Francis York Morgan. But you can call him York.
Without spoiling too much... a gardening scene near the ending
It’s hard to believe that Red Seeds Profile (RSP) is only Hidetaka Suehiro’s second attempt at making a video game. Why? Because more than a definite grasp on consistent and innovative game design, there seems to be almost a cry, a satire of the common video game traits, that would more commonly be expected of a tired veteran.
Gameplay elements like rewarding the player with fake video game currency for mundane actions like shaving or sleeping denounces the absurdity with which meta-economies are implemented as artificial rewards for the player’s efforts (and spend them on ludicrously priced commodities). Concurrently there is the “good” kind of reward, one that isn’t number-based, by getting the players to know the world and its characters. Much like Shenmue, it isn’t a grind to get something artificially valuable, but it’s your personal experience as the game player that is your own reward. In the end, it’s this that will compose your memory and fondness of the game, and not how many Greenvale dollars you racked up.
RSP makes things differently. Despite its ‘free-roaming’ structure tied into a survival horror shooter, it reaches untold heights in the way story and characters are developed. While it doesn’t invent anything new, it’s the way it took the old design and made it different that sets it a cut above. Characters are more human now, the story is fantastic and even if it drops into Hollywood 80s horror at times, it is more than coherent.
Above all it shows not only a great deal of intelligence from the creator but also a great deal of respect for the player’s intelligence.
The way the whole game embraces you, how it gives you so much to think, how all ends up trying up together (in a way that Heavy Rain, a game that was much more pretentious and whose budget Access Games can’t compete with), even things that look surreal end up being coherent. This extreme control over the experience is a complete game design masterclass, in a genre that had admittedly gone stale.
The mistery of York Morgan, central to the entire story is a delight to uncover.
The presentation in this game is, to say the least, intriguing. Due to the constant restructure of reality (the real vs the other world) there is almost always a second side to everything. The way we’re led into the game is a fine balance between serious cutscenes with a great sense of aesthetics (particularly regarding the crime scenes) to the relatively quiet exploration of the town and surroundings. Then there are the more comedical or farcical cutscenes and the action scenes. There’s a real sense of being overwhelmed, particularly when the game begins to open up after the first chapters, and you really get the scope of how much you can see and do with this apparently simple game.
The main character Francis York Morgan is, despite his incredible charm, a tortured soul. Since you play the game through him, you’ll be taken into his world, but you’ll soon realise his reality is quite more complex than your typical video game character. Apart from the main adventure in what is presumably the real world, you’ll often have to delve through what is called The Outer World, where reality is transformed through York’s mind, for mysterious reasons whose explanation is part of the main story. If this was not enough you’ll also explore his dreams, in mysterious rooms (a red room, a white room, a forest room…) in which the content is much more surreal and past and present mingle. These dreams while visually familiar to other game’s dream sequences are richer; they don’t intend to scare you, but more simply to give impact to the mystery, with characters, much like in Twin Peaks, that seem to hold the answers that you just can’t seem to get ahold of yet. York’s personality and the game’s pacing contribute to making these dreams an interesting point of reflection, particularly in hindsight, as the plot begins to unravel in the real world.
The Twin Peaks influence ends up as being irrelevant. After all, it seems much more worthy a praise that an unfinished series from 20 years ago is revisited by video game designers from Japan. Secondly, while first impressions do give the notions of familiarity, by the end of the journey (and this game definitely demands an apprecciation in full) both ends would have strayed apart, as Red Seeds Profile expands the Twin Peaks premise and develops it for a video game, and end up exploring the investigative genre in quite a different way. After the superficial similarities, I wouldn’t compare them further.
Throughout the game York will get to meet and interact often (the more the better) with Greenvale’s residents. While the number of characters in itself is not overwhelming (about 30), the fact that you can follow, reach and interact with them at any time is a cut above what Shenmue did 10 years ago. This time, thanks to a map that is both an intentional nuisance and a life-saver, you can know where all characters are at all times and thus, can approach them when you like. Some of these characters have routines, others lead pretty dull hard-working lives, but they always have something to say, if not some important sidequest. The availability is dependent on both time and weather, as well as chapter (despite being of colossal length for an adventure game, the game also expects you to replay chapters and/or sections – if you want to ace it, that is).
No character is more important however than yourself. Making the player a different character from the main one, while still controlling it, goes far from just adapting Twin Peaks’ “Diane” into “Zach”, your and York’s alter-ego. Having a slight correlation with Akira Ueda’s Contact in terms of situating the game player within the game world, York will frequently engage in conversation with you and is even aware that you are controlling him (“I’ll leave the action bits to you”) – in fact, he has complete faith in you. The way it makes the player so comfortable with the character turns York into even more of a charmer. These constant soliloquies (so to speak) grant the game an almost literary value, an interesting and sharp contrast with Alan Wake’s often forced descriptions of things you can see (which should have no place in visual media) and the best characterization of any protagonist in a video game.
Far and away, Francis York Morgan (“Call me York, every one calls me that”) is the most interesting and intriguing character I have come across, despite being pretty much foreign and almost lost within the set environment. After the intro, we’re formally introduced to him, as he speeds on his car while talking on his cell-phone, using his laptop and smoking a cigarrette. After the crash you’ll lose all these items (save for the cigarrettes, a slim “Heavy” brand that ends up being part of his persona, and a key visual aspect in the profiling sequences). Although the cars have a sort of GPS (as well as turn-signals and windshield wipers), your map will be quasi-severed – you can’t zoom out enough. All of this adversity is to antagonize York to the environment. His initial clash with the inhabitants (and your initial clash with the map, hugeness of the town and blandness of the environments, until you learn them) is relevant. This objectivity in taking away the control from the player has been a staple of modern game design (with Far Cry 2 a common example). This makes the player work for his comfort, exploring Greenvale to make himself familiar with shortcuts and turns, with the aid of very long day cycles and no real need to rush (there are time-limits to certain missions but they can be repeated the following day).
While York drinks heavily from Dale Cooper’s fountain of wit, he keeps a video game charm that others don’t possess yet. As he’s so complex it’s very hard to analyse him. In a way, he also inherits heavily from the movies he admires (80s american movies; movies he chats with you about), and so does the game, as a whole, particularly toward the later chapters, as climatic action sequences become more prominent. The question is, however, what deal this is: farse, praise or simply love? Don’t we all try to be like movie heroes? That York is so human, even if quite a quirky human, we can understand his personality going past the common spectrum of black and white heroes and villains, to a whole other level of depth.
The conversations between York and Zach are, for me, the highlight of the game, particularly while free driving, rather than during cutscenes. The streets of Greenvale are deserted as it is (“the people don’t like to come out when it’s raining, because of the legend of the Raincoat Killer”) so short talk usually fills the long drives (if you’re carrying a passenger, the conversations between York and them are a delight as well). Far from drama-heavy conversations York reveals his human side and more often than not is more interested in the lives of the people themselves. After all, it’s a long investigation, and he shows to have more than a one-track mind, as he freely shares and confides his love, and knowledge, of movies and music, in a style that is very reminiscent to American Psycho’s Pat Bateman album reviews before the killing passages. That these scenes don’t come more often is a pity (they don’t repeat) as they again infuse the game with literary value – the insight you’re given inside a video game character’s mind is pratically unheard of in this medium.
Even visually York comes as an appealing character. Indoors the camera perspective is very near to his back, making you feel almost like you’re (as Zach) just behind him. Curious aspects like attracting flies from wearing your clothes for too long or growing a beard reflect your actions toward the character, nearing that “perfect-avatar” ideal (Swery admitted he would have also wanted hair and flab to grow). His gait is too quite enthrancing, almost feminine but with a lot of self-confidence, hardly the static walk of most japan-based games. His signature scars complement his aura of mystery, given that we’ll progressively uncover his backstory as the story goes on - everything about York exhudes style; Access Games show that despite its shortcomings from a limited budget on a current generation game, it still managed to invest the most in the details.
The action sequences are RSP’s unfortunate remembrance that you’re, after all, just playing a video game. Despite being admittedly a late add-on, they are reasonably well made and entertaining, particularly later on as you have access to a heavy arsenal of weapons. However, put up for comparison with the stalwarths of the horror genre, it’s hard to compete. For all its faults, I do admit that it would have been hard to do otherwise (as a ludical mechanism to make the investigation progress), and it does add that necessary sense of danger that even games like Ico needed to have (even if it does feel like a delay until you uncover the visually enticing Profiles, and get on with it).
The themes are irrepressably mature. While certain aspects are admittedly low grade science fiction, the fact is that the whole of the investigation can be interpreted as a metaphor, creatively circumventing difficult themes to impose on a mass market. Thanks to its sensibility they’ve managed to deal frontally with themes like rape, conjugal infidelity and love in a surprisingly sophisticated way. In a game with such heavy emphasis on sexuality, tactfully approached in the storyline and beautifully explored thanks to graceful cutscene direction of the more critical scenes, one has to admire how competently and adequate everything feels, always coherent with the yinyang-defiant duality concept. Only The Path ever delved this deep into humanity.
Sound is part of the best and worst of the game. While the voices are often terrific, particularly the ones of the more important characters, sound effects are an obvious cut-cost. The quality of the voices helps us forget the japanese origin of the game, and almost makes us think that, much like Kojima’s works, the english dub was thought as the primer. Despite the shortcomings of the sound fx, details like fading the sound and voices away when the camera is not near York/Zach is an interesting idea that while at first seems inconsistent with its TV-style presentation, speaks higher in giving more protagonism to the player, and enhances its relation with the gameworld. The soundtrack fits the game but is never fantastic. The small number of pieces at least gives them more emphasis.
As a sort of final thoughts and due to the length of this review, maybe it would be appropriate to sum it up. There’s no doubt that the game suffers from a sub-optimal budget. This is a highly ambitious game that does manage to impress with all the details present, whether they be in the storyline, presentation or gameplay. Thus, while the game easily disappoints at first glance, over its prodigious span of over 30 hours, one is taken for a memorable ride that makes up for any of the initial frustration. The surprising part is that this seems like a design choice, rather than an inherent flaw, an intentional bypass of frivolous gamers (as so many reviewers have showed) and the eventual reward of core gamers. This is of course a forced supposition, but stabs at inconsequent games invariably lace this interesting ouevre.
The superb, patient way it presents its cast of characters, the whole development of the relationship between York and Zach, the finesse with which disturbing and mature themes are introduced in a video game, pushes this game into a place where few games have dared go to.
The sheer amount of entertaining content is staggering, as it makes use of being a free-roaming adventure, rather than being a more linear affair. Sidequests, mini-games, upgrades and item collecting will take up hours, and are always presented with that twist that sets it apart from the banality with which these gameplay artifices are explored in other video games.
The little details present in the game are comparable only to Shenmue, to the best of my recollection. These are to be enjoyed fully in hindsight, as every little obscure corner seems to have an hidden meaning, and everything gets wrapped up.
Red Seeds Profile is my game of the year. Games like these come one in a thousand, but reviews can only say so much, unlike playing it…
: the game was played on an european PS3 slim on normal difficulty, in a total of about 35 hours.
: the game should only be played by an adult, due to the presence of disturbing themes and a general gruesome presentation not suitable for children.
Deaf or hearing impaired
: The game has subtitles, but depends on some audible cues. Also makes use of volume control during cutscenes to give the illusion of distance between player and character.