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[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."