Twin Peaks is back, and so is Swery. Taking a holiday to tour the town where they filmed David Lynch's series - North Bend, Washington - it should come as no surprise that I happened upon the real life inspiration for one of Deadly Premonition's locales, the Milk Barn. A few hours later, outside Twin Peaks' iconic set for The Great Northern, I would run into Swery as well. Right on time!
Swery doesn't hide his love of Lynch. Deadly Premonition was chock full of references to Twin Peaks with its well dressed FBI agent, rural Pacific Northwest setting, and a healthy dose of woodsy supernatural mythos. I am later to learn that Swery has been to this legendary set, Snoqualmie Falls, no less that 10 times.
Yet just as Lynch resurrected Twin Peaks for a third season that shocked many with its jarring deviations from its predecessor, Swery is likewise returning to the genre that made him a star, the open-world investigative mystery, in a completely different context. While not technically a sequel to Deadly Premonition, its director claims that this recently announced crowdfunded follow-up, The Good Life, is set in what he calls the "Swery-verse". Here we have another rural town, another murder mystery, and another tantalising supernatural legend.
So far so Deadly Premonition. The Good Life will even carry over that game's most notable mechanic of having its NPCs carry out their daily routines on a 24-hour cycle as you're free to roam about and eavesdrop on their inner lives. The difference now is that the The Good Life's day and night cycle does more than merely bring about the moon; when the sun goes down, everyone in the cast transforms into a cat.
When asked about the inspiration for this comical deviation, Swery doesn't have to look far from home. "Up until recently I had been living in a home that has 12 cats in it," the eccentric director tells me, via translator, at PAX West. "I was always looking at them with a strange eye and noticing that each one has a unique personality, which I found fascinating. I often times I would assume that they could actually understand some of what humans are speaking, but I also understand that at night they seem to have some sort of different lives. They just act differently, which I always thought was fascinating."
Later, in 2013, Swery visited the quaint English town of Hitchin, where he fell in love with the countryside and decided that he'd love to set his next game in a place like that. "As I was thinking about a new game project that would be fun to work on a game that was a murder mystery set in the English countryside, I felt like there was something that was lacking," he explains. "Then when I pulled back from my brain those thoughts about cats. It was that holy trinity of English countryside, murder mystery and cats where were The Good Life all came together."
While Deadly Premonition's dedication to the detective life was admirable in concept, many bemoaned its more tepid elements, like the languid driving sequences that would keep players cruising about a spacious town almost cruelly rendered to scale. In fact, Deadly Premonition was so divisive that it's actually in the Guinness Book of World Record for being the most professionally polarising game of all-time (at launch one major outlet gave it a 2/10, while another awarded it a perfect 10).
The Good Life looks a lot more accessible than Deadly Premonition with a more free-form structure. This time out the protagonist, a photographer from New York named Naomi, is drowning in debt and it's up to the player to dig their own way out of this financial hell doing whatever activities they see fit. This will include accepting such part-time jobs as shaving sheep, delivering milk, working as a bartender, mining, or harvesting tea leaves.
"In Deadly Premonition the game loop was very much about moving from story point to various other story points and the player's motivation was very focused on the story," Swery tells me. "With The Good Life, the story is still obviously very important, but the idea is to open up the game design by having this debt hanging over the head of Naomi. That debt is encouraging players to move beyond just finding the next part of the story.
"That leads them to a wide variety of activities, such as the part-time jobs. By doing these activities for money, the story will pop up through these activities, so we're hoping for a symbiotic relationship between the story and gameplay."
This focus on extracurricular activities will add a much needed sense of variety to Deadly Premonition's more rigid mechanics, but there's another major design shift at work here: The Good Life won't feature any combat. As inspired as Deadly Premonition was, most would admit that its ghost shooting sections were substandard when compared to the competition and tended to be long in the tooth, bringing the whole adventure to a screaming (or rather moaning) halt.
Yet Swery has found a far more appropriate way to satiate our innate desire to point and shoot. "I believe that people do like shooting in games, which is why in this title we're replacing the guns with a camera," he says of this spiritual successor.
It's a brilliant idea, and one teased in such titles as Beyond Good & Evil (which Swery admitted he has not played) and some more recent The Legend of Zelda adventures. Photography even served as the entire basis for the wildlife reporting game Afrika, which was all about capturing nature on film. It's the perfect fit for an open-world detective game. And an open-world detective game where its cast spends half their time as cats? Even better!
Despite the wacky premise of people becoming cats at night, Swery claims that The Good Life will still play with the darker elements that made Deadly Premonition and D4 so alluring. "Because The Good Life does play out in the Swery-verse, by definition that means that there are going to be some dark elements to it," the director tells me.
While Swery's new studio White Owls will be leading development on The Good Life, he's also recruited help from such friends as Panzer Dragoon creator Yukio Futasugi and République director Ryan Payton, who will be using their respective studios, Grounding, Inc. and Camouflaj, to assist on development. Despite The Good Life being a three studio collaboration, all parties confirmed to Eurogamer that Swery will retain full creative control of the project, while his partners help bring it to fruition.
That's not to say that it's the only game on the director's docket, as Swery confirmed that he has a "few projects" in the works.
When asked if he'd be as hands-on with The Good Life as as he was Deadly Premonition, Swery tells me: "The degree to which I was involved in that project was pretty ridiculous in the sense that I actually hand-did a lot of the cinematics and worked on a lot of the core mini-games. Now I probably won't be doing that on The Good Life, but I am still the director and spending all day working with Futasugi-san and his team to make sure this is a true Swery game."
From what we've seen so far, that seems to be the case. Who else would create a game this knowingly erratic in terms of genre, tone, and character? The Good Life looks to hit a lot of the same notes as Deadly Premonition, but as with the works of his hero, David Lynch, this return offers a unique identity that's more than a simple retread. In other words, the cat's out of the bag: Swery is back.
The Good Life is currently being crowdfunded on Fig. It has until 12th October to reach its $1.5 million goal.