Are Video Games Art?
Are video games art? It’s a debate that has persisted since video games first evolved beyond their infantile beginnings. Hell, we still haven’t even agreed on what makes art… art. It means many things to different people, and this only inflames the discussion surrounding the validity of video games as artistic statements.
The original Deadly Premonition is seen as something of an anomaly in video games. Upon release, it was met with very polarizing reception, with most either loving it for its endearing characters and world, and others decrying it for its poor performance and “anachronistic” gameplay.
Since then, it has gained a cult following among those that enjoyed it, and many claim it is an example of a game that is “so bad that it’s good”. I played Deadly Premonition for the first time this year on the Nintendo Switch, and I don’t fall in this camp.
To me, Deadly Premonition isn’t “so bad that it’s good”, it’s just good, and the things that many people point out as flaws, I see as strengths that mutually reinforce the experience.
Deadly Premonition released in 2010, and for its time, it wasn’t exactly cutting edge visually, let alone 10 years later. However, the low resolution textures, visual pop-in, sloppy frame rate, bundled with clunky controls and stilted voice acting meshed together to create a lo-fi experience akin to B movies or intentionally rough music.
Those factors simultaneously amplified the game’s horror as well as its comedy.
Here was a game trying very obviously to replicate the experience of David Lynch’s seminal TV show Twin Peaks, and it succeeded. I found myself falling in love with the protagonist Francis York Morgan. I was enamoured with the way he speaks to an imaginary friend, Zach, as an ostensible player surrogate.
I loved the town of Greenvale and its inhabitants, all adhering to a 24 hour day/night cycle with jobs and leisure locations. Soaking in the mundanity of it all reminded me a lot of Shenmue, a game that itself in daily life, the things that ground us in reality and meld the relationships between individuals. Visiting townsfolk at the bar after 9 PM or going to get gas for your car during regular business hours only to stumble upon a side-quest specifically programmed for that time of day makes what is otherwise a fantastical and surreal experience believable and enjoyable.
Deadly Premonition is one of the most fascinating games I have ever played. Rough around the edges and overflowing with character, it represents a type of game that doesn’t really come around anymore.
Which is why I was so excited that a second game was coming out, although I did have my concerns with a sequel. Would director and writer SWERY be able to replicate what was essentially lightning in a bottle? Did the first game even need a sequel?
Reinforcing these reservations was pre-release footage showing the game’s absolutely abysmal framerate, which was atrocious even by the first game’s standards. Were they leaning too far into the “so bad it’s good” fanfare that surrounded its cult status? Was it being made with a shoestring budget?
The sequel, Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise begins with the game’s deuteragonist, FBI special agent Aaliyah Davis and her partner Simon Jones storming into a house that is revealed to be the lair of the protagonist Francis York Morgan. This takes place in 2019 and is the framing device for the game’s narrative which takes place in Le Carré, Louisiana circa 2005. Being at once a prequel and a sequel, it is able to justify its existence from a narrative standpoint as the first game alluded to a major case in York’s career prior to its events.
The approach to gameplay in each section is also vastly different. The bulk of the game takes place in 2005, where York has stumbled upon a case while on vacation and is constituted by the same open-world structure as the first, while the 2019 segments take on a very linear point-and-click position where you’ll mostly be choosing dialog options as Aaliyah Davis to learn about the events of 2005 as well as the events of the first game.
Davis is suspicious of the way York solved all of his cases with a suspicious method of investigation (stemming from his supernatural abilities), which has left him as mostly the only person aware of events as he claims (almost no other witnesses). She personally believes that he was behind the crimes he solved in the first game and during the 2005 events of the second game but is ultimately investigating to find the truth.
York is frail, sickly, and dying of lung cancer, as he smokes heavily and cigarettes are used as time skipping items in both games, and it creates a worrying contrast to how lively he is in both the first game and the 2005 segment of the second. York will answer Davis’s questions, and this will eventually lead the player to the 2005 segments in Le Carré.
When in Le Carré, York is searching for information regarding the killing of a young girl in the town who turns out to be a member of the prominent Clarkson family (who for all intents and purposes owns the entire town). York traverses the town on a skateboard (his car was stolen) and during the course of the game meets voodoo practitioners, learns the nuances of cajun and creole food, and becomes a semi-pro bowling enthusiast.
Just like the first game, the most endearing parts of the gameplay involve interacting with the game’s characters and existing within a very grounded and humanized world, contrasted by the game’s light surreal horror.
The earlier concerns about performance were justified because the framerate is egregious, especially outdoors (there have been patches since release that have improved it, but it is still less than ideal), where I would commonly hit single digit frames. It went past enhancing the experience and just being something that I had to stomach.
While the framerate has since been made significantly more tolerable, on release, it’s understandable that it would turn many would-be players away. However, many fans of the first game already knew what to expect with a sequel; it was just unfortunate that even with those expectations, the performance was so poor.
Luckily, the game’s strengths create a rewarding experience for those that can persevere the game’s poor performance. Along with the game’s enjoyable world and side quests being yet another exploration of the mundanity of real life, York is still a one-of-a-kind character who passive aggressively berates characters right in front of them, esoterically name drops movies from his childhood and elaborates on their relevance to the topic at hand.
Listening to York unknowingly describe the way the media he has consumed shapes his worldview was a source of profundity in the first game. Whether we want to acknowledge it or not, the media we engage with molds how we see the world around us and how we interact with those in it.
Even works of fiction often use real-life counterparts or allegories to develop their stories upon, and director SWERY used this to make a meta-commentary on the important role of art and how it enriches the lives of individuals.
Conversely, the second game delves into philosophy more than the first game. Agent Davis is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, and it was at a FEMA shelter where she was introduced to Friedrich Nietzsche by a professor who was a fellow refugee. Nietzsche’s rejection of nihilism in the face of a meaningless life spoke to Davis and set her upon the path that planted her in front of York.
Emboldening this theme of self-discovery is the inclusion of an overtly trans character in the second game.
However, this character’s execution has been the source of controversy, and how she has been handled post-launch has increased the importance of the discussion her existence creates.
She is presented as an antagonist fairly early on, and when exposed to genuine transphobia directed towards the character, York goes on a pro-trans diatribe and denounces bigotry. The problem arises when he later deadnames the character, referring to her as a male and using her old name, seemingly out of sly attribution to the person she was before she transitioned.
The complaints about transphobia took many fans off-guard as SWERY’s previous game, The Missing, has a trans protagonist and was lauded for its trans representation. SWERY quickly (during the week of release) took to twitter to apologize for the transphobia in Deadly Premonition 2 and also promise fixes. When the “fixes” were implemented, many were not satisfied as there were still moments where York deadnames the trans character.
SWERY then defended this as being justified in the context it is used, even with many actual trans people telling him that it has had the opposite effect on their enjoyment of the game.
Fans came to find out that while SWERY took advice from actual trans people when making The Missing, he did not do the same on Deadly Premonition 2. The reason? We can only speculate as SWERY does not speak English and his use of “Google-senpai” to translate from Japanese has done him no favors in delivering his messages.
Given the performance of the game and its niche following, it could be safe to assume that there were budget constraints and hiring additional voices for the game could have been too expensive.
But I believe that we can look to York’s characterization for the answer. York, much like SWERY, wants to be an ally to trans people. Unfortunately, even with the best of intentions, many allies fall short since we are not the people we’re trying to advocate for.
Transphobia is such a normalized aspect of western capitalist society that even those who see themselves as trying to help trans people can fall into the pitfalls of transphobia.
York and SWERY both think they have this ally thing down but end up contributing to transphobia in their own small ways while trying to combat it.
Similar to whether or not the lo-fi aesthetic of both games are by design, it doesn’t really matter whether or not this commentary on allyship is intentional because what Deadly Premonition 2 offers is an exploration of what it means to be an ally to marginalized people and how thinking you know what’s best for them can create a vicious cycle of you hurting them.
It’s not too dissimilar to how Tommy Wiseau’s The Room is a not-too-self-aware exploration of how heterosexual men’s perspectives of women in relationships and their roles in the breaking down of those same relationships. The main characters of both pieces of art end up being author surrogates, reflecting the world view of their creator.
But even if the presumably miniscule budget of such a game did contribute to this, it brings up another important question. What deserves to be made?
The first game was an ambitious project that was intended to be released on Playstation 2 but, because of a small budget and its ambitious nature, didn’t see the light of day until an entire console generation later with its signature “bad graphics”: the same “bad graphics” that have lent it much of the appeal it has within its fanbase.
In a gaming era where big budget tentpole titles, developed under inhumane working conditions to ensure the sheeniest of polish, dominate the cultural landscape, where do games like this fit in?
To call Deadly Premonition 2 rough around the edges would be an understatement. When juxtaposed to a game like The Last of Us Part II, which released in the same month, it looks comical in comparison.
SWERY has said that his team does not crunch its developers, and that coupled with a tiny budget would have contributed to Deadly Premonition 2’s performance and execution.
But the final piece we are left with is no less fascinating and ultimately tells a better story with more to say than the vast majority of titles with gargantuan budgets and marketing pushes.
Art can’t be separated from the genesis of its creation, and the material conditions under which it is created will ultimately affect the outcome of the finished piece.
Many people will turn their nose up at titles like Deadly Premonition and opt to engage with the more high resolution and polished titles. And to an extent that’s fine. People can like what they like.
But what happens when those same individuals gatekeep what can and can’t be created? Video games are in a precarious position. There once was a varying space for games of a wide variety of budgets and audiences to be created.
That isn’t the case anymore. There are now two extremes and those are indie titles developed by small teams and the aforementioned big budget AAA releases. Gone is the space for AA games, low budget titles, and the place for a game like Deadly Premonition.
If this game didn’t already have its devoted audience, it’s safe to assume it would not have a place in the market and would have been less than a blip on the radar.
Ironically, many of those big AAA titles don’t take half the risks a game like Deadly Premonition takes. Driven by a large budget often means that it needs to create a large return on investment and that translates to these bigger titles playing it safe.
If the medium can’t afford a space for titles like Deadly Premonition, then the floor isn’t open to a huge swath of creatives and storytellers. If we as players allow the space to be dominated by titles that prioritize raw performance and high production values, thereby stagnating the industry and silencing voices, we’re transitively allowing the creation of a space that creates products meant to maximize profits instead of taking creative risks or making artistic statements.
If that is the case, the discussion on whether or not video games are art continues with no definitive answer in sight.