Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Deadly Premonition

This is video game blog Poverty Game Night. You can call it PGN. Everybody calls it that. For those that can't tell just by that reference, this post is about Deadly Premonition. I can't remember the last time I've had such a difficult time articulating what is so great about a game. Even though the game is flawed in most every way, it is more than the sum of its parts. It is a game that is utterly bizarre and strangely fascinating.

Deadly Premonition, known as Red Seeds Profile in Japan, was developed by Access Games, but was mostly the vision of the game's writer/director, SWERY. Other than this, he is best known for the strange Spy Fiction, but he was also the scenario writer for SNK's The Last Blade series. He may or may not be completely insane, but I suppose the same could be said of most auteur directors, like Hideo Kojima or Suda51. Though I am willing to guess that SWERY would prefer to be compared to David Lynch.

2010 was a strangely active year for the television series Twin Peaks considering that it had been twenty years since it premiered and eighteen years since its last entry. There was the excellent thriller game Alan Wake that was obviously influenced by the show's small Pacific Northwest town setting filled with various peculiar characters. There was also a mini-reunion in the form of the Psych episode "Dual Spires." All of this pales in comparison to Deadly Premonition, which is the most Twin Peaks-like experience since the show itself.

I didn't watch the show when it originally aired (I was five), but since it kept coming up in other things I liked I watched it somewhat recently. For a long time I just could not make heads or tails it, but I was engrossed by it and watched the whole thing through, and somewhere along the way I "got it." Everything makes sense following the show's twisted logic and general weirdness. I'm not too far into Deadly Premonition, and I don't know if it will all end up making sense in the end, but it emulates that feeling of weirdness and twisted logic perfectly. Playing it gave me the same sense of bewilderment I got from watching Twin Peaks, and that is something very few things do. Of course, the game plays up the connection to the show by showing the influence of it in the plot, characters, and setting of the game.

The main character is Special Agent Francis York Morgan, an FBI agent that has come to the small Pacific Northwest town of Greenvale to investigate the mysterious murder of a beautiful young girl. His strange behavior and position as an outsider puts him at odds with the local police. He may be decidedly more crazy, York has a strange fascination with the small town that makes him similar to Twin Peaks' Special Agent Dale Cooper. The story leads York to interact with the various odd residents of Greenvale.

With a premise like this, one might think that Deadly Premonition would be some sort of adventure game, but it is actually an open world survival horror game. As far as I know, this is the only game that blends these two genres. Remedy, the developers of Alan Wake initially planned to make the game with an open world framework, but that was ditched in favor of a more linear game for the sake of a more focused narrative. After playing this, I can understand why. It is hard to build and maintain tension when there are large portions of the game that have the player just driving around without incident.

Still, the open world mechanics benefit the bipolar nature of the game's story. One moment the game is highlighting a grisly murder and the next it is making light of one of the game's many quirky characters. There is no consistent tone to the game, and for some reason it is really charming. Sometimes the juxtaposition of the game's cheerier music with the serious nature of the dialogue is jarring, and that makes for greatly awkward atmosphere. On the subject of the music, it is really great, though eclectic. There is some smooth jazz, some eerie ambiance, and some guitar whistling that sounds like it could only have come out of K.K. Slider.

On the subject of mental disorder, York is literally crazy. He has dissociative identity disorder, and frequently has asides in which he speaks to his other personality, Zach. This is a stroke of insane genius on the writer's part because it gives York a reason to talk about what is going on without it being a boring internal monologue. It also gives York, and I guess by extension SWERY, the ability to directly address the player, as the player ostensibly is Zach. This leads a lot of the game's funny moments and meta commentary.

The action of the game makes for the majority of the survival horror elements of the game. Essentially, York will go to some area to investigate, he'll become isolated, and he'll start to experience weird stuff. This weird stuff includes red vines blocking off areas, usually a lot of rain, and zombie-like people that attack him. The combat is basically a poor man's version of Resident Evil 4, with similar controls that are a bit more sluggish and unwieldy. There are various strong melee weapons, but they have a limited amount of durability before they break. Luckily York's handgun has unlimited ammo and can be used for most everything, though stronger weapons with limited ammo are generally a good idea for dealing with stronger foes.

Even though the combat isn't that great, the atmosphere of the horror portions are really creepy and have an oppressive atmosphere. The mechanic of York holding is breath to become invisible to enemies is great at building tension. It's not up there in creepiness with a Silent Hill or something, but it's pretty good. The time when York is running and hiding from an ax murderer are quite frightening and incorporates an interesting split-screen between the player's view and the killer's, but it is marred by annoying quick-time events. These moments also double as an investigation or “profiling” section that has the player finding clues that help unravel parts of the mystery surrounding the mysterious events in Greenvale. It's not nearly as involved as something like the Ace Attorney games or Heavy Rain, but it gets the job done.

The open world portion of the game doesn't seem particularly necessary, but there is a lot of weird details in it. The player needs to have York shave and wear clean clothes or else his hygiene suffers, which probably affects something. Doing pretty much anything, from breaking boxes to exploring various places, gives the player cash which can be spent on all sorts of things about town. It is important to keep hunger and sleep requirements under control by eating food and sleeping, so it is a good idea to spend a decent amount of cash on food. Probably the worst part of the open world approach is the game's poor map, which doesn't zoom out far enough to get a grasp of the relation between different areas and doesn't have up always be north, but the direction the player is facing.

There is a bunch more weird stuff that York can do. He believes he can predict the future by looking at his cup of coffee, and so the player can choose to get a cup of coffee as a way of getting a fortune. There is fishing for some reason, so I guess for those people that are a fan of open world games, survival horror, and fishing, this is the game to play. Watching a weather report on television will give the player what weather to expect for the day. It is possible to talk to the various people as they go about their daily routines about town, but sometimes they lock themselves in their houses, and in that instance it might be a good idea to peek into their homes because the game lets York be a creeper like that.

At one point York needs to get into a room in the police station, but the guy with the keys lost them. Instead of just finding the key and returning it, the player finds various keys, differentiated by key-rings with different squirrels on them. Handing a key with the wrong type of squirrel on it will cause the guy to admonish York for not knowing his squirrels, then go into a long explanation of what makes that particular squirrel unique. This whole thing is like a bizarre attack on the way many survival horror games, like Resident Evil, have the player collect a bunch of keys marked with various symbols.

It seems the best way to explain how crazy this game seems to be just to flatly explain it, but I still feel like I haven't gotten across how completely weird Deadly Premonition  is. I think the best that I can do is urge people to just play it (I got it for a mere eleven dollars new) and leave off with an example of something that happens in the game. This is the sort of game that, to me, justifies the existence of this site. It was a cult hit, but it isn't some giant blockbuster title, and it flew under the radar for most people. It's not a perfect game, but it is really interesting, extremely bizarre, and it deserves some attention for being something so insane.

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