During late January and early February I played through a game called Deadly Premonition. I’ve given my reasons (in class) for wanting to review this game; it’s critically divided, it’s considered an example of games-as-art, it’s similar to Heavy Rain, etc. So it seemed like a good candidate for this assignment. Also, I’ve been making my way through the definitive gold edition boxset of Twin Peaks. I am not a tv junkie (The Walking Dead and Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations are about the only things I watch), but Twin Peaks has got to be the best show of all time. The similarities between the game and the TV show were so strong that the developers of Deadly Premonition were forced to scale back the references. That kind of makes it an interesting case study for me. But it has me seriously trying to debate whether Deadly Premonition is a unique game, or pretentious trash. At times, it can be really hard to tell…
Ok, I guess I should make a few points now. While there are plenty of things about this game that I find appalling and illogical (the worst is the killer’s ability to be in two places at the same time), the one thing that shines in Deadly Premonition is the character building and backstory. The protaganist is an FBI agent named Francis York Morgan, and he has an invisible friend named Zach who he consults regularly throughout the game. Zach is basically a dialogue partner that bridges the gap between the character on screen and the player. York only springs to life through the decisions of Zach (the player). This is an unique immersion technique, and it’s built into the game’s backstory. In other words, it becomes painfully clear why Agent York has a split personality. There is emotional trauma at the heart of every important character in the game; even the raincoat killer. It makes me think of a quote from Red Dragon, which I watched a few nights ago: “He wasn’t born a monster; he was made one through years of abuse.”
The game has extremely long cut-scenes; a few lasting for nearly 10 minutes at a time. So it’s very much a cinematic experience, and it’s through these cut-scenes that emotional connection is built between York and the town’s inhabitants. It’s helpful that some characters have strong emotional appeal. That’s one thing about the game; the quality of the graphics are pretty terrible. I think it may have been deliberate because the murder sequences are extremely graphic and they needed to be watered down a bit. But as far as the cut-scenes and characters go, the graphics are really crisp and facial gestures were obviously very important to the developers. There’s a wide range of expression going on in character’s faces, which makes it easy to feel something for them.
Unfortunately, I don’t think there is a whole lot of agency involved in Deadly Premonition during the main “quest-line.” Of course, the game has a story to tell, and it can’t let you deviate from that story too much. So, if I recall, there’s 8 chapters in the game which revolve around some central mission. After you complete the mission, there will be an in-game cut-scene where you’ll have the option to go back to the hotel to sleep, or have dinner with the police force, go for a drink with Emily (picture above), explore the town, etc. So agency in the game is basically a duality. It’s either one or the other. Of course, if you choose to be sociable, you’ll get a lot of the lengthy cut-scenes which will make the overall game experience more emotionally enriching.
Deadly Premonition is a unique game. I’ve heard it described as a mix between Resident Evil (mostly 4), Grand Theft Auto and the TV show Twin Peaks. That’s stretching things a lot, but it does combine elements of all. It’s an open-world survival/horror game that lets you drive around town and learn about the community, its invidituals and its history. Half the characters in the game world are believable, but the other half are off-the-wall and almost too weird to be considered realistic. However, the game developers were intent on providing a realistic setting. Site locations were mapped out in Washington state and the Vancouver areas. The game is meant to have a real scale, and a real time. It’s not exactly real time, but for a video game it’s close: 30 seconds in reality is about a minute in the game world (I may be wrong though, because the in-game clock seems to fluctuate weirdly around the one minute mark). This can get extremely tedious when playing the game, but it gives the NPC’s time to simulate real-life routines. The director has stated that if you spy on the game’s characters (which York can do), you’ll see them performing daily tasks: going to the toilet (Indeed! Although its not graphic), washing their faces, brushing their teeth, etc. If you want to speed things up, you can just go to your destination and trigger the cut scene. But I think this could be construed as another immersive technique.
I forgot to mention that in addition to playing Agent York, there are sequences where you get to control other players. In one instance, York is kidnapped and you get to play as Emily. This part of the game goes back and forth between Emily trying to find York, and cut-scenes of York thinking about Emily. This is very effective in establishing the emotional connection between the two for the player. There’s also a flashback to the 1950s when you get to control the original Raincoat killer (Indeed, the 2010 RcK is a copycat) and basically go postal on the town’s inhabitants while a rendition of “Amazing Grace” plays in the background.
The game is bat-squeak insane, but it suffers from poor graphics, poor animations, and really clunky controls. Also, the game is the epitome of 90s cheese and B-horror. The game’s dialogue thrives on farcical comedy which one may discern as a distraction to the game’s objective and more serious nature. That’s why it got such bad reviews. But at the same time, even though the game has PS2 graphics and bad dialogue, there are many redeeming artistic qualities and moments of pathos that feel original and unique.
The new PS3 director’s cut version sounds very promising, though. In addition to updated controls and a graphical overhaul, it’s going to exhibit a branching narrative, which is what we’ve been focusing on all semester. Like I said, the extent of agency in the Xbox version only allows for exploring the town of Greenvale and making one of two choices in social situations. I’ll have to buy the PS3 version for my fiance, because she’s the one with the PS3.