Why are Games so Obsessed with Twin Peaks?

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By Madison May on January 28th, 2021

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A Place Both Wonderful and Strange

To the uninitiated, Twin Peaks is that show that filters around the edges of conversations with people who claim to watch not movies, but films. It’s almost a rite of passage to be trapped in a corner booth with one or more people regurgitating fan theories or frenzied discussions on subtext that out of context sound like Dadaist nonsense: Owls? A giant? Coffee and cherry pie?

The rest of the planet remembers quotes and quips that fluttered around our collective consciousness via screen printed t-shirts (“Who Killed Laura Palmer?”) but even on its surface Twin Peaks is a clear turning point in the history of television. Premiering in 1990, the show unfolds as one part soap opera and one part whodunnit: A teenaged homecoming queen (Sheryl Lee) in the Pacific Northwest turns up dead, wrapped in plastic, and an eccentric FBI agent (Kyle McLaughlin) is called in to navigate the complex ecosystem of a community where everyone is lying and nothing is as it seems.

Twin Peaks promo image from the original 1990 show

An ABC primetime hit, the show exploded like fireworks for two short seasons before ending up on the network chopping block for being too odd, too convoluted, and too unsettling for 9 pm audiences, but it’s precisely these themes that gave Twin Peaks the heft to seep into the cultural soil and grow a legacy of new stories that took heavy handed cues from David Lynch’s surrealist drama.

Video games, at a turning point themselves in the early 90’s with the commercial success of fourth generation consoles, took the cue and ran with it, maybe in part because Twin Peaks was an unexpected success in Japan–the hub of video game development at the time–whereas its complexity faltered in front of American audiences. The mom and pop surrealism of the show struck just the right note with the kinds of stories video games wanted to tell, and the seed of inspiration has blossomed in the ensuing decades.

Over 21 years, games have nipped at portions of Twin Peaks’s plot or made overt references to it with an intensity that arguably no other type of media has mustered. There’s a reason why fan theories and dissertations still ring around its dreamy, hypnotic core, but four games from the last two decades exemplify the industry’s hyper-fixation on this strange, uncanny, and wonderous world David Lynch created.

The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening (1993)

The twist at the core of Link’s Awakening is one that’s long past its prime as infamous: after a shipwreck, Link washes ashore Koholint Island and finds a teensy town isolated from the rest of the world where owls give quests and tailor made nightmares must be vanquished. The big reveal that Koholint Island was all a dream is trite in the longview of extensive 1990’s plot twists, but a 2010 interview with Toshihiko Nakagō, programmer on 1986’s The Legend of Zelda, showed that the foundation for the island–and presumably some of the plot twists within it–came from none other than David Lynch’s 1990 television event.

 “I was talking about fashioning Link’s Awakening with a feel that’s somewhat like Twin Peaks. At the time, Twin Peaks was rather popular. The drama was all about a small number of characters in a small town. So I wanted to make something like that, while it would be small enough in scope to easily understand, it would have deep and distinctive characteristics.”

Toshihiko Nakagō

Twin Peaks and Koholint are both heavily character based, taking place in a small town where the oddities of the town’s inhabitants do much of the plot’s heavy lifting, but the concept of dreaming being integral to the structure of a story is Lynchian to its core. Dreams in Twin Peaks are lamplights to find your way in an otherwise obtuse and cryptic world. They answer riddles, give directions, and untuck to reveal an entirely new cast of characters with their own motives, needs, and desires, many of which are implied to be extensions of the dreamer himself. For a game already admitted to be sparked by the ethos of Twin Peaks, it isn’t a stretch to imagine some of the more esoteric elements bleeding over into Link’s Awakening’s notorious ending.

In the latter half of 2017’s Twin Peaks: The Return, the long awaited third season, David Lynch’s in-universe alter ego of Gordon Cole recounts a dream he had in which Italian actress Monica Bellucci meets him for coffee in Paris. “We are like the dreamer who dreams,” she says, running a finger around her coffee cup, “and then lives inside the dream.” Cole looks troubled, but Bellucci only leans in closer.

“But who is the dreamer?”

Mizzurna Falls (1998)

Unreleased in the West, Mizzurna Falls is an early Playstation title that can lay claim to being one of the first open world games ever released, but it’s also a title heavy handed in its references to Twin Peaks. In it, you play as a teenager in rural Colorado on the hunt for a missing classmate who quickly becomes embroiled in a deeper and darker mystery, complete with an absurdly quirky cast and visual cues to time-stood-still 1950’s Americana.

Mizzurna Falls has languished in obscurity since its release despite being the final project of Human Entertainment, the studio behind Clock Tower’s ascendant fame, primarily due to ongoing woes and he-said-she-said drama over fan translations. Without proper US localization from a major studio, Mizzurna exists only as a ROM in seedy corners of the internet or, presumably, in Japanese second hand shops. The story at the core of it, though, is one pulled apart and re-skinned from Lynch’s original tale, making it the first–but not the last–seemingly unofficial reboot of Twin Peaks.

Deadly Premonition (2010)

Mizzurna Falls may have been the first, but Deadly Premonition is the most notorious of the copy-paste Twin Peaks reboots. Ostensibly survival horror, the game follows FBI agent Francis York Morgan as he explores a rural town in the Pacific Northwest and investigates–wait for it–the murder of an eighteen year old blonde beauty. Spiked through with quicktime event-heavy supernatural horror, jilted dialogue with quirky locals pulled directly from Twin Peaks, and possibly the most insane soundtrack of any game, it holds the distinctively chuckle-worthy honor of being the “most polarizing survival horror game” in the Guinness Book of World Records.

Much like Twin Peaks, Deadly Premonition is charmingly oddball until it isn’t. Long pauses and goofy asides turn sour when the game switches gears and shows real violence, the lasting effects of ancestral sins, and deals–not always tactfully–with issues of gender, abuse, and childhood trauma. What’s made it a cult classic much like its spiritual precursor is its ability to lean into the idea of games for art’s sake–something Twin Peaks held at the core of its ethos. It’s both a good game and a very, very bad game. It’s a rip off–of Twin Peaks and Mizzurna Falls–and something entirely new.

Fans of the television series may chortle their way through cutscenes or concepts yanked directly from Lynch, but for better or worse Deadly Premonition still stands strong as a clear passion project and love song brought to life.

Ghost Dance (2018)

SCREAM CATALOGUE‘s Ghost Dance isn’t just another Twin Peaks simulator, it’s a David Lynch simulator. The game opens with the floating head of Lynch himself, hair wild and jaw set, musing on how dreaming about a thing is enough to make it real when you really get down to it, and Ghost Dance spins around this maypole as its thesis. The gameplay emulates Windows 98 screensavers, cruising through flat maps that are dungeonesque in their wide open lanes and low poly pleasantness, except instead of winding brick mazes the maps are all of the worst nightmares Lynch has spun onto the screen. In one area you fend off Killer Bob in Twin Peaks’s red room while the lights shudder and shake. In, another you’re nervously waiting for the diner jump scare you know is coming if you’ve seen Mulholland Drive. A personal favorite is the slow, boiling uneasiness of Rabbits, in which you wander around a claustrophobic set waiting for the larger than life monsters to appear.

Ghost Dance is respectful a nod to Twin Peaks and Lynch’s work as a whole, but it’s one that acknowledges the complexity of these pieces of media and the role that they’ve played in our collective nightmares as well as our dreams. Lynch, Ghost Dance seems to say, is complicated–a man that can make lighthearted prop comedy out of rubber ducks or pull nonsensical publicity stunts on La Brea while simultaneously tapping deep into our collective psyche with horrors that can, somehow, hit all of us at the same unspoken level.

This may be part of the reason why Twin Peaks has endured, particularly in gaming. It did something uncanny that defied media and genre expectations, and did so with a blatant disregard for commercial success. For a media format still getting its bearings at a time when anything felt possible, the idea of making art for art’s sake and having it be loved and respected by consumers is a dream all too tantalizing. Whether that dream is realized or whether it devolves into a nightmare is almost irrelevant–that’s the real message of Twin Peaks. Good or bad in the end, daring to have the dream is still worth it.

Madison reads everything, remembers nothing, and likes to argue everywhere except the internet.

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