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The Daily Grind (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 4)

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

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.

Meet George!

And now, meet Emily!

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.

At least he's not biting his nails.

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'm fairly sure York shaves more than I do.

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:

Next time: Riding in Cars with York (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 5.

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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cream vs. milk bottles

The one thing I really loved about Deadly Premonition was getting paid to shave or change your shirt. On one level it was fortuitous because I played the game not long after the game blogs flared up over the Jesse Schell talk at DICE. David Carlton has an excellent writeup about this with a wealth of links to other great responses. The short version is that Schell described a future in which games are used as a way to build brand identity and alter behavior by awarding points for things like brushing your teeth or riding the bus. It's amusing to consider the possibility that York, who is so freaking weird, is actually being rewarded for behaving like a well-socialized individual.

I had a feeling the milk bottle scene would come up. Simplistically, you're right. Dale Cooper uses divination (sort of), and so does York. But there's an enormous gulf between these two scenes. The first thing to note about this scene is that it is stuffed full of people. From a plot perspective, there's no reason for them to be there; everything that's accomplished in the scene could be done just as well, and in less time, if Cooper was just off all by himself throwing rocks at a bottle in the woods. The Sheriff and his deputies, however, play an essential role in making the whole scene, which is completely absurd, seem normal.

The scene digresses constantly as the Sheriff's people joke around with each other or try to figure out what "Jack with one eye" means. All of this comes across as typical behavior on their part, so it's clear they don't think Cooper is all that strange. They're treating this event as normal, which encourages the viewer to see it the same way. Lynch and Frost even lampshade how odd the whole episode is when Harry confronts Cooper briefly about how this "deductive method" came from a dream. That Harry trusts Cooper about this encourages us to trust Cooper, because Harry is a normal kind of guy, like us. It's also important that we see Harry's trust as justified, on the basis of Cooper's preceding shows of deductive prowess. We don't have any of this with York, who hasn't shown any particular competence and is sitting alone doing something very odd.

Another essential feature of the milk bottle scene is that what Cooper is doing makes sense. His decision-making process is one that we can see clearly, because it relies on an obvious physical interaction. Contrast this with FK in the coffee, which I can barely see after four viewings knowing that it is there.

The reason it's important for us to understand what is going on is that Frost and Lynch involve the viewer in the logic of the scene. Note that Cooper never explicitly describes the method he's using. He gives a basically irrelevant introduction about Tibet, tells us that it's a mind-body technique, and then just performs the technique without explaining what each component means. The viewer has to figure out for himself what's going on and what every outcome means. The viewer is assisted by the multi-viewpoint nature of the series, which has already cast suspicion on Jacoby and Leo Johnson and removed it from the other characters.

Because we know things the characters do not, and have these things confirmed by the scene, Cooper comes across as an offbeat genius. Sitting alone, learning two inscrutable letters by drizzling cream into his coffee, York comes across as a crazy person in need of a spoon.

The milk bottle scene is marvelously written. What is going on in it is completely absurd, even comical, but the hardcore strangeness of this scene is blunted by the naturalistic behavior of the secondary characters and the involvement of the viewer in the scene's logic. To watch Cooper throw rocks at the milk bottle is to watch a bunch of normal people engage in slightly odd behavior that we nonetheless understand. To watch York gaze into his coffee is to watch an alien behave like a madman. That's why Twin Peaks is brilliant and Deadly Premonition is a failure.

Two different intents-

It's possible that the milk-bottle scene isn't the greatest analog to bring up here - there's actually a section of the game further down the line which uses a similar premise to different effect, and tells us something interesting about York in the process.

I put the scene here as just a sampling of the kind of oddness that can go by without derailing the proceedings, but it's important to note that the scenes are constructed in two vastly different ways to create two entirely different results.

The Twin Peaks scene is accessible because it's supposed to be - David Lynch loves Zen and eastern philosophy, so he's making it as accessible as possible to North American audiences. That's why he assigns the belief in it and the love of Tibet (another thing Lynch shares) with Agent Cooper, one of the most unfailingly good-natured characters to have ever inhabited a murder mystery. Dale is a positive, open (almost to a fault) character, who's able to convince the more grounded salt-of-the-earth types to go along with his more fantastic ideas.

In Deadly Premonition, on the other hand, I don't think we're supposed to be as comfortable with York Morgan as we are with Dale Cooper. Despite the fact that he's our main character, it seems like he's supposed to be (at the beginning, at least), a little less instantly relatable, or even likable. He's oddly deceptive, he talks to himself, seems to be suffering from a few kinds of delusions, and he's almost aggressively out-of-step with his small-town surroundings.

At this point in the game I feel that we're supposed to find York to be as much of a mystery as the murder he's there to investigate, and the coffee divination effectively reinforces this idea - especially when one considers the casualness with which it's presented. There's no preamble or explanations - they could have left Polly there to ask York what he was doing, and have York explain how he developed this particular brand of fortune-telling, or who he learned it from, and then let us know how we should feel based on Polly's reaction - but the developers don't.

While it's possible that this is just an oversight from a writing standpoint, I find it far more likely that, in addition to the clue that the coffee provides York, the manner in which he discovers it is meant to set the player even further on edge - not only are they trying to solve a brutal murder, they're riding shotgun with a man who's more bizarre than any of the suspects he'll meet across the rest of the game.

failure of disbelief

But really, Dan, you've answered your own question here. Intentionally or not, Deadly Premonition's coffee scene alienates us from York. Up to this point the game's weirdness has all been pretty reasonable. We saw the SHOW, and we accept oddities like characters addressing us directly because of the nature of the medium (a similar thing happened in Baten Kaitos, for instance). But here York does something inexplicable and painfully weird. That's why it was murderous to suspension of disbelief.

SWERY drove an enormous wedge between the player and the character, and in that case lots of players will choose the wedge over the character. It's clear at this point that York is as normal as Dale Cooper and as charming as Albert Rosenfield. I don't think it's reasonable to complain if someone who's been promised 20+ hours with a character like this just decides to punt on engaging with the game.

I would watch the Albert Rosenfield show.

You're not wrong about the game alienating potential players with the off-putting parts of York's personality, but, truth be told, and this is another one of those mileage-may-vary points, his oddness was one of the things that interested me most about the game when I began playing it.

I'm fully aware that Deadly Premonition isn't going to be for everyone - but the very fact that it's unlike anything else out there makes it worth a look, and part of the reason I'm covering it so extensively is, hopefully, to let people know that if they're willing to put up with a couple of hours of WTF until the get into the game's world, the rewards will be unlike anything they've seen on a console before.

But I'll get into the 'why it's okay that York is a dick (who does not break the 4th wall)' in the next segment.

(and hey, at least York's more relatable than Alan Wake - there wasn't a moment of the game that I didn't want to punch that guy)

I'd actually say that it was

I'd actually say that it was because Agent York was so alienating and strange that I kept on playing. All of his weird personality quirk made me curious as to why he acted that way and the Coffee scene helped cement that curiosity. So many characters these days are made to be instantly relate-able or be almost devoid of personality that it is a nice change to have something different for once.

Also in regards to the translation I also think that it helps the game, not hinders it. It furthers that strange, curious feeling that you get while playing it and, in reality, there are many people that do not speak perfect English all the time. Even native-born speakers can be awkward at times.

My Mileage Did Vary.

I'm a little confused as to some of the choices of words in Sparky's posts, which seem to imply that, by some nebulous rules of narrative and characterization, York OUGHT to be more relatable for the player. I understand if you personally were turned off from it, but I don't see what's so wrong about risking alienation. The more specific the vision behind a work of art, the fewer people it will appeal to, and that's what I'd like to see more of in games.

I for one, and I'm not the only person who feels this way (my roomie even described him as "lovable", and he's a fairly mainstream gamer who's not familiar with TP at all), had a great deal of affection for York by the end. The fact that the opening stages are so unappealing and bizarre made all the more interesting when the story finally started unfolding and I realized that York was both less and more messed up than I'd thought. York's abrasiveness and penchant for unhealthy activities like eating junk food and forgetting to shave are what set him apart from Cooper's more "spiritual" personality, which I liked.

All I'm saying is that Sparky's argument merely puts a negative slant on something we both agree with, but which I found to be right up my alley. The very reasons you put forth for saying DP is a failure are the very reasons I thought it was great. To say TP is "brilliant" because of this and that, where DP is "not brilliant" because it didn't do this or that, well, I'd have to disagree.

"But really, Dan, you've answered your own question here. Intentionally or not, Deadly Premonition's coffee scene alienates us from York. Up to this point the game's weirdness has all been pretty reasonable.... But here York does something inexplicable and painfully weird. That's why it was murderous to suspension of disbelief."

Heh. You say that like it's a BAD thing.

(RE: Alan Wake... I think I'd like it better if he was even more unhinged. Haven't finished the game yet, but they keep hinting at this darker side of his which I haven't really seen manifest itself yet. I mean aside from the shadow lumberjacks, I guess.)

F.K the cream, I take mine black as midnight on a moonless night

Thank you for giving Deadly Premonition this much attention, it certainly deserves it. Despite its flaws (and in part due to them) there are so many interesting lessons to be learned from the game in terms of storytelling, characterization and player agency.

Personally I loved the coffee divination scene - York went instantly from "eccentric, possibly crazy" to "intuitive genius, demented by design". It's a bit of a shame that the coffee wasn't used as more of a gameplay element - from what I could tell, the player triggered divinations seemed like generic fortune cookie advice? (Since I don't own an Xbox and live in Europe, I haven't had access to the game itself but greatly enjoyed watching both of the GiantBomb playthroughs).

The scene in Deadly Premonition that truly reminded me of Agent Cooper's rock-throwing method was - as someone else also mentioned - one much later in the game (trying to avoid spoilers, but I wonder if the connection to a recent book by David Lynch was intentional or plain synchronicity). Despite not being used as actual divination device in the game, I could easily see it modified to function as one.

I think both techniques could have been used to much greater effect if they served as an overall guiding/structuring principle to point the player onwards in the story. Had the side missions been more related to the investigative aspect, divining the possible suspects could have lead on to more or less relevant subplots depending on the player's success (think Dr. Jacoby or the drug trafficking scheme in Twin Peaks, which are both related to Laura but nevertheless detours in the murder investigations).
Actually I liked the idea of giving the player intuition based tools so much that I made a similar concept one of the core gameplay mechanics in an adventure game I'm working on. We'll see if it works as well as I hope.

(As for Alan Wake - again, I only watched a playthrough and no way I would ever have bought it after seeing the repetitive gameplay - I totally agree with Animagess that Alan would have worked better with a darker side. Though they do hint at the standard Stephen King abusive, alcoholic writer husband nothing ever really comes out of it. I'd actually prefer it if he had actively caused his wife's death so his quest was one of redemption rather than just another saving of the princess).

Re: FZeroRacer and Animagess

Well, one could argue (and Sterling did) that Deadly Premonition isn't a failure if taken ironically, but of course to enjoy the game that way you must be detached from it. In these posts, Dan is arguing for a reading that accepts and engages with the game world, and is expressing some degree of mystification that most critics don't seem to have taken the game this way. As Dan says above. "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." But we do know why. This scene alienates us from the character who serves as our connection to the game world. How is it surprising, then, that people rejected that connection?

I'm not saying that people who pushed themselves over this hump were mistaken. It's not wrong to find this alienation from the character to be intriguing rather than off-putting. In fact, I think that the game's narrative arc requires that we have this separation between player and character (and game world) at the beginning. I'll probably come back to this point later on.

But, if the idea here is to argue that Deadly Premonition supports an engaged interpretation rather than a detached one, then the alienation that's going on in this scene matters. Including "FK in the coffee" at this point in a narrative we're supposed to actually engage with is a misstep, a big risk that seems to have frequently come up bust. Pretending that the content of the scene isn't problematic doesn't do any service to the game or even to the argument that it ought to be engaged with.

Engagement is a choice. You guys, and Dan, chose to stay engaged with York. But I feel like this scene really encourages players to choose detachment from the game world. That Twin Peaks gets through the equally strange milk-bottle scene without pushing people off the wagon to my mind justifies the conclusion that it succeeds, and Deadly Premonition fails, at supporting a non-ironic reading.

The only thing I can say about Alan Wake is that it is the longest game I have ever played that I haven't really managed to write anything substantive about. For a game built around so many intriguing ideas it was exceptionally uninteresting.

Re. Sparky

I can't add much to the debate at this point, but I must say that I'm with Dan and the others. In fact, the whole divination scene seemed pretty much natural to me, given the importance York gives to his coffee in some of his dialogues earlier in the game.

Also, being a little strange myself, that scene actually strenghtened the bond between me and the main character, and further developed my interest in him; at this point, I was interested in York as much as the mystery he was trying to solve, because I felt like we shared some particularities.

I don't understand why you, Sparky, chose to refuse to engage yourself in the storyline just because York didn't seem normal or relatable. York might quite be mad. The things he does are unquestionably out of the ordinary. Why should it stop you from keeping interest in him and being involved?

Do you refuse to engage yourself in a Dostoïevsky or Kafka novel, for example, just because the main characters or the premises are weird or delibeteraly off-putting, and the author does all that he can to make you feel alienated? To me and many others, this is what makes York interesting, refreshing and endearing and those authors worth reading.

Imagine if Cooper did the milk bottle thing all alone, or if people around him thought it was weird. Would you have stopped watching the show completely, or taken it ironically? Would you have stopped caring for Cooper because he seemed too weird?

I did not choose to engage myself in Deadly Premonition; it came naturally, and never once I took the game ironically, for I find it impossible to do so, given my predispositions.

(Alan Wake seems boring, dull, unimaginative and wholly unlikable. Maybe I'll get it cheap from a bargain bin someday to check if my first impressions were right.)

DP Is A Head Crab.

"Engagement is a choice. You guys, and Dan, chose to stay engaged with York."

I would say that some of the best stories are the ones worth struggling with. One problem I have with most games is that they don't seem to understand that a lot of good stories, good art, must be worked for. Even the best AAA titles out there seem very intent on spelling things out, making things seamless, from their thematic intent to the interface. I go into a Bioware game expecting amazing writing, and it's handed to me on a plate. I get exactly what I wanted.

DP is an anomaly. The few players (although not as few as should be the case given typical industry parameters) that truly developed affection for this game didn't get there because they were tricked or because they over-exerted themselves into pushing past the insurmountable barriers surrounding what is by most standards a deeply flawed gaming experience. I was so ready to mock this game going into it; I wanted to deride it mercilessly. And the first few chapters made that easy. You're right that the F.K. coffee scene may not engage the player AT THE TIME IT'S PRESENTED; I was still at the stage where laughing at the game was easier and more fun than trying to roll with it. I'm not quite sure that Dan is really arguing that SWERY MEANT it to be engaging; for the most part, he's simply expressing his own reasons why it worked for him.

But a lot of the stuff in DP is like a time bomb, set to go off many miles down the road, when the laughter starts drying up. I would rather have this fragmented, challenging presentation, with fans being the sort of people who also enjoyed the way it played out, rather than a more audience-friendly easing-in to York's character that to me would have lost something essential to the irreducible nature of DP's charm. The fact that it may have lost people along the way doesn't bother me; I'm selfish. I would rather DP continue to draw in people who like it for the reasons I like it, than have York be anything other than who he appears to be at the start of the game: An arrogant, nonsensical, borderline lunatic.

In short, I guess I can't argue that the coffee scene DOESN'T discourage a lot of players from getting involved with the story and characters. But I don't think it's a flaw. I also think a lot of critics and players came into the game with prejudices that they were unable to shake, and that's not the fault of the game either. The fact that it's managed to draw this large of an audience, from all types of gamers, is a miracle.

When I think about how difficult DP makes it for people to enjoy it non-ironically, it's amazing the number of regular joe gamers who somehow found themselves wondering (and this is from an actual forum conversation I found on Gamespot or IGN or something) that "Hey... Maybe that game wasn't so-bad-it's-good like everyone's been saying. I think it's just GOOD."

The belated wonderment expressed in some of these comments makes me think that engaging with the story and characters was not as conscious a decision to be engaged as you imply; just the effects of a genuinely well-told tale that creeps up on you while you're distracted by all the absurd stuff flying from the screen. Then the eggs it laid in your head hatch, and you have to marvel at some of the stunts it dared to pull while you were snickering through F.K. in the coffee.

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