[Hidetaka "Swery" Suehiro discusses his cult hit Deadly Premonition, revealing the auteur behind a work of misunderstood genius -- one who while acknowledging the mistakes made in the game's development, also deeply and clearly understands precisely the ingredients that made it so special.]
Frequently mocked but simultaneously beloved, Hidetaka Suehiro's Deadly Premonition is a cult success for all the wrong reasons, with aspects such as a split-personality hero that needs to regularly shave, endless car journeys, and a bizarre cast of townsfolk taken as random -- signifiers of a "wacky Japanese game."
But in discussion, Suehiro -- better known by his development persona "Swery" -- reveals himself to be a consummate auteur, recasting Deadly Premonition's importance as representative of something that has been lost to game development (outside of the independent extremes of the likes of Messhof and Cactus) since the imperfect glory of titles such as Ultima VII and Another World: the promise that ambition and charm are worth more than any level of polish and balance to moving the form forward.
Opening the conversation, Suehiro explained Deadly Premonition's ambition came from his previous failure developing a sequel to his poorly-received directorial debut, 2003's Spy Fiction for PS2.
"We spent about half a year working on a sequel to Spy Fiction," he said. "Spy Fiction is this kind of unrealistic, heroic world, and once it was cancelled, I started thinking of working a more realistic, human world.
"It was probably some of the energy of the cancellation that helped with the birth of the idea: I considered that with Spy Fiction 2, we followed all of the publisher's ideas and feedback -- and it still got cancelled.
"And so internally, I told the people around me, 'If we continue to work in this style, the cycle is only going to repeat.' I wanted to use a different method; to be strong, bold with my concepts, and make what we wanted to make."
Initially planned as a small-scale PSP adventure game where the player would use forensic investigation to solve a murder in a countryside town -- Suehiro references Grasshopper Manufacture's simplistically designed yet thematically deep Flower, Sun, and Rain as an influence -- some involvement of the Japanese publisher was allowed ("I was blessed to find a producer that had actually played Spy Fiction and finished it many times," he laughs) such as suggesting that the title be scaled up to a next-generation project, with development beginning in early 2005.
Recognizing the importance of the West to success on these formats, Suehiro began to concentrate on what a Japanese developer could do to reach that market. "Even when thinking of where the game would come out first, we were thinking the United States," he said. "When I thought about how to approach foreign markets, I thought, well, we need two things: first we need good technology, and second we need to make something with that that people haven't seen before.
"Of course, the technology step didn't work out too well," he sighed.
Even considering it as a game that began development in 2005, Deadly Premonition is graphically backward, and Suehiro admits that is part of the difficult gestation of the game. While attempting to create a bold work, Suehiro did have to placate the publisher so it could see fruition, including a point where the team were told they could no longer improve the game's graphics or technology, and the late addition of combat sequences (the game's most criticized feature.)
"There were four times when the project was under threat of being cancelled," Suehiro said. "Including times when we were told the content was simply too extreme for the kind of product we were trying to make. It was me and the producer [on the publisher side] who had to have a lot of passion and drive to overcome them, and every single time we managed to revive the product."
Although Suehiro studiously avoids any and all references to David Lynch's seminal television series Twin Peaks when discussing Deadly Premonition (as well he might; discussion of the game's overt similarity to Twin Peaks when revealed at the Tokyo Game Show in 2007 as "Rainy Woods" cost the game months of asset redevelopment) similarities in the content remain, though used to different ends.
Twin Peaks features incest, rape, murder, and drug use as an exploration of one of Lynch's favourite themes (that darkness that lies under even the most mundane suburban town) whereas Deadly Premonition, released 20 years after Twin Peaks debuted, accepts those "hidden" aspects as part of reality, and explores the more personal story of hero Francis York Morgan's (and the player's) reaction to them.
While pressure from the publisher means these dark elements are only indirectly referenced, Suehiro's direction deals with them in a remarkably adult manner.
"There are all these touchy issues in our game that most publishers -- or even game designers -- would just stay away from, but those things exist in real life, and I wanted to create a universe that realistically contained those elements. Whether that's a good or a bad thing is really a personal issue of the viewer/gamer, but from my perspective we can accept that these things exist in our world then we can accept them in a game; in the same fashion we see them in our real world, without implicitly condoning them.
"Realism is kind of hard to make, especially within a game," Suehiro continues. "People live their own lives, and they have their own perspective, but it's important to offer things that give your player something to think about even when they aren't playing your game. When I was a kid, I used to watch a lot of fantasy and science fiction, but as I grew up I matured, or learned that in many cases those are just lies; escapism. As we continue to make games, we should use fiction, of course, but I'd like to make games that are believable."
This importance stressed on a world that is "believable" is one of the reasons that the open world works differently from the currently established style of series such as Grand Theft Auto (though with Grand Theft Auto III making only a small splash in Japan, Suehiro admits there "wasn't much else to look at in terms of how other developers were doing it.")
Pairing the base framework of the story -- an FBI agent visiting a small town to solve a murder -- with the decision to create an open world, Suehiro stressed that the characters of the world were the shared key between the design and story.
"When we started thinking about the kind of open world we wanted to create, instead of going in the direction of creating the storyline and blocking things in, we started thinking about the characters in the town and what kind of lifestyle they were living out," he said.
Suehiro and his team went as far as planning the individual life of characters, their daily movements across the town, before beginning to flesh out the story, giving the world an unusual depth: the town of Greenvale has a small number of inhabitants, but most can be involved in York's story in some way -- and when they aren't, they continue to go about their business.
This also influenced the design of the game's side quests, almost all of which relate to the main story in some fashion.
"The game has a main line, a tree trunk, and as long as that main path is interesting, even the player who doesn't go along the branches is going to be satisfied," Suehiro said, "but I think it's also important that the branches are connected to the trunk; that they offer more perspective on what is going in the main path. They should trigger the desire for the players to consider what changed in their minds, how they look at what's going on. A lot of games have side quests that are just simple chores, that don't really add to the story, and we really wanted to avoid that."
In fact, Suehiro described that the team went as far as frequently exploring parts of the main plot that could be turned into side quests without breaking the central experience. "The side quest featuring Anna's dress is something that we took out of the main path," he said as an example.
This kind of design is part of the reason that -- although an open world -- Deadly Premonition is more successful at creating the feeling of an episodic experience than Alan Wake (released three months later after a similarly protracted development cycle.) The game is split into chapters, but within each the player is given the option to take the time to explore the town and experience side quests, which work within the context as subplots do within a television show -- something Suehiro had deeply considered.
"Definitely when we started the project there was the question, 'Do we want to make it movie-like, or do we want to make it feel like TV, episodic?' We opted to go for the latter; episodes with cliff-hangers at the end. That the player would want to see the next chapter was very important to the project."
Greenvale may be deep, but spatially it is also broad, with a map that requires minutes to cross even by the fastest vehicles. Considered irritating by many commentators -- the driving physics are unrefined -- Suehiro considered its vastness important to the game's stated aim of believability.
"When we started development it was a smaller town, more like a European village," he said. "But after I went to the U.S. for research [Suehiro took frequent trips to the Pacific Northwest during development for inspiration] I realized the roads are much wider; that you need to drive to get anywhere."
Adding this element led to a happy accident: observing that the lengthy drives were often boring, Suehiro added one of the most memorable features of the game: York's meandering discussions about cult film with player-surrogate Zach, which reference everything from Richard Donner's Ladyhawke to utterly forgotten fare such as Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins.
"When I was in the U.S. to get reference material, I noticed whenever we were stuck in a long drive we were always talking… well, talking or eating something. So I thought if in the game people were going to have to use driving as a mechanism to get from point A to point B, it only made sense to add some conversation."
These moments are arguably the heart of Deadly Premonition, the ones that work best to draw the player in and identify with York: cinema offers a common language, and even if you can't remember Douglas McKeown's 1983 horror The Deadly Spawn, York's humorous take on it will spur recognition in any player. By having York converse directly with the player throughout the game -- referring to them as "Zach" -- Suehiro places the player in a position that perhaps no game has before: the main character's best friend.
This leads to perhaps the game's key storytelling moment, when York is kidnapped and begins to realize -- and relate to the player as Zach -- his feelings for Emily, the Sherriff's deputy that has been helping him on the case.
"In life, there are things that are hard to say even to your best friend," said Suehiro. "Maybe if you go on a camping trip with them, before bed you might let slip something you wouldn't usually say. Having built up your relationship with York, I wanted a moment that would put you off-guard, and let his real thoughts be placed directly into your heart."
Such sentiment might seem corny, but reveals the careful ways in which Suehiro orchestrated Deadly Premonition's dramatic arc -- a massive achievement, considering the open world allows extensive opportunity for players to abuse the system.
But by placing the player in the role of Zach and keeping York in constant contact with them, he encourages the player to not just "play" but "play along."
"When I was creating the storyline, I was developing it with the intent that they player would hopefully feel they had matured a bit by playing the game; that some kind of growth had occurred. In a similar fashion then the main character also needed to have some change in their life: they would have to lose something dear to them," explained Suehiro. "York loses Emily, Zach loses York, and ultimately the player loses Greenvale. These losses linger with the player so that even when they are no longer playing the game, they still think about it."
It seems hard to believe that a game still largely defined in public discourse as "wacky" and "broken" could hold such power over the player, and Suehiro admits that when the title was released the reaction to it was crushing.
"The bad news came with the first review's low score. I felt really sad, and then someone uploaded footage of the final battle to mock it before the game was even released in Japan. Having those things happen in quick succession was a really low moment in my life," he said. "But with a few days, people who had enjoyed the game started to contact me and tell me how much it meant to them. It totally changed my mindset."
It's not that Suehiro doesn't see the game's awkwardness ("If I could do anything right now, I'd at least change the controls to make them more modern and alter the enemies to make them easier to beat," he reflects) but that they matter less to him than the overall experience of the title: that he successfully managed to create a "Swery game."
Indeed, his plans for the future concentrate on continuing to evolve the hallmarks of the "Swery game" as embodied by Deadly Premonition: a commitment to deep characterization to draw the player in.
"The thoughts I have right now are to create a game where even the secondary characters can be as fleshed out as the main character, so the player can take control of them at points and 'play off' the main character, increasing their understanding of them."
Such thoughts of a multi-character epic might bring Suehiro close to a work like David Cage's Heavy Rain (a title Suehiro would admit to only beginning to play, after this interview was performed, via his Twitter account) and it's interesting to consider what he'd be able to do with the kind of support Cage receives.
Released the very same day in North America, despite the obvious gulf in polish, Cage's work misuses the aspects of both interactivity and narrative that it seems Suehiro understands effortlessly, and yet is taken completely seriously by the same establishment that has ignored Deadly Premonition's depths. We can only hope that with the next "Swery game," Deadly Premonition's importance is more widely examined.