Some background about me: My undergraduate degree involved a lot of film classes, so I’ve been taught (and continue to think) that any story that is only good when seen in ignorance is a shitty story. I think this holds true for games as well. Which is to say: if you haven’t played Deadly Premonition yet, and you’re the kind of person who doesn’t like to know what’s going to happen in a game (either mechanics or story) before you play it, consider this your SPOILER ALERT for this post.
Some more background about me: I’m both new to video games and not. I grew up with them and I’ve always played them, but as a way to de-stress and avoid critical thinking about other things (...usually film). What I’m saying up front is that this will not be a video game discussion that name-checks a lot of other Big, Important video games that people seem to enjoy comparing other games to, because I haven’t played most of those games (eg: I have never even seen Shadow of the Colossus).
Final caveat: I share a household with a video game developer, and there’s one XBox 360 between us, and I have not clocked nearly the same number of hours on that controller as my partner...which means that for a game like this (aka a game with dodgy controls), my partner “drove” while I watched and provided an assuredly-irritating level of direction about where to go and what to look at. So technically, I have not played this game at all. Go figure.
Here is what I, as an adult player, have come to expect from console video games:
1) Gameplay that will inevitably result in my bff finding a walkthrough and talking me through what we’re “supposed” to do in which order, so that we don’t accidentally break the game somehow and end up stuck and having to start all over (I’m looking at you, Fatal Frame).
2) Story points that I am interested in, and in between those, rooms of characters that I have to murder in order to get to those story points.
3) Cut scenes with ridiculous voice acting and a level of sensitive emotion that seems really inappropriate, given the amount of killin’ we just did/witnessed.
4) Lady characters with waists so small I find myself wondering how their organs fit into their torsos and boobs larger than their heads. Regardless of how capable they are at fighting or puzzle-solving or being evil, not a one of them can resolve the problem of Finding a Shirt That Fits/Has Buttons.
5) Some good, frustrating time wastin’, ideally with at least one friend over, and we all drink and make fun of #1-4 above while playing through the game until we get bored.
Now that I’m starting to work in the industry, I’m hearing a lot more from the developer side of things about what video games are actually trying to do. Player agency is a big one; making the player feel like they are in control of the experience. I get that I’m probably not saying anything new here, but -- when you start putting all your plot and character arcs in cut scenes, player agency with regard to the narrative is off the table. Also, and it is possible I feel this way because I grew up interacting differently with video games than it seems most people in the industry did, but I find the idea of having “total control” over a character to be kind of creepy. It’s one thing if it’s The Sims, where the purpose of the game is to simulate some aspects of life. (Number of times I have made sims of myself and the person I am dating and then somehow considered the game outcome to be meaningful? … >1.) But if there is a strong narrative element involved in your game, I don’t want to “control” it, or at least not control it in the crappy way it’s done now. Facade is the only game I’ve ever played that managed to hide the gears and wires of narrative choice and start to evoke the feeling of having a unique conversation with another person. Everything else is just A/B response options (the presentation of which breaks the illusion that I control the narrative) followed by cut scenes (which I obviously do not control).
So, if narrative agency isn’t working, then what’s left? Something I guess you could call “systems agency”. Since I know at least two people reading this don’t spend their free time reading critical essays about video game mechanics and/or theory: a game’s systems are things that are defined by and arise from a game’s rules. An example of this is the “Paragon/Renegade” stuff in Mass Effect 2. Combat is another game system, as is navigation. Video games are getting pretty good at giving players high systems agency; the “sandbox” or “open world” style of game has been executed with limited success in games like Just Cause 2 and Red Dead Redemption. However, to paraphrase Matthew Weise, these games end up feeling less like worlds and more like theme parks -- the missions available can be played in any order, with each location staffed indefinitely by whichever character you need to trigger that particular quest. A step in the right direction, to be sure, but a step in the way that the (sadly now-defunct) Peter Pan ride at Disney World was kind of like watching the Peter Pan movie (which was itself kind of like reading the book). Playing these games is kind of of like experiencing the actual world of the game, but in a non-urgent, consequence-free way, with the characters acting like tour guides.
And thus, 900 words later, we get to Deadly Premonition. Short version: I think this is the first video game ever made (or at least that I’ve ever played or seen) that actually creates an interactive, collaborative narrative experience with the player. So, even shorter version: This is the first video game that is worth a damn. This is the game Roger Ebert should play, because he’d come away with something worth reviewing. I realize I sound like a character out of Mulholland Drive, but seriously: this is the game.
Deadly Premonition is not objectively good in a lot of ways. I’m confident that any other review you find on the internet will address, at length, these shortcomings. To briefly cover them: the game began development in the fall of 2004 and thus the graphics, many of the controls, and certain elements of the screen interface are “dated”; the publisher made the development team shoehorn in combat at the last minute, and said combat is the two-fold sin of unnecessary and poorly executed; the voice acting is uneven; there’s some Engrish in the script and subtitles; the game’s music is used to signify mood changes (a convention used in older 8-bit “classic” Japanese role-playing games) and that ends up being comically weird or jarring; the realistically sprawling Washington small town means that it takes a long time to get from location to location in your car, which is itself difficult to control; I will mention again how terrible the combat system is, because even in a terse list, it needs to be repeated.
I’ve read multiple reviews that lament the combat system in particular, since it is both awful to play and is glaringly out of tone with the rest of the game. There are essentially two kinds of encounters you have with enemies - the completely meaningless killing of zombie “Shadow” characters, and the integral-to-the-plot fleeing from the Raincoat Killer. The kind of game that allows you to go on killing sprees and triumph over zombies is fundamentally at odds with the kind of game that requires you to run in terror as your only option (I cannot remember who, but someone summed it up as, “a world where guns can’t solve your problems”), which is why having any combat at all in the game is near-criminal. I will agree with anyone’s assessment, no matter how hyperbolic, of how bad the combat is.
However, I cannot say that it, or anything else on the list of shortcomings, should be removed from the game. One of the most interesting things about Deadly Premonition is that it creates not only an unreliable narrator as the protagonist (more in a moment on that), but on a higher, meta level, you are forced as a player to view the game designer, SWERY, as an unreliable narrator as well. It is impossible on your first play-through to determine what about the game is intentional and what is accidental, what is a creative decision and what is a mistake. I came to the game after reading multiple detailed reviews touting it as Game of the Year and within ten minutes I was still simultaneously amazed and confounded. When you meet this game, it feels kind of like watching someone drive backwards for 2 blocks in order to parallel park on the wrong side of the street. Much the same way, I found myself saying to no one in particular, “what is this person doing?”
In the case of Deadly Premonition, “this person” is Francis York Morgan (call him York, that’s what everybody calls him). It has been said, and I agree, that the introduction of York is the greatest introduction of a character in a video game, ever. He feels like an actual person, from the way he talks and the expressions he uses to his physicality. (Yesterday I was standing and thinking hard about something and I realized I was tapping my collarbone; I’m pretty sure that’s a new thing for me. Thanks, York.) There is also something absolutely fearless about York, without him being a stoic. At no point in the game does he startle, gasp, or generally freak out when suddenly red vines crawl all over the doors and zombies emerge from the floor. Doors mysteriously slam, windows shatter -- York could give a fuck. Instead, York ironically jokes about them being the “welcoming committee” or notes that he was expecting them to show up since he’s got a hot lead in his investigation. Mostly, I get the sense that while York is professionally challenged by the case, and personally delighted by his trip to Small Town USA, he’d probably prefer to just tool around in his car and shoot the shit with Zach, if given the choice.
Is it conceited to say Zach is the greatest video game character ever? Can we say that about ourselves? The capital-i Interesting thing about York is Zach - his alternate personality. I actually am inclined to classify Zach as an Imaginary Friend who just happens to share a head with his buddy York. The execution of the York/Zach relationship is one of the best things about the game, if not the best, and again, it succeeds on a couple of levels. First, there’s the fact that the protagonist has a split personality who he talks to in front of other people, and it’s not played for laughs or treated as particularly odd (although to be fair, enough people in the town have a case of The Weirds that York actually fits in). I cannot imagine trying to pitch a game with York as the centerpiece to anyone - most people seem to be fixated on making games with “mass appeal” and that are “easy to engage with”, and it is impossible to describe York and Zach in a way that conveys how engaging and appealing it actually is. Instead, it just seems Super Weird and Not Accessible. After all, how can players relate to someone like that? Much better to have them start with a blank slate and slowly build a character through a series of dialogue choices. Cause that’s compelling.
York is immediately, and I mean immediately fascinating. He was something I had not seen before in video games - a puzzle in the shape of a person who seemed to be an actual, distinct personality. I could not immediately see why he was the way he was, but my initial curiosity about him hooked me enough that I got to the point in the game when some of York’s back-story began to be revealed (or at least hinted at), at which point I was convinced that there were answers to all this and the game would eventually pay off this character and setup. (If you were a fan of Lost, this path of player engagement probably already makes sense to you.)
I also think, on a player-game relationship level, that there is something of a wire-cage-monkey effect going on. So much of the game is York talking to you...Oh, did I forget to mention: York’s alternate personality, Zach, is you. Like, you, the player. Zach/you is York’s best friend. Get into it. Zach is in charge of the driving and investigating and fighting (so...the systems), while York’s superior people skills mean that he questions townspeople and so-on. (How’s that for justifying your game’s cut-scenes!) If you’re driving and you pull over somewhere, York will say, “Zach, is there something here you wanted to check out?” But, more importantly (important in terms of the game, not the plot), when you’re driving through the sprawling, tiny town, York talks to Zach, mostly about movies. The writing in these sections is creepily good, to the point where I started talking back (in my defense, I’m a former film student...also, I find his opinions about Superman 1 & 2 to be compelling and I would like to talk about them with him...were he not fictional). York talks to you after you find clues and interview suspects - I remember being particularly delighted when, after questioning Diane and finding her unconvincing (and yet York seemed very taken by her), York walked out of the building and said to me/Zach that Diane was, “lying, of course.” I think a fairly strong connection is made just by having the protagonist talk to me like a friend for hours, combined with said protagonist also not being completely irritating in conditions when most protagonists are irritating (usually right around the time shit gets scary and dead people start attacking you...is there a universal mod so I’d never have to hear breathy gasping and pointless exclamations ever again?).
Dreamy as he is, York is not (entirely) why I am so taken with Deadly Premonition. Everyone in town has their own back-story and behaviors, and again, others have written more and better about the open world and how deep it is. Unlike the theme park of other games, the people of Greenvale have lives. Being forced to remember all the tiny details about the deputy sheriff's habits or the verbal tics of the town’s resident Log Lady, Sigourney, would be irritating, except that they aren’t tied to the plot, at all. It is truly just a small, weird town, and it’s up to you how much investigating York does. He could stay “on task” and the plot would still progress, or he could meet everyone almost immediately and do every side quest -- you mostly just get trading cards in return. It’s up to you, Zach.
This is where some of the game’s flaws start to come into play. Are these people supposed to be this weird, or is it just that the animation is terrible? Is Sallie Graham supposed to be that drunk, or is her voice actress just flat-out bad (spoiler alert: yeah, kinda)? What is with the inappropriate jazz music? From the beginning of the game up to the amazing sequence of running to the town (more on that in a while), I knew I liked York -- although I already knew that from watching YouTube videos -- and I knew I hated the combat, although the Shadows seemed creepy (that feeling went away pretty quick). But once you actually get to the town and start meeting everyone, the combination of the distinct characters, shifting music styles, and York’s running commentary (Out loud! Again, I just have to point out, dude is just flat-out saying this shit to himself and other people can possibly hear him! And that’s actually another level of “what is this game trying to do” because I’m still not sure how much is just small town politeness vs. York actually managing to mutter to himself quietly.) ends up being engrossing and charming. I would not describe it as “relatable,” but it is definitely unique and engaging.
This paragraph is dedicated to the fact that this video game managed to be, superficially, about the murder of a naked, busty blond girl, and yet somehow this same game passes the Bechdel Test (via implied conversations and montage). Not only that, but the most prominent woman - who you actually get to play as, in my favorite chapter of any game ever - has a shirt and it is buttoned and tucked into her jeans. Also, every woman in the game appeared to have her own body type, and while those types ranged from “slender” to “slender with large boobs”, everyone had a rib cage and a pelvis, and no one looked to be at risk for massive-breast-induced scoliosis. The fact that this is remarkable is sad, and I look forward to saying, “a shitty budget title managed it, your game can manage it,” the next time I (inevitably) end up having to listen to someone’s bullshit reasons why they can’t think for more than 5 seconds about the character design of the women in their game. (...assuming there are women in the game at all.)
This paragraph stands as warning that there’s an oblique rape joke out of left field, some fat-people-eat-too-much jokes, and rape is heavily implied several times throughout the game. Because it’s not enough to murder women by growing trees in their stomachs, you’ve gotta have one of them say, “I’ve been...soiled,” before she dies. (Yes, that is really the line and no, I’m not sure how intentional the pun is.) Also, having a creepy dude talk about just finishing “dessert” with an unconscious woman lying next to him was gross enough -- taking the time to add the sheen of clear wetness all around his mouth and dripping down his chin was unnecessarily disgusting. There are, by my count, two black characters, both men, and one of them is (naturally) the game’s weapons dealer. The other one is a doctor, but with such a limited representation of people of color, I’m loathe to suggest one balances out the other. Oh, and this game uses some problematic representations of alternate genders. Not flat-out horrible but definitely not a deft execution.
I realize this write-up is wildly uneven; so is the game. Or more specifically, the experience of the game is very uneven, and so it’s tough to just claim one emotional response to it. I began confidently engaged and prepared to laugh at the game and York. But as we began to see more of the town and meet everyone, observe their habits, and gather some of the town’s myths and legends, I started to care about these people and their tiny lives. (Note: when I say “we” in the previous sentence, I’m not sure if I mean me and my partner, who was actually playing, or me and York...I’m almost certain York has talked to me more about what he thought of each person we met, in any case.)
However, pretty much any time you’re starting to get a kick out of the people you’re talking to, or a twist in the case, or putting some new bit of information into the larger history of the town, you have to stop everything and kill zombies. That got old, fast. Then we read more reviews and found out about the wrench and the radio, plus we screwed up on saving a previous chapter, and so several hours were lost/re-dedicated to replaying missions just to get those two items. At one point I told my partner that if we didn’t get that fucking radio fucking soon, I was going to insist that he play when I wasn’t home until we got it so I never had to drive through this stupid fucking town ever again. Also I hated everyone for not being home when I wanted them to be home, their lives were stupid, and why the fuck did the rain impact whether or not Emily went drinking?!
Once we’d completed the majority of the side quests, we advanced the plot a little more. We met the Raincoat Killer and ran from him. We first climbed up, and then climbed down, many boxes. We moved the left joystick rapidly. We successfully pushed three or four buttons in a row in the proper order. I was tenaciously hanging around because of Little Kid!York, because of the Red Rooms, and because of everyone working in the town’s Law Enforcement office. We began to develop theories about Olivia and Keith having an affair (still unconfirmed). We speculated about George’s sick mother. As I’m writing this I realize that we didn’t pay enough attention to Ms. Freckles from the hospital. At a little over 10 hours in, I felt like I knew these people. We started to notice that Keith got depressed and no longer greeted us with, “Hey, bro!” I began to wish we could pause the Profiling flashes so I could study them like an obsessed fangirl. Many, many zombies were killed. The human body count started to stack up. What started as a joke the first time we met Thomas (“He’s probably secretly in love with his boss, ha!”), and which had gained traction when we discovered Thomas had a tattoo, began to take on a sadder, more serious meaning. I started to spontaneously suspect everyone of being the Raincoat Killer, and then felt a little betrayed at the prospect that any of these people could be that evil.
And then a couple of things happened, and they were breathtakingly fantastic. The first is Chapter 21, regrettably titled “Cat Fight”. At this point in the story, York has been kidnapped and is tied to a chair with a burlap sack over his head. As York, all you can do is look around and wait. However, as Emily, you get to run to the rescue with Kaysen and Willie. This whole sequence was amazing to play. As York, we get to spend time alone, preparing to die, and slowly coming to terms with the fact that we are, in fact, in love with Emily. York talks with Zach about her, about how his opinion of her has changed over time, and how he’s sad that he won’t get to be with her. This isn’t a monologue, mind you, but is cross-cut over time with playing Emily and running toward where York has been captured. The pacing of the rescue and York’s personal revelation was perfect and actually managed to convey character growth and change. On another level, this chapter is when the game managed to convince me that Kaysen wasn’t a suspect anymore. His helping Emily to save York, and their conversations while running to the rescue, was a lot of effort to assuage lingering doubts about Kaysen’s involvement, and it worked. (All of this despite the fact that in the very first Red Room of the game, you see a map of the US with previous murder locations marked out and little fat Kaysen dolls on each X. So much of this game is atmospherically weird, and so much of it is possibly executed poorly, that it is difficult to determine which things carry meaning, even very obvious things. Or in other words, the mysteries of the game are not obvious, and you have to actually be a detective and figure out what the hell is going on. Since the point of the game is to be a detective, I found all the “flaws” to be very effective at creating that mindset and experience.)
The second amazing chapter is, somewhat obviously, Chapter 25, “Zach Morgan”. Overt plot aside, I actually loved the sequence that opened the chapter. In a great callback to York’s running to Greenvale at the beginning of the game (a wonderful bit of pacing that let you process the character introduction and build interest for what lay at the end of the road), you open in 1956 as the original Raincoat Killer. A slow, somber version of Amazing Grace begins to play. The town is overrun by Shadows. The clock tower begins to toll. The first time we played this scene, my partner started killing the Shadows. We discussed how awesome the Raincoat Killer’s axe was as a weapon. At one point, he asked, “So am I like an angel of mercy or something here, relieving these people from life now that they’re Shadows?” We thought the song was a dark, effective choice; a good subversion of expectations. And then a timer started, and our destination of the clock tower was still very far away. The timer ran out and we failed the chapter. We were puzzled, and at that point not afraid to consult the Internet. “Oh, we’re just supposed to ignore the people and run straight for the clock tower.” Huh??
Replaying that chapter actually made me feel a little ashamed. Granted, the game had taught us that in combat situations, you’re supposed to murder the hell out of Shadow zombies, and granted, the Raincoat Killer had previously only ever come at York with an axe and seemed really into The Killin’. But no, really, you can just run and not kill anyone in that scene. You can run, and choose not to kill anyone, and Amazing Grace plays mournfully while you run past cars on fire and people in chaos. Instead of York, jaded from the city and his serial killer profiling, excitedly running through the green woods to a simple town at the beginning of the game, you are now at the end a victim of the town’s secret, evil past, and you cannot stop to save anyone, not even to put them out of their misery.
By the end of Deadly Premonition, I (clearly) loved the game. I don’t love it the way I love Super Mario 3 or Angry Birds or really any other game I’ve ever played. I love it like I love someone, not something. I miss the town. I miss the loading screens telling me about Country Ham and how nutritious green tomatoes are. I miss Sigourney yelling at me for driving so safely (can’t I see her pot is getting cold?!). I even miss the jazz music. Playing the game was not simply moving through the plot -- I didn’t feel like I watched the game, or even like I played it in the sense of completing missions and resolving quests. I felt like I helped create the experience of it. The incredible depth of the town, combined with the high systems agency given to the player, meant that I could basically go anywhere and do anything -- but with real consequences. Characters had behavior and I puzzled out what those behaviors were, and I determined what those things meant. I really do feel like it’s a shared creation, that SWERY had a vision and he invited me to participate in how that vision was realized within the game. I was given a cast and a script and it was entirely up to me how much attention each character got, and then it was still up to me to interpret what the character was really up to.
This is why I say that Deadly Premonition is the only video game that’s worth a damn -- because it’s actually making a new use of the medium (and I would argue the first really good use). A collaborative, interactive narrative experience, something told between the designer and the player. It’s doing something impossible to do in any other medium that I can think of...I suppose the equivalent in motion pictures would be to cut together hundreds of hours of scenes and raw footage and crowd-source the editing. But even that is a terrible, inelegant comparison, as it should be. Deadly Premonition is a game between the player and content, it makes a game of the content itself, and yet it is still a strongly directed narrative with very clear messages about the world and subjects it is presenting. SWERY may well be the first video game auteur, and he’s created something that I’ve barely scratched the surface of. Things I’ve left out: the way camera angles and framings work in the cut-scenes, the psychological effect of being able to spy on every building in town, the fact that there is a character who wears a human skull/gas mask hybrid and speaks in rhyme through his assistant...yes, really. I could write literally forever about this game. Ladies and gentlemen, Deadly Premonition! [jazz hands]