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Riding in Cars with York (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 5)

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

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.

In retrospect, it was pretty clear.

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.

Next time: The Greenvale Tourism Board (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 6)


Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Access Games  
Key Creator(s): SWERY 65  
Series: Deadly Premonition  
Genre(s): Horror  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Humor  

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Ménage à trois

This is the part where I think even the most hard-bitten critics start to warm up to the game a tiny bit. Who playing the game hasn't stopped just short of a target circle, waiting for York to finish explaining his views on John Williams' movie scores? The best moment (I think I Twittered you about this actually) is the one that made me realize there might be more to the split persona angle than I thought. Every time I thought I had them pinned down, York and Zach kicked me to a deeper layer, like in a certain popular movie that just came out.

The three-way relationship between York, Zach and the player is by far one of the game's subtlest and most clever devices; if DP had been presented in a more mainstream-friendly package, it would probably be historical. It starts as a gimmick that evolves seamlessly into a storytelling element that isn't exactly mechanical, but an inextricable part of the kind of narrative that could only exist in a video game. This is the kind of handling of technique that I feel is on part with the sleight of hand pulled by book authors and filmmakers that usually make game stories feel so clunky and overtly self-aware in comparison, one of the few but vastly significant areas where DP dances graceful circles around its bigger budget brethren.

The misleading 4th wall comments are astute. I've heard people continue to describe the game as such even after completing it, and I actually support that tactic, because it sets up new players for the little spark of joy that comes from discovering for themselves what's really going on. Not sure I'd call it a friendship sim, though that comment might have been a little in jest; the implications to me are far deeper. Plus, surely in a sim, I would be given a choice as to what my favorite movies are?

It's really depressing to read early commentary on this game, knowing that there are probably people out there who still believe it's a piece of crap. Hopefully these articles will convince people that's not the case.

Agree

I agree with just about everything here. As I said in my review, "Deadly Premonition puts the player in the role of Zach, the second personality of an FBI agent named York..." So, at least I'm one of the people who described this correctly. This is also the reason I compared it to the Baten Kaitos games in the comments of the previous post, as those similarly position the player as a spirit attached to the main character. Of the two, I would say that Baten Kaitos works the angle slightly better because it explains why you, the player and you, the character both don't have any memory or knowledge of the world. But Deadly Premonition is about the spirit/character in a way that Baten Kaitos isn't.

Although I loathed the actual experience of controlling the car, the conversations were brilliant. If the game hadn't kept running out of them I would have enjoyed the drives more. The speed limit especially seemed un-York-like (given our introduction to the guy), but the weakness of the driving physics became a real problem if you earned any of the faster cars. The spread-out nature of the town and the existence of all these long drives is pretty important to the aesthetic, I'll grant, but the driving itself was so fiddly and miserable, for me at least, that I couldn't enjoy a second of it.

quick note

At least in the U.S., it is called Dissociative Identity Disorder. This changes the awkward pharse "I was controlling his multiple personality" to "I was controlling his dissociated personality".

I don't really have anything

I don't really have anything else to say other than that I am loving these writeups. I haven't had a chance to play Deadly Premonition (I'm still holding onto the ridiculous hope that the PS3 version will come over sometime) but all of these have been really great.

Thumbs up, Danny.

Next?

These articles were some of the most interesting on GameCritics. Any idea when they might resume? I wanted to hear more about the game...

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