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.