The Element of Surprise

Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 2:47 pm
In Webster's Dictionary, this photo is shown next to the word, "surprise."

There's nothing like being surprised. Having something sneak up on you tends to amplify whatever emotion you'd regularly feel given any situation. For instance, how would you feel if you saw a grotesque, slimy squid-monster crawling toward you slowly from a great distance?  Probably a little freaked out, maybe generally uneasy, perhaps a little confused.  But what about if, instead of gradually inching closer , it fell out of a hole in the ceiling right in front of you?  You'd feel all those emotions you felt before, but way more!  You'd be extremely freaked out, superlatively uneasy, and monumentally confused.

This works for good emotions as well. If as a young child you were politely informed by your parents that you would be receiving that Lego spaceship you wanted for your birthday, you would be pretty happy when your birthday rolled around and that gorgeous box of blocks and grinning yellow space-dudes emerged from the wrapping paper. But if your parents kept their mouths shut and waited, you would have no idea that instead of a big box of underwear and socks, that present was actually your ticket to outer space adventure. And instead of a calm drawn-out period of happiness, your joy would be a sudden, violent explosion, much like the explosion of a Lego astronaut without a spacesuit in a terrible pressurization chamber accident.

My point is that Lego space-faring is nasty, dangerous work, but somebody's got to fucking do it.

Wait, no! I don't think that was my point, actually.

Right, my point was that usually the games I feel strongly about are the games that are capable of surprising me in some way or other. When I know what a title is going to do and it does exactly that, even if it's a very effective game, I'm left without that burst of emotion, that shock that stirs me from the button-mashing trance. Alternatively, when it happens, there's nothing quite like it.

York is a main character that's full of surprises.

I just recently started playing Deadly Premonition. I know that most of you have probably heard of this game before, as its mixture of chilling set-pieces, goofy events, insane dialogue and engrossing plot is the stuff of Xbox legend.

For those of you who have yet to read about or play this game, Deadly Premonition was released in 2010 to bewildered critical response. Some critics despised the game, citing its dismal graphics and high nonsense factor. They are not wrong. The game is objectively awful on several fronts, including long sequences where York has to shoot zombies that are trying to stick their grubby zombie hands in his throat. Saying that the controls are not intuitive is like saying that the Hindenburg was not completely fireproof (Yes!! Two Hindenburg references on JD in as many weeks! Whatever prize we just won, it's an obscure one!).

But there were other critics that seemed to have played an entirely different game. They gushed about the game's immersive open-world setting and its detailed plot. They wrote in glowing terms about the offbeat humor that permeates the game, despite the fact that it is nominally a survival horror title. They compared it, favorably, to David Lynch series Twin Peaks -- it comes complete with a bucolic Northwestern setting, sinister underpinnings and loads of oddball comedy.


I can say without a doubt that Deadly Premonition would have been a no-go for me if it hadn't managed to surprise me continually. I'm not a big fan of survival horror to begin with, and the combat is neither fun nor very challenging (so far, and granted, I'm only a couple hours in). But every so often Deadly Premonition will pop out of the conventions of its genre and delight the player with something random.

For instance, as you're having breakfast early in the game, there's a Quick Time Event that prompts you to press a button if you want to "admire" the cooking of your host. God knows what occurs if you fail to press the button. I laughed and dutifully pressed the button, and York (our strange, strange hero) delivers the compliment.

This type of thing isn't just kooky and cute, it makes me engage with the game on a deeper level. If I know what's coming and I know exactly what type of input is expected of me, I tune out a little bit: even if there's a situation I haven't seen before, in a lot of games it's just a matter of killing guys in different formations, or killing guys with different guns. When the nature of my input is fundamentally changed, even only for a moment, I sit up straight and pay attention.

Thought I could go one column without mentioning Mass Effect? THINK AGAIN

I kinda swore to myself that I wasn't going to touch the Mass Effect 3 ending with a five-hundred-lightyear pole, but I will say this (no spoilers):

I was pretty unhappy with the ending, but the nature of it was so surprising and jarring that I admit I had a legitimate emotional reaction to it that I wouldn't have had if everything turned out precisely the way I thought it would. Even in terms of negative reactions to surprising content in video games, the emotions they provoke are real and beyond the scope of what most video games are capable of.

Developers playing it safe results in predictable games, and predictable video games are not only less lasting and often less enjoyable than their more spontaneous counterparts, but often perpetuate myths about gamers. The least surprising games are the ones that play into the common wisdom about what a video game is, and that common wisdom is that they're big, dumb bulletstorms for people with pent-up anger and too much time. While that conception of video games is ever-fading, the more games there are that surprise players with out-of-genre details or radical shifts in proven formulas, the more wide and fascinating the medium will become.

Dangerous Physical Appliances 2000 is a weekly column that Aaron Matteson writes. Sometimes they are funny, sometimes they're more moody. This one was a mix, he guesses?  You can follow him on Twitter @AaronMatteson if you want.

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