Interdependency as Immersive Technique or: The Role of “Zach” in Deadly Premonition

Deadly Premonition is a budget horror title that continues to divide critics and gamers alike three years after its release. The game arrived in February of 2010 with no fanfare and little press, but after only several months on the shelves, Deadly Premonition began to outsell the year’s bigger titles for one week on Amazon.com. What accounted for this brief success was a combination of mixed reviews and headline-making strangeness that elevated the game to cult status. Reviews indicated that the entertainment industry was either disgusted or moved by the game’s unforeseen presence. Indeed, Destructoid gave Deadly Premonition a perfect 10/10, while IGN settled for one of its lowest scores; a searing 2/10. For a game to have a reputation for splitting critical opinion in half is rare, but Deadly Premonition has shown itself to possess a certain power in overwhelming the gaming community, for better or for worse.

Deadly Premonition takes its cues from the survival/horror genre and the 90s television show Twin Peaks, which aired for two seasons on ABC. Twin Peaks has become a primary example of a serial drama turned into a cult favorite. There are obvious similarities between the show and Deadly Premonition, even after developers chose to scale back references after a demonstration at the Tokyo Game Show in 2007. However, despite some minor character adjustments, the premise of Deadly Premonition has an unmistakable correlation to Twin Peaks. For instance, the game’s protagonist is a big-city FBI agent who comes to a rural Washington State town to investigate a murder. FBI agent Francis York Morgan – who prefers to be called York – is a protagonist with an interest in murders of young women. The fictional town of Greenvale – a logging town modeled off of the one in Twin Peaks – has recently borne witness to a gruesome murder, and it is York’s job to investigate the crime scene. However, subsequent murders during his investigation open up Deadly Premonition‘s narrative to explore the hearts and minds of the game’s characters. If anything, it is the emotional punch of York and other characters which draw favorable reviews from critics.

Deadly Premonition‘s detractors point out the obvious flaws in graphics, animation, controls and sound effects in the game. Not to mention the campy, B-horror feel to the game’s dialogue. But one may argue that the farcical comedy in Deadly Premonition gives the game its unique personality. Even the reviewer at IGN, Eric Brudvig, credited the game for having “goofy characters and [a] twisted story.” However, even in the field of Game studies, there is a growing ideological schism almost as wide as the critical divide of Deadly Premonition. For instance, there are media theorists – such as Andrew Darley – who argue that “the primary benchmark of success in digital game design is the game’s graphical verisimilitude, its representation’s approximation to external reality.” Darley’s position might be characterized by the ludological approach to video game design. In other words, a game’s merit should be based on its abstract and mathematical rules rather than its narrative. Therefore, a successful video game should carry with it a high priority on production value. Heavy Rain is a game similar to Deadly Premonition that has a heavy emphasis on production and providing an experience that is grippingly real, preferring to eschew the jocosity that Deadly Premonition is notorious for.

Jim Sterling of Destructoid, who reviewed Deadly Premonition, has inadvertently sparked a debate about which game is better: Deadly Premonition or Heavy Rain. He opts for Deadly Premonition because of its narrative ingenuity and plot integrity. While Heavy Rain loses much of its immersive effect by trying to get players to do too much at the expense of telling a story, Deadly Premonition focuses on narrative depth and emotional insight. In order to focus these objectives, the game relies on long cut-scenes to tell a thrilling story. Therefore, the game is less about interactive cut-scenes – a central occupation in Heavy Rain – and more about linear gameplay and open-world exploration which leads to cinematic expression. Finally, Deadly Premonition shows that if a game is to affect emotional perception in players, then character development and backstory are necessary ingredients for cut-scenes. Indeed, Kristine Jørgensen – Associate professor at the University of Bergen in Norway – argues that character design directs narrative gameplay. Jørgensen cites game designer David Freeman by arguing for “the use of characters as the driving narrative force [in video games].” Furthermore, according to both Freeman and Jørgensen,“characters can work as tools to create emotions in games.” In order to do this, characters must be deep and interesting. In this case, depth refers to character complexity in terms of psychology and emotion, and interesting refers to the uniqueness, originality and imaginativeness of the character. Despite its cheesy humor and farcical dialogue, Deadly Premonition does not superficially gloss over its characters mental states like Heavy Rain has a tendency of doing. Deadly Premonition does, in fact, have serious moments of pathos, and takes into consideration the role of past experiences in shaping characters personalities.

York is an eccentric character with a confusing psychology. Before the player even watches the first cut-scene with York, he or she will inhabit the “Red Room;” a game-space of York’s dreams and unconscious memories, which are revealed one-by-one throughout the game. After this sequence, a cut-scene of York driving through pouring rain towards his destination shows York speaking to someone from the Bureau on a satellite phone. Discussing a co-agent’s case with presumably York’s superior, York profiles a pair of killers who are dependent on each other in order to carry out their crimes. York says, “They both need each other. It’s called ‘Inter-dependency’.” No sooner does York hang up the phone that he begins to talk to an imaginary friend in the car named “Zach.” Zach is basically a dialogue partner that bridges the gap between the character on screen and the player. This is Deadly Premonition‘s central conceit, and it works to great effect. York only springs to life through the decisions of Zach (the player). In this sense,protagonist and player are interdependent. This is a unique immersion technique, and the true identity of Zach is built into the game’s backstory. It becomes painfully clear later in the game that Agent York has a multiple-personality disorder which resulted from a childhood trauma. This trauma has led him unconsciously to Greenvale.

York is a tortured soul who reveals that his only friend is Zach. A handsome man in his early thirties, he is socially maladroit and has a propensity to interrupt cast characters to dialogue with Zach throughout the game. When this happens during cut-scenes, York will look directly at the “camera,” effectively breaking the fourth wall to communicate with the player. It is through this process that narrative immersion really takes a hold of the player. This is aided by the fact that the player must be cognizant of the story that unfolds from cut-scenes in order to continue the investigation. For example, after each chapter of the game, York types up a report to send to the Bureau. Not surprisingly, it falls to Zach to remember the key events of the investigation. York will ask Zach a series of questions relating to preceding events, and three photographs appear onscreen; one which will provide the answer to an appropriate new lead. This keeps the player’s mental focus on the narrative, and enforces the interdependent relationship between playable character and player.
In Hamlet on the Holodeck, Janet Murray refers to agency as being a critical component of immersive video games. She defines agency as, “the satisfying power to take meaningful action and see the results of our decisions and choices.” Murray mentions two orienteering configurations in which a game’s narrative can take place: the solvable maze and the tangled rhizome. Deadly Premonition conforms to each of Murray’s narrative concepts. In the solvable maze, the protagonist must find his or her way through labyrinthine corridors. At night – and when it rains – a strange parallel world opens up in Greenvale. When York finds himself alone on an investigation at night, his surroundings morph into the game’s “Otherworld;” a dementing atmosphere in which exits become sealed off by mysterious red vines. York is inevitably attacked by the apparitions of murder victims, and at the end of these mazes he ultimately comes face-to-face with the Raincoat Killer – the perpetrator of the insane murders against the town’s young women. If the player is successful, York will survive these encounters, but he refuses to tell anybody about the Raincoat Killer because the town regards the killer as a local superstition.

In terms of the tangled rhizome, Murray explains that this is a theoretical concept in hypertext fiction that can be applied to game narratives as well. This is where a player’s agency in a game can affect the game’s narrative storyline. Deadly Premonition‘s open-world environment gives the player a choice to explore the town and approach the citizens of Greenvale; either choosing to observe them or talk with them. Depending on the character York approaches, the interchange may be brief, or it may signal a cut-scene that provides important clues. In this way, Deadly Premonition exhibits Murray’s tangled rhizome, or the branching narrative which may result depending on players actions. However, in terms of the main quest-line, the scope of the player’s agency is limited. For example, after you complete a chapter, the game will showcase an interactive cut-scene. York will have the option to go back to the hotel to sleep, or enjoy some down-time with the deputies he is working with. Therefore, aside from open-world exploration, the agency in the game is based on a dual choice system. Of course, if the player chooses to be sociable, they will get a lot more of the lengthy cut-scenes which will make the overall game experience more enriching.

Deadly Premonition is a game which highlights a variety of themes and does so with startling panache. Along with the theme of murder, Deadly Premonition deals with subjects of free-will, military experiments, androgyny, personal discovery, romantic love, mercy killing and more. There are plot twists which seasoned reviewers have only been able to describe as insane. The game even brings into question the Raincoat Killer’s culpability by allowing the player to control the serial murderer of Greenvale. While Deadly Premonition may not have a branching narrative that roots itself as deeply as games like The Walking Dead or Mass Effect 2, the game offers up a genre-defying experience that shatters conventions. Its reliance on pastiche, in the formof Twin Peaks references, 80s movie trivia, and artistic symbolism make Deadly Premonition a viable contender in the games-as-art debate, and perhaps the first example of a truly postmodern game that has struck the right balance. In the witty words of Agent York: “The balance of milk and butter you’ve achieved here… oh my…”
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