The things that I tell you will contain spoilers.
‘When two separate events occur simultaneously pertaining to the same object of inquiry, we must always pay strict attention!’ So said FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper in Mark Frost and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks (ABC, 1990-1991), the ground-breaking television series that created an idiosyncratic blend of genres (police procedural, supernatural horror, romance, soap opera, slapstick, science fiction and more). Twenty years after the series’ initial broadcast two games were released on the Xbox 360 that – to quote Agent Cooper again – bore ‘irrefutable similarities’ to Twin Peaks. But the two games could not have been more different. Alan Wake, produced by Remedy, was intended as the first instalment of an ongoing transmedia franchise, made possible by the financial backing of US publisher Microsoft. But despite a warm critical reception and steady sales (over three million copies sold at time of writing), after the release of two additional ‘episodes’ of DLC and a short sequel the franchise (if that isn’t too big a term for what Alan Wake currently is) remains stuck in development limbo. (Alan Wake fans might take heart in Twin Peaks’ unexpected return, over twenty-five years after the original series ended – or pull their hair out at the thought of having to wait so long.) Access Games’ Deadly Premonition, by contrast, was a troubled production that could have collapsed at any moment but for the determination of its auteur, Hidetaka ‘Swery’ Suehiro. Deadly Premonition may have looked and played like a low-budget B-movie title, but as its story progressed it blossomed into something that felt truly epic in scope. Nevertheless, critical reaction to Deadly Premonition was mixed, to say the least. Some deplored the game; others described it as being ‘so bad it’s good’; and some players, like myself, were quick to love it unconditionally and proclaim it a work of art.
Speaking personally I have to say that, as much as I enjoy and admire Alan Wake, I find it easier to love Deadly Premonition. Alan Wake does, I think, contain hidden depths, but it does a very good job of calling attention away from them. It is a fast-moving big-budget thrill-ride. Deadly Premonition, by contrast, is so strange, so singularly bizarre that it demands a greater level of engagement on the player’s part. The linear narrative of Alan Wake compels players to keep moving forward, from point A to B. There are opportunities ‘to stand and stare,’ to stop what you’re doing and wallow in the game’s richly oppressive atmosphere, but it’s not something that the game seeks to encourage. Deadly Premonition, on the other hand, is a sprawling open-world title that demands and rewards exploration, telling players that ‘haste won’t lead you to what you seek’. As a result, Deadly Premonition feels ‘Lynchian’ in a way that Alan Wake never does. It is slow-moving, ‘wonderful and strange’, tragic and farcical, camp yet sincere. Remember, Peakies, the divided reaction to Sarah Palmer’s howl of despair, how viewers complained of not knowing whether to laugh or to cry? Remember James Hurley’s toe-curlingly awful yet strangely mesmerising torch song, ‘You and I’? Deadly Premonition is the video-game equivalent of those scenes.
But while it seems obvious to want to compare these two games, given that they both quote Twin Peaks extensively, I have some reservations about doing so. Alan Wake and Deadly Premonition are, to use an old expression, ‘as different as chalk and cheese’. They might both replicate certain characters and locations from Twin Peaks almost to a tee but beyond that superficial resemblance they are worlds apart. And comparing them does, I know, beg the question of ‘which is better’. From a technical standpoint Alan Wake is undoubtedly superior to Deadly Premonition, and for many people graphics and game-play are what ultimately determine a game’s quality. But from a narrative standpoint, and as an overall aesthetic experience, I know that Deadly Premonition had by far and away the greatest impact on me, and on many others. What I’m trying to get at here is that comparing both games in terms of ‘quality’ is tricky and subjective, as how you define ‘quality’ depends on what you choose to prioritize (graphics, game-play, narrative, aesthetics, etc) – on what you value the most.
Whilst aiming to be more objective in my appreciation of these three texts, over a series of posts I’ll be comparing how each one treats a given type of location, to show what makes each text interesting and effective in its own right. This is relatively easy to do, for the most part, as both Alan Wake and Deadly Premonition contain their own versions of some of Twin Peaks’ most iconic locations. But in subsequent essays the locations will be seen to become increasingly unstable. For example, while Alan Wake has its own trailer park to mirror Twin Peaks’ ‘Fat Trout Trailer Park’, Deadly Premonition does not. It does, however, boast several sites that, shall we say, give off a distinct ‘Fat Trout’ aroma. Likewise, while Deadly Premonition boasts a saw mill to rival Twin Peaks’, Alan Wake features, not one, but several industrial sites, each with their own authentic-sounding history. And then there are the woods. All three texts share a fascination with the woods surrounding their respective towns, though they each differ sharply in their respective visual and thematic approaches to them. Finally, all three texts contain a shadow realm, a nightmarish dreamscape where the differences and similarities between the three texts are most starkly apparent.
Finally, a confession: I have spent several years obsessing over these two games and I have been desperately wanting to write and publish something about them and their connection to Twin Peaks. I wrote extensively about each text in an unfinished doctoral thesis – too much, in fact. The original scope of my thesis was ridiculously broad: American Gothic in the context of globalization. In retrospect, I wish I had made the topic of the chapter in question – ‘Pacific Northwest Gothic’ – the subject of the thesis. Regarding the globalization angle, one of the things that most intrigued me about these games was the fact that they had both been produced outside the United States. Alan Wake had been produced by a development team based in Finland, albeit one that had become increasingly international since its founding. Deadly Premonition, by contrast, had been produced by an almost entirely Japanese production crew (excluding the American voice cast). Both games might be said to offer an ‘outsider’ perspective of America – but then, a person could argue, so does Twin Peaks. It’s also worth noting that the idea of a remote town that is out of step with the rest of the country is not a trope that Twin Peaks invented, and that there are plenty of examples of this trope that are not located in America. Also, while the texts in question can be seen to luxuriate in their respective small town settings their concerns are, to quote Twin Peaks’ Agent Rosenfield, ‘global’. Though both games reference Twin Peaks without, it might seem, much subtlety, there are in fact many subtle connections to be pondered – the resemblance between the Cauldron Lake water in Alan Wake and the mysterious black oil in Twin Peaks, for example, or the fresh take on Twin Peaks’ ‘garmonbozia’ served up in Deadly Premonition. All three texts create their own ‘mythology’ concerned with the transcendent – the human soul, the imagination, the cycle of violence, etc – and it is hinted, in each, that the implications of their respective narratives extend far beyond the confines of the towns where their action is set.