There’s this odd disconnect with games of the early 3D generation, where new technology, while impressive, didn’t quite match up to the stories we wanted to tell and the ways in which we wanted to tell them. We were so anxious that we overreached, creating blocky characters wildly gesticulating during what were supposed to be impactful scenes. I tend to associate this feeling with the Sega Model 3 and NAOMI eras, the Zombie Revenges and Crazy Taxis of the world. It was far beyond the faceless sand sculptures of the Playstation but not yet where we knew things would end up. The necessity of that hardware demanded a certain distinct artistry that just doesn’t exist anymore. It wasn’t better, per say, but different. I like different.
I’m still waiting for the eventual point where the mimicking of 8 and 16-bit graphics becomes so passé (or more likely, the next generation of gamers simply grow older) to the point that loving tributes are made to 32-bit games and beyond, not because of nostalgia on my part so much as a need to see how well we’re able to capture what I like to call The Dreamcast Effect – that discordant joy from seeing a flawed game that’s so comfortable in its own skin you can’t help but have a bit stupid grin on your face the whole time. Deadly Premonition lives in those margins, embracing its negatives in a masterful way that would be difficult for other games to even attempt. Somehow, in its own twisted way, it makes sense. When the game tells you that shaving and hygiene are important before tackling a room full of backwards-walking zombies, you accept it. When you’re having a discussion with yourself about DVD extras in 80s films, it fits with the rest of this world that seems much more interested in the “why not” than the “why”.
Part of this is because SWERY is obviously a weird dude, but he’s a weird dude with a vision, and those are the best kind. Whether or not it’s intended, he managed to capture and channel the Dreamcast Effect in a way that keeps you invested. Comedy in games is hard, most often because it’s such a throwaway, but here it makes you care about the characters and the universe they inhabit, eccentric as they may be.
As recently as today, I’ve listened to discussions about how games handle emotions and this silly dangling carrot of “has a game ever made you cry?” as if that’s the only emotion worth stirring or maybe the only one that will make the medium we love feel more legitimate. If we’re ever going to move past this, we need to acknowledge the impact of a game’s artistry and authorial intent beyond the gut-punches. Deadly Premonition is worth studying because of its knack for investing you in alternative ways, working within those anachronisms and using them as part of the presentation.
It’s a game with an ability to make some people uncomfortable or confused while others can point to it and go “that’s exactly what I was looking for”. That’s the subjectivity of art we keep talking about, beyond the binary “good” or “bad” that differs within public opinion. That’s something we not only need to keep searching for, but acknowledging when it appears.