Everyone knows Laura Palmer. She was popular. Well-liked, well-hated. She had a picture perfect boyfriend, an outcast lover that rode a motorcycle on the side. But deep down, behind that sunny exterior, she always suffered under the weight of her own secrets. And then she was murdered brutally.
Laura Palmer’s death was the central mystery in the drama Twin Peaks, from co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost, when it burst onto television screens in the early 1990s. The mystery absorbed viewers, but perhaps more so, the town and its inhabitants enamored viewers even more. The show went on to dazzle, confuse, and disturb audiences, even as it moved past the central murder mystery into new territory. The show influenced leagues of other media—including the realm of video games. And after 25 long years away from the mysterious Pacific Northwest town, we’re returning to Twin Peaks with a limited eighteen-episode revival on Showtime this Sunday.
There’s an unsettling commercialization of Twin Peaks that’s erupted alongside the revival, as one could have probably expected. You can now buy a dead Laura Palmer Funko Pop figure, wrapped in a plastic sheet just as we first greet her. You can buy a tank top from Hot Topic that’s embellished with a seminal quote spoken by Mike, the mysterious One-Armed Man, "Through the darkness of future's past, the Magician longs to see. One chants out between two worlds… fire walk with me." Twin Peaks is being peddled as a light, poppy cultural phenomenon, not the immensely dark, lightly comedic cult classic it had lived on as outside of its heyday on television.
A while ago I attended a 35mm screening of Eraserhead, filmmaker David Lynch’s harrowing cult classic. It was beautiful and haunting to see the film play out on the big screen. But then it was soundtracked by something I hadn’t counted on: the audience’s laughter. Their laughter unsettled me, as their hysterics overshadowed the film’s quiet horror. Eraserhead does not strike me as a comedy. For others, apparently it is. But living in a world where you can buy a cutesy, bug-eyed figure of a deceased victim of sexual assault, I’m not surprised.
That’s an issue that’s plagued the reception of Lynch’s body of work. His work is surreal and unfamiliar, and thus, for some, just another weird comedy. Inland Empire is often met with claims that it’s too weird. Eraserhead is met with uproarious laughter in a puny theater screening. And his most renowned work, the television series Twin Peaks and its film prequel Fire Walk With Me, is likely the most misdescribed of all.
”Lynchian” is a phrase tossed around a lot when likening a work to Twin Peaks, or any of Lynch’s other projects. Lynchian technically attributes something balancing the fine line between macabre and mundanity. Like his camera lingering on a character's uncomfortable smile. In Channel Criswell (a.k.a. Lewis Bond)’s video essay on the works of David Lynch, Bond says, “To be Lynchian is to exude elusiveness, and the enigma of what signifies Lynchian’s sensibility lies in producing unfamiliarity in that which was once familiar.” But all too often, Lynchian has been relegated to being a buzzword, slapped onto anything that’s the slightest bit “weird.” And for Twin Peaks, to any mystery that dwindles in the Pacific Northwest with a hint of surrealness.
There aren’t many other filmmakers out there like David Lynch. Lynch is the rare auteur whose work embodies his own singular vision, and his alone. His films carry an explicit uncanniness on purpose to unsettle the viewer and leave every scene ambiguous; and that makes people uncomfortable. He breaks filmmaking conventions; he melts genres together to the point where they're hardly recognizable at all, often straddling the line between absurdist comedies or serious dramas. That’s why while some laughed at Eraserhead, I felt anxious. That's why the minute intricacies of Lynch’s works struggle to be replicated in the video game world. But that’s not to say game makers haven’t tried.
Games, in particular, have been wrestling with obtusely ascribed Lynchian comparisons for a long while. At first mention of “Twin Peaks,” “video games,” and “David Lynch” in the same sentence, one’s mind drifts to Swery65’s garish adventure game Deadly Premonition, a game once rumored to have to strike some references to the show for being too obvious. Deadly Premonition is a blatant ode to the universe of Twin Peaks, but the game comes off as a surface reading of Twin Peaks; a lifeless co-opting of the humor and aesthetics of the show. Deadly Premonition, while delightfully odd in its own ways otherwise, feels like it’s riding on the coattails of a show that executed its ideas much more thoughtfully.
There are others too, that have been attributed to the Lynchian arch in games. Last year’s cinematic indie game Virginia was ill-fatedly described as it. When in all actuality, it adhered closer to the sarcastic blunders and high-stakes drama of The X-Files. Life is Strange, another mystery that takes place in the Pacific Northwest (the ideal setting for a Twin Peaks-y narrative, apparently) features easter eggs referencing the show, but at its core, bears no real similarities beyond that.
A surprising bit of Twin Peaks-ness drips into Link’s Awakening, from director Takashi Tezuka. In the late Satoru Iwata’s regular Iwata Asks column, the two (alongside others) discussed the reasonings to make all the characters in Link’s Awakening inherently suspicious, their innocence left ambiguous. Writer Kensuke Tanabe reportedly scrawled within a strategy guide, “Tezuka-san suggested we make all the characters suspicious types like in the then-popular Twin Peaks.” The eerie small town focus of Twin Peaks inspired Tezuka, and thus, inspired the Link’s Awakening that we know of today.
Flower, Sun, and Rain, a sorta-sequel to the cult visual novel The Silver Case, was developed by Suda51 in 2001 for Playstation 2 (before its later port to the Nintendo DS in 2008—how the West got their hands on the game for the first time). The game is like nothing else you’d play today, with its tediously slow walking speeds, annoying puzzles, and most importantly: its eclectic band of characters. Critic Austin Walker wrote in Waypoint about Suda51 and his often forgotten game, conjuring what feels like the best description of him: “[Suda51] was really this punk rock star of games,” he said. “He was putting in things that didn't make sense in the context of other video games. But they touched people in a way that made them want to make weird stuff too.”
If there were a David Lynch of video games, it would probably be early-era Suda51. He frequently broke the conventions of game design, shifted the focus onto the characters and a not-always-coherent plot rather than focusing on making his game enjoyable by layman means. Suda51 has since shied away from this unique design sensibility, with his dance in the action game genre. But with the recent The Silver Case remaster, Suda51 shows signs of returning to his roots.
Comparisons are easy to make. They’re especially easy for video games, though they remain trapped in a circular cycle, constantly referencing themselves in descriptors—Roguelikes, Metroidvanias, Soulslikes. When they look outward, it reads as almost novel. Comparisons, naturally, grow a bit more complicated when other works are brought into the mix. Deadly Premonition is Twin Peaks in attempted looks alone. Flower, Sun, and Rain and Link’s Awakening are Twin Peaks in their tight embrace on varied, multifaceted characters. At the root of it all, there isn’t a single game that is the Twin Peaks of games. And in all likelihood, there never will be. But do games even really need one, when what we really need are more David Lynch-likes making games?