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My favorite games writing:
1. Item descriptions in Demon’s Souls
2. Everything everyone in Street Fighter IV yells when they lose
3. Fire Emblem characters complaining when you sell their equipment
4. Elevator conversations in Mass Effect
5. NPC dialogue in Earthbound
6. Talking while driving in Deadly Premonition
I am a writer person but I have still Controversially Advocated for less not more writing in games because a) the people who make games seem to generally be better at literally everything else b) when words end up in games they are brutally mistreated and forced into hard boring labor, doing things that are just awful, like explaining the plot before the player is allowed to touch the controller or filling in reams of wiki like backstory in musty books in a skeleton dungeon. I like words a lot but I would rather not see them treated like they are the quickest way to dump contextualizing information on the player so she can get to actually enjoyable stuff as quickly as possible. That’s so mean. Just because words are the quickest way to put a thought in a brain doesn’t mean that’s all they’re good for! I would rather these words cauterized from their respective text than sit around making everything boring and awkward.
By contrast, the smallest games writing treats words with the most respect. Small writing doesn’t have enough space to get long winded or rambly and beat the poor things to death. But small writing is also the most unessential writing to games; it doesn’t advance plot or instruct or in any other way grease the functionality of the game machine. That’s great because I think it’s the most boring thing you can do with writing. But small writing exists only to be of value in and of itself. It can be cute and funny or thought-provoking or bizarre, and especially, especially revealing of the character of the person who is saying it.
Deadly Premonition has more small talk by volume than any other game I can think of, both in the sense above as writing unessential to the function of its gamey bits and in the sense that most of it resembles the usual (if really weird) sorts of conversations people in the same room without a specific topic to address. The small talk itself is high quality and fun but what I want to talk about is how Deadly Premonition is an entire world built from its very foundations on small talk. While say Fire Emblem embellishes standard RPG activities like selling equipment with adorable character specific dialogue or Mass Effect throws elevator dialogue in to keep its loading screens entertaining, Deadly Premonition is like the Grand Theft Auto of conversation, a small town that exists to drive around and have lunch with strange and interesting people.
We talk about worldbuilding a lot here at ZEAL and I question I get a lot is “How do you do good worldbuilding?” which is kind of like asking how to do good writing in that there are infinite ways to do it right and everyone has their own particular idea of how to do it, so any advice on it is prescriptive and useless. That’s maybe why it’s easy to get so very defensive of this or that way of doing things and go on to write such directives as Fuck Cutscenes or Fuck Text or Everything Must Be Gameplay or lots of other advice that is right 70% of the time. I do this all the time too! If I have ever said to definitely not do something, I mean, “think really hard about doing this because if you don’t you’re going to get it wrong too.”
Worldbuilding has a tendency to become synonymous with fantasy and science fiction but that is not actually the case, even if you set your game in New York or some sort of place that is actually real (and I really wish more games would do that, even ones that are fantasy and science fiction). Okay yes so New York or San Fransico are real places (well more or less) but they are existing in reality, not in your video game. Deadly Premonition is about a strange supernatural murder mystery but it is also about a small town in the Pacific Northwest that is weird in ways that are totally normal.
With the assumption of worldbuilding as a thing that primarily has to do with fantasy and science fiction comes a way of thinking about worldbuilding that’s primarily framed in terms of “lore” which usually translates to “wikipedia entries in the form of in-game books” (hey aevee when are you going to stop making fun of skyrim? Never). But that way of thinking neglects how a huge part of worldbuilding is deciding how and in what capacity the player will interact with and experience the world. No matter how grounded in the real world a game might be, these choices will be very different based on theme and tone and what the game is about.
For example, characters in a book don’t go to the store unless there’s something important that’s going to happen there, which is why it’s usually a giveaway just for things to be described at all. If it wasn’t important, why would the author be showing it to you? And what they choose to show ends up being the entirety of what the story is actually about, which may be the sorts of things that don’t seem intrinsically important. Some authors are really good at making the unimportant important, like how Murakami describes grocery shopping and cooking and putting on a jazz record in such detail, which is one of my favorite things about the way he writes. He’s put a lot of consideration into how people cook and do the dishes while they’re having existential thoughts and that they like spend a lot of time alone and thinking and moving, slowly, from one place to another.
Deadly Premonition is built to be experienced with a certain sort of similar aimlessness and without a lot of pressure on the player. The game does ask the player to worry about a lot of things you’d normally not have to worry about in a story driven survival horror game like this, or most games for that matter: like how sleepy or hungry you are or how much gas is in your car. I think the presence of these cares, and how generous and easily dealt with they are, actually reduces how tense the game feels. When you have to take time off to go to lunch or sleep your focus is away from speeding to the next action stage or plot point and towards something of far lower stakes. Most games obsessed with realism in other areas wouldn’t even consider burdening players with such worries. Deadly Premonition would be trivially easy to fit in the format of Resident Evil or Silent Hill, replacing the driving sequences or town wanderings with simple jump cuts and cycle between monster shooting, cutscenes, and puzzles for the duration of the game. But it is built so that there will be space and time between those filled with nothing but small talk and driving.
Managing the needs themselves are not terribly interesting—the game is not using this as a way to make fun little minigames so you will have a grand old time eating cans of pickles and sleeping in abandoned shacks. Deadly Premonition uses this as a way for you to sit down and talk with people. Deadly Premonition’s hunger and tiredness meters do not really convey much of a sense of tiredness or hunger. York just remarks when he’s getting low, there are no indicating signs before that point, and food and coffee for staving off both needs are plentiful—the items are there to give the players leeway with the meters.
So the effect this has instead is that it forces the player to, as York, participate in small town life and community. This isn’t altogether different from Baroque’s weirdo cast of characters who provide, in addition to amusing and interesting dialogue, important functions for the continuation of the game. The difference between Baroque and Deadly Premonition is in the context (small town Washington vs catholic body horror post-apocalypse) and in the structure of how the
player is motivated to go about talking with all these interesting people. Using in-game incentivization to get players to interact with NPCs is nothing new and it can be accomplished in countless ways, and the differences between them matter a whole bunch.
When Deadly Premonition has you drive to lunch, they represent that as not, say, a menu option that says >drive to lunch but as maneuvering your character with a joystick to a car, pressing a button to enter the car, using a new scheme of controls to drive the car, and then driving at around 50MPH in a crude but reasonable 3D facsimile of a town. I’m describing this in the most literal way possible because that’s not usually how we describe things in video games as it is easier and more natural to say “I drove to the store” the same way in real life it’s more natural to say “I drove to the store” because those details aren’t important. Not that there’s one way to drive to the store, but that in a game, driving to the store could be abstracted in so many different ways, like maybe you’re playing Car Car Revolution and have to hit buttons in the correct order to drive or perhaps you’re in a CaRPG and fighting random intersections on your way, or maybe there’s a cutscene and suddenly you are there, or a snippet of text because they spent their budget on the other cutscenes.
When you drive to lunch in Deadly Premonition it’s nothing like driving to lunch in real life in any sort of physical sense, but it is as mundane and uneventful as it is in real life. The controls of Agent York’s car are standard for how you drive cars in video games. The car handles about as well as a car can be expected to on a game of its budget. Better even, because the driving is totally unambitious. Typically a game with low budget will have a physics engine that is hilariously unstable and prone to hilarious interactions but Deadly Premonition doesn’t complicate itself with any of that. The car can be damaged and eventually destroyed, but it has a tank like integrity in collisions that would have killed absolutely everyone in real life. Run headfirst into a car at the maximum speed of 50mph and both cars will come to a rude stop, the small town driver will make an annoyed beep, and then drive off. If this was Grand Theft Auto there would be a five car pile up, an explosion, and a swarm of cops eager to be shot.
But there’s more—you can, for example, get out of your car and fire a machine gun at one of the cars of the citizens of Greenvale and they won’t even beep at you. There are no pedestrians. You can accidentally drive into a pile of what are apparently explosive barrels and die in this one specific place but that’s about it. Greenvale is a place where it is physically impossible to disrupt the peace of the small town, no explanation, dead stop. The game is not interested in allowing you to explore the sociopathic possibilities of a zero consequence urban environment, which is another concept marketed as realism that kind of is in a super limited and infinitely boring way.
The other kind of realism though is that stuff like that happens pretty rarely. The fact that the game makes it possible, encourages it even, creates a fantasy. Deadly Premonition’s pretty crude; it flat out just doesn’t let things happen in a very obvious and jarring way. This makes the driving very boring, not coincidentally. There’s just not much that can even happen. The drive to your destination will never be thrilling, though it will be scenic. It will even be actively boring, which is why there is also conversation, either with whoever is currently driving or with Zach, the possibly imaginary, possibly the player, and at least invisible person that York is constantly talking to.
York talks to himself about his favorite movies, b-movies, pop movies, and he always remembers the director and the year. He is the sort of person who pays attention to detail, especially details that are a little strange and don’t seem to matter. A car is a good place to be hearing these sorts of things and there is just enough attention demanded from the player to make the experience like listening to someone on the radio. Here’s how York reacts to everyday things, not just murders and monsters. Every sensation, from driving to destination and conversation is mundane, and that is how you get to see York acting like a person, not a cipher that exists only to solve cases and shoot things. I just like that someone found a way to make the “part of the Murakami novel when the character is thinking to himself while running a mundane errand” of video games. Things can be wonderful on the lower end of the stimulation spectrum.