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.
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.
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.
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.
I played through the first 2½ episodes of The Walking Dead on Xbox. I purchased the first episode months ago and never got around to playing it, and then yesterday I got immersed and purchased the rest. I’ll probably finish the game before the semester is over. It’s quite good.
While reading Understanding Video Games, I found myself agreeing with the authors’ take on cut-scenes in video games. In fact, I can’t imagine a good game without cut-scenes. However, I have never been a fan of cut-scenes that look different from in-game graphics. But this is why I’m enjoying The Walking Dead so much. The cut-scenes introduce narrative tension, convey information, usher in pre-events and get you acquainted with the surrounding environment. More to the point, it is done in a fluid-like manner. You barely feel like the cut-scenes and the game are differentiated. This is because the main character, Lee, has dialogue options within the cut-scenes. In this sense, the game is diegetic; the entire game is immersive, and not just the playable material. I really like the cinematic direction in The Walking Dead as well. There are interesting “camera” angles (for lack of a better term) where we see the main character, Lee, viewed through the eyes of another character. When you walk closer to the foreground of the screen, a cut-scene triggers with dialogue between Lee and the character who was watching you. This offers a really neat psychological framework for viewing the game.
What is so cool about The Walking Dead is that actions in the game have consequences and mold Lee’s personality, as well as how other characters interact with Lee. Many times throughout the game, you will have to choose a dialogue option to intervene in a conflict or diffuse a potentially deadly situation. You have to do this in real time, too. In other words, you only have a few seconds to choose what to say, and depending on how you respond in a given situation will determine different narrative sequences.
There are a few plot bottlenecks in The Walking Dead. For instance, in Episode 2, Lee has to distribute four items of food rations disproportionately among the group. The game makes you distribute all items to move on to the next part of the game. I didn’t want to give food out this quickly, so I found this part of the game to drag on a little bit. But eventually, I realized I had to distribute the food in order to continue the narrative. I ultimately chose to give food to Mark and Larry (because they needed the energy to fortify the walls), and I gave food to Kenny and his boy (because I was trying to convince them to stay with the group). This is one of those gritty decision-making moments in the game which make you feel horrible as the player. Especially since the little girl, Clementine, who you are looking after, watches you with longing eyes and basically tells you she’s starving. After I made my decisions, I wanted to go back and just say, “Screw you, Kenny” and give the snackable to Clementine.
Anyways, settings and moods are important when it comes to immersing players in a game. Immersion and agency work best in games that allow the player to be an active creator in the story. In order to do this, a game has to have players get involved emotionally with other characters to try and figure out what to do. In video games, the level of immersion is higher than in other art forms because of the interactive nature of gaming.
Of Janet Murray‘s two orienteering configurations, The Walking Dead is more akin to the tangled rhizome. However, the game is not entirely boundaryless and without closure. No matter what, you’re going to wind up at the Macon pharmacy or the St. John Dairy farm. This much is given away in the episode previews. But it makes me wonder how much of the story does change depending on Lee’s decisions. All I know is that, at this point, I am damn glad I saved Carley instead of Doug.
I take issue with the post-structuralist concept of the author of the written word exerting control, or tyranny over the reader. In a way, there is more tyranny in a video game, because readers (in this case players) experience the same interpretation, which is always visual, but also textual; even if a game does exhibit a branching narrative. For instance, in a game like The Walking Dead, upon consecutive playthroughs, players will eventually uncover all the different modes in which the story unfurls. I feel like the visual and graphical elements of video games hinder the imaginative processes that would otherwise have free reign over a different medium, like literature. So I don’t exactly agree with the Understanding Video Games authors’ when they say “the language of modern video games allows for as much sophistication as that of literature and cinema.” I know this might sound crazy, but by this reasoning, I value books over video games (even though I can’t imagine my life without video games):
“Games generally use language only instrumentally. . . rather than to convey subtleties of description or to communicate complex emotions. They offer a schematized and purposely reductive vision of the world.” – Murray
Still, I feel like The Walking Dead is a very meaningful and emotional symbolic drama. Out of all the game’s I have played, this one is up there in terms of games that have made me feel uncomfortable, sad, confused, hemmed-in, etc. But feeling out the game yesterday, I was particularly drawn to Murray’s words about walking through a rhizome: “One enacts a story of wandering, of being enticed in conflicting directions, of remaining always open to surprise, of feeling helpless to orient oneself or to find an exit, but the story is also oddly reassuring.” I’m not sure what is so oddly reassuring about The Walking Dead. Perhaps the fact that Lee is enacting a story of redemption, and he’s working desperately hard to be a savior to the group; and especially to little Clementine. At least that’s what I’m trying to do, as the active creator of this story. So there are really great narrative qualities to this game, and I can’t wait to finish it.
The website GameStarMechanic allows registered users the option to create simple platform or top-down games after they have completed the site’s main quest. While the site is geared toward a younger audience, the lessons on game design taught through GameStarare foundational for any novice designer. After spending several weeks on GameStar, and reading Jesse Schell’s conceptual handbook The Art of Game Design, I have come to understand that successful and effective video games are all made from the same stuff. And it is true. Video games are a composite of four basic elements: mechanics, story, aesthetics and technology. With modern video games, these elements are often complex and highly programmed; relying on teams of hundreds of individuals. But Schell maintains that a successful and elegant game can be designed by using a bare bones approach. Of course, having good ideas will ultimately determine a game’s – and therefore – designer’s success. The game I created on GameStar, however, was a study in design principles as outlined by Schell.
Level one is called ‘Escape.’ It is a basic maze level with an unbounded space. The player must wrap their way around the maze, collecting points as they go. The points serve no purpose in terms of story arc, but they add an extra challenge for the player. For instance, all the points must be collected to open the goal block, and the player must figure out how to reach all the points within a minute. Therefore, my game opens up with a mental activity. The player cannot finish in time without using the wraparound feature built into this level. This forces the player to think ahead, exercising spatial recognition. Of course, this is the animal testing facility, so the game space was meant to be cramped. I toyed around with the idea of placing other animals (ie, wolves and foxes) in concrete pens. But then I realized that the emotional impact would be greater if the player found the husky avatar to be utterly alone. Furthermore, this level was intended to be impersonal. There were no backgrounds on Gamestar that would suggest a laboratory setting, so I left the background black. There is also no music for this reason, either. I wanted the player to feel like they were locked away in a silent, foreboding prison for animals.
Once the player escapes and makes it to level two’s ‘Encounter,’ they are immediately faced with a message block. The message block tells the player that the way ahead is dangerous, which can clearly be seen by the number of enemies pacing around a surfeit of damage blocks. In The Art of Game Design, Schell mentions Abraham Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ when talking about the staying power of multiplayer games over single player gameplay. I used the Hierarchy of Needs so the player could consider Nanook’s plight. For instance, the minute Nanook leaves the testing facility, he forfeits his right to a meal every day. The message block in my game considers that the need for food is greater than the need for safety. There is also an allusion to death, which is just as prevalent in the outside world as it was in the testing lab. Finally, in a line taken directly from The Plague Dogs, Nanook realizes that there is no going back; he has decided to escape and his reason for doing so is clear.
Levels four and five back off from the story a bit, and begin to focus again on timing and pacing. There are ten points to collect in level four, and as in level two, the player must accomplish a physical task to retrieve them. Enemies are either on patrol or pace about in a straight line, and the player must avoid them but move quickly enough to replenish energy. Here too, there are turns in which the player must deftly avoid ice damage blocks, which add to the physical challenge. Level four’s ‘Livelihood’ is the largest level in the game, but it is the simplest. At the top of the level, Nanook discovers the den that Tod has scouted out for him. This is the den that gave life to the entire game. Upon reaching the den, there is descriptive language in the narrative which alludes to a hidden message from Tod: “Tod. . . utters some words that are indistinguishable, but their cadence dance on Nanook’s tired mind like a poetic song.” This quote opens up the way for symbolism that deals with Nanook’s namesake, but the player must finish the game to discover its meaning.