine the horror on the face of whoever insisted on putting in the combat when they found this out. After all, there needs to be SOME player interactivity, right? Otherwise it wouldn't be a game. So would it worrk without the combat?

I would have to say as bad as other games are with piss poor mishmased gameplay within them.

It would work but I dunno if it would sale as well.

At the end of the day watering down mechanics has to end and be traded in for AI that can play the game itself thus widening the demographic as wide as possible.

Its good you bring this up,

Its good you bring this up, most reviewers would scoff at or ignore the hard questions.

As I have to tell newbs who don't get games like Dues ex and System shock 2(or Dark Messiah) and all drooling over how great new and innovative Bioshock, Fallout 3 and Oblivoin to a lesser existent that these new games suck they are not as polished and not as finished.

Would it be a going concern?

Would it be a going concern? Already nobody's buying it for the combat, so I can't imagine how removing the combat could make it less marketable.

In fact, Deadly Premonition is already a great game without the fighting, in that absolutely no one likes the combat, but there are still people who love the game. While some are masochists who enjoy the suffering that the terrible combat heaps upon them, I've got to assume that most of those people are enjoying everything but the combat, and enduring through the combat just to get to the good parts (atmosphere, exploration, greatest characters in the history of games).

If the combat was removed and nothing put in its place to replace it, I'd maintain that it would still be a great game, with plenty of exploring atmospheric and metaphoric locations while profiling without all the hassle of crushing skulls with a wrench, (you'd still hide and flee from RK, obviously) but there's no reason the game couldn't include a little more complex investigation to make up for the lack of fighting. The best parts of Condemned 2: Bloodshot were the opportunities to examine a crime scene and determine what had happened there based on the evidence. Add something along those lines to the profiling scenes and leave in the mostly QTE boss fights and you'd have a game even better than Deadly Premonition already is.

It fills a demographic gap,

It fills a demographic gap, the fighting as bad as it is brings in more people, now it might turn away as many. I think the resulting game shows just how out of whack the game industry is.

Polish comes after finishing the game not all games are finished when released and thus how can most games be the best the industry can make when they are constantly making half assed games.

Good enough is the atni thesis to quality, ya I am being a skeptical bastard but looking at standard corporate MO you can not help but blame them for quality issues.

Rambling aside the fighting was put in to spread its demographics and frankly devs can do suck a easy way to balance the game after release... just but in more default options one to remove fighting another to change damage scales on you and enemies, AI sensitivity,ect,ect

Combat

From my own point of view, I could do without the combat, or a bit less of it maybe, and I suspect a lot of people could. For me, the humour and the investigation would have been sufficient to carry the game. I pretty much detested the quick time events myself, so they added nothing for me.

However, I do feel that maybe there has to be some sort of bow to convention for two reasons - a) you want as many people as possible to play your game, and b) personally I think art (movies and novels specifically) is fine as long as it also entertains. Now that doesn't necessarily mean that you have to bung in the usual tropes such as collectibles or a shooting game to keep traditional gamers happy. But as Daniel says, they possibly could have beefed up the investigative parts, perhaps replacing the shooting with proper crime scene analysis which would feed into the profiling.

In the end up, I guess the inclusion of the combat did more harm than good, as it ended up weakening the game overall. I guess I'm a bit annoyed that more people haven't played this, posssibly due to the reception given to the shooty bits. (And the driving. I never really understood this - was the driving really any worse than the driving in GTAIV?) But c'est la vie, I suppose.

Anyway, thanks again for the series of articles. For all the talk of games as art, this has been the first game to really transcend mere thumbstick waggling for me. Sure, there has been excellent storytelling elsewhere, and there have been individual scenes in other games with emotional impact, but nothing with the laugh-out-loud dialogue and emotional punch of this game. I had been playing Fallout New Vegas and took a break to play this game, thinking I'd give it an hour to see what was what. I completed it, and when I went back to FNV, which is recognised as having rich characters and complex quests, the thing was emotionally empty for me. What's this, I'm checking the filing cabinets in the Repconn building for shotgun shells? What the hell am I doing?

So I finished FNV finally last night, just going through the motions in order to finish it, and while the final story cut scenes had some emotional resonance (apart from when the console froze during them, rage), the game did feel like a child's toy, a game in other words, compared to Deadly Premonition. So it's been a great experience, and thanks for the articles which provided plenty of ideas to mull over.

PS ha ha, has anybody used the 'Get an Audio Challenge' for the CAPTCHA functionality on this site? It wouldn't be amiss as a minigame in Deadly Premonition. It's like listening to a police depatcher radio...

Important note

At least for would-be game designers of the future, this post contains the most important thing that can be said about Deadly Premonition. Speaking as someone who didn't much care for the non-combat sections either, it's important to point out that the shooting parts absolutely poisoned the rest of the game for me. The total wrong-headedness of including these segments at all, combined with the ineptitude in every phase of the combat design, makes it difficult for me to see the game as Dan does. The dull and poorly-implemented puzzles that he interprets as intentional and ironic never came across to me that way, because the combat argued strongly that SWERY was clueless rather than clever. Having thrown the terrible combat in my face right from the beginning, the game never had the chance to prove to me that it was an intelligent skewering of videogame tropes rather than an incompetent attempt to emulate them.

This isn't to say that without combat I would be one of the game's devotees. However, I would have had a greater appreciation for the things I liked, and felt less aggrieved by the things I didn't, if the shooting hadn't been there.

As much as I whine and bitch about it...

Sparky Clarkson wrote:

At least for would-be game designers of the future, this post contains the most important thing that can be said about Deadly Premonition. Speaking as someone who didn't much care for the non-combat sections either, it's important to point out that the shooting parts absolutely poisoned the rest of the game for me. The total wrong-headedness of including these segments at all, combined with the ineptitude in every phase of the combat design, makes it difficult for me to see the game as Dan does. The dull and poorly-implemented puzzles that he interprets as intentional and ironic never came across to me that way, because the combat argued strongly that SWERY was clueless rather than clever. Having thrown the terrible combat in my face right from the beginning, the game never had the chance to prove to me that it was an intelligent skewering of videogame tropes rather than an incompetent attempt to emulate them.

This isn't to say that without combat I would be one of the game's devotees. However, I would have had a greater appreciation for the things I liked, and felt less aggrieved by the things I didn't, if the shooting hadn't been there.

AS much as I whine and bitch about it, devs are stuck on making what they can as they are told by accountants.

So they made a point and click adventure and then had to saw in actiony stuff. Now at the end of the day we get a deeper than most adventure game with bad combat.

I see this as an option issue that can be fix just by allow the player to go into potions turn combat on/of or adjust individual difficulty settings. This can easily be done and if you worry about achievement poisoning just add a calculator that counts the values and calls the resulting game no combat, easy,normal, hard and my fav WTF!!.

But I doubt devs can see more optional support an option.....

Conclusions regarding developer intentions (Deadly Premonition)

Allusions regarding developer intentions

Deadly Premonition is certainly my favourite game played in this bleak and bland year. However while reading your article I find my self disagreeing with many conclusions that you reach when reflecting on your time with it.

I do agree that despite the, in fact in spite of an almost crippling lack of production values that will scare away all but the most discerning game connoisseurs this game has at the same time an almost bogglingly obsessive attention to detail. It goes to painstaking extremes in realization of the fascinating denizens of this bizarre community, all the way down to all having daily routines that make sense which must have taken considerable amount of time and effort to develop.

One of the things that sets this game apart, I feel, is its lopsided dedication of resources to these aspects of the game which are unlikely to be discovered by most when other parts receiving much more exposed during normal play have been neglected. Most games faced when with the prospect of being built on a minuscule budget that can ill contain its ambition they end up being mediocre through and through equally in every part, but Deadly Premonition went to extremes of detailing certain parts while neglecting in extreme certain other parts

For an example it would not have hurt them to have put a little more work into the tiny populace of enemy types that one encounters. You spend fighting those apparitions in every single other world section but their texture work and design is just bad. Perhaps more attention to combat mechanics would certainly also have done its part to open the game to a larger body of interest.

The matter of combat is one are that I find myself disagreeing with your sentiments. You feel that its omission would have made the game better, but I find it hard to believe from your well constructed opinions that you truly think so.

Imagine the game without the combat and what have you then? Then the games becomes a series of cut-scenes interleaved by very insipid fetch quests as the only interactive parts. Without combat the other world sections would lose much of the little tension that they do posses. Then all you would do run through some mildly unsettling sections to "look for clues", which in execution amounts to nothing more than entering into a room, walking up to the bright red spot and then watch a cutscene, anticlimactic to say the least. And would be very glaringly boring if there were not at least some semblance of a an effort or obstacle being.

In the final game this obstacle ended up being a badly constructed apparition shooting sections, but I think the game would have lost more than it gained by their complete omission. Some obstacle necessitating effort that is not a fetch sequence needs to take place of combat if it is removed, otherwise well, then the game will have very little in terms of any gameplay.

Combat can be done in a way to act as an meaningful obstructing challenge in a survival horror game while at the same time add tension. Both of these things fell far short of brilliance in Deadly Premonition, but the game is saved more by what it does right than what it does wrong. But if its combat sequences had been as low-key and brilliant as the ones in the first 3, or the only true, Silent Hill games then the game would have been that much better for it.

I also feel that given the theme of the game the way that agent York obtains clues is a missed opportunity for some first class puzzle design. Unfortunately all clue finding boils down to running through a bland other world environment fighting apparitions on the way to finding and examining the clearly visible areas marked by a red glowing column. You do this three or four times until all the profiling sections are filled out.

I also feel that the whole profiling sections were probably designed to be some sort of a mini game that either the developers had no time to complete or which was scrapped during development. It is certainly bizarre that you are given a chance to see the entire profiling reel each time you find a clue to fill in one of its sections. When I first encountered that section I thought I was supposed to do something while the reel played.

Thirdly I doubt that Deadly Premonition is attempting to mock any genre convention, I find it increasingly bizarre that people can interpret clearly uninspired game sections in odd Japanese games as being an attempt to mock games that employ similar gameplay. I find it odd because in most cases this, if correctly interpreted, would be nothing short of an almost blasphemous case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Deadly Premonition is an exquisite game that has soul and charm, but there is little in its clumsy fetch quest heavy traditional game play sections that form much of its core to serve as an example for high pedigree titles of the past such as Resident Evil and certainly Silent Hill, may both these former giants rest in peace.

Anyhow as I read future sections of you dissection I may return with more comments or observations, but in short a bravo is in order for dedicating so much time and effort to a game that truly deserves it instead going with the flow and fawning over the soulless sleek pedestrian productions of universal claim like everyone else and their blog.

You are a man similar tastes and sentiments, and that is a most rare finding. Bravo it is then good sir.

Ugh, I was reading through

Ugh, I was reading through my comment, as I like to do after posting something to look for any omissions or faults, and by the gods. Did I even proofread this thing? It looks like it was written by a dyslexic. There is no edit option to permit to correct the many glaring faults, so allow me to apologize for the insult that have just met your eyes. My writing is usually of a higher standard than this, so I don't know where I went wrong here except that I did so repeatedly.

Set game to easy, problem solved

Eh, whatever. Set game to easy, problem solved, all that needs to be said. We all know they'd never let them release the game without something to make it a "game" in there, just get over it. Glad to see someone wrote up articles on everything else I wanted to say about the game, but not worth talking up space decrying or fixing the inclusion of combat.

ALSO NEVER FIX THAT AMAZING SMILE BABY. SHOW DEM PEARLY WHITES OFF.

On Deadly Premonition

Very good article Dan, and I agree with quite a bit of it, tho I do feel like the combat does add a bit to the game. If you had nothing to fight, then the SHOW sequences wouldn't really build any dread or fear in the game. I think the dread built in the SHOW sequences balances out with the investigative scenes in the regular game, decently well.

There is one thing I'm surprised you didn't mention in the article, and that is the naked female enemies towards the mid-point of the game. When I first encountered one, I was actually kind of pleased that there was finally a different type of enemy in the game, only to have that feeling melt away by how tedious they were. When I fought the first one, I assumed it was some sort of boss fight, as it took FOREVER to kill. When I had to fight 4 more in a row, I almost turned the game off for good. Fortunately I learned their pattern exactly, and could kill them without taking damage, but they still took far too long to kill.

!!**spoiler warning**!!
One interesting thing I noted about the game is how York made himself out to be a jerk during the times when he said "I'm going in alone", however towards the end of the game you realize it was a rather noble thing to do. For what I thought may very be inside York's head, the SHOW sequences actually were happening in the real world, as evident by Emily's encountering the shadows towards the end of the game. York seemed to know whenever the shadows would appear, and he faced those situations alone, to protect Emily and everybody else from having to see them.

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