Deliverance – 3DS Review
Deliverance is a risky game. Developed by newcomer Southsoft for the 3DS, the game’s attention to detail strives to retain much of what made both the novel and 1972 movie American classics. And yet, this same attention to detail will feel misguided to some—primarily, those who play games to have fun. Nevertheless, those who come into it with the right set of expectations will find Deliverance thought-provoking and powerful.
Consider the title a sort of reconnaissance effort on the part of Nintendo, who last E3 promised to bring more mature titles to the Wii U. And honestly, you can’t really get more mature than Deliverance: Written by James Dickey in 1970, this is the tale of the modern American male’s emasculation at the hands of suburban contentment. The plot itself revolves around four middle-aged Atlanta men who decide to take a weekend canoeing trip down the Cahulawassee River in the north Georgia wilderness. But after an infamous episode of sexual assault at the hands of two mountain men, the four suburbanites realize that they won’t be able to just walk away from this trip…that if one of them doesn’t do something, and do something now, all will die. Up steps Ed Gentry, a graphic designer—and the game’s primary protagonist—to shed his suburban conditioning and become a hunter.
You’re probably wondering why I found it necessary to state that Ed is a graphic designer. Well, that’s because the game’s graphical style seems to reflect this point. Deliverance, you see, is stylistically inconsistent, though the appropriate word in this case might be “conflicted.” The opening hour and a half, in which we play out a few character-establishing memories of Ed’s recent past (among these, a touching confession of his adoration of trip-mate Lewis, as well as a sexual fantasy concerning a young female model at his work), is aesthetically taut, featuring a heavy reliance on right angles and sharp lighting. This is to be contrasted with the player’s gradual ascent into the mountains, which sees those rigid angles of the city life begin to flex. By the time players actually hit the water, the drab colorings of the suburban life will have been swept away entirely in a rush of lavish green and topaz blue. Though the change can be sudden, it never seems unfounded: the style is grounded in Ed’s psychology. On the morning of the trip’s second day, the player will descend alone into a mountain fog to hunt a deer, a scene that’s wispy palette and crosshatched style conveys Ed’s transformation powerfully.
Perhaps most impressive of these choices is a late-game scene in which Ed, the last of the four men not critically wounded (or mortally so, in the case of Drew), scales a sheer cliff side in order to ambush one of the mountain men. The scene—as it does in the novel—makes no bones about comparing Ed’s struggle upwards to sex, and this is further driven home by the stylistic choices of the scene: each crag and handhold, shifting slowly into the abstract, seems to be responding to the player’s desperate prodding. Enhancing this is the game’s not-entirely perfect control scheme, which will leave the player feeling like each stage of the mountain climb is a mini-climax in and of itself.
And along this line, it becomes apparent fairly early on that “stylus” in the case of Deliverance is actually to mean “phallus”…and when you finally realize it, earlier moments in the game—such as the player’s being asked to trace the contours of the young model—suddenly become more potent. A lot of games strive towards “replayability”…Deliverance finds its replayability in continued interpretation. Additionally, much of the interaction the player engages in—from the steady rowing of a paddle, to the careful drawing back of a bow string—feel vaguely, if not overtly, masturbatory.
One downside of the controls however is that the player is given no options to manually adjust the camera, which is strange in a game that’s focus seems so centered upon taking in nature. But the problem is bigger than just that: the game prevents the player from straying too far from Lewis (whose utter bravado the trip’s existence was dependent upon) leaving players for much of the game staring not at the beautiful scenery but at Lewis’ broad shoulders. Seeing as the majority of the game early on will be spent engaging in overly-simple minigame competitions with Lewis—bow hunting, rowing, masculine posturing, minigames at which the game frequently cheats—and not taking in the sights and sounds, this decision on the part of Southsoft is, to say the least, regrettable.
Ah but though you’ll lose ultimately at those minigames there will come a point when the player will be allowed to act outside of this obsession with Lewis: By the time of Bobby’s sodomy at the hands of the armed mountain men, the gameplay perspective will quickly shift from its focus on Ed-Lewis to Ed exclusively. When the time comes that Ed must takes the role of alpha male (after Lewis breaks his leg during an attempted escape) the player will find their sense of accomplishment gameplay-wise far greater…The scene that comes to mind is one that sees Gentry lying in wait to kill the last of the mountain men, a scene that is accompanied by a profound sense of both dread and fortitude. Player’s will find fewer more tense moments than the slow, determined, careful pulling back of the bowstring as they take aim. With no sound to be heard but the creak of the string and the faraway promise of the river, the player’s first and only kill is sure to be a memorable one.
It is of note that Deliverance is almost completely bereft of music. That said, the sole track in the game—a modern rendition of the folk traditional “Moonshiner,” performed by Cat Power—is put to incredible use. Though the tone of the film itself was far removed from this sort of song, the game, with its focus on the psychology of Ed, benefits greatly from the song’s loose and bluesy rhythm. For the rest of the game, however, with the crutch of music nonexistent, the player has only to take in the sounds of nature all around. At times deafeningly complex, at others masterfully subtle, the sound effects fully complement the experience. From the cracking of branches in the moonlit fog, to the inner-ear turmoil of a gunshot ringing out through the mountain cliffs, the world of Deliverance is made real through sound. Especially effective is a moment (during the initial attempted escape) when the player is tossed into the tumultuous rapids…you’ll lose your sense of the gameworld in much the same way that Ed loses his sense of the real world; you’ll feel the chaos of nature in its most natural state; and surfacing you’ll discover that you too have been holding your breath.
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Ultimately, however, any problems one might have with Deliverance find their crux in the very dilemma that all meaning-minded videogame developers must face: the burden of physicality. Films, music, novels…all three have proven time and time again that no subject—given the right mind—is too taboo, too trivial, or too mundane. All three mediums are champions of the full spectrum of human existence, and in the hands of a capable director/composer/writer, both the stay-at-home mother and the jet-set spy can be made fascinating. But games, however, are in a pickle: in the same way that prose and poetry turn everyday language into art (and film with sights and sounds), games have a still-greater task to overcome—to take the physicality of the world…the being-there and the doing-this of even the most mundane of events, and somehow make them artful and compelling.
And to that extent, Deliverance is a terrific, if flawed, accomplishment: by striving to convey the physicality of each event, not just the “fun” ones, Southsoft’s premiere title generates an ultimately feelable narrative—each stroke, swipe, and jab fuels our interpretation of the characters. Due to this, I suspect that most players will find even the dénouement gripping, even though technically the only thing that happens is that Ed and company return to both civilization and their humdrum lives. Noticeably absent during this epilogue is Cat Power’s “Moonshiner,” which fades away as the player first encounters other human beings along the Cahulawassee River, never to be heard again. After that, the game quickly reverts back to its stylistic “comfort zone,” yet this is not to say that Ed himself has returned psychologically to status quo…the game’s final moments—which “simply” sees Ed ruminating upon a lake outside his home a few years later—are as haunting in the game as they are in the novel.
Though Deliverance strives to be something it’s not, it strives damn hard, and is worth the time you’ll put into it. Gamer’s content and discontent alike will have that chance later this month when the game finally releases. Those that accompany Ed Gentry and company on their journey have their own hell of a ride to look forward to.