The “Deadly Premonition” Conundrum
I cannot recall any budget title in the history of the video-game industry ever garnering the attention that Deadly Premonition has gained since its release in late February. Not only that, but the way it grew from literally nothing to one of the most hotly debated games out there is truly miraculous. Funny now, in retrospect, that the eagerly anticipated Heavy Rain was released that very same week and it has almost completely faded from my memory. The same may be said of other devoted game enthusiasts out there, I can’t be sure, but let me make this absolutely clear: I believe Deadly Premonition to be one of the defining releases in the history of the medium. It has single-handedly changed my perception of the entire industry and drawn to light hypocrisies in both game reviewers and the people that read these reviews. Don’t agree? Well, I hope you shall take the time to consider the following observations.
First of all, when Deadly Premonition is brought up, someone inevitably says something like, “What? That awful looking horror game? The one with the terrible graphics, outdated gameplay and ridiculous story?” Yes, the very same. Many with these objections I suspect never even played the game, they likely saw a video, looked at some screenshots or read the incredibly small handful of negative reviews out there and made up their minds, but that is somewhat beside the point. The game has numerous positive reviews, far more than negative ones in fact, and it has a growing collection of diehard fans, such as yours truly, that are calling it something far more than a decent horror game. Could this be that artistic achievement some video-game fanatics have been waiting for?
But more on that later, lets take a look at the way this game has been reviewed thus far. At the time of this writing there are 14 reviews posted on Metacritic. Now, lets for one second put aside our incredibly out-of-date perception that anything that scores below a 9 is pure garbage and look at the actual numbers we see there. We have one 10, courtesy of Destructoid’s Jim Sterling. Now, many seem to have beef with Jim Sterling because of his highly sarcastic approach to video-game coverage, but I believe this 10 is absolutely genuine, as the review addresses the very apparent technical shortcomings the game possesses but states that it was still a uniquely enjoyable experience, pretty much because of these things. Still, for the sake of those whiny folk out there who continue to call Mr. Sterling a glorified troll, let us ignore that particular review and proceed down the list.
Hmm, an 88 from Digital Chumps followed by an 83 from Gameshark, an 80 from Atomic Gamer, a 79 from Gamefocus and a 78 from Game Informer. Oh, we also see a 75 from both 1UP and Official Xbox Magazine, and a 70 from both Gamespot and Kombo. Okay, now I know this next part is kind of hard for some folks out there to understand but I’ll try to be clear…a 7 out of 10 is a good score. No, really, especially considering the number of issues Deadly Premonition has.
Okay, I use the term “issues” kind of loosely as I absolutely loved my time with the game (slightly over 20 hours for my first playthrough, currently contemplating a second) but let’s face it, there are some pretty messed up things about the game. The graphics are indeed terrible, the sound design is thoroughly messed up, the game’s menus are really clunky, the map does not allow you to zoom out sufficiently so you can see where you’re going and the very structure of the game demands that you spend absurd amounts of time driving places and waiting around for things to happen. Yet despite all that, things that are pretty much unforgivable sins in every other game, the game is consistently scoring 7s and 8s. One should also pay close attention to the tone of the written reviews. The reviewers seem almost ashamed to admit they liked it in most cases but many of them most certainly did.
Let’s go one step further, some of the negative reviews (at least based on the numeric score) would be positive if game journalists were granted the same liberties as their cinematically inclined colleagues. Caleb Newby’s review over at Cheat Code Central is perhaps my favorite, as it perfectly demonstrates the conflict between expressing one’s personal opinion and providing a pure product review. Here is the summarizing statement as seen on Metacritic.
“The problems are pronounced and obvious, but somehow it has a charm and appeal that defies logic. This game is not for everyone. In fact, it won’t be for most people. But, at an amazing value of twenty dollars, it may be a worthy investment for those that are bored of their current slate of games and are ready to put up with the numerous frustrations to experience the inane charm that Deadly Premonition offers, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Mr. Newby ended up giving the game a 5 out of 10, an undeniably low score. Yet it seems pretty clear to me that he really enjoyed his overall experience with the game. Its charms definitely appealed to him, yet at the same time he felt obligated to lower the numerical score and still point out the “flaws” in the game, even though they didn’t really have much of a lasting impact on his overall experience. This kind of draws out one of the inherent differences between game criticism and film criticism: the former is largely based on numbers and formulas, the latter almost solely on opinion.
Examples? Well, one of my favorite video-game websites out there on this great internet of ours is “Giant Bomb”, yet even with their forward thinking in regards to making the opinion of the individual writing the review the focus, they still fall victim to this from time to time. 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand, remember that one? Jeff Gerstmann ended up giving the game a 3 out of 5, feeling obligated to point out that the game was really just a Gears of War clone with 50 Cent in it, and many would probably not enjoy it. But he himself clearly loved that game, as evidenced by its appearance on a “Guilty Pleasure” list at the end of 2008 and his statement in the video review “that in some weird way, its the greatest game ever made…or the worst. Truth be told its somewhere in the middle. Three stars.” Curiously, this exact sentence is echoed in Jim Sterling’s Deadly Premonition review, he simply had the courage to put the appropriate score next to it.
To Mr. Newby and Mr. Gerstmann I ask, why feel guilty about it? Fact: Jeff Gerstmann really enjoyed the time he spent with 50 Cent: Blood on the Sand. Caleb Newby really enjoyed Deadly Premontion. Why then did they feel compelled to basically apologize for having that opinion and adjust their scores based on standards and practices that are really holding the entire industry back? It is this system of boiling a game down to a series of numbers and fact-based statements that really gets to me.
Here is where I believe the notion of “games not qualifying as art” comes into consideration as I believe that to be the culprit holding game criticism back from becoming fully opinion-based. Now, the term “art” is such a troublesome one as it means so many different things to different people. I shall grant it the broadest assignment I can muster by stating that, “absolutely anything that is presented in a manner intended to evoke some feeling or thought from an individual can and must be considered art”. Fact: Games have evoked thoughts and/or feelings in people. This definition of art is a little too generous for some, such as noted film critic Roger Ebert, but it is one I consider to be the most fair and open-minded.
Because all video-games do evoke some measure of thoughts and feelings, they should be considered in a manner similar to films. Opinions should be shared, personal ones that relate the overall experience gained by the game i
n question. Individual nitpicks, such as low frame-rates, graphical fidelity and sound should only matter if they seriously detract from the experience as a whole. This is directly comparable to the world of film. If a movie has a really amazing story but is poorly shot and edited, it might not matter, as the overall experience can be incredibly unpleasant due to those elements. On the other hand, if a film has cheesy acting, bad special effects and a paper thin story, it can still be enjoyable and adored by many (examples include Evil Dead, several John Carpenter films and even big hits like Jaws). These films transcend what others may look at as problems and remain highly regarded in some circles. Again, Deadly Premonition must be looked at as best representing this kind of phenomena in the world of games. As mentioned, it has numerous elements that could be looked at as flaws but, like countless films, it negates every single one and still manages to provide an extraordinarily unique experience, at least to those willing to sit down and actually give it a try.
This draws yet another video-gaming hypocrisy into the light, the fact that most people don’t feel the need to have played the game themselves in order to express a strong opinion about it. Of course this comes up in the movie world as well, but hardly to the same extent. I don’t care if you’ve read a bunch of reviews, watched the trailer or even sat through every episode of Giant Bomb’s “Endurance Run”, you are not qualified to voice an opinion. If you haven’t played it, you haven’t played it. Watching a game being played is in no way comparable as it is a form of expression dependant on factors outside of visual and audio stimuli. The controller in your hand, the time spent, your choices and actions, these are defining elements of what makes playing a video-game so much different than watching a film. Taking those elements out of the equation changes absolutely everything about the experience. There is also the issue of whether playing the game to completion should be mandatory, but I shall leave that for another day.
All of these hypocrisies have come to light because of the release of a bizarre twenty-dollar budget title that received no fanfare and hype prior to its release, but managed to crawl to the top of the best-sellers list on Amazon and win the love of numerous critics and video game fanatics. Whether it personally resonated with you or not is beside the point, the fact remains that Deadly Premonition’s unprecedented rise to prominence has permanently altered the game development landscape, and I sincerely hope that it changes game journalism as well, both in how reviews are written and how they are interpreted by readers. Games deserve the same basic level of respect and consideration that films have enjoyed for over a century. Numerical scores assigned to products because of their frame-rates and resolutions are meaningless. All that matters is the overall experience of the person that has taken the time to actually play the game themselves. If that experience was enjoyable, that information should be relayed to consumers who can then spend their entertainment money accordingly based on those opinions. It is such an incredibly simple concept yet it is still struggling to become the norm.