Driving and Talking in Deadly Premonition

September 22, 2011

It’s no surprise that many modern video games revolve around shooting and driving. As the modern video game blockbuster has gravitated towards shooters over the last few decades, the modern game controller has evolved towards something that feels like a gun. The Xbox 360 controller and Dualshock 3 are the stagnant and inbred results of this progression. The modern day controller is built around dual analogue triggers, which are suited perfectly to replicate the key verb of shooting. Shooting is what our index fingers are constantly poised to do. We may take it for granted, but the controller very much is a gun.

To a lesser extent, the common, modern gamepads with their analogue triggers can suitably represent the accelerator and brake pedals of a car. Driving games, particularly racing games, are a well represented genre. Although I’m very attracted to the use of cars in video games, I have never found myself engaged in racing, or running down pedestrians, or any of the other common ways we utilise them in our digital worlds. I’m the farthest thing from a ‘car person,’ but it’s obvious to me that beyond their builds, brands and technicalities, cars are woefully underrepresented in video games. (Like most things, I suppose.)

Deadly Premonition is a horror game of which you’ll only be spending half your time playing the horror part. The distinction is explicit, indicated by two different coloured loading screens. Any player will soon learn that if the loading screens are red, they are about to shoot zombies. But when the loading screens are black, the town of Greenvale goes about their ordinary, daily lives. Protagonist and FBI Agent Francis York Morgan spends this time visiting the different locations around town, talking to people and trying to uncover evidence for his case, which the story is centred around. There is almost no acknowledgement of the zombies in this “normal” half of the game.

Most of this time is spent driving across town.

In one scene, York spends the night in a bar and ends up in sentimental conversations with the town sherriff, George; and deputy, Emily. George, feeling threatened by York’s ‘big city’ intrusion to his ‘small town’ domain, had previously gone out of his way to be alienating. In this scene, we see George open up to York and the player, shedding some light onto his childhood. This night is also the first time York sees Emily dolled up, not in her police uniform, much to his infatuation.

When the night is over, York drives home. If this were a film, most of the drive would be omitted for pacing issues. In Deadly Premonition, you witness its entirety in the first person. It is around this point in the game at which York begins to acknowledge and solidify his feelings for Emily. Both York and the player are given the chance to digest this new perspective on the events and to explore their thoughts and emotions.

What Deadly Premonition expresses with its driving is these moments of reflection which punctuate the more involved events of a narrative. This made me realise that I don’t need a game to be so insecure that it needs to constantly keep me occupied while in a car. I don’t engage with the exhilaration of traditional video game racing, or the content drip-feed of exposition from someone in the passenger seat or the radio.

All Deadly Premonition provides is the vocalisation of York’s thoughts as they drift away from him. He muses over movies he watched when he was young and remembers past cases from when he was new to the Bureau. The movie references are what tip the balance from York being an interesting character to a loveable one. Games have an aversion to referencing popular culture, at least on a diegetic level. Even games set in our real world are only really in some approximation of it, with popular brands understandably replaced by mimics and faux labels. To hear York speak about the sadomasochistic subtext of the Tom and Jerry Show and to make reference to Robert Zemeckis and Back to the Future comes as a bit of a shock, and makes York’s character feel genuine.

I am not a car person, but this is something about cars to which I can certainly relate. To me, long car drives represent this self-reflection and aimless pondering which break up the more involved parts of my life.

The only time which Deadly Premonition comes close to a car chase or racing sequence is when York receives an urgent phone call which requires him to hurry to the scene of a crime which is being committed at that moment. But it doesn’t become “racing”, as much as “driving with a sense of urgency”. And crucially, this is the exception to the rule. In these segments the traditional jazzy music which usually accompanies driving is replaced with an unfamiliar silence. York stoically drives to the scene with just the noise of the rain and the drone of the wind-screen wipers.

When you do have a passenger in the seat, the game recreates the awkwardness of conversations in cars with people who you aren’t entirely familiar. In Deadly Premonition, passengers never mechanically repeat the same identical quips about your bad driving when you crash or break the speed limit, nor do they have a continuous script which is written to fill exactly the average time the player should take to reach the quest marker.

Instead, much of the car trip is made in silence intermitted by sporadic micro-conversations. The prompt to talk will pop up as if a potential conversation has just popped into York’s head, and the player can decide whether they will pursue it or continue driving in silence.

The game avoids being transparent and contrived and sells these drives so well that in my first person perspective, I kept feeling the need to turn the camera to look at Emily as she spoke or just to snatch a lingering glance of her sitting beside me, before having to return my attention to the road as a responsible driver should.

The other vital thing which sells the characters and the world is the game system which delivers the dialogue. These conversations aren’t triggered by any player progression. After a while of driving in silence a prompt will appear, letting the player press A and hear what York is thinking. It doesn’t drive the story forward, or deliver supplementary narrative content in an audio log fashion.

The irregular occurrence of these in-car conversations or monologues is the key to suspending the player’s disbelief and works on a similar principle to operant conditioning. Compare Deadly Premonition to Portal 2: a game in which this conversational content is systemically distributed as the prelude and conclusion of each test chamber. When a player completes a puzzle, they are rewarded by another highly entertaining and cleverly written taunt or joke from GLaDOS.

If a game relies on this, then when they fail to maintain this consistency, the world immediately becomes hollow. Luckily, Portal 2 does maintain this consistency throughout, in no small thanks to its meticulous and linear pacing. Not all games are able to keep this up. For example, Bringing Down the Sky, a DLC mission for Mass Effect promptly shattered my immersion in the Mass Effect world when it became obvious that my teammates would remain silent throughout the entire mission. Obviously, BioWare couldn’t afford to bring back the voice actors for all party members that any player might choose to bring along for the mission. Their avatars followed me through the cover based shooting, and stood, rendered in the background in all of the cutscenes. But they weren’t there.

Deadly Premonition, which is comparatively a budget title, has to subvert this with subtle and elegant design. Outside of cutscenes, conversational dialogue “content” is not distributed on a fixed interval. Reinforcement on a variable interval leads to good resistance to behavioural extinction, and likewise, my familiarity of the sporadic nature of the dialogue helped to prevent the world from feeling dead when there was no script or voice acting to patch over whichever particular segment of the game I was playing.

While racing games place focus on ensuring the sound of high speed engine roaring is visceral and delicious, the sounds which really sell the driving are the ones that Deadly Premonition gets spot on: the contrast between a gentle hum and silence when you turn off the engine. York enters the car then starts the engine in a methodical manner. The prompt which lets you get out of the car only appears when the car is stationary, preventing you from diving out of the vehicle at high speeds at the tap of a button, a la Grand Theft Auto.

The ability to toggle headlights and windscreen wipers on and off is a trivial, but an enormously welcome inclusion. The town of Greenvale is under constant rain, particularly in dramatic moments of the story (unless the rain is actually completely systemic and I have been influenced by selection bias). You are free to drive with the wipers off, but switching them on will clear your windscreen.

These tangible sensations of interacting with a car are just some of the many small, human touches in the game, along with the need to eat, sleep and shave.

As I see it, there is only one improvement the driving in Deadly Premonition could have: an animation of York pressing the horn with his hand instead of its playing by itself. Every game in which you can drive, I immediately check to see if there is a horn, and if an animation of the avatar pressing the horn plays when I use it. Grand Theft Auto 4 is the only game I have played which does this, and it doesn’t even have a first person mode (that can be accessed without the laboured affair of mod installation).

Deadly Premonition also imbues personality into characters through the personification of the different cars that the townsfolk of Greenvale use themselves. In Shamus Young’s autobiographical series on his blog (specifically parts 2 and 9), he describes an association and synecdoche of cars to their owners he developed as a child.

When I was very young, I made some sort of connection between people and their cars. Someone would visit, and I’d look out the window and observe that their car was outside. Certain cars always went with certain people, and I could tell who was knocking on the door just by seeing what car was parked outside.

Each character in Greenvale has their own unique car which they use to traverse the world in their daily routines. Driving past the local diner, players may notice a truck with a doghouse sitting in the back, undeniably belonging to Kaysen, and know that he will be having lunch at that diner. Like many objects in the world, York can approach cars and press the context-sensitive ‘Examine’ key to make an observation about it and how it reflects the personality of the owner. These thoughts come natively to a criminal profiler like York. Upon inspection on George’s car, the “Elephant T-3”, the largest and fastest car from the department, York comments on how it is representative of George’s compulsion to flaunt his strength and superiority.

York himself develops his personality, becoming a different character over the course of the game. This change begins when he first meets Emily and first experiences the titular premonitions. It’s no coincidence that the game opens with the wreckage of York’s car on his entrance to Greenvale.

There is much more to cars than just racing, and there is much more to conversation than just exposition. Deadly Premonition is one of the few games which explores that space.

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Development Diaries

July 13, 2011

Lately, I’ve been following a number of different high quality blogs and video diaries detailing many interesting game development projects. Here are some of my favourites:

Project Frontier by Shamus Young

Project Frontier is my favourite development series on the web at the moment. Shamus is recently unemployed, which is good news for us! He’s able to spend a lot of time on his projects and release updates very frequently. The project is a procedural world created from scratch with a blocky, Minecraft-like aesthetic.

It’s perfect for me, someone who is not an experienced programmer but is fascinated by the methods in which procedural content can be made. He’s working off tech made in a previous development series called Project Hex, which you might also want to check out.

Its supreme quality is due to Shamus’s incredible effort to make it interesting, show diagrams and keep it light on code and complexity. When necessary he will, say, give a brief introduction to how matrices are used to transform models, or explain concepts such as oversimulation or encapsulation in layman’s terms.

Shamus’ programming projects are always fascinating. They generally begin with a post outlining the basic goals of the project and containing a screenshot of his initial progress: a plain, green SDL window. From there, you watch the project gradually grow from absolutely nothing, to something beautiful, one step at a time.

Project Perko by Craig Perko

Craig Perko runs a brilliant blog which doesn’t receive nearly the amount of popularity it deserves. He does not have a featured, ongoing project which he works on and released updates on. Instead, his YouTube channel is made up of a variety of game prototypes and simple genre examples which he uses to illustrate the design principles and mechanics used in those sorts of games.

What is so fascinating and entertaining about Craig’s videos is that his goal isn’t to make an entertaining game and to document it, but to study and explain ideas about game design. Some people use diagrams and audio/visual aids to give a presentation. Craig goes a step further.

“Hello, this is Craig. I’d like to talk about beat-em-up enemies and what makes beat-em-up enemies unique.” And to do this, he actually makes a beat-em-up to show how combinations of enemies with different tactical patterns is key to the difficulty of games in this genre.

His recurring theme of trade routes and transportation and their effects on systemic game worlds is also explored in many of his videos and posts. For example, his latest prototype is based on the orbits of planets, and how this affects resource gathering and planetary economy.

How on earth do his videos have under 50 views?

Procedural World by Miguel Cepero

Voxels are dead sexy. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, just point them over to Miguel’s blog. The topics he covers include procedural generation (again), modelling civilians and facilities in virtual worlds and architecture and vegetation generation. In the discussion of creating virtual worlds, Migeul’s blog doesn’t stop at just the terrain.

Here, he defines a series of rules to generate churches and later he explains the structure of these rules. Here, he introduces Woley noise to his terrain generation. And here, he shows how L-systems are not ideal for generating trees, and that the solution lies with space colonization.

There’s also plenty of eye candy.

Sea of Memes by Michael Goodfellow

Similar to Project Frontier, this project based on Minecraft-inspired world generation. However, the worlds in Michael’s game are celestial objects that can be fully circumnavigated. It’s Minecraft in space, on asteroids and space stations.

It’s a good read, even if there’s a lot of talk about optimisation and vertex buffers and whatnot. Each post is also accompanied by a download link of the latest build of the project.

Overgrowth by Wolfire

You may have heard of Overgrowth, an indie game in development by Wolfire. This would be the most well known development diary in this post. Each week, the team puts out a video detailing the tweaks and updates made to the game, with professional and concise editing and narration.

Most weeks there is something interesting added, usually minor. However, at this stage in development, each tweak is something noticeable. The engine is built to do things like go in slow motion and show collision masks, so they can even show the effects of tweaks that are under the hood.

If nothing, the weekly alpha videos of Overgrowth will help you appreciate the small touches and details in video games, such as adding a lens flare glint to a dropped weapon which draws attention from a distance but ensuring it only occurs when the camera is moving so it doesn’t look unnatural. Also, there’s just as much, if not more of a focus on the sound and audial detail as there is on the graphics.

The game is incredibly impressive. More so with each new video. If you have preordered the game, you can download each new weekly alpha and play with the new updates yourself.

In Profundis by John Harris 

John Harris, the Roguelike columnist for GameSetWatch, recently started making a 2D platformer set in procedurally generated caves. Yes, you can see that I have a thing for procedural generation.

Generally, the blog is pretty light on pictures and video and is mostly tidbits of each day’s progress. I have a feeling it’s mostly to serve as a way to say “don’t worry, I’m actually working on this” to the funders of his Kickstarter.

That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining, however. The game is a roguelike by nature, and the design and technical decisions make for interesting updates.

Expand by Christopher Johnson 

Of course, I couldn’t end this post without a link to my friend and fellow South Australian, Chris Johnson and his video series. While the concept of the game remains elusive, the videos give an insight to the building blocks of the project. There’s minimal code in the videos, so all discussion is in terms of what is visible to the end user. Again, it’s interesting to watch a game being constructed over time, beginning with essentially nothing.

Expand will be playable at the Indie Games Room at AVCon next week. Gosh, is it that close already? That will be my first hands-on time with the game. I recommend coming along. There’ll be some great games on display and panels to attend.

Stilwater, the games industry

June 24, 2011

Volition seem to have done well for themselves. After the success of Saints Row 2 and Red Faction Guerrilla, they now have access to great resources for making top quality games. They are in the much longed for position to be able to build incredible, broadly-scoped experiences and shining, polished works of art.

Instead, they are making Saints Row: The Third, a game where you suck pedestrians into a giant cannon and shoot them across a lavishly rendered city for giggles.

Fittingly, the story of Saints Row: The Third seems to be about a gang known as the Third Street Saints, who are incredibly rich and have earned control and authority over the city of Stilwater after the events of the previous games. With this power comes great responsibility. You would imagine that they should be working towards building and maintaining a better city.

Instead, they dress up in purple space suits and call atrociously expensive air-strikes down on civilians, destroying parts of the city’s infrastructure in the process. They mess about, performing burnouts in sports cars in front of us while we cheer them on– before they promptly run us over. For giggles.

Much in the way that Portal 2 is an allegory for Valve itself, it seems that Saints Row: The Third is one for Volition. The game is the result of the successes had in the previous games, for both Volition and The Third Street Saints. In this case, they have both responded by being huge trolls.

Saints Row 2 encouraged psychopathic behaviour and Volition built their game around it. The sequel looks like it continues to move firmly in that direction.

Conversely, many people criticised Grand Theft Auto IV for having a main character with completely different personalities in the cutscenes to when the player was in control. How can one be sympathetic to Niko Bellic when the game requires him to be a mass murderer?

Generally, as people who speak the language of games, we forgive this. Our excuse is simply: video games. It makes no sense that we can quicksave and reload games, or that we are unable to interact with certain objects in the world, or that our characters move around the world with the constraints of a gamepad or WASD. But: video games.

To frame a game with a story, developers can either completely ignore these things, or they can create a narrative and a setting that suits the play. And the shining example of the latter choice?

Team Fortress 2 has the only game setting in which the structure of a multiplayer shooter makes sense. This genre of game is hugely illogical. Both teams have set up headquarters right next to each other, there can be multiple instances of the same person at once, and people respawn. Yet this is just as normal to the characters within the game world as it is to us players.

Although we haven’t seen much of the story of Saints Row 3, I’m hoping that it can be for sandbox games what Team Fortress 2 is for multiplayer shooters.

On The Ball

April 7, 2011

The Ball is a first-person puzzle game. I like to think ‘The Ball’ has an integral article (much in the same way The Cheat does). It doesn’t have much of a personality, but it’s The Ball. You roll it around and let it activate switches. Pretty much all of the puzzles so far have involved pressing switches. You carry around a simple gun-like tool which can push the ball away with the left mouse button, and attracts the ball towards you with the right mouse button.

Here is what I’ve discovered after playing it for 0.8 hours, according to Steam.

I think this is my favourite loading screen ever.
After the introductory stages, I came across the first enemies in the game. Monkeys sit in the rooms ahead and become hostile when they notice me. Don’t get me wrong, these aren’t cutesy monkeys. If I’m lucky, I won’t really see these guys close up, but I can hear their horrible screech. I rely on this audible cue because most of the time The Ball is blocking my view, even in its see-through mode. When monkeys attack, all I can make out is the hideous movement of a figure bounding towards me.

I am scared.

I am scared?

I wasn’t scared when I was faced with aliens in Crysis 2. In fact, it was almost a bore. I know that if I die, I’ll just respawn at the last checkpoint. I’ve faced enemies before.

But I haven’t felt this scared since when I was first playing video games. This a feeling from back when I wasn’t fluent in controlling an avatar in a dangerous space. Back in Super Mario 64 when I loved playing around in the “safe” areas of the castle, but as soon as I entered a level through a painting, I would have to throw the controller to my more competent older brothers and sisters in case a bob-omb came to kill me. And don’t get me started on the horrors of diving underwater.

Something about this monkey-infested, Aztec-decorated place is bringing out some primordial arousal in me.

I was enjoying myself for the opening of the game. I was even expecting to be annoyed at enemies, thinking of how it is needlessly interrupting the fun of solving the puzzles. The enemies in Mirror’s Edge were a nuisance. So in The Ball, why am I a little on edge?

It’s because I don’t have a gun.


I can’t fend off these monkeys on my own. I can’t just point at them and click to remove them from my path. I am playing in first-person, and heck, I’m even holding a thing that looks like a gun, modelled closely off the Impact Hammer from Unreal Tournament. I don’t have a gun.

But I do have The Ball.

It’s the only way I can kill the monkeys. It’s not hard. Rolling the ball into them with just a bit of force will gib them just fine. The way you bowl them down like pins is satisfying. Even more so is when the monkeys are between me and The Ball and I hold down right click to crush them with The Ball from behind so they don’t see it coming. As long as I have The Ball, I can survive.

I understand this, but I’ve never had to kill people with a The Ball before. I’m not familiar with the tactile sensation. I simply don’t know that the input my hands are making through the mouse and keyboard will kill that monkey. This tension I am feeling is from playing something new. It’s the same feeling as playing a first-person shooter for the first time. Today, I am familiar with the sensation of moving around and clicking on people in a 3-dimensional space to survive. But I’ve never killed anyone with a The Ball before and I’m not comfortable with it yet.

The Ball becomes my security blanket. The Ball is safety. The Ball is invincible, in fact. Occasionally a puzzle requires me to leave it behind as I go places that The Ball cannot access. And I get anxious. There’s a counter in the bottom left of the screen which tells me how far away the ball is in metres. Actually, they’re not metres, but some nondescript unit of measurement of which 20 is very close and 200 is very far away. As the puzzle drags me further and further away from The Ball, the counter gradually rises, and I am ready to turn and make a run back to it at any sign of that horrible screeching.

Whenever I can’t see The Ball, I am looking at the proximity counter. I’m thinking “If any monkeys show up, this number displays the magnitude of how fucked I am.”

;_;
Amnesia: The Dark Descent uses this technique to be the scariest game ever. But in Amnesia, they play it up damn well. The fear of being alone and helpless to the monsters is hyperbolic. You don’t have a The Ball, so when you see a monster, you hide in the corner, petrified, knowing you can do nothing at all to kill it and praying it just leaves you alone. In The Ball, it’s much more subtle. The monkeys aren’t the be all and end all, but they feel always imminent.

The Ball is foremost a puzzle game and it makes you comfortable with its formula of sequential rooms with puzzles you have to solve to move on. It’s possible to draw similarities to Portal in the way it’s set out. For instance, after you’ve become familiar with the portal gun, you get turrets thrown at you. However, the turrets never scared me in Portal. They are different from the monkeys. While turrets would track and actively attack me, they are still stationary and manipulative. They are part of the puzzles. The monkeys aren’t puzzles, but cannon fodder. They’re not manipulated in a part of any puzzle, but are there to break up the puzzles and to create some minor tension.

The Ball itself is not quite as charming as the Weighted Companion Cube, but the game has trained me to be incredibly attached to it. It’s the only way I can interact with the world. Without it, I’ll die.

As an aside, my favourite part of the game so far is what happens when you walk into spider webs. You get a web “splatter” on the screen in the same way you get trickles of water or blood on your screen in a first person game. In reality, walking into spider webs creates an uncomfortable sensation that lasts a few seconds until you frantically wipe it off. It makes perfect sense to recreate this in the same way you represent getting water or blood on you. It’s such a nice touch.

The awesome people at the late Resolution Magazine gave me a copy of the game for free as part of a competition giveaway. Thanks, guys!