The games that channel Twin Peaks

This article was originally written before the new Twin Peaks series started, and was exclusive to the RPS Supporter Program.

Twin Peaks is back and I’m just about as excited about that as I’ve ever been about anything in the world of television or cinema. It’s not Twin Peaks in particular that I crave, though when it was good it was very very good, it’s David Lynch himself. I’m hoping The Return will be a distillation of every idea he’s considered during the years he’s been away from the screen, and if that means we get some Inland Empire and Rabbits mixed in with any more conventional mysteries, I’ll be a very happy person indeed.

What are the best games to play for that David Lynch vibe though? I’ve got five of them here, some very much expected but a couple you might not have considered.

Deadly Premonition

The obvious pick. Deadly Premonition often feels like a bizarre piece of Twin Peaks fan-fiction, from the main character to the initial plotting. An FBI agent who loves coffee arrives in a small town to solve the murder of a young woman and things get very weird.

Lynch resists direct interpretation of his work, arguing that to summarise or understand images and sound in a strictly verbal form (either spoken or written) is to force it into a medium that it was never intended to fit. Deadly Premonition works in similar ways – it’s NPC behaviours and the schedule of the town are among the conceits and devices that are explorations of the way games respond and engage with their players. I’ve heard people argue that its strength is in its setting and tone rather than its mechanics, but I completely disagree. Where it is most Lynchian, it’s in its use of and appreciation for the unusual edges of its own medium.

Alan Wake

The flipside of the Deadly Premonition coin. As in the Max Payne games (which have their own Twin Peaks references: in-game TV show Address Unknown and even the melodrama of Lords and Ladies which has a whiff of Invitation to Love about it) Remedy seem less interested in exploring how games work, and more interested in the ambience of their chosen fictional genre and pop culture references.

The town of Bright Falls isn’t as strange or wonderful as Twin Peaks, but there are dark forces in the woods, and they have a corrupting influence on the people thereabouts. Stephen King is the more obvious touchstone, given that Alan Wake is a horror story about storytelling, but there’s also a decent interpretation of the reality-warping effects of those dark things in the woods. Wake takes a much more literal approach than Lynch and reminds me of some of Frost’s Peaks writing, particularly The Secret History of Twin Peaks.

Silent Hill 2 / Shattered Memories

Weird, unsettling and nightmarish. That’s one side of Twin Peaks and Silent Hill, at its best, can feel like a trip to the Black Lodge. It can also vanish up its own mythological hole (which is sometimes there and sometimes gone) when the cult and backstory of the town take centre stage rather than the characters and their own personal connections to the sorrow and horror.

The sound design is the key though. Akira Yamaoka knows how to get under your skin with the creeping dread of a drone or a noise like razors scraping on bone, but the series also has some stand-out tracks that lean into pop music in a way that makes the familiar deeply unnerving.

Virginia

The setting is very Twin Peaks but the sensation is more Inland Empire. It’s dreamlike rather than nightmarish for the most part, but the headlong tumble through realities, memories and imagined futures created by the jumpcuts and some superb editing reminds me of Inland Empire’s journey through confused interiors. Difficult and not wholly successful, it’s still a game well worth playing and one that left me almost entirely satisfied despite its flaws.

Kathy Rain

As Kathy Rain’s story unfolds and it starts to reveal its mysteries, it becomes increasingly clear that there’s something strange at the heart of it all. What begins as a homecoming story soon starts to peel back layers of memory and assumptions about the way the world works, until every conversation feels like it might lead to a new conspiracy.

What’s striking about Kathy Rain is the way its setting contains such a broad variety of life. From the biker bar to big business and small-town gossip, there’s a melodramatic soap opera screaming to get out from beneath the central mystery, and in some ways that’s peak Twin Peaks.

There are more, of course and I’d love to read about your own favourite Lynchian or Peaks-y games.

26 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Syt says:

    I was expecting Life is Strange to make this list. :o

    • Hoot says:

      Life Is Strange didn’t feel the slightest bit Lynch-ian or Twin Peaks-ey to me. Not at all.

      It was a lot more Stephen King-ish (like Alan Wake) but even King doesn’t completely nail the feel of Life Is Strange. It’s more like a cross between an 80’s sci-fi movie (or media done in the style of that like Super 8 or Stranger Things) and a King short story.

  2. Premium User Badge

    Oakreef says:

    I’ve never watched Twin Peaks but I’ve heard Puzzle Agent takes notes from it and Puzzle Agent is great.

  3. HeroCrests says:

    Back in the 90s, when Persona just started, the Velvet Room was pretty much explicitally based on the Red Room.

    Not that I’ve ever watched Twin Peaks so I wouldn’t really know how deep the comparision goes, but Persona 1 and 2 are so beautifully weird and unsettling unlike the ones afterwards and unlike pretty much anything else.

  4. floogles says:

    Back To Bed has a ton of Twin Peaks references, but nothing related to gameplay (Fez did as well i think)

    I think The Void and Lone Survivor were pretty close in atmosphere.

  5. Premium User Badge

    nattydee says:

    I just finished Kathy Rain last night, and coming out of it I feel like I actually have a bone to pick with the Twin-Peaksian influences that seem to be crammed into everything these days. Namely that they’re often clumsily handled, to the detriment of the human stories that (to me anyway) actually make these games interesting.

    Minor(ish) spoilers for Kathy Rain, Life is Strange and Night in the Woods ahead.

    Kathy Rain is a great example of this. While yes, the title character is mostly just a conglomeration of several archetypes/stereotypes and more than a few Mary Sue-isms, her exceedingly tragic backstory and bitter worldview are what make her an interesting character. Her mom is crazy and she had to commit her! Her dad left her when she was a kid! She’s sort of a bitch most of the time! And then the Twin Peaks influences start to show, and before long most of the bad stuff that’s happened in her life is explained away with a vaguely lovecraftian handwave. It reduces the impact of the human story by reaching for rote fantastical nonsense. I see this happening over and over too.

    Night in the Woods for example. Nothing about the lovecraftian/twin peaks influences in NitW are good. NitW is a great game about poverty, mental health, growing up, going back home and friendship. Also, there’s a cult to this old god that makes sacrifices by throwing citizens down mineshafts!? Now, there are ways to make use of the “all-is-not-what-it-seems” vein of horror that makes Twin Peaks special, but 90% of the time I wish people just wouldn’t. Resign yourself to telling human (or in the case of NitW…. anthropomorphic?) stories, because fuck videogames have some interesting things to say and express on that front! Tossing a deus-ex machine at the audience in the form of various Cthulu-wannabes is doing yourself a disservice!

    Oxenfree is also an example of this.

    Life is Strange, on the other hand, is one of the few games I’ve played that I think does this the right way. There is a heavy dose of Twin Peaks in the story (missing girl, murderer, mysterious happenings), but it manages to ground all of this in the characters and story. A large part of the last chapter of LiS is taken up with a nightmarish dream sequence, but where it succeeds while others fail is in making the story personal to Max, and making the mysterious happenings a sideshow to the human story about friendship, loss, and (platonic?) love.

    I just wish I could shake these developers and tell them to think smaller! Think more personal! Let the moments really sit, and reeeallly ask yourself if the Twin Peaks/Old God influences are doing a service to the story you’re trying to tell or are subsuming it.

    /rant

    • poliovaccine says:

      I think one of the key successes of Twin Peaks is playing into what you describe – restraint, that is – in that the central supernatural mystery is never clearly defined. Is it a literal demon, is it the embodiment of evil in us all, can it be both and if so what does that make the Black Lodge? Etc. There’s little hints in different directions, but just enough to set your imagination going, not enough to give you any solid conclusion – because I think that sort of defeats the point of the “mysterious presence in the woods.” Deprive it of its mystery and it’s not hardly itself anymore! As much as Bob is a literal metaphor, so are the woods. I think it’s as crucial as it is clearly deliberate that not every thread is sewn up nice and neat. Like you say, that takes restraint and focus, and soooo many lovers of supernatural fiction are just plain too *excited* by it to do that right!

      • lylebot says:

        Right. I think FWWM succeeds by allowing two different, and opposing, readings: either that Bob and the Black Lodge and all are totally real and have real effects in the world, or alternatively that they are an elaborate fantasy constructed by Laura’s subconscious in order to rationalize and suppress the abuse she suffered, with the movie chronicling that fantasy crumbling as she realizes the truth. The latter is a reading that the original show couldn’t support, since we don’t get Laura’s POV, which is why FWWM is so necessary.

        • poliovaccine says:

          Exactly, and that ambiguity is what’s able to suggest both are possible in some aggregate sense, whereas choosing either one or the other to come down on conclusively would diminish both possibilities, and would turn the movie into either a convoluted psychodrama or a purely surrealist exercise, instead of the unique and interesting suggestion of magical reality that it is. That ambiguity absolutely serves a purpose, in other words. The parallel potentials imply two worlds whose rulesets momentarily, if not always, intersect, and it becomes a metaphysical exploration as a result, instead of just being a thriller.

          I wondered for a long time why so many people hated, I mean *hated* Fire Walk With Me. I thought it was fucking brilliant, I might venture that it’s one of my top three Lynches, but I *think* I got it after awhile – and this may be a little bit inflammatory to say, depending on what implications people draw from it – but I think at least a large part of the people who disliked the movie felt that way, whether consciously or otherwise, because they were familiar with the show first and they were genuinely invested in the idea of Laura as a good, sweet, above all innocent girl… a notion which the movie gleefully shreds haha. I had no such investment, and I didnt notice it in others right away, but I realized that, at least in the anecdotal case of a few of my friends, they seemed predisposed against the movie “making sense” once they gathered that Laura was supposed to have this seriously naughty side – “They completely changed her character!” I remember being one girlfriend’s protest in particular, which I thought was telling of the viewer more than accurate of the flick. It wasnt just her, though – I can think of a couple other people who simply found that revelation in the film, about her cocaine habit and prostitution and general alternate lifestyle, way too jarring and misaligned with their own conception, too unexpected, for them to accept. Almost like a loving parent in denial. I found it really interesting to see how many people were so genuinely affected by the murder mystery aspect, which at first I had taken, rather more cynically I guess, as a deliberately-typical plot device in a deliberately-typical little town, and nothing more. The depths plumbed by the movie are only more satisfying as a result, and in a lot of ways I think it functions very well as almost like a template or codex for reading the TV series. But as a movie, I like it on its own merits.

          • floogles says:

            Fantastic analysis. FWWM was so disturbing the first time I saw it, but it made sense. Increasingly so after re-watching the series in light of it.

            I think the strength of the movie is as the counterpart to the series. In the series you have the iceberg effect – most things play out on the surface, and you can choose to ignore or disregard the underlying implications of character actions and situations (as a dream or quirky, etc).

            FWWM throws you fully into the Jungian shadow of Laura, and that innocence of the series then becomes the dream.

          • Konservenknilch says:

            I don’t really get why people would think that the series portrayed her as a sweet, innocent girl. We learn that she was a hooker, on drugs, and friends found her to be too dangerous.

  6. criskywalker says:

    Thimbleweed Park is a great game in a weird town full of quirky characters! I still have to finish it, but I fully recommend it.

    By the way, did you watch the latest episode of Twin Peaks? WOW, RPS, WOW! It was pure art!

    • mejoff says:

      It was a corker.

      “got a light?”

      Also, David Lynch parodies Michael bay with ten uninterrupted minutes of a single explosion, then parodies himself with ten uninterrupted minutes of a nervous looking woman staring straight into the camera in Black and White.

      Genius.

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    Grizzly says:

    I’d like to add Dirt 4 to the list because the DirtFish Rally School that it features is the location where the original Twin Peaks was filmed :-P

  8. Abacus says:

    DEFCON

  9. caff says:

    Virigina is great. I highly recommend it – so very Twins Peaksy.

  10. poliovaccine says:

    I know it’s more one for a Lovecraft list than a Twin Peaks list, but as far as a weird little backwater with a dark supernatural secret, Call of Cthulu has a lot of similar vibes. You even play as an investigator of some kind – not all Lovecraft bears comparison, nor all Lovecraft-based games, not by any means, but I venture that Call of Cthulu does – for a Twin Peaks list, anyway, if not for a more broadly David Lynch one.

    • caff says:

      I can get behind that. The protagonist you play as narrates the game rather matter of factly given the weirdness of events unfolding and the characters and monsters he encounters.

  11. Michael Fogg says:

    For a gory version, check out 90′ point and click Harvester. HARVESTER!

  12. Eight Rooks says:

    Just to mention that Silent Hill 2 is best Silent Hill largely because it does not – for the most part – vanish up its own mythological hole. I mean, if you find the backstory stuff in that game… a little on the nose, for want of a better expression, then God knows what you’d make of 1 and 3. I greatly enjoyed 3 (one of very few horror experiences that’s ever made me feel physically sick), but the whole story thread about the cult and whatnot was growing close to laughable by the end. 2 is very much a game about people that just happens to take place in a supernatural location with a bunch of largely superfluous backstory which almost never takes center stage. But I’ve never seen a single episode of Twin Peaks, only read about it, so… if you think SH2 belongs on this list I can’t argue with that. :shrug:

  13. and its man says:

    Hey, where’s Kentucky Route Zero?
    The game is a complex patchwork of many -perhaps too many- artistic references, but Lynch is obviously a main inspiration.
    Let’s pick this drowing-in-reverb pop song with naive lyrics performed at the “Lower Depths” tavern in KR0’s third episode.

    Cabarets and bar gigs have been a leitmotiv in Lynch’s movies and videos, but it’s funny how the song itself fits the musical selection of this new season.

    • Lamplight says:

      Kentucky Route Zero is the closest game in spirit to Twin Peaks that preserves that spirit without referring to or copying it directly like Alan Wake or Deadly Premonition or Virginia. A properly different and distinctive take on the same core feeling.

    • michael.neirinckx says:

      Completely agree. I’m very surprised Kentucky Route Zero wasn’t mentioned, especially given RPS’ role in bolstering the cult of KRZ.

  14. milligna says:

    None of these games are remotely like Twin Peaks and at most make utterly superficial references.

    A shame. There should be.

  15. michael.neirinckx says:

    Besides the ones mentioned in the article, I would add the following:

    Spot on Lynch Vibe
    1. The games of Cicada Marionette most closely resemble the Lynch feel/vibe to me.

    Direct Link: link to cicadamarionette.com
    Link to Article: link to killscreen.com

    2. Kentucky Route Zero

    Honorable Mentions
    1. The Silver Case – Suda51 can channel Lynchian vibes, particularly with his earlier stuff like ‘The Silver Case’ and ‘Killer 7’. The Silver Case is the closest to Lynch.

    2. Thief: The Dark Project – Bear with me here. What makes this Twin Peaks esque is the shear unpredictability and imagination from level to level. I never knew where each level was going to go, and it constantly surprised. Just like Twin Peaks: The Return from episode to episode.

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