Game Description: Deadly Premonition is a third-person survival-horror-action game that blends gritty crime investigation gameplay, with a topnotch story and classic melee and ranged combat. Set across an expansive and persistent open world game environment filled with more than 30 non-player characters (NPCs), side quests and multiple types of deadly supernatural enemies, Deadly Premonition offers a unique and haunting interactive gaming experience unlike any other.
HIGH Running desperately from the Raincoat Killer.
LOW Driving around town with my car constantly trying to take off to the left.
WTF "F K... In the coffee!"
In a recent presentation at DICE, Jesse Schell envisioned a future in which our everyday activities would be tracked and rewarded by game-like systems. Your toothbrush, for example, could award you points for brushing, with bonuses for going a full three minutes or brushing every day of the week. Deadly Premonition is a window into that future, explicitly rewarding the player for making its protagonist shave, call home, or put on a clean shirt. Mentioning this in the lede may be foolish, for now you know the most interesting feature of Deadly Premonition, and I am obligated to forgive you if you skip the rest of the review.
Deadly Premonition puts the player in the role of Zach, the second personality of an FBI agent named York who desperately needs psychiatric help but is instead sent alone to help the sheriff's department in the rural town of Greenvale solve the gruesome murder of a young woman. Agent York constantly talks out loud to Zach and mentions him to others, yet the people around him view this as merely odd behavior rather than a serious derangement. York's weirdness doesn't end there: he investigates using an erratic, even irrational approach, and sometimes looks for clues in the shapes his milk makes as it swirls into his coffee.
Greenvale exists in the game as a fairly large open world that must be navigated using the worst driving simulation of this console generation (I hope), and possibly the worst of the last one, too. The boxy cars cheerfully disregard all notions of momentum and have hopelessly twitchy steering. The small charm of being unable to exceed the speed limit in a police car (only in games and film do police cars obey this maxim) or having the option to use your turn signal and wipers does not compensate for the misery of actually directing the vehicle from one place to another. The scenery, too, is cheerless; the town offers little to look at, the other vehicles on the road are sparse and annoying, and almost nobody is outside.
When he gets to his destination, York usually must chat up some of the locals in an almost completely non-interactive fashion, or investigate a crime scene using his psychic profiling powers (or are they Zach's?). In the latter case, the reality of his location warps into a decrepit otherworld inhabited by clown-faced monstrosities that want to shove a hand in York's mouth. York moves and aims his weapons using the over-the-shoulder look made popular in the genre by Resident Evil 4, but Deadly Premonition's combat doesn't measure up to that standard at all. The aim is simultaneously too twitchy and too slow, and the enemies move either by plodding or teleporting, mitigating the importance of tactics and positioning. Particularly later in the game, these weird creatures are also absurd bullet sponges. Fortunately, it's not too difficult to find weapons with unlimited ammo, a welcome help given the too-frequent locations that have unlimited respawning monsters.
During these otherworld segments, the game's central antagonist, dubbed The Raincoat Killer, occasionally puts in an appearance. No matter how well-armed he is, York usually must either hide from the murderer or run from him. The former encounters are perfunctory and uninteresting, but the scenes where York flees would probably work quite well except that the game requires awkward, pace-killing interactions at almost every obstacle. It seems York is the least fit agent in the FBI, unable to leap even low benches in a single bound.
As genre conventions dictate, York's psychic profiling powers will not allow him to catch the perpetrator before a substantial pile of bodies has accumulated and somebody has turned out to be a pathetic, lovelorn cross-dresser. An important clue turns out to be a red herring, and the murderer's identity is an implausible twist. The townsfolk, however, generally just go about their daily lives, and despite the mounting body count, nobody seems to be alarmed that the only experienced detective on the scene talks to an imaginary friend and uses his morning coffee as a horoscope. Perhaps they have become acclimated to oddity thanks to the rich man in a skull-shaped gas mask who communicates through a rhyming assistant.
Survival horror can be played off as comedy quite effectively; House of the Dead: Overkill is a masterful example. York's outlandish behavior, the bizarre supporting cast, and the absurdities of the plot provide more than sufficient fodder for laughs, but they become less entertaining than they could be because the game is constantly winking at the player. The reaction shots and musical cues constantly oversell the humor, like a vaudeville drummer hitting a rimshot for each phrase of the setup and two on the punchline. I got the impression Deadly Premonition was trying too hard, a sin which prevents it from even being good camp. Overkill also maintained a similar tone throughout, something Deadly Premonition can't do without turning the rape and murder of young women into a joke. At the crime scene and in the investigations the tone must therefore shift dramatically, a transition that the game navigates with the effortless grace of a man falling off a cliff.
It is no surprise, then, that the endgame lands with an almighty thud. Deadly Premonition closes with a series of multi-stage boss fights based on precision shooting, leavened with enough inane cut-scene chatter to make a Final Fantasy game blush. What little tension is not ruined by the banter dies in the fights themselves—slow-paced affairs that compensate for their poor legibility with ponderous pattern repetitions that drain them of all risk. These are chores rather than battles, and the escalating grotesquerie of the bosses contrasts so brutally with the game's otherwise muted spookiness that I wondered if they might have been tacked on by another developer.
I'm inclined to make allowances for a budget title, and the quantity of content here goes far beyond what one might expect for a cheap game. A larger budget might have saved the driving physics and improved the experience of the town, but no amount of money could repair the terrible writing and wrong-headed design that really sink Deadly Premonition. If your wallet is light, I note that for the same price, you could instead buy Overkill, a game of admittedly lesser ambition that must console itself with merely being well-paced, funny, and fun.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 24 hours of play was devoted to single-player mode (completed 1 times).
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, partial nudity, and suggestive themes. The crimes in the game are the violent murders of young women; some of them have also been sexually assaulted. Many of the in-game deaths are quite gruesome. One character extensively describes physical abuse he suffered as a child. York smokes regularly and several characters consume alcohol in the course of the game.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All dialogue is subtitled, but sound cues are very helpful in alerting the player to the presence of enemies. The difficulty of the combat segments will be increased for those who are hard of hearing.
HIGH The feeling of truly playing a detective let loose in a small town.
LOW Combat doesn't belong in this game at all.
WTF Moments are too frequent to pick just one... in a good way.
Although I have nothing but the utmost respect for Sparky, my brilliant and highly-regarded fellow reviewer, I have to be honest when I say that this is one case when he and I are absolutely, utterly, diametrically opposed. In fact, I couldn't possibly disagree with his final analysis of Deadly Premonition more than I do. He's certainly dead-on about the production values and combat, but I part ways with him on the rest.
Before going any further, I think it's important to set the proper context for Deadly Premonition. Essentially, this title is a deep, passionate, and admiring love letter to Mark Frost and David Lynch, and their work on the seminal TV series Twin Peaks. The ideas, motifs and themes of that highly influential program ring loudly throughout every moment of the Deadly Premonition experience, and fans of the show will most certainly find themselves appreciative of SWERY 65's efforts here.
However, it's not necessary to have been a fan of Twin Peaks in order to appreciate Deadly Premonition—although it helps. What's really required to get the most out of this game is an appreciation for the bizarre, absurd, and alien crossing paths with everyday life. This is Urban Fantasy, in video game form.
Rather than bad writing or misapplied camp, it's more accurate to say that the game is idiosyncratic to the core, presenting a slightly exaggerated view of rural eccentricities in some instances, and exposing the gears of the game's machinery in others. Personality quirks abound, and nearly everyone the player meets has some sort of strange edge to them. That said, it's important to note that precious little of the game is actually intended to be humorous. There are certainly a few instances that verge on slapstick and others that are clearly meant to get a laugh, but those moments are few and far between. In my view, Deadly Premonition is actually quite serious and intriguing, and touches on many themes that can only be described as "mature" in the best possible sense.
Going further, I think I would say that main character Francis York Morgan is probably one of the most well-written protagonists I've ever played, and his supporting cast (and the script in general) are fantastic. I can certainly understand that the flavor of what's produced here will not be to everyone's liking the same way that not every viewer can appreciate a Lynch film, but there is definitely method to the apparent madness. When all of the threads come together, I wouldn't hesitate to say that the intellectual side of Deadly Premonition was anything less than brilliant.
Every bit as good as the writing, the feeling of actually being a detective was pulled off in this game better than any other in memory. However, that's not the same thing as saying it was purely enjoyable. The developers managed to capture a certain sense of atmosphere in their virtual town, and I found much value in simply being in the relatively bleak space. Driving long distances between locations added to the feeling of doing legwork, and the difficulty of trying to locate certain citizens at various times of the day was both frustrating and realistic. This aspect of the game can be trying at times, but I actually respected it and appreciated the way it challenged my expectations as a player.
The thing that really put the detective work over the top for me happened when the local sheriff called all of the citizens together at the community center. After giving an informational meeting about the serial killings in their midst, I was free to converse with all of the attendees. In reality, this scene was a convenient way for the developers to introduce the town's residents and overtly tell me that I had the option to follow up and investigate any of these interesting characters. While the local folk may not all be directly related to the case, I didn't know this at the start, and it was incredibly intriguing to have an entire town's worth of people to check out at my discretion.
From that point onward, it wasn't hard to become immersed in Greenvale. The murders are horrific (and horrifically graphic), the blend of the mundane and supernatural was highly intriguing, and spending time with York and Zach in their sinister surroundings was not only enjoyable in and of itself, but the ultimate resolution of the story paid off in a surprisingly satisfying way.
In terms of the gameplay and production, there's no doubt that Deadly Premonition comes in woefully below par. The graphics can only be termed "embarrassing" and the combat... well, the combat is a bit of a special situation. To be blunt, the shadow world York enters and the zombies he kills serve no real purpose, and don't actually belong in this game. As was mentioned by Dan Weissenberger in his series of epic articles on the topic, it was as if the developers were afraid of releasing a game that hinged solely on playing the role of a detective and added the shooting as a way of hedging their bet. I tolerated these segments because the story and characters were so strong, but I would have liked the game even more if the combat simply didn't exist, or was relegated to vital QTEs. There are a few shortcuts a player can take to make this process less painful, but there's no getting around the fact that these aspects of the game lag far, far behind the rest.
Make no mistake, Deadly Premonition lives and dies by the strength of its story and characters. While it may sound strange to say so, this was one case where gameplay (as is commonly thought of) takes a backseat to the strength of the tale and its atmosphere. Players who don't care for its particular, peculiar style will have difficulty finding any redeeming value. However, for those (like me) who manage to ignore the technical shortcomings and can appreciate what the game has to say, Deadly Premonition will be an unforgettable experience well worth the investment.
Disclosures: This game was obtained via retail store and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 16 hours of play were devoted to the single-player mode, and the game was completed. There are no multiplayer modes.
Parents: According to the ESRB, this game contains blood, intense violence, partial nudity, and suggestive themes. The crimes in the game are the violent murders of young women; some of them have also been sexually assaulted. Many of the in-game deaths are quite gruesome. One character extensively describes physical abuse he suffered as a child. York smokes regularly and several characters consume alcohol in the course of the game.
Deaf & Hard of Hearing: All dialogue is subtitled, but sound cues are very helpful in alerting the player to the presence of enemies. The difficulty of the combat segments will be increased for those who are hard of hearing.
While the name SWERY 65 (or Hidetaka Suehiro) may not be instantly familiar to the electronic audience yet, anyone keeping even cursory tabs on the year's events in gaming has undoubtedly heard of his creation—it's easily 2010's most talked-about title, the infamous and revered Deadly Premonition.
Striking several chords with both the review and sphere and gamers at large, it's quite safe to say that anyone who's spent time with main character Francis York Morgan and the town of Greenvale has walked away with strong impressions. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to name a game in recent memory that has been (for good and for bad) so utterly divisive.
Whether you're a fan or not, the fact is that Deadly Premonition has made quite a splash, and eliciting such a response doesn't happen with just any title. Clearly, the director is onto something here, and the goal is to find out what. So, without further ado, here are twelve questions with SWERY 65.
Thank you very much for being willing to answer our questions! To start off, some reviews have said that Deadly Premonition is "so bad it's good." How do you feel about this description?
I think it is wonderful. In a way it means that you can make a game that people will love, even if it has graphics and controls that are hard to accept.
In other interviews, you've mentioned that you went to college to learn about film, and movies obviously play a large role in York's life. How did studying film influence your approach to game design? What differences in the two mediums are important to consider when trying to tell a story?
I think it had a tremendous impact on how I design games. For example, in movies you often have scenes where people are eating or driving or working. There are lots of scenes that depict daily life, and it is within them that the lines needed to unfold the story are spoken by the characters present.
However, most games don't have these scenes. The characters speak to the player in locations purposely built for the game, like corridors and open spaces. As a game designer, this feels so out of place to me. This may not apply to Western games, but most Japanese games have yet to escape this method.
You've said that when creating characters, you take inspiration from people you know, and even incorporate aspects of yourself when creating personalities of the cast. Was this a conscious method or did it come naturally? How do you think it impacts the player's connection with the characters?
I imagine characters as people I see around me. When I see someone intriguing on the street, I make a note of it. I never even read most of these notes, but by making these notes I've come to pay attention to people around me, and because they've caught my attention I observe and remember them. As a result, when I come to the production phase, I already have this "character bank" that I can withdraw from, even without my notes. I fumble about with these to create new characters.
As to your second question, I must say that games as a medium comes into being only when the player (audience) intervenes in what's happening, so you must always consider the main character and the player to be a set.
You've used the phrase "lovely useless elements" to describe parts of Deadly Premonition's design that have no obvious practical function, but which add to the sense of environment and the narrative. Do you feel this is a vital element missing from modern games?
Yes, they are essential to a game. The reason is that games themselves are lovely useless things in our lives. You can live without playing games, but I love games and I think they enrich our lives. So, that's why games need to include silly, useless things.
In the original 2007 TGS trailer for Rainy Woods, the FBI agent looks very different from York and quite noticeably, he does not have a scar. Why was York's appearance changed so much, and was his scar part of a story change after Rainy Woods was canceled?
The Rainy Woods project was halted and eventually canceled. The Deadly Premonition project didn't start until after that. Please understand that the earlier FBI agent was a completely different character.
There are many details early in the game that contain clues to the final revelation, but are only referenced again much later and the game's mysteries are presented in a very non-linear way. How did you go about coming up with such a plot? Once you came up with the setting and the characters, did you have individual scenes in mind that were expanded upon, or was the ending planned from the beginning?
I will have a session at GDC 2011 in which I will reveal the secrets of how I wrote the plot, so I would like to speak about it then. If I am selected as an official speaker, I will try to let everyone know. By the way, I worked on the ending right up until my deadline, writing, thinking, and rewriting.
What was your inspiration behind the York/Zach relationship, and how much detail was put into mapping out York's life from beginning to end?
The York/Zach relationship came out of a conversation I had with my co-writer, Kenji Goda.
We thought it up while in the midst of a brainstorming session based on some key words: "Talkative Characters", "Monologue", and "Player in front of the TV". York's life is still full of mysteries, but I have mapped out in detail the parts of it necessary to the story.
It's been said that combat was a last minute addition once the bulk of the game was completed. If so, what was the reasoning behind adding combat?
The combat was added after we received advice from our publisher that Western audiences would have difficulty accepting a main character who didn't fire a gun. I don't know if that's entirely true, but our audience certainly accepted Agent York.
What's going on with the three farms? Each one is named and singled out on the map, and they've been populated with animals, but nothing ever happens there during the game. Were they originally connected to some cut content?
There are several elements that were cut, but I can't disclose for certain whether the farms fall into that category. Thinking about it realistically though, American small towns need farms. That is certain.
The game's map is incredibly difficult to use. It's far more troublesome than other games' maps, or even maps in real life. Was that intentional? What's the reasoning behind navigation being so difficult?
This question is often asked of me, but the positive response would be that we wanted the player to travel freely about the town and learn where things are based on landmarks. However, I do regret how unusable it was. I will try to improve this if I get another chance.
Can anything actually be discovered through peeping in windows, or is it just for flavor? Also, what's your favorite thing in the game that average players won't see?
By peeping in the windows, you get to see a glimpse of the lives of Greenvale's residents.
For example, let's say that you heard about how Nick was telling Diane about Rembrant and Turner at the museum, and you saw him painting a picture at home. I think it [peeping] improves the reliability of the information you get from the townsfolk, and you, as a player, will feel a deeper connection to the game.
My favorite events to peep on are dinner at the Ingraham house, and Nick closing up at the diner.
You've said before that you may want to expand on the Deadly Premonition universe. Are you interested in doing a sequel or prequel, and would you like to explore York further? You've also mentioned that Deadly Premonition used to be an urban forensics investigation with a female protagonist. Would you re-visit this idea or start fresh?
If I have a chance to, I'd make a sequel or off-shoot of Deadly Premonition in a heartbeat, because people around the world have really accepted and come to love Francis York Morgan. It would be depressing to have to bring an end to a character that has been so loved. But, if we accept that his story is over, I will still bring other charming characters to you.
It might be a female forensic scientist or it might not, or it could be a retirement-age veteran of the force, or a gossipy florist… whichever it is, I will continue to make "lovely, useless elements".
I love you all! - SWERY 65
Infinite thanks to SWERY 65 for taking the time out of his schedule to speak with me, and for being willing to answer every question that was sent!
Thanks also go out to Michael Bitker of Marvelous Japan, in addition to Daniel Weissenberger, Jeffrey Matulef, Matthew Weise and the wonderful Animagess of top-notch Deadly Premonition fansite Planet Redwood for their assistance in putting this piece together. Couldn't have done it without them.
The ultimate Camp statement: it's good because it's awful. ...Of course, one can't always say that.—Susan Sontag, "Notes on 'Camp'"
This game is so bad, it's not just become good. It's pretty close to perfect.—Jim Sterling, review of Deadly Premonition
Jim Sterling gave Deadly Premonition a score of 10 points out of a possible 10, easily the highest score the game received among major gaming review sites. In his review, he makes it plain that this game does not deserve that score in any "objective" sense. The graphics are dated, the gameplay is limited, and its systems pay too much attention to irrelevant details. This is to say nothing of its absurd plot and characters. In comparison to almost any other game, Deadly Premonition is awful, but within the bounds of a certain kind of sensibility, that does not preclude it from also being good. Sontag identifies that sensibility as Camp, and it's an idea worth thinking about in connection to games.
I think it's reasonable to ask whether one can extend this sensibility to games, because appreciating that which is awful or excessive in games is, I feel, much more difficult than extending a similar appreciation to film or other visual arts. A bad game demands more of its player than bad films or bad sculptures do of their viewer, and gives far less. The bad game demands time, of course, but more importantly, it demands effort. A game must be played. Games that adopt bad interfaces, aren't sufficiently responsive, or require extreme skill might be considered "awful" in one way or another, but their experience will be reserved for an elite group of players who have the dexterity or sheer pig-headedness to force their way through.
I don't mean to imply that Camp is egalitarian; this is certainly not the case. A sensibility that ironically appreciates the awful is, by its nature, a sensibility of the wealthy. Sontag connects Camp to the "psychopathology of affluence", and this becomes even more acute in the case of the expense (both monetary and temporal) of the best-known contemporary video games. Additionally, although Camp seems egalitarian in its appreciation of "low" culture, the nature of Camp appreciation differs greatly from popular appreciation. The Camp aesthete, in ironic detachment, loves the Tiffany lamp because it is tacky; this judgment casts its holder in an elite, above the man who loves the Tiffany lamp because it is beautiful. Reasonable gameplay is not a requirement because the masses must have access; rather it is required because the appreciation of awfulness rarely extends to the point of discomfort. Few people would appreciate bad films if they cost $60 to watch and flickered on and off every 5 seconds.
We certainly can have Camp gameplay, however. House of the Dead: Overkill has a very responsive player interface and delivers an intrinsically enjoyable play experience that has Camp overtones because it belongs to a style of interaction presently viewed as outmoded. The rail shooter (or "guided first-person experience" as the favored euphemism goes) embodies the player as a viewpoint with a gun and sweeps him along a preset course, asking him only to move a pointer over onscreen enemies and press a button to fire. The first-person shooter caused this kind of gameplay to fall almost entirely out of favor, so play in this style seems almost deliberately anachronistic and cheesy. This plays into Overkill's dominant B-movie aesthetic, but it also connects with the Camp appreciation for items that seem old-fashioned.
In an earlier era, Overkill's gameplay might have seemed serious or at least visceral (and Dead Space: Extraction demonstrated that it can still be made to generate this feeling), but with time and the advent of more liberated modes of interaction it seems merely silly or perhaps even ironic. Virtually any subgenre of the shmup could probably generate a similar feeling, as could games in the classic adventure style. In a few year's time, the match-three puzzle may also develop some Camp potential.
Of course, taking Camp into games from a purely ludic perspective is overly limiting. Games use audiovisual context to imbue abstract actions with meaning. The campiness of those abstractions is interesting, but does not exhaust the modes of experience in a given game. Overkill becomes both more and less campy because of this context. Less, because the dialogue and cutscenes make it clear that the game intends to leverage its pervasive B-movie aesthetic for laughs rather than taking it seriously. Yet the visual aesthetic of the levels and the staging of its cutscenes does serve the game's reach for the Camp sensibility. Also, an enormous number of "mutants" must be killed in the game, which leads us to another point.
A certain Camp spirit pervades almost all of gaming culture. Consumers seem to desire, and reviewers love to extoll, games that embrace a certain degree of outrageous excess. Gamers love "Over the top!" action, characters that live "On the edge!", art direction that's "Out of this world!", and storylines that are "Epic!" Don't forget the exclamation marks, please. Video games rarely show any sense of restraint or refined sensibility; those that do rarely receive praise for it.
The hallmark of camp is the spirit of extravagance.—Sontag
As Overkill so cleverly displays, the great extravagance of the video game is violence. The game rewards the player for stringing together kills with extra points, using a combo meter that calls its highest level a "goregasm". Of course, excessive violence is such a pervasive feature of games that it alone cannot qualify a game as Camp. However, certain genres play towards excessive violence in particular ways that may be seen as campy. The so-called "stylish action" genre, for instance, including the Devil May Cry series and the more recent Bayonetta, reward killing enemies in unusual ways and stringing together combos. These games are also campy in other respects, particularly in regard to their storylines and their character designs. What prevents these games from being truly campy is their historical tendency to be fiendishly difficult.
In this sense, God of War II may be the best example of video game Camp. Its half-naked hero Kratos, bedecked in war paint, tears through wave after wave of mythology-inspired monsters using giant swords that have been chained to his arms. Provided he weakens his enemies enough before killing them, Kratos can also perform elaborately brutal finishing moves that frequently involve dismemberment or decapitation (he yanks the heads off of Gorgons, for instance). Yet all of this requires little skill on the part of the player; even the most hapless button-masher can muddle his way through the combat, and the keys to the finishing moves are always displayed prominently on screen.
Most importantly, God of War II lacks the moral core of its predecessor. The first game in the series began with Kratos committing suicide, and concerned his quest for vengeance against Ares, who drove Kratos mad and caused him to kill his wife and child. In the final battle, the player is forced to become part of this memory, fighting an army of Kratos clones while intermittently hugging the wife and daughter to restore their health. The player becomes involved in the tragedy, and to some extent, the story succeeds emotionally. In the sequel, Kratos is out to change his fate and prove he's the bigger man (God?) than Zeus. The gravitas of the original, such as it was, is dispensed with in favor of a story about, essentially, a cosmic bar fight. The sequel takes itself no less seriously than the original, but it fails to truly be serious.
Camp is art that proposes itself seriously, but cannot be taken altogether seriously because it is "too much".—Sontag
With this archetype in mind, other exemplars can be identified, starting most obviously with God of War clones such as Dante's Inferno. One could argue that the similarly intense Resident Evil 4 is even campier. Gears of War and its sequel also likely qualify. Camp arising from violence is not limited to games, of course; many of the fight scenes in Kill Bill, for example, though posed in absolutely serious fashion, become comic in their bloody excess.
One might argue that I have betrayed my purpose; now I'm arguing that good games are campy. Well, they are good games, but they're bad stories, filled with flat characters doing stupid things in service of a plot that's incomprehensible at best and insulting at worst. The content of these games regularly contextualizes the player's action as violence and destruction — the more outrageous and disgusting, the better. We praise this behavior: here I've praised Overkill, and Sterling has praised Deadly Premonition. Many of the games I've mentioned have been rewarded with stellar sales. So the fact that we continue to receive games that offer this kind of content is no accident. The problem for most games isn't that they inadvertently find themselves becoming campy. The problem is that they aspire to Camp, to achieve no better fate than to be loved for their excess, and to let ironic appreciation smooth over their faults.
My first encounter with Deadly Premonition came when I spotted it on the shelves of a local video store. Suffice to say, the cover art stood out from the crowd:
In a field of sports games, militaristic shooters, space marines, and the occasional swordsman v. dragon, a hooded person screaming as blood runs down their face counts as something of an anomaly. The axeman, naturally, sealed the deal. I rented the game immediately, and started playing it later that night. Just two hours in I'd already decided that I had to purchase my own copy, which I proceeded to do the next day.
I was ready to write an article nominating Deadly Premonition of the title of "Game of the Year" just halfway through its runtime. I'd already started grabbing screenshots and outlining when I noticed that the website Something Awful had posted a satirical article making the same suggestion. This left me thinking that I really ought to see what general critical consensus was before stepping up to make a fool of myself (once again). I quickly finished the game, and once I'd stopped weeping openly, I swung by the old Internet to see what various sites had to say about the game. After a little skimming I came to the conclusion that people were universally hard on the gameplay and graphics, but divided on the story. There was a "so stupid it made my brain bleed" camp, as well as a "so stupid I couldn't stop laughing" camp.
I wondered, for just a moment, anyhow, whether they'd played the same game I had. You see, the thing I responded most positively to in Deadly Premonition was the writing.
It may not have Heavy Rain's graphics, it certainly can't compete with Alan Wake's omnipresent product placement, but it has something I've rarely, if ever, seen in a videogame—a truly great story. Not great in the "so bad it's good" way, not great in the "high camp" way, not great in the "we're too hip to step into the world of a game and actually appreciate it for what it is, so let's just snigger from the sidelines" sort of a way. I'm not blind, mind you—I'm fully aware that the game can be enjoyed in all of those ways, I'd even admit that it invites those interpretations with its broad characterisations and supernatural flights of fancy. There's another, better way to approach the game, however. For anyone willing to take it at face value and suspend their disbelief, the game offers a rich world full of fascinating characters and enthralling mysteries. Players willing to engage with Deadly Premonition on its own level will find a story unlike anything they've seen in a videogame—and they'll find themselves wishing more games went that extra mile to create truly compelling narratives.
The game received a 2.0 from IGN, and a 10 from Destructoid, but both reviews approached it in exactly the same way—from a place of ironic detachment. Neither one was able to engage with the story, and so they couldn't see the game's true value. IGN couldn't get past the craziness of the plot, and Destructoid found the whole thing hilarious, going so far as to give it an ironic grade. By not being willing to just suspend their disbelief and inhabit the game's insane world, they missed out on one of the most special videogame storytelling experiences of all time, as well as the opportunity to really get to know a videogame character like never before.
That's right, because of a brilliant gameplay conceit that I'll expound upon at length later, Deadly Premonition allows the player to get inside the head of its main character in a way that no game (and nothing outside of novels) ever has—by the end of the game a player who has fully explored Deadly Premonition will know York Morgan more than they've ever known any other videogame hero, and once that's the case, they'll find it impossible not to be touched by his experiences. This is one of the most rawly emotional stories ever to appear in a videogame, and it has the ability to, if you let it, pull you in like no other medium could manage.
I'm not saying that Deadly Premonition should be the template for how every game should be designed—yes, the "gameplay" is largely abominable and dated—but it should be looked at as a singularly brilliant example of videogame storytelling, one that deserves to be studied by every game developer out there, so they can see how a story can succeed where 99% of video game stories don't. Deadly Premonition makes you a part of the story, and luckily, it's a fascinating story to be a part of.
Deadly Premonition has no real competition for title of "Horror Game of the Year". I'd even go so far as to say that, despite it being, in many ways, a terrible game, by December there won't be much competition for calling it the flat-out "Game of the Year".
But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm not just here to talk about Deadly Premonition in general, I'm here to present some highlights of the game, go in-depth about some of its details and mysteries, try to explain just why it's such an incredibly special experience—basically to convince anyone who takes the time to read this to play it for themselves.
In fact, let me just pause right here to encourage you to go out and buy the game—the rest of these articles are going to go into exhaustive detail about the game's plot, characters, and mechanics, and I can't stress enough how much better a time you'll have discovering all of it for yourself, playing late into the night with all the lights down low. You can always come back and read the articles later—they're not going anywhere, but your lack of knowledge about Deadly Premonition's secrets is.
Okay, now that the convolutions are done with, let's start the game!As mysteries must, Deadly Premonition begins with a corpse. An artistically posed corpse at that. More importantly, what the hell kind of tree is that?
Seriously, though, just a minute into the opening movie and I already know I'm in for something special. You've got sex, violence, biblical allusion, demonstration of character traits without dialogue—this is clearly the opening of a real story, one that's shooting at a target slightly more difficult than the average murder mystery.
You've got an Eve crucified to the tree of knowledge as a flesh-coloured snake slithers between her nearly-naked breasts. I generally prefer my imagery to be a little less incredibly on-the-nose, but the game wants to make it absolutely clear that the woman's death was caused, at least in part, by a curiosity about the forbidden (specifically sex). The fact that Deadly Premonition's opening gives me a chance to talk about the imagery being employed alone serves to set it apart from the crowd, and is just the first of the game's many, many wonderful flourishes.
The movie then goes on to check in with a variety of the characters we'll be meeting over the course of the game, each of whom is dealing with news of the death in their own way, before the whole thing ends with as interestingly-framed a shot as you're likely to see in a game.
The game hasn't even started yet, and we're already being shown that violence has crushing real-life consequences, causing people to run the gamut of reactions from stoic resignation to utter hysteria. Before we know any of these characters' names we understand they're important, and can start to make guesses on how they fit into the overall picture. The mystery's already begun pulling the player in, and we haven't touched the controller yet.
Next time, we'll meet our main character!
If you don't want his identity and details of the plot spoiled, I'd like to encourage you once again to zip on over to Amazon where you can order a copy of Deadly Premonition for under twenty dollars. In fact, if at any point in this series of articles I manage to make you feel like this is a game worth taking a look at, I absolutely want to encourage you to immediately stop reading and go get the game—you won't be disappointed.
And if you are, hell, it was just twenty dollars. Send me a bill. I won't pay it, but feel free to send it along.
Oh, and while comments on this article are fine, try to keep them spoiler-light.
This is York Morgan—he'll be our Agent Dale Cooper for the remainder of the running time. That's not to say he's entirely derivative of Twin Peaks' hero—while it's true that the basic idea of the character (lone FBI Agent sent to solve a brutal crime who's unafraid of using metaphysical reasoning when faced with mysteries) owes its existence to Twin Peaks, his specifics, and the degree to which he embraces the bizarre demonstrate clearly that the game's writer was also a fan of the X-Files. Over the course of the game we'll definitely bear witness to some of Fox Mulder's characteristic glibness in the face of the bizarre and obscene, as well as Albert Rosenfeld's famous lack of social niceties.
All this is my roundabout way of saying that, in his own way, York Morgan is the ultimate 90s TV detective.
Now, before we get to York, let me offer a quick "your mileage may vary" disclaimer. My game of the year for 2008 was Operation Darkness, primarily because it featured British Werewolves shooting rocket launchers at Nazi Dragons. So it's entirely possible that my love of Deadly Premonition is due, at least in part, to my status as a Twin Peaks superfan. I've seen every episode numerous times, dressed up as Dale Cooper for Halloween more than once (and not just because it's the easiest costume imaginable), and one of my great regrets in life is missing out on the opportunity to be Kyle McLaughlin's camera double in a movie.
But we're not here to discuss Dale Cooper, as fascinating as he may be—let's meet York Morgan. He first appears in a quick tutorial dream, allowing players to learn the game's controls while exploring a mysterious red room, populated by angelic versions of the twins who found the corpse.
Also notable in the room is a map of the united states, with a few fat little dolls placed on it:
After collecting the above trading card and leaving the room, a movie begins, providing York with a proper introduction:
Maybe proper isn't the right term there—I'm thinking more along the lines of "the best introduction a videogame's main character has ever received". He's driving a classic car, talking on a cell phone, working on his laptop, and trying to light his cigarette with this:
While the surface trappings of the scene are certainly fun to observe—the crime scene photos offer tantalizing clues as to the purpose of York's trip, and take a look at these little guys:
Sitting there with their real-time shadows, scurrying away from a rolling car—there aren't any other squirrels in the game. These were designed and animated solely for this single shot in the opening movie.
But looking at the cute details, or picking apart the little flaws (York seems pretty spry for a fella that just went through a car accident without a seatbelt) can lead us to overlook just what an impressively dense introduction this whole sequence is. First off, there's the plot stuff—we're getting all sorts of hints about the scope of York's case, as well as the nature of the crime, and York's isolation from his superiors at the FBI. Far more interesting, though, is how much we learn about York's personality in just three minutes.
The little aside about Tom and Jerry, while amusing, is far more important than the average "character has funny theory about pop culture" scene that audiences are familiar with. Take, for example, Quentin Tarantino's extended Madonna monologue from Reservoir Dogs—it's funny enough, but doesn't really illustrate anything about the characters or further the plot. It's just there because Tarantino wanted to have something funny to say. York's cartoon commentary, while not nearly as profane, actually serves to inform us about York Morgan's worldview. This is a man who experiences everything clinically—every person, every situation, even every cartoon is looked at as something to be categorized and labeled and set into preconceived role according to his training as a psychologist.
There's another, more important thing to be learned about York Morgan in this scene, however: That he's actively engaged in self-delusion. While discussing his "last case" with Zach, he remarks on his new scars.
While those scratches on his cheek might well be new additions, the defining feature of York's face is an unusual smooth patch of skin interrupting his eyebrow and extending into his hairline—and it's clearly some kind of a scar, and not a new one. So right away we're presented with a mystery central to York's character: what is the significance of that wound, and why can't he be honest with himself about it?
This movie, along with the opening cinema, provide an amazing one-two punch to the player. First they're shown a disturbing crime scene, and then immediately they meet the fascinating man who's going to get to the bottom of it. By the time I got to the actual gameplay I was determined to find out everything I could about this "York Morgan", and the case that's brought him out to the wilds of Washington state from wherever it is that he lives.
Luckily, the game would in no way disappoint me on any level where York Morgan's story was concerned.
If you'd like to join me in not being disappointed, you can do so by simply heading over to Amazon and ordering a copy of it. For less than twenty dollars. That's for a new game. So you have no excuse to not buy it.
In fact, I'd suggest you do it as soon as possible, especially because next time we'll be talking about the game's first unforgivable design mistake.
That's right, there's more than one of them.
(Oh, and if anyone out there is looking to surprise me this Christmas, a "No Smoking" logo Zippo lighter would be a great idea. Just FYI)
Is that Deadly Premonition features combat.
Any combat at all.
Everything bad that has been said about this game's combat is most likely true—even the farthest-flung flights of exaggerated embellishment. Yes, killing enemies in this game is as unbelievably frustrating and painful as trying to extract your genitals from a saw-toothed vise made out of acid.
And things seemed so promising, too—check out the first introduction that enemies get, after York has crashed his car and started to wander down a forested path:
These are the shadows. They lumber around like zombies when you're close to them, and use a flickering teleport technique when you're not. They can be shot in the head for double damage, but they jerk around so unpredictably that headshots can be extremely difficult to pull off.
It's not so much the controls that let the player down, which, apart from a major glitch that I'll get into later, are fundamentally similar to Resident Evil 4 and 5. Sure, aiming is weirdly sluggish, but a lock-on feature makes manual shooting largely unnecessary. The melee combat has actually been improved from the Resident Evil series, bringing it closer to Silent Hill level, in that the player is able to walk around while holding a weapon at the ready.
No, the biggest problem with the combat is the bizarre decision the developers made to turn every single fight into an endless chore by throwing dozens of enemies at the player, each of whom is far stronger than they have any right to be. Here's a sequence of me—on normal difficulty, I can't stress that enough—shooting one of the first zombies in the game:
"But Dan!" You may say, "That's the starting gun! Don't you get better weapons as the game progresses?" If asked that question, I would only be able to answer that yes, you do, but it doesn't matter, because the enemies' health scales upward rather sharply throughout the game. Here's a video of me attempting to kill a zombie with a shotgun on, and once again, I want to make this absolutely clear, "normal" difficulty.
Yeah, five direct hits from a shotgun wouldn't put him down. It took a glancing sixth blast to do it.
I want to stress that I'm not trying to complain about the level of difficulty here—I don't mind killing huge numbers of creatures in a game, nor do I mind sweating a little to do it. What bothers me about the fighting in Deadly Premonition is how pointless and repetitive it all is. Shooting an enemy to death requires standing still for ten seconds and tapping the A button over and over again. That's it. There's no strategy to it, no artistry to it—no fun can possibly be gleaned from the combat.
Which is why my central complaint about the game's combat is why it exists at all. There's no reason to be killing zombies in this game. This is a title about solving a mystery and getting to know the inhabitants of a small town. What does shooting zombies have to do with that? This is the worst kind of videogame combat, no connection to the story, and no reason for its inclusion. It was bad enough when Silent Hill decided it needed to add a combo system and a ton more enemies to fight—this is a step beyond that kind of bad decision making. Deadly Premonition is profoundly not a game about zombies crawling out of the dirt and coming after the main character—yet there they are, shuffling about for no reason at all, other than some kind of a cynical marketing decision based on the premise that audiences won't accept a horror game in which you don't get to shoot zombies.
The strangest part is that the entire combat system could be pulled from the game without anyone really ever knowing that it was missing. There are a few bosses later in the game, but all of them are extremely combat-light as it is—no boss in the game is allowed to score a hit unless the player screws up a QTE, so would it have really hurt things to transform the entire boss fight sequences into elaborate QTEs?
What would have been left without all of the fighting? Simple exploration and puzzles, I'd imagine. That's the point of the "other world" sequences anyhow; the zombies are there to delay York from finding the pieces of evidence he needs to "profile" what happened in a variety of situations.
Would the game really have been damaged so much had the player simply been able to explore mysterious, Silent Hill-esque "dark world" locations looking for clues without being hounded by utterly generic and completely forgettable enemies? I can't imagine it would. If there was one thing I'd change about Deadly Premonition, it would be the complete removal of every bit of combat from the game—since it only ever serves as a distraction from the storyline that provides the game's heart and soul.
Oh, and about the profiling. It's these sequences, where York finds a certain number of items and the player is shown a video of what occurred, that has led many people to refer to Morgan as a "psychic detective," but I'm not really sure that's the game's intent. York never really refers to specific details that we're shown in the videos, nor are the videos themselves entirely accurate in depicting what literally happened at the scenes that York is investigating. It's far more likely that his "visions" are meant to serve not as psychic knowledge of events that York wasn't present for, but rather audiovisual depictions of his guesswork, so as to give the player a window into how the game's version of "profiling" works.
There's one exception to this rule, however, and because it's the first sequence of profiling that appears in the game, it sets something of a misleading tone for the rest of them, as well as doing its level best to spoil a good portion of the surprises that the plot has to offer. This is the point at which I'd normally show the video, and discuss what's wrong with it, but that's too dangerous—the "profile" shows multi-frame glimpses of scenes ranging from the next chapter to the last hour of the game. The idea is that they'll go by so quickly that you won't get anything but the barest sense of what you've seen, but like the opening credits of Battlestar Galactica before it, they just serve to ruin the surprise of coming events by offering hints as to where the plot is going to go. In Battlestar Galactica there's at least some frame of reference for the things that get spoiled ("Oh, so this week Starbuck's going to punch a guy, and then a ship's going to blow up… haven't seen that before").
Here there's no such familiarity. York hasn't met a single other character yet (we've had glimpses in the opening movie), and here's a video showing much of the cast, not to mention some scenes that are so incredibly spoilery that I can't even hint at them for fear of ruining the effect.
Maybe that video was just included to be the "Deadly Premonition" of the title, but even so, it serves no purpose other than to deaden shock later in the game. Especially when you consider that York doesn't seem to have shared that particular vision with the player, and he'll never offer any suggestion that he had a "premonition" of events that were to later occur.
Far more important is the reference to the fortune he read in his coffee, but we'll get to that next time, when we take a look at York Morgan's daily grind.
I can't stress enough how important it is, for maximum enjoyment of Deadly Premonition, you know, when you've gotten around to buying a copy from Amazon, to skip this movie when you come to it—it's right at the end of the first combat scene, simply tapping the start button a few times will allow you to skip right through it, thereby permitting you to enjoy the game's surprises as they come.
And filmmakers, TV people, game designers, whoever—please stop putting clips from the end of your fiction at the beginning of your fiction. We don't need an assurance that something cool is eventually going to happen. Just trust your audience enough to let things build a little, huh?
With the first interminable combat sequence left in the dust, it's time to a actually start meeting other characters in the game. But before that, let's take a look at a detail that captivated me the first time I played the game, and interests me still—a sequence of no seeming value or consequence.
When the "profile" ends, York doesn't immediately meet the local police who are waiting for him. Instead, he walks out of the woods a good five hundred meters from the bridge they're meant to rendezvous upon. This forces the player to spend a minute running down a wet highway to get there. Is this sequence meaningful? Is it just a strange design error? After the cliched Silent Hill-esque Other World sequence (hereafter referred to as the SHOW), did the developers want to give players a moment with a uniquely Deadly Premonition location and experience before the plot got moving?
I recognize that I may be reading a little too much into such a tiny portion of the game—it's not like this is Metal Gear Solid 3's climbing/theme song sequence. I think it's a telling scene, though, because this is the first piece of gameplay that defies genre convention and begins to establish the game's own tone. There's nothing new about crashing cars and gunfighting zombies in suspiciously narrow forest paths, but running down a wet highway at dawn in the Pacific Northwest? Now that's something I've never seen in a video game before. There's no score, either, nothing to interrupt or overpower the soft repetition of York's footsteps as he closes in on Greenvale, the game's main setting.
As I wrote above, I could well be reading (and writing) far much too into this, but considering the languid pace that much of the game moves at, I find this to be almost a perfect introduction to the real world that Deadly Premonition is about exploring—not the trite SHOW scenes, but rather the subdued depiction of an isolated community in the middle of the woods.
And after such an elaborate buildup, wouldn't this be a great time to spoil things with some awkward translation?
I've always wondered what it's like for North American voice actors recording the dialogue for translated games. When they're confronted with a line that's just a slight word-change away from being natural English, do they ever suggest fixing it? Or do they just read the scripts put in front of them without comment, happy to be working?
Not that Deadly Premonition has any particularly egregious examples of Engrish to offer, no one sets up anyone the bomb or anything like that… but Deadly Premonition suffers more than most games would from the occasional slip because there's such a fundamentally serious story being so well-told. It's hard not to snigger whenever something utterly unnatural comes out of a character's mouth, but for now I'm going to have to ask you to play along and just ignore the rare instances of awkwardness as much as possible. It's always going to be clear what people mean, so hopefully you'll be able to let the occasional awkward wording drift by without much trouble.
It's easy to forgive those small mistakes when you're dealing with a game that has such a strong sense of how to stage and execute a dramatic scene. Whether it's the broader notes of the power dynamic between York and George (like York's childish attempt to regain some control of the interaction by blowing smoke and suggesting that George get his luggage), or the subtler notes like George possessively standing between York and Emily, this first scene of character interaction lets us know the developers understand how important it is to establish strong personalities for their characters right away, so that their interactions can go on to provide a dramatic spine for the story.
We also learn why York does that thing where he touches his temple and tilts his head whenever he talks to Zach—it's a move designed to hide his mouth from anyone nearby—when combined with the way he lowers his voice during these asides, the goal is clearly to hide his conversations with Zach as much as possible. This way, at worst, he'll look like someone who mumbles to himself a little, rather than a full-on psycho who speaking to a second personality all the time. It's interesting to note that he does this even when he's alone—he's obviously so used to talking to Zach around other people that he's gotten into the habit of doing it all the time.
York does, in fact, retire to the hotel for a nap, where he has an unsettling dream…
This is something of an odd video—the Shadow is creepy enough, but the main thrust of the scene, that we're supposed to be learning a key gameplay component, never really hit home with me. The idea that enemies won't be able to detect you if you hold your breath is interesting, but it never really becomes useful in the game. I'll get into this a little more later on, but the fact is that enemies generally aren't fast enough to corner the player, or they appear in hallways so narrow that they can't be snuck past. In yet another failure for the terrible combat sequences, I was able to get through the entire game without once holding my breath to confuse a zombie.
The location York's waking up in is the Great Deer Yard hotel, which is about five times bigger than makes sense for the size of town it's in. Like most of the game's mysteries, this will be explained soon enough. In the room the player can futz about with York's inventory, change his clothes, and, of course, shave.
I find the game's seeming fixation on the minutiae of day-to-day life oddly endearing. It's by no stretch of the imagination a realistic game, but the few random nods to how things actually work—York will get stubble as time passes, if he doesn't dry clean his suit it will start to attract flies with its rank odor—serve as another thing that separates Deadly Premonition from the crowd. At every turn, it attempts to bring the player more fully into York Morgan's world, as he eats, sleeps, and travels from place to place during the investigation. The game only balks, thankfully, at addressing the bathroom situation in Greenvale.
After cleaning himself up, York meets the first of the game's "quirky townspeople", Polly the owner/sole employee of the Deer Yard Inn. The ensuing breakfast scene, in addition to providing a primer for where to travel in and around Greenvale, includes the game's single most referenced and mocked moment, right at the end:
"F.K…. In the coffee!"
Yes, that really happened. He mentioned it a few movies back, but that's not what the Internet fixated on. This seems to be the make-or-break moment for suspension of disbelief when it comes to the game, although I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps this says more about my own personal craziness than anything else, but the only thing that occurred to me when I got to this scene was "Huh, so York believes in divination. Neat."
For those not familiar with divination, Wikipedia has an amazing list of every type you can imagine, and a few more. In short form, though, divination is the belief that you can find messages from the divine in everyday patterns, from the I Ching to tarot to astrology to reading tea leaves, any time you try to gain a glimpse of the future from a random pattern, you're engaging in divination.
What I find most interesting about this scene is not that York believes in divination (again, this might be the Twin Peaks influence showing through—see the video at the end of this article for a related scene), but rather that he's seemingly devised his own method of it. I'm familiar with reading coffee grounds, or wax dropped into liquid—but the shapes that cream makes in coffee before dispersing? That's a new one to me—and yet another reason I found York Morgan to be a fascinating character. Did he come up with this idea himself, along with all of the possible meanings for various squiggly shapes.
That's the last time we'll see coffee-reading play a role in the plot, but if the player so desires, they can always check their fortune a few more times—
Which one is your favorite? Mine, naturally, involves the Blues Brothers. Now, a warning: this is not the last time I'll be openly amazed by the amount of raw content that the game has to offer.
If you've found any other this craziness compelling (in any way), remember that Deadly Premonition is available for purchase at Amazon for less than 20 American dollars—there's more craziness to come, and I suspect that you'll enjoy it more firsthand than you would filtered through my alternating criticism/fawning.
Next time on my Game of the Year coverage of Deadly Premonition? I reveal my status as a stupe, and then examine the brilliant conceit I mentioned way back at the start of this thing.
And now, as promised, a favorite scene from Twin Peaks:
So, about that conceit I mentioned way back when. Here's an embarrassing admission—when I first started playing the game, I didn't really "get" what it was doing. Take another look at York Morgan's profile card.
This is all the information I had to go on when York started addressing comments to "Zach". "Hmm," I figured, "it's a little weird that I'm playing as a crazy guy, but what the hell, it's Japanese, I'll give it a shot." I was so willing to just the let the game be odd that I didn't understand the significance of the following two clues:
It wasn't until my first day of driving around, when I spotted a collectible card on the map and pulled over to grab it on my way to the police station, that I got it.
It was only then that I realized that, flying in the face of all videogame convention, as I played Deadly Premonition I wasn't controlling the FBI agent walking around the screen, I was controlling his multiple personality. I was being literally placed inside the head of the game's main character, and as such was privy to his innermost thoughts and feelings. Rather than just having the standard frustrating videogame "narrative lockout" effect, where the player is in absolute control of the world until the person he's playing as tries talking to someone, Deadly Premonition utilizes a brilliant narrative device to explain that restriction. By putting players in the role of Zach, as opposed to York Morgan, they have a concrete reason for this separation of roles—the two aspects of York's personality have different jobs—York's better with people (although only just), Zach comes out to deal with problem-solving and combat, both psychological and physical.
The amazing thing—and I'm almost sad that I'm trying to keep this spoiler-light for the time being, because I'd love to expound on the psychological element right now—is that there are clear reasons offered by the game's story for both York's psychoses and the clear delineation of roles between the two personalities. More than just an interesting storytelling technique or clever gameplay device, the York/Zach split is an integral part of the plot, one that's by its very nature woven into the fabric of the gameplay. It may just seem at first glance an excuse to have York prattling on about one thing or another for the game's running time, but if you look a little more closely, you'll find that there's a lot more going on in the character dynamic.
Some have referred to the sequences where York talks to the player about his thoughts and feelings as "breaking the 4th wall", and while that would normally be an accurate description of the phenomenon, it's no exactly correct here. The very term "4th wall" refers to the separation between the audience and the fiction they're viewing. Breaking the 4th wall suggests characters disregarding this separation, disregarding, in fact, their very status as fictional characters, and interacting with the audience directly. It's not an uncommon thing to see in videogames, especially comedic ones, where it's par for the course to have someone within the game world refer to which button you should press in a given situation. That's no what's happening here, though—when York talks to the player, he's not a self-aware fictional character interacting with his audience, he's a person engaging with another person in the story. These sections, as basic as they may be, are some of the most effective examples I've ever seen of making the player a participant in the game's narrative, albeit a largely silent one.
Which makes it something of a disappointment that the video I have to offer covers such a mundane section of this interplay. Although even this, the first of the game's "car talk" sequences, where York chats about whatever's on his mind while driving across town, is telling—
Here the player is being spoken to like an old friend, sharing reminiscences about good times, acting as a sounding board for the airing of petty gripes… York is having the kind of laid-back, digressive, "conversation about nothing" that friends have with one another—one that rings unusually true in both its subject matter and delivery. Players are controlling York Morgan's best friend in the world, and the developers understood the importance of giving them a chance to get past the stand-offish persona that York has with the rest of the cast, and let them get to know who he is when he's alone. They're lengthy, in-depth conversations that encourage the player to spend a little more time in the car, rather than just rushing their way to the next objective. Yet another experience in the game that rings true—who hasn't, when driving a friend home, taken the long way or driven around the block a few extra times to prolong an interesting conversation?
It may sound odd to put it in such stark terms, but Deadly Premonition, along with everything else it attempts to be, is a friendship simulator.
So if you don't have any friends of your own, zip out and buy a copy of Deadly Premonition.
Okay, as sales pitches go, that was a little weak, but seriously, as ever, I'm going to suggest that you go out and get a copy of this game for yourself ASAP—it just gets better from here, and these are the kinds of once-in-a-generation gameplay experiences that you should really be having for yourselves.
It's time to take a look at Deadly Premonition's claim of being the first true "open world" horror videogame. A claim that, while technically true, may mislead people about what kind of game they're going to be playing. You see, while Greenvale is a realistically large town, in that it seems like it could (just) contain the 500 people we're told live there, the game never breaks from the realism of the situation, or allows the player to go hog-wild with York's actions, so there's a realistically small number of things that can actually be done while tooling around Greenvale in a borrowed cruiser.
Let's take a look at a map of Greenvale, shall we?
That map means one thing—it's time to discuss another of the game's unforgivable design errors! Note what a huge area of land the game's map covers—certainly a change for a horror game, which generally attempt to ramp up tension by locking players into tiny areas, keeping them there with the threat of instant death if they wander away from the prescribed path. Anyone remember the dogs at the front door in the first Resident Evil?
With all of this freedom comes two huge drawbacks. 1: navigating is, to put it in the nicest possible fashion, a bitch. The map exists in two states—fully revealed, as you can see above, or way too zoomed in:
You can actually zoom in even further if you'd like, although I can't imagine a situation that would require you to do so. It's not like the game features any hedge mazes. Adding insult to injury, the zoomed-in map rotates to match York's current facing, while the overall map remains static with north (basically) at the top. Which means just figuring out exactly where you are in town can be something of a chore. Try, for example, to determine where on the large map that small visible section above is located.
Not easy, is it? Now, to be fair, once you've spent an hour tooling around Greenvale's back roads, liberating human bones from a pack of stray dogs—
You'll have a pretty good sense of where everything is located, and be more than capable of driving around instinctually. Of course, spending a couple of hours learning the layout of a fictional town while driving a virtual car with horrible handling is something that nearly no one wants to do, which is why I've counted it among the game's crucial flaws.
That's the main drawback to offering players a realisitcally large rural village—it takes a realistically large amount of time to get anywhere. While it may not seem excessive in the real world to have to drive for three minutes to get from your hotel to the police station, doing it ten or twenty times over the course of a game quickly adds up to inconvenience and frustration. Especially when the driving isn't in service of the main plot, but rather to take part in time-wasting fetch quests that don't really seem like they have any place in a largely real-world based murder mystery. But driving around picking up trading cards with the faces and bios of the various characters in the game is just another one of those things you've got to just accept if you want to get into the world of Deadly Premonition. And at this point, really, why wouldn't you?
Oh, right, because games don't generally ask you to slowly drive back and forth across a realistically large town. Of course.
Well, have no fear, because Deadly Premonition isn't all crippling gameplay flaws—next time I'm going to point out a ray of light that cuts through the dark clouds of design ineptitude that hang over huge sections of the game, so rest assured, even though I've pointed out some giant problems with the game, if you actually head over to Amazon and buy a copy of Deadly Premonition, and then read the very next article in this series, I will let you in on the two secrets necessary to get through the game with minimum possible hassle.
Two secrets that, had they just been plainly explained in the game's manual, I'm sure would have swung the game's Metacritic average about 15-20 points north. Assuming, of course, that video game reviewers actually read manuals. I honestly have no idea if that's the case.
I just finished Deadly Premonition about a few hours ago, and I have to say that it was one of the most interesting and satisfying experiences I've had all year.
I've decided to start working on a Second Opinion, and while I won't spoil the verdict here, It's pretty safe to assume that my final breakdown will be quite positive and score much higher than what my esteemed colleague gave it.
While most of the knocks against the game in reference to the production values and controls and so forth are totally valid, I really think that most of the people reviewing the game just didn't "get" the story, or were the type of player who puts gameplay before all else.
Don't get me wrong—gameplay is certainly vitally important, but it's not the only thing that carries weight in my mind. I think video games are the perfect medium to host all sorts of different experiences, and there's plenty of room for titles which focus more on delivering mood, atmosphere, or character work than combat systems or some ungodly number of highly-polished polygons.
Deadly Premonition is most definitely not going to be a game for everyone (much like a Lynch film is not for all viewers) but I think those players who are tolerant of low-rent production and can appreciate the value of fantastic characters and interesting stories will see what others miss.
I'm going to go out on a limb here and assume you're familiar with the game Bionic Commando for the Nintendo Entertainment System. Not the excellent remake for modern systems, or the 3D sequel, both developed by GRIN. No, I'm talking about the original version, because it's extremely similar to Deadly Premonition in one key way. Both feature crippling design flaws that result from poor documentation.
See that barrier? It can only be destroyed by the "Bazooka" weapon. If you didn't bring that weapon to this level, there's absolutely no way to get past it. I'm not going to tell you how many times I accidentally arrived here (or to the other screen where this happens) having brought the wrong weapon, and was forced to reset the game, throwing away an hour of work each time. But it was more than once.
For years I thought that this was a monstrously unfair design oversight, until one day the Internet revealed the truth: thee was a simple way around the problem. All you had to do was hold down select/start/B at the same time, and you'd be taken out of the level, where you could rearm and try it again. Which would have been an incredibly useful thing to know when I was considerably younger and prone to throwing controllers. One problem, though—that command appeared nowhere in the game's manual. It was a simple oversight, but it had the effect of breaking the game, because there's no way to guess the button combination that would have prevented all the heartbreak.
Likewise the manual for Deadly Premonition features two huge omissions that, had they been included, would likely have changed the way everyone played the game. So here, without any further ado, are the two instructions that I feel everyone who sets out to play Deadly Premonition must be armed with:
Which makes this a perfect time to address the game's not-exactly-user-friendly side-story structure. At first glance, it seems like exploring all of the nooks and crannies of Greenvale will be the simplest thing in the world—not only is there a convenient menu listing all of them:
The descriptions of those missions actually let the player know which character needs to be contacted in order to start the mission, as well as which chapter those missions can occur in. Add this to the fact that every character's location is listed on the map, and it seems like there should be no trouble in checking off everyone's little tasks. There are a couple of problems, however—just simply being on the right chapter with the right person isn't necessarily enough. There's also time of day, location, and weather component to the missions that aren't listed. So if finding the right person at the right time in the right place on the right day wasn't bad enough, if it's raining, you're screwed.
The two biggest hindrances to completing the missions are plot-related, however. The first is the fact that characters with missions assigned to them have a bad habit of turning up dead before the player gets a chance to talk to them, and the second is that the game's plot barrels along so quickly that it's easy to get through the entire game without ever completing one of the side stories. During my first trip through the game I occasionally took the time to investigate something that caught my interest (I just had to, for example, figure out what was going on with those bones that were lying around everywhere), but for the most part I was so swept up in the storyline that I missed out on all of the additional substance the side-stories had to offer.
This driving storyline is one of the key things that makes Deadly Premonition so difficult to classify as a "open-world" game. Even though it features some of the trappings of the genre (a big map to explore freely, the lack of strict time limits, conspicuous collection-based fetch quests) the storyline is a much greater motivator to the player. Unlike Grand Theft Auto games, or even Yakuza, there's no point at which the game comes out and says "you know what? Just hang out for a couple of hours and do whatever—the story will still be here when you get back." From the moment York Morgan runs down that rainy highway into town there isn't a second of his time that isn't accounted for, whether investigating, socializing with the other cops on the case, or sending word back to headquarters before going to sleep, the story rushed along headfirst, forcing the player to face outright criticism from characters if they want to do anything other than continue the investigation.
Which brings me to one of the key paradoxes that defines the game—it's an open world game that actively discourages the player from exploring the open world in which it's set. It's only by really acting as Zach Morgan and convincing York to digress from his itinerary that the player can get a look at the broader, more complex world of Deadly Premonition.
And in so doing, make the game far easier to play.
The first series of missions, which can be accessed before ever going to the police station, are the kind of story-vital exercise that would, in a normally-structured game, have been part of the main story, rather than shifted off to the side the way they are. It actually begins as a completely logical investigative trip, with Zach forcing York to pay a visit to the victim's mother, hoping to get some background about the case—
It's scenes like this one which best exemplify why I believe people have had trouble embracing Deadly Premonition's story—there's the wildly uneven quality of the voiceacting, from York's skillful underplaying to Sallie's so-far-over-the-top-that-she-just-broke-orbit take on the lines. Then there's the jarring switch from hearing a woman's plaintive sobs of mourning to an HUD popping up with a chime and announcing that [YOU'VE STARTED MISSION 20: FIND A DRESS!]. At a time when video game designers are trying to lessen interfaces to the point that, someday, someone, somewhere will think that they're looking at a movie rather than a video game for roughly five seconds, Deadly Premonition's design must seem retro, cheap, or both. Really, how can we be expected to take a game seriously when there's a health bar at the top-left corner of the screen?
I think it's notable that there's almost nothing this jarringly video-gamey in the story proper. These "find this" and "bring that" missions don't fit in with the game's tone, but the stories locked away behind simple questing are key to understanding the richness of the game's world. It's almost as if the developers were nervous about simply throwing optional bits of plot and story at the players here and there, and threw in a bit of "gameplay" alongside to make the whole thing a little more traditional and palatable. If that was the case their decision had the opposite effect to the intended, but it's hard to stay too mad at the game—bright-green text on the screen in the middle of a rainstorm is bad, but at least we're not being asked to mix chemicals at the proper ratio, or figure out how much voltage it takes to electrify a chain-link fence.
After the dress has been delivered York gets a look at Anna's diary:
Which leads him to the saga of Becky and her boyfriend Quint:
In addition to a whole bunch of small-town class system melodrama, York was also rewarded with this:
A wrench that attacks super-fast, never breaks, and does a good amount of damage. As crazy as it may sound right now, this wrench is (with the exception of boss fights) the only weapon that you will need for the remainder of the game. I'll detail just how it's employed when we get to the next combat part of the game, but for right now just take my assurance: grab this item as soon as possible, and the game's fighting goes from an endless chore to a largely skippable nuisance.
And with that most-backhanded-compliment-ever out of the way, let's take a quick look at the other side mission that Deadly Pemonitioners should endeavour to complete ASAP. Remember George yelling at York for dropping by his house earlier? Well, if you actually wait until after going to the police station to check in, he's much more reasonable:
After that far more civil conversation, York is equipped with the Radio:
Which had one of the least clear explanations of any item ever. If you get into trouble and use it, George will be right there to help? Considering that all of York's troubles tend to take place in a possibly-metaphorical Silent Hill-esque Other World (or SHOW), it's doubtful how much help George could be—if the radio even worked.
That's all moot, however, because the radio—an entirely skippable item, I can't stress that enough—has a far more important purpose to serve. It allows the player to teleport immediately to any location they've already visited. Select it in the inventory and you're presented with a list of every location in the game. Simply choose one, and York immediately travels there in his car, saving the player the trouble of actually doing the driving. It allows the player to skip any driving that isn't story-integral, and speeds up the game considerably.
I'll caution against using the radio too much, however—driving around is when the York/Zach conversations happen, after all—more importantly, though, is the fact that part of the fun of playing Deadly Premonition is experiencing Greenvale as a place. Unlike the combat, which is so bad that it can't be called anything but a failure, the driving truly feels like something that the developers intended for the player to fully experience, with the Radio being an addition dropped in at the last minute when the driving tested poorly. Make no mistake, this isn't a GTA4/Red Dead Redemption situation where you'll go mad if you try to play the whole game without using the taxi/stagecoach. Speaking comparatively to other open world games there's actually very little traveling to be done—nothing in the game is more than 3-5 minutes away from anything else—but if you absolutely must, use the shortcut, that's what it's there for.
Now that I've fixed those two glaring problems, you've really got no excuse to not swing over to Amazon and buy Deadly Premonition for less than twenty dollars (it makes a great Canadian Thanksgiving gift! That's right, in Canada, we give gifts on Thanksgiving!). Next time we'll be taking a look at the denizens of Greenvale, and the remarkably laid-back and nontraditional approach the game takes to introducing them.
Information control is one of the most vital components of storytelling—deciding when and how your audience gets pieces of information can be almost as important as the details of the information itself.
This is yet another place where Deadly Premonition breaks ranks with video game convention. If the player is strictly following the storyline there's a proscribed time and place for York to meet all of the town's denizens. If, however, York and Zach decide that getting to the police station and starting the plot isn't a priority, then the the two of them are free to meet almost all of the game's characters at their own pace.
See the little grey guys on the map there? That's two of Greenvale's twenty-odd residents. Once York has met them they go from being a grey "Suspect" to being either pink or blue, with a proper name attached. Once that's been accomplished, the player can keep track of the characters' movements around town if they feel like it. There's a more important reason to meet everyone in Greenvale, though—because it's the kind of thing that an FBI Agent might actually do in this situation, driving around town and interviewing people around the case on their own turf, where they feel most comfortable, and willing to talk.
The player has the option to play Deadly Premonition like a normal video game, following the proscribed pathway until they've met everyone that they're required to—the scene in which the introductions occur actually lines everyone up in a single large location, just so it can all be taken care of at once. It's a perfectly satisfying sequence, and one that acquits its purpose adequately—but the player who rushes through the experience risks missing out on the unique conversations that York can have with characters.
Take, for example, this conversation that York has when meeting Olivia for the first time:
Or when he first meets Thomas, dropping by his apartment unannounced, in the middle of the night, during a rainstorm.
Giving the players options like these feed into the overall sense that Greenvale is a real place, and that the people who live there go on living even when they're not in a room with York, giving him a clue or assigning a mission to accomplish.
Compare this to something like Grand Theft Auto IV, which is an almost shockingly shallow depiction of a working world. Once, on a whim, I decided to follow a prostitute and her John around town to see where he drove after picking her up. A minivan pulled over in the warehouse district and a prostitute walked over to speak with the driver. They talked for a moment and then she climbed inside. Riding a motorcycle I tailed the couple, remaining a discrete distance behind, of course. I assumed that at some point they're reach a location, the transaction would be completed, and then the prostitute would leave: Verisimilitude Accomplished!
It never happened, though. I tailed the car for nearly 12 in-game hours without any further incident. As the sun rose over liberty city, I realized that nothing was ever going to happen—their roles as hooker and john had disappeared as soon as she climbed into the car. Once that was over, they were just another random bit of traffic, following a new AI routine. I wound up with the same results when I picked a random person in downtown FakeManhattan and walked behind him for half an hour. Over the course of ten in-game hours the man never went into a building or met with anyone. He just wandered aimlessly around Liberty City until I got bored of watching him.
That's Harry—every day at lunchtime his valet Michael drives him in his wheelchair-converted limousine down to the A&G diner, where they collect a lunch, and then drive back to his mansion at the edge of town.
Remember Emily, the Sheriff's Deputy? Most nights after work she drives to SWERY '65, a local bar and has dinner there. When it's raining however, she'll stay home and cook dinner for herself.
Everyone in town has patterns of behaviour, places they like to spend time, people they like to hang out with... there's so much activity that you could spend hours just following people around and watching their routines. There aren't a lot of characters in Deadly Premonition, but each one has a distinct personality and depth that few games attempt, let alone achieve.
The most important thing to note here is that this is yet another way that Deadly Premonition accomplishes things that couldn't work in any other medium: letting the player become a co-author in the story. It manages this by having far more content than the story requires. Films have a proscribed length that they can't violate, limiting the amount of story they can feature. Even in the most digressive novel the author must decides the order in which the characters are introduced, and how much coverage they receive—editorial decisions that determine how the audience will react.
While this is true of Deadly Premonition as well, it's true to a far lesser extent—there's so much content to be seen and experienced that players get to decide just how deep an experience they want—and they have to want the experience. This isn't a traditional video game experience where characters talk to NPCs to hear that person's life story and obtain a quest, then get rewarded at the end of it with an item and a little closure for the story they heard at the start. Sallie Graham will never have useful information to offer about her daughter's murder. The player can watch her wail and gnash about the death of her daughter, they can learn her backstory, and follow her to SWERY '65 where she drinks for hours before retiring to Richard's trailer, looking for some solace in the arms of her first love. There will be no reward for any of these activities, beyond a deeper understanding of just how well-conceived Greenvale and all of its inhabitants are.
It can be argued—I am, in fact, arguing—that it's the best-realized location in history of video games.
Next time around, the plot begins in earnest, and York Morgan slams into a wall called "genre convention". And it's every other horror game that gets injured. And heck, since you've already bought a copy of all those other horror games, why not pick up a copy of Deadly Premonition! Still under twenty dollars at Amazon.com! Okay, it's only four cents under twenty dollars, but come on...
I've already talked about some of the moments that captivated me during my first run through Deadly Premonition, now I'd like to cover the first moment that really made me question my initial assumption that I was playing a brilliant subversion of video game tropes—the last moment during which I doubted Deadly Premonition's intentions (if not its execution—there would be plenty of doubt left to come on that front).
Arriving at the police station, York finds himself embroiled in a cliche, although one with a twist, letting us know that even here, in one of the most traditional contrived video game-y situations, things aren't exactly the way one would expect:
Fetch-quests tend not to be assigned by incredibly swishy gay stereotypes.
So I poked around the office, looking for the keys to the filing cabinet, hoping to get the story moving. They weren't hard to find at all:
But when I returned to Thomas, he revealed that they weren't the right kind of keys after all—it seems that all of the station's keychains have little metal squirrels on them, and only an expert is capable of telling them apart. So back into the station I went, searching out more and more keychains, each time bringing them back to Thomas and being told that I'd made a mistake, and once again selected a slightly wrong kind of squirrel.
Halfway through the forty minutes I spent wandering around the police station I nearly quit the game—the whole puzzle seemed so idiotic that I couldn't believe it had been included. "Another set of keys?" I thought to myself, "They must be joking!"
And, of course, they were. The entire sequence is a joke being played both on the player, and on most other "survival horror" titles. While not a time-sink joke on the level of "Desert Bus", the game is purposefully wasting the player's time to make a point about just how much time is wasted by ridiculous fetch-quest puzzles in other games. It's not an accident that this puzzle features a series of themed keys that have to be located: it's the developers taking a shot directly at the Resident Evil series.
How can I be sure that this is meant as an attack, rather than a legitimate (and failed) attempt at creating a "puzzle"? Because this isn't the only time it happens.
Before I move on to that, for the curious reading this, I've compiled all of Thomas' squirrel responses into one video:
(Note: I don't expect anyone to watch all of those in a row. You'd have to be crazy.)
With the file located, the police have a meeting to go over the known facts of the case, which gives us a chance to get to know the victim a little better, before heading to the hospital to watch her be cut up by a doctor.
When the team arrives at the hospital, they're greeted by the most meta fourth-wall-breaking sequence in the entire game, a conversation that seems meaningful, but then never really goes anywhere, and just remains, in the end, one of a dozen strange things about the game that will never really be explained.
No, you didn't hear that wrong—Fiona is reading a book about the plot of the game. A book whose title is likely an oblique reference to the mystery that York is trying to solve, although theorizing any further about that would get extremely deep into spoiler territory. More importantly, though, there's another puzzle to be solved immediately:
Overlook for a moment the fact that the hospital seems to be using old Apple computers, and that Ushah's name seems to be a tragic misspelling of either "Usher" or "Isiah", and consider the puzzle. Reminiscent of anything?
Make the "clue" a little more obtuse and the puzzle less mind-numbingly easy, and you'd have something from a Silent Hill game—between this and the parody Resident Evil puzzle with the keys, it becomes clear that the developers are offering their game itself as an act of criticism. They're showing up other popular Survival Horror franchises by presenting their tropes and cliches in an absurd light, then abandoning them (almost) entirely for the rest of the game.
It's a bold thing of Deadly Premonition to do, and one of my biggest disappointments about the game is that it doesn't go all the way with this design revolution and cast off generic repetitive combat as well. Of course, that's a conversation for another article. Specifically Part 11.
Until then, I'll leave you with a video of the autopsy scene, because even though it's a full ten minutes long, the whole thing is both a great example of how a completely traditional and cliched sequence (going over the victim's wounds and profiling based on them) can be enlivened and elevated by featuring a dynamic and singularly interesting character at the center of it.
Also, just a quick reminder—Christmas is just around the corner, and Deadly Premonition makes one heck of a gift: It's less than 20 dollars, and everyone who likes wonderful things (and owns an Xbox 360) will be pleased to receive a copy.
In the last article I skipped over yet another fascinating detail of the game's story, but not without cause. I've previously discussed just how voluminous the game's supplemental material is, and how it's profoundly worth it for the player to take the time to fully explore Greenvale—there's one problem with it, however. In order to see everything, the game absolutely must be played twice.
This might seem like an arduous chore, especially considering how many people haven't made it all the way through the game a single time, but it's vitally important if you want to get a complete picture of the town and its denizens—and really, why wouldn't you? Playing the game a second time can offer a completely different story experience—this isn't a Fable 3 situation, where there's no real reason to go back and find out how the world would be different had the King or Queen been a dick to everyone all the time.
(Spoiler Alert: It would be worse!)
Which brings me to the choice that the player, as Zach, must make, and how I'm going to advise players to make it. Previously I've mentioned just how much say the player gets in what kind of game they're going to play, but I haven't focused on the drawbacks to a more lackadaisical approach. While the side-stories are always available should the player decide to take a break, certain dialogue and character moments aren't.
The most obvious examples of this happen during the ride to the hospital—as with all such trips, the player has the option to skip the carpool, certain that George and Emily will wait at the hospital for as many days as are necessary until the player feels like showing up. If the player decides to do this, the punishment is twofold. First off, some more judgment from George:
Far more importantly, though, they'll be missing out on an unbelievably important conversation that would have taken place during the drive over.
See what I mean? We get more suggestions about the importance of York's scar (note the way he shuts down when pressed for information about it by Emily) as well as a window into George's feelings about the fairer sex. Which, given the nature of those feelings, really raise more questions than they answer.
So does the player really have to go through the entire game twice? Isn't there a less time-consuming way to view all this content without resorting to YouTube? There is, but it has its own drawbacks, and requires a slight amount of internet-usage to manage smoothly.
Deadly Premonition has one of the oddest mission structures on record—all progress is saved, and remains constantly updated as the player retries earlier chapters. So if you collect a great gun and buy a few med-kits in chapter seven, when you go back to replay the rainy path from the start of the game, you'll be fully equipped.
Of course, switching the difficulty resets all progress, so there's no going back and playing the game on hard with some of the ultimate weapons that become available in the final chapter. There's no reason to ever play the game on hard, though, so I suppose it doesn't really matter.
While this does mean that every time the player completes a chapter with an optional carpool they can simply quit out of the game and replay the chapter, this time puttering around and seeing the sights, essentially seeing the whole game in one (and a half) playthroughs, I'm going to discourage doing so. Traveling with the other characters and engaging in conversations with them puts York on a more traditional narrative track, which would be disrupted by jumping back and trying out the chapter a different way. There's no good comparison to this in other media, although I suppose people who used a thumb to mark their page in a choose-your-own-adventure book wouldn't be the farthest thing from it... My point is that stopping and replaying the game—even though there are rewards to doing so (namely seeing the whole breadth of the story without knowing the ending—really any of the last 1/3rd plot developments)—would break the powerful narrative flow that builds if the player just sticks to the main story.
I know this must seem contradictory, when I've spent so much time singing the praises of the extended world of Greenvale—but Deadly Premonition is fairly unique in that some incredibly vital story sequences are optional. There are enough opportunities to wander around between other story events, whenever offered the opportunity to spend a little more time with the other main characters, it's important to do so:
Even if that means playing through the game twice to get the full experience.
Of course, 40-50 hours is a prohibitive amount of time to spend with a rental, or a game borrowed from a friend, so why not buy yourself a copy? At less than twenty dollars, it's basically twice the cost of just renting the game—and if you're the type to keep a rental a few days extra when you find a game especially compelling, it might even wind up being cheaper!
Next time around, we'll take a look at the game Deadly Premonition might have been, before crashing back down into the world of the oft-times frustrating game that it wound up being.
I have been accused of being a chauvinist for the cause of Deadly Premonition—that my love for the game eclipses any ability to think critically about its flaws. I don't believe this is the case, and I'm happy to admit it that the game is loaded with flaws. Real, actual, mistakes that haven't been misinterpreted by the critical press, or are actually just clever commentaries on the state of video game design. While it's rare to see me suggesting that a game needed better graphics, I'd be a fool were I to deny the fact that York Morgan would have been easier to empathize with as a character if the sight of him smiling didn't fill the human heart with revulsion:
The biggest flaw in the game, as I've stated before, was the terrible, terrible, overrepresented combat. SWERY 65, the game's director has been open about the fact that the combat was awkwardly shoe-horned into an adventure game in an attempt to make it more marketable, so I'm not going to spend an article criticizing a financial decision—instead, I'd like to take a moment to consider the game that Deadly Premonition would have been had this bad advice never been offered or accepted.
We've already had a glimpse of York's skills as a borderline-psychic profiler in the extremely spoilery "deadly premonition" that capped the game's first SHOW sequence. After leaving the hospital with George and Emily, York heads to the site where Anna's body was discovered, and engages in some good old-fashioned investigation:
Before getting into the more metaphysical realm of profiling:
It's in this sequence that we get a window to what the SHOW sequences could have been, without all the tedious gunplay. Whether the player interprets the SHOW as an alternate spiritual world or just a figment of York's imagination (or, in my own interpretation, a combination of the two), it's clear that he's not actually physically traveling to another location, and the fights that occur there are not literally occurring.
As this sequence plainly demonstrates, York seeing a darker, altered version of the area he's investigation works perfectly well in an adventure context. There's any number of ways to read the change, from the crime being committed there opening a psychic window to a "dark world" to the change simply being a function of York's feelings about the crime and the person responsible for it. If only the rest of the game's SHOW sequences were this restrained.
There's nothing particularly wrong with the art design in the sawmill location. It's creepy, dilapidated, atmospheric—just the kind of place that players would love to slowly walk around, jumping at each slight creak or wayward shadow. Sadly, like the old adage about golf, the atmosphere is spoiled by the fact that enemies keep jumping out of the walls, requiring tending like an unruly garden.
Deadly Premonition isn't the only game franchise to suffer from this design mistake, of course. Let's look for a moment at the franchise that most obviously inspired the SHOW scenes, Silent Hill. A series known for its unparalleled immersion and scare factor, ask any fan their favorite parts of the games and you'll likely hear references to the art, the creature design, the sense of dread that permeates every moment spent in that town.
The combat will likely go unmentioned.
Remember Pyramid Head, the series' most iconic villain? Does he still give you chills years later because the boss fight with him was so memorable, or because the player was forced to, for the purposes of self-preservation, spend the entire game running away from him?
I'm not going to embark on a tirade about horror games (like Siren) opposed to survival horror games (like Resident Evil) and the relative merits of each genre, except to say that it's important to understand what kind of game you're making. Survival horror games can't be scary—they can be thrilling, but not horrific. Empowerment and fear can't co-exist. Which is why Half-Life stops being scary once Gordon finds his first gun, and starts being thrilling.
Deadly Premonition wants to be a horror game—speaking in Capcom terms, the target is clearly closer to Clock Tower than Resident Evil. Just look at York's encounters with the Raincoat Killer:
You can debate whether this sequence is effectively designed (not that you have to—it isn't), but the intent is clear. This isn't like Nemesis' eight appearances in Resident Evil 3, each one allowing a victory over the game's main threat, so that by the end his final annihilation is a fait accomplit, with Nemmy being remembered more for his tenacity than his effectiveness at killing anything. The developers want the player to be terrified of RK—to either hold their breath while hiding or sprint in the opposite direction whenever he appears. This is fundamentally at odds with the twenty minutes they just spent blowing holes in the heads of cannon-fodder zombies.
Again, the combat fails not because it's ineptly executed (although that's obviously true), but because it's fundamentally irreconcilable with the rest of the game. Even if the game had offered tight, tuned, bad-ass Resident Evil 4-style gunplay, it still would have stood out like a sore thumb because that kind of combat offers an experience to the player diametrically opposed to what the game is trying to accomplish.
If there's one thing I'd like to see from SWERY 65 and the Deadly Premonition team in the future it's a version of the game that excises the combat entirely, and just lets players be terrified by a world where guns can't be used to solve their problems. Also, while they're tweaking things, maybe make York's smile just a little less creepy.
But until that special edition is available, perhaps you can console yourself by purchasing the Deadly Premonition that's under twenty dollars right now? Who knows, if enough copies are sold the publishers might interpret it as a call for a polished director's cut!
Next time, I offer a final nail in the coffin of the combat system!