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Analysis: I Love You Just The Way You Are
Analysis: I Love You Just The Way You Are
August 26, 2010 | By Lewis Denby

August 26, 2010 | By Lewis Denby
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[In this Gamasutra analysis piece, Lewis Denby looks at games like Deadly Premonition and The Void to examine why some games shine not through their perfection -- via the imperfections that give them soul.]

Back whenever it was released, I wrote a review of Gears of War 2. It was the first time, I think, that I was presented with a real critic’s paradox, and the first time I started to seriously think about how games operate and how they affect me personally.

Gears of War 2 is, undoubtedly, an enormously well constructed game. It’s pieced together with real precision, the action is as tight as anything, the production values sky high. As a traditional games reviewer, I felt compelled to award it a high mark. But as both a player and a critic of a form, I didn’t like it. I enjoyed myself, but I didn’t like it.

Blasting the Locust hordes was fun, sure. But there was something cold and distant about its unrelenting competence. It felt like a mechanical construction, something created by a sort of games development machine, purposefully built to churn out high-durability action fodder for the masses. Which, of course, it is. And there’s a place for that. But I still came away from Gears 2 disappointed, having just spent several hours in the company of a game completely devoid of character or soul.

I’ve been thinking a lot about imperfection in video games over the last few days. Specifically, since Deadly Premonition was confirmed for a European release. I’ve never played Deadly Premonition, but everything I hear about it makes me desperately eager to do so. As a game, people say, it’s broken beyond belief. But as an experience, there’s nothing else like it.

Just to give you an idea of how much this game split opinion upon its initial release: IGN called it “awful in nearly every way,” while Destructoid awarded it 10 out of 10. To my mind, more games should do this, just as so much cinema and music does - but that’s probably a topic for another day.

Deadly Premonition, from what I understand, is basically a video game homage to early ‘90s drama ‘Twin Peaks’. It’s an open-world survival horror game which lifts several plot elements straight out of David Lynch’s seminal television series, often makes no sense, looks an entire console generation out of date, and occasionally just refuses to work.

But everyone I know who’s played it says there is just something about the game that provokes a reaction, be that a positive or negative one. Through all its imperfections - perhaps because of them - it shines, in its own very special little way.

The more I think about this, the more I think this applies to ‘Twin Peaks’ itself. It broke all the rules, and as a result emerged as something completely unexpected and original. It had a real soul running through its nonsensical storytelling and utterly bizarre characters, and some of the filmic techniques went so against the grain that the show inherited a directorial style all of its own.

Having not played Deadly Premonition, I can’t make a direct comparison. But what I will compare ‘Twin Peaks’ with is Pathologic. Released in its home nation of Russia back in 2005, and in English-speaking territories a year later, it’s an unsettling, low-budget, first-person horror adventure, in which the player attempts to free an isolated town of a crippling disease which is so forceful that even the buildings are dying.

The game has a lot of problems. Its engine, even with the details maxed out, looks like it’s from five years earlier. The enemy AI doesn’t stem much beyond ‘lock on and charge’, while the friendly AI just stands still. The town, an open-world environment, is so abysmally laid-out that even a map isn’t helpful. And perhaps most crucially, the English localization is just terrible. One character, throughout the whole game, referred to me as his “oinon”. I have no idea what that means. For hours I thought he was calling me an onion, and wondered if I was supposed to be playing a French person talking to a xenophobe.

You’d think there wouldn’t be any excuses for such crippling problems, but actually, I’m going to attempt to excuse them now by claiming that Pathologic is perfect. All its blemishes give it character, and the game beneath that is so unusual, so determinedly difficult and remarkably unfriendly. It’s memorable beyond anything else I’ve played.

These problems were obviously unintentional, but there are some very specific underlying systems in Pathologic that are equally obtuse. The town’s economy is nightmarish, meaning you can sell an item one day, go to buy it back the next day, and find its price has increased tenfold. You have several different gauges to manage - health, fatigue and suchlike, but also reputation meters and all sorts that have to be maintained if you want to be successful. And all the time, there’s a clock running down. You have twelve days to save the town, and you must save one important character every day. Fail to do that, and you’ve basically thrown away all hope.

It’s unfathomably difficult, but that difficulty is purposeful, and it works - especially intermingled with the surreal presentation. And developers Ice-Pick Lodge took this ideology into their next project, The Void, a strange resource management game that deliberately sets out to confuse the player, and confound expectations.

You begin The Void with no idea who you are, where you are, or what you’re supposed to do. Clambering over some surreal architecture, you eventually meet one of the Sisters - strange, hyper-sexual female apparitions who beg you to help them by giving them Colour. Colour is the entire life force of this otherwise desaturated world. You need it to live, but sharing it with the Sisters, you’re told, will free them from oppression, and allow you to progress.

Except after a while, the game suddenly and without warning punishes you for doing this. The Brothers turn up - big hulking hybrids of flesh and metal - and tell you you’re doing it wrong. They threaten you. Sharing Colour upsets the balance of this world, they say. The Sisters are just addicts, and are playing you for a fool. And anyway, you’re one of the Brothers, apparently. You need to do what they say, if you truly want to understand the Void.

And, well, what do you do? The Sisters say the Brothers, who they’re terrified of, are lying. The Brothers say the Sisters, who are destroying the world, are using their sexuality to manipulate you. The game doesn’t make it clear who’s telling the truth until long past the point of no return, and the game has no troubles ruining several hours of progress should you make the wrong decision. It’s an absolute nightmare.

I can’t imagine you’d meet many games developers who’d call that good game design. Confusing the player is pretty much the biggest red light in the medium. It’s just not the done thing. If you get horrifically stuck in a game, that’s called bad design. If you don’t know what you’re supposed to be doing or why you’re supposed to be doing it, something’s gone wrong. Except, in The Void, it hasn’t gone wrong. It’s gone spectacularly right. The Void is remarkable.

There are other developers toying with expectations and not shying away from breaking the rules, of course. But it’s Ice-Pick who have done this so resolutely. From what I understand, Access Games have powered in the same direction with Deadly Premonition. Pathologic and The Void, despite initially frustrating me, have since landed among my favorite games. And to these studios who somehow imbue their games with such distinct character, blemishes and defects and all, I say: please don’t ever change.

[Lewis Denby is Executive Editor of BeefJack.com, as well as word-writer extraordinaire for anyone who’ll give him some pennies for his trouble. He never did manage to complete The Void - but that's fine.]


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Comments


Alan Youngblood
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Lewis, what a timely piece here. I couldn't agree more that we need more games like this. I haven't played the ones you've discussed, but that's beside the point. We all have charming games that we like to play like that. They got bad reviews, but who cares? Production values do not necessarily equal an enjoyable experience.

Most games these days are perfect, perfectly boring that is. Leigh Alexander was writing recently about games being a commodity like soap, and there's good case to think it's going that way. Soap, the yardstick of civilization. I think there needs to be a better business model that supports creative innovative thinking and then use that to encourage great games to be made instead of favoring the formulaic ones.

Evan McCall
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I believe that there can be something learned from purposeful flawing of a game. Not only adding a new type of gaming experience but would also give a somewhat surprise whether constant or one time that will stay with the player in the back of their minds. Though you said gear 2 is "soulless" in my opinion having not played any of the games mentioned may have tried to retain to much of the value gears 1 presented as most sequel games do. same experience, gameplay, like a WoW expansion. That is just my rough opinion though

Fiore Iantosca
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Killer 7 was a whacked out game that didn't get any attention but revered by fans I think. What a great game

JJ Lehmann
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Another game like this: Deus Ex (the original). There was so much one could criticize it for, from its weak graphics (even for a ten-year-old game) to its boring combat gameplay, to its terrible physics, to some of the worst voice acting ever heard, but it got something right, and that something made it perfect to the point of being one of the best games ever made. When a game can immerse the player so well, its weaknesses just become part of its world, and the player learns not only to forgive the game for those weaknesses but to love the part they play in it.

Gregory Kinneman
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Great article. Quintin Smith's articles on The Void and Pathologic seem very similar to this one if people want to hear more about them, they're on Rock Paper Shotgun. Having played Pathologic, I would say the most nightmarish element in it is not the economy, or the difficulty, but the metaphor which backs it.



As for imperfection vs perfection, I think the point to be made is we are falsely labeling graphic quality, production value, and flow as perfection, when we should be looking for something deeper and more subjective.

Tony Dormanesh
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Sometimes bugs add to the charm of a game too...

Jonathan Jennings
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I would argue the original kane and lynch had this charm for me too. while the critics panned it i loved it for what it was, a crime-themed action game. sure it was a mediocre FPS in many ways but it had a certain charm to it, and certainly had a variety few third person games have even attempted this generation. I feel the same way about GTA IV as you felt about Gears of war 2. it is obviously a well constructed technical marvel, but really i didn't enjoy myself even with a large virtual living newyork it was hard to find fun outside of the online modes.



this is a very interesting phenomenon and I know i have experienced it myself with multile games. I have played AA games that i never want to touch again after completion and then I have games like viking battle of asgard which i revisit every couple of months and spend weeks re- playing. very interesting event and good article.

Ben Winick
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n/a

Mike Smith
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A piece of poop in my danish adds to the flavor. It's not something I'm used to eating so it's kind of fun and exciting. It also has a nice artistic quality about it. Sure I could have crap free danishes, but I've had hundreds of those.

Craig Timpany
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A crash to desktop bug is poo in the danish. But if I talk to a burly guy in a sombrero, and he responds with a little girl's vocals (as happened once in Boiling Point), that bug is hilarious and awesome.

gren ideer
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I think this article is confusing the ideas of high production quality, quirks, bad design, bold design, character, and outright bugs. Some are good traits, some are bad traits. I don't think many of the games you mention are good because of their flaws but instead because of the things they do different that give the game a different feel. Surely if those games had their bad design problems fixed they would be even better.



At the same time, some people (like myself) utterly hate Gears of War (although it has nothing to do with its high production quality- that's something they got right). Anyway, the point is, it's not meaningful to say games should strive to be divisive because almost all of them already are.

Jason Bakker
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A game that actually hits the place that this article explores to me is Metal Gear Solid 4! I enjoyed my time playing it, even though I felt it had some pretty major issues, but the strong sense of authorship and the design choices that made it less playable actually gave it a more unique and interesting feel - even now it stands out in my memory as a one-of-a-kind experience.



@Mike One man's poop is another man's Picasso? I guess we can assume that we currently know everything there is to know about game design and what makes games good. On the other hand, we could encourage exploration and the making of mistakes, and legitimately inspect the less obvious avenues of development that could eventually reap surprising rewards and advance the medium as a whole.



Or we could keep striving toward making an incrementally better Gears of War.

Tim Carter
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Real "perfection" is surpassing the technical delivery to once more deliver something that rings true.

Sebastion Williams
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"She's nothing to look at but has a great personality." You are so much on target with the idea that big production values, being able to kill people and blow up stuff does not a good game make. For players who see beyond the visuals, audio and actions, they find games that perplex, unsettle, disturb, abhor and excite from their content, delivery and overall style. These games are rare, unpolished gems that sometimes are re-discovered, blown off, polished and presented as new but ultimately depreciated as the heat and soul is sacrificed for big production values, being able to kill people and blow up stuff.

Heitor Paola
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I believe we have some very similar views. I wrote an article recently (it's in portuguese, so I think there's no use in showing it), in which I talked about Deadly Premonition's faults, and tried to justify them. The way I found to so was to say the game was, in essence, much like the protagonist's musical taste, punk rock.



Now, my analogy was to see the beginning of punk. Much before it became it's aesthetic, the bad recording, terrible sounding shows etc were limitations imposed simply because those that belonged to that genre had no conditions to copy what was the mainstream. What happened was that, eventually, those things that were problems, things that were "faults", became the norm. And, more importantly, ask any fan if they'd like to see one of these old albums remastered to make it sound "good", and you probably hear a loudly "NO".



That's how I also viewed DP (and how, if I understood correctly, how you viewed The Void and Pathologic). It's problems make, somehow, sense, and contribute to the overall experience. And, even if we were offered to have them corrected, we wouldn't want to do so, because these faults are also what make these experiences so good.


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