The word 'cult' is used to describe many games, but rarely has it seemed so appropriate as when applied to Deadly Premonition. The term's etymological root is as a pejorative, used to describe groups whose ideas were considered strange, yet these days it often has more positive connotations; a cult hit isn't a flop, but a pleasantly surprising success, beloved of a small but dedicated and passionate audience. Deadly Premonition's unlikely trajectory from internet laughing stock to much-admired curio all but mirrors the evolution of the word.
Its story proper began at the Tokyo Game Show in September 2007 as Access Games unveiled Rainy Woods, a new horror-tinged murder mystery directed by Hitetaka 'SWERY' Suehiro, best known for middling PlayStation 2 stealth title Spy Fiction. Despite faint murmurings of interest, the trailer was generally derided for its weak graphics, but more loudly for its apparent obsession with Twin Peaks. From the suave FBI agent investigating the murder of a prom queen in a sleepy Pacific Northwest town to the twin dwarves and red-curtained rooms, it owed a clear and substantial debt to David Lynch's surreal serial. Shortly afterwards, news emerged of a delay to the game's release from its planned 2008 window to "mid to late 2009, maybe even 2010". The more negative estimate proved most accurate: the game didn't emerge from its development cocoon until February of last year.
"Initial observations centred on its poor visual quality and ... hero Francis York Morgan with an enemy's arm thrust into his mouth."
Internet whispers suggested that the similarities to Twin Peaks were so blatant that the game required a complete overhaul. But Suehiro has a somewhat different take on the delay. "When we started out on development, the game was targeted for both the Xbox 360 and the PS2," he explains, "but with the differences in memory allocation, lighting, and various other hardware differences between the platforms, there were a lot of large technological difficulties that prevented us from really getting started."
With Rainy Woods all but abandoned, Suehiro began work on Deadly Premonition, which he viewed as an entirely new project. But the more he tinkered with the design, the trickier he found it to convince everyone that the game was on the right track.
"It was really difficult in staffing a studio of people who shared this vision of an open world game taking place in a small town gone crazy, with an FBI agent and his love interest, and all the rest that goes with [it]" he remembers. "So instead of everybody really being able to hold onto this singular, shared vision, we had some who really took hold of it, who took the lead, but needed to drag a lot of others along with them to help reach completion."
One man who didn't need convincing was Ignition Entertainment's Director of Business Development, ex-journalist Shane Bettenhausen, who snapped the game up for a North American release, deciding on a budget twenty-dollar price tag to put the game into "impulse buy" territory. Bettenhausen's enthusiasm for the game started to generate internet interest, which increased once the first footage and screenshots were released, even if the reaction wasn't entirely positive. Initial observations centred on its poor visual quality and one particularly bizarre shot of hero Francis York Morgan with an enemy's arm thrust into his mouth.
As a relatively unheralded low-budget title, it wasn't until a week after its release that the first review from a major website came in: 2/10. Fortunately, the thick-skinned Suehiro was prepared for such a response. "To be fair, while we really put all that we could into this game, there were issues like with the graphics and controls, which had me personally preparing for some scathing reviews from the get-go," he admits.
"But I was expecting - well, hoping, really - that after the initial reviews, somebody would come out and say 'this game is fun!' -[somebody] who really enjoyed and dug the world that we created."
That didn't take too much longer. Though more negative appraisals arrived, alongside them sat more glowing critiques. "I know the world rarely works out to be so kind, so having this actually happen was all the sweeter," Suehiro says happily.
As more positive reviews poured in, they were joined by a groundswell of support from gaming forums. The game's more outlandish elements were discussed, its achievements celebrated, its idiosyncrasies by turns admired and gently mocked. The low price point undoubtedly helped, but membership of this growing club started to feel ever more inviting. Quotes from the game developed into memes, and soon even those who hadn't played the game began to understand nonsequiturs like "F...K...in the coffee", and the constant references to Zach, protagonist Francis York Morgan's imaginary companion.
"I never once gave up, and put forth the absolute best that I could."
Hitetaka Suehiro, game director, Deadly Premonition
It was an internet watercooler moment, and, as word of mouth spread, sales steadily increased until, on the week of April 9th, Amazon.com data showed that Deadly Premonition was the biggest-selling title on Xbox 360, ahead of the likes of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Mass Effect 2.
The triumphs continued. One year later, Suehiro found himself at GDC, delivering a speech on 'lovable game design', preceded by a short video featuring several critics talking about what Deadly Premonition meant to them. It was clearly a proud moment for this self-confessed nerd. "It was an unforgettable experience I'll always treasure," Suehiro says. "I spoke about a game that had been on the shelves for over a year, and people came to hear me speak about it. Really, there aren't words that express my personal thanks and gratitude."
From derision to applause: how did we get here? The secret of Deadly Premonition's success, says Suehiro, is simply down to his unwavering faith in the project - "I believed in this game, the ability of these staff, the faith of the players, and myself. I never once gave up, and put forth the absolute best that I could. That's really all I can say."
Yet there's more to it than that. Deadly Premonition, as I said in my review back in April last year, has "a unique and distinctive voice that's very hard to ignore", which is unusual for a game that was all but accused of outright theft after that TGS reveal. These days, when the game is described as Lynchian, it's in a positive light: that same blend of the mundane and the surreal, the dissonance between the musical cues and the on-screen action, the sense that anything can (and might) happen at any time; the seat-edge thrill of genuinely having no idea as to where the narrative might take you next.
Better still, the decision to have protagonist York address an invisible companion allows the player into York's strange little world - and, by extension, Suehiro's own mindset. York's monologues about his favourite films, designed to enliven the often lengthy car journeys through Greenvale and enrich the character of York, have that unmistakeably personal touch that makes the dialogue feel believable - quite the achievement when the conversation is all one-sided. It's no surprise to learn that the references came from real-life chats between Suehiro and co-writer Kenji Goda.
"When we were coming up with the idea of York, we agreed that having some sort of perfect, hot-shot FBI agent just wouldn't be interesting enough, so we decided to give him a bit of a geek character. Since I'm a huge movie nerd, we decided to give him an obsession with movies. When it came time to actually writing, a lot of the lines were spitballs from conversations between Kenji Goda and myself, so there's a lot of his knowledge packed in there, too. Seriously, most of the conversations are taken out of ones between Kenji and I while we were drinking."
"Whatever game I end up making, I promise that it will be even better than Deadly Premonition, and something that players will never forget. "
Hitetaka Suehiro, game director, Deadly Premonition
The naturalistic dialogue would mean nothing, however, without the believability of Greenvale itself. An authentic slice of small town Americana, its comparative intimacy is at odds with the ever-widening borders of open world environments elsewhere. The decision to have every character follow a daily routine makes each one feel more significant, with even bit-part players having their own recognisable foibles. Suehiro insistence that his characters "take front and centre stage" so that "these games become a personal experience for those who play them" is laudable, but the freedom to explore and talk to anyone you encounter, returning to the story in your own good time, is equally important. It offers the opportunity to do some real detective work, interviewing people, or even spying on potential subjects.
Meanwhile, the more frivolous activities - Suehiro gently laments the loss of two chess and perfume-related asides while discussing elements he wishes he'd been able to include - add to the richness of the world, making it all the more affecting when darkness falls and bad things happen to the good people of Greenvale. It's this juxtaposition between normality and oddness that makes Deadly Premonition's world so appealing. As York so succinctly puts it: "Life is fun because of the mysteries. Right, Zach?"
Hearteningly, it seems Suehiro might not be done with Greenvale just yet. "Right now, there are a lot of possibilities," he muses. "One of which is making a sequel to Deadly Premonition, while others are making a completely different, unrelated game. What about the day before York arrives in Greenvale? Or the main character being the Raincoat Killer?"
"Really, at this stage I can only really speak in the vaguest sense, but what I can promise you is this; whatever game I end up making, I promise that it will be even better than Deadly Premonition, and something that players will never forget. Please look forward to it! I love you all!"
Deadly Premonition hit Games on Demand on Xbox 360 this week, though you might want to hold off on that purchase right now.