Hidetaka "SWERY" Suehiro is the director of Deadly Premonition, a big-surprise cult hit that came out in the U.S. earlier this year for the Xbox 360 via publisher Ignition. The game is a free-form murder mystery with more than a passing resemblance to the David Lynch TV series Twin Peaks ; much like that show, it’s become an underground phenomenon, as has its creator.
The developer of the game, Osaka’s Access Games, isn’t very well known ; their PS2 stealth game Spy Fiction was heavily promoted but released to only middling reviews. Deadly Premonition, on the other hand, is a love-it or hate-it experience ; IGN gave it a 2, while Destructoid gave it a 10, praising its idiosyncrasies and championing it as a rare example of "it’s so bad it’s good" in games.
SWERY, who started up an English Twitter account to interface with the enthusiastic fans the game has created, answered Gamasutra’s questions via email — hopefully providing a peek into the fraught and inspired creative process that lead to Deadly Premonition.
Was the game originally an Xbox 360 title ? How long has it been in development ?
SWERY : When we started this project, the original plan was to release the game on Xbox 360 and PlayStation 2.
At that time, we still didn’t know what the PS3 would look like, but once things got clearer, we naturally decided to move to a PS3 and 360 multiplatform game. We managed to release the game on both platforms in Japan but only on 360 in the U.S.
As to the development time... I would say that it was way too long ! I couldn’t help thinking about new features or trying new stuff, that’s why it took so long, I think. Sorry for the really long wait.
What was your inspiration for the design of the game ? It seems to be a hybrid of a number of genres.
SWERY : Regarding the game design, it was actually something that I had in mind for a long time and wanted to make it happen.
Something I’d wanted to try was a crime investigation story set in real time in an open-world setting. I kind of had everything in place in my mind but I have to admit that at that time, our technical skills, staff, connections, and even my own skills weren’t enough to deal with this project.
Now, in the 21st century it is almost possible to create games just as they exist in our own vision, so I was sure that we were capable of creating that game I’d conceived of only in my mind.
Looking back, I hadn’t imagined all the troubles we would have along the way, and how much time it would take to overcome them.
How close is the final game to your original vision ?
SWERY : When we started to work on this game, I was aiming for a cynical, urban game based around forensic science, but after many discussions with the producer, we changed it to something more mysterious and occult.
However, the main messages or ideas I wanted to communicate didn’t change between the original concept and the final game.
Everyone I’ve talked to feels that the "real" game takes place during the exploration/mystery sequences, and that the shooting areas are bits you have to simply get through to get back to the fun part of the game (though the profiling aspect is enjoyable). How do you feel about that statement ?
SWERY : Actually, I feel exactly the same.
It’s a little bit embarrassing, but the shooting areas were the last things that we started to work on and I have to reckon that I should have paid more attention to this part.
Actually, this part wasn’t even in the original concept and after checking with my staff and many people, I eventually realized that it was necessary.
What inspired the direct homage to Twin Peaks ? Can you speak at all about the content changes you had to make to the game after the first trailer was released ?
SWERY : As I said previously, I wanted to create a game with an urban setting based around forensic sciences. But it eventually ended up being something more occult with forensic sciences having trouble to make the transition in a small countryside town.
To be honest, I don’t consider this game as an homage to any particular contents even though I don’t have the confidence to say that I wasn’t inspired by anything, especially with all the contents we have accessed to nowadays.
About the trailer, it was actually something created by the publisher [Marvelous Interactive] so you should check with them, I think, for more details.
How did you come across the voice actor for York ? He fits his role really well — is he a professional ?
SWERY : The voice actor for York is Jeff Kramer.
Of course, he is a professional and was introduced to us by the translation company that did the English version for us, Katalyst Lab. Actually, Jeff Kramer was the voice for Seaman.
He was definitely a pro among the pros, a really tough guy but really kind. On the top of that, he was really fun.
After we received his voice sample and I listened to it, I was really surprised because I had the feeling that I was actually listening to York’s voice from my PC. It was him and couldn’t be anyone else.
How much of York’s conversation with Zach was your own inner thoughts ? Not many people have seen Deadly Spawn, for example, so it sounded very personal to me (I saw the movie in a theatre in 2001 with the director, who did a Q&A afterward).
SWERY : The inner thought conversations in the game were written by the co-scenarist Kenji Gota and me. Kenji Gota is actually a movie director in the Japanese independent scene and he is a good friend of mine. When we meet, we always talk about movies, sometimes for hours while drinking. This atmosphere, I wanted to recreate it in the game too that’s why I had to think about a way to integrate it.
So through different gimmicks, we ended up integrating our conversations such like the one below in the game, especially in the inner thought talks in the car I think.
"What ?! You met Douglas McKeown !
How lucky you are !!
I wanted to hear more about it but I have an interview today, so let’s discuss it around a coffee next time. OK, Zach ?"
Deadly Premonition has some of the most interesting and twisted monologues I’ve heard in a video game before, and I think they work because York’s voice actor plays it so straight. Most game developers would not dare to address necrophilia or drinking urine from a skull. What was your motivation there ?
SWERY : That’s a difficult question.
When I created York, he actually started to express himself... So I just wrote down what he was saying. Next time, I will ask him in details his motivation.
There was a lot of writing in this game, with care taken to give NPCs new dialog every time York has found a new piece of evidence, even if the dialog doesn’t ultimately advance the storyline. Did you have a team of writers, or did one person do it all ?
SWERY : I (under my other pen name) and Kenji Gota wrote the main scenario. I also wrote 80 percent of the side-missions. The remaining 20 percent was written by our planner.
The conversations with the NPCs were all written by me. We prepared discussions for all chapters, 24 hours a day, and all types of weather. I didn’t want the player to feel any repetition while talking with the NPCs.
Since the player is taking some time to converse with the NPCs, if he is told the same thing each time, it would be a kind of let down. When I started to write the scenario, every day for 18 hours, without resting even during New Year, I had to write down something.
How have you felt about the reaction to the game in the U.S.?
SWERY : I felt really flattered !! Everyone, I love you !! That’s all.
Most of the positive reviews of Deadly Premonition have been from the alternative press, or those members of the press who appreciate something different. How do you think the game will review in Japan, where alternative games press hardly exists ?
SWERY : Not particularly great. Actually, the feedback I got from users were "it’s good fun !" but looks like the Japanese media didn’t really bother. Unfortunately, there is no alternative games press at the moment here.
I have to discuss the map UI — it reorients every time you change direction, and is really confusing — you also can’t zoom out very much. Why was it this way ? I have been speculating that maybe you wanted to make players learn the layout of the town.
SWERY : York has to do many visits in remote, inconvenient places in Greenvale.
Besides, his laptop and cell phone were broken, his beloved car crashed, the sheriff is an arrogant moron, there is no convenience store, gas is expensive, chocolate chip cookies are also expensive...
But, actually, in the game, there are many other inconvenient things that we didn’t implement. For example, he couldn’t find his favorite cigarette brand, there are only a few channels on TV, and as you can see in recent movies, there is no catering service, no internet, and so on...
I think that a car GPS is also one commodity that you can’t find in the countryside, so I need you to be comprehensive. Furthermore, it’s not as if I didn’t warn you at the beginning of the game when York says "Zach, there goes the civilized world".
The combat sequences can be frustrating at times — I’ve advised everyone I know to play the game on easy. Did you do much playtesting of the controls ?
SWERY : As I said previously, the combat part was the last thing we implemented in the game, even though we did a lot of playtesting.
I reckon that the control is a little bit different from what you have in the current TPS or FPS, but for the game, it works as it is I think.
And as you see, York is more an indoor guy, that’s why he can’t move faster.
I hope this is not too offensive, but the game struck me as having very forward-thinking world design and character/writing, but being a bit regressive in terms of mechanics and UI design. What would you say to that ?
SWERY : The game system was considered many years ago, that’s why it may feel a little bit archaic, for this, I can’t help it I think.
As for the UI design (including its inconvenient aspect), I wanted the users to feel the atmosphere of the countryside, or maybe a metaphor where good old fashioned countryside is where you find good old fashioned game design.
But, if all the users only felt stressed when playing the game, it’s something that I will have to rethink next time.
There are a lot of little extra details in Deadly Premonition, like the ability to shave, or change your suit, or fish. These obviously take a lot of time — how did you manage to find the resources to implement all these small systems ? Why do you feel they are important ?
SWERY : For this game, there are three "real" elements that I felt were really important. Real time, real scale, and real life.
I can say with confidence that these three points are something that I can’t overlook when making a game and have to be fulfilled to some extent.
Actually, I was considering having the hair grow, and the character putting on or losing weight. Meeting these requirements would have your character a perfect avatar and not just Agent York, and that’s what I was aiming for with these features.
How did we manage to implement all these small systems ? I would say it’s our love to this game that allowed us to do it.
I want to also note that these details make the leaderboards hilarious.
SWERY : That’s very good to hear. I am grateful that people have played so much Deadly Premonition.
There are so many interesting and silly events you can make happen in this game — like being on an "important time-sensitive mission" and then going inside a building, taking a nap for several hours, shaving, and eating a raw onion. How and why did you decide to implement this freedom for the player ?
SWERY : Do you remember the character Harry in his wheelchair ? He said that what’s important is not speed but timing.
That’s exactly what I tried to recreate. I wanted the player to play according to his own timing and see the results of his actions. So the timing and when to play is really up to the player.
This game doesn’t have multiple endings but I still wanted the player to feel that the story is progressing because of the choices he or she made.
Can you talk about your inspiration for Zach ?
SWERY : Agent York arrives in Greenvale to solve a murder case. But, the player lives this scene from his living room in front of the TV.
To fill this gap, I needed something to create the illusion, without turning the character into an avatar, that the user was the main character. Actually, it was a really painful process, but eventually it was a simple response to the question "how to transfer a feeling ?" When I saw the response, it was when Zach was born.
Lastly, what, to you, makes a good mystery ? How do you like to see that mystery unfold ?
SWERY : A good mystery is one in which would be fully satisfied with the explanation at the end.
To put it simply, a book or movie can trick you or make it so you can’t see what’s coming next but it can’t be with a deceitful purpose.
For me, deceiving the player or audience on purpose is just like cheating. As entertainment, this honesty is something fundamental that you can’t just dismiss.
Then, as to how a good mystery should unfold, I personally think that you need identify with the protagonists.
It’s something that is the same whether you are playing a game, watching a movie or reading a book. It’s is an important experience in life. And when it’s over, I really like when it leaves something in your heart.
Thank you and guys, I love you !!