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January 09, 2014

I Should Have Finished... Deadly Premonition

While I was finishing up my holiday break, I also finished up Deadly Premonition, a game that completely had me gripped from start to finish.

Deadly Premonition is a game about a serial killer loose in a small Pacific Northwest town -- it has a lot in common with Twin Peaks in terms of setting and general aesthetic¹. It starts with the player-controlled FBI profiler arriving in town to investigate a murder and promptly having a car crash that brings him face-to-face with twisted human ghouls from another world. Throughout the drive and indeed, throughout the game, Agent York converses with "Zach", addressing asides constantly to Zach and you sort of feel like it's you, the player, he's talking to.

It's difficult to encapsulate this game in a few sentences, other than to say it plays out in many ways like a season of Twin Peaks in video game form. There are lots of little mysteries -- we don't really know, as players, whether or not York is really experiencing these other-worldly phenomena where all the combat takes place or whether they are simply a representation of the difficult art of profiling. After all, York is a little off-kilter, talking to Zach frequently and having kind of an odd view on the world. His name isn't really even York -- that's his middle name, and he always introduces himself that way, "Hi, I'm Francis York Morgan, please call me York, everybody does." The way he says it is so earnest, you almost feel like no one at the FBI actually does, and he's trying to assert a role for himself.

It's among the strangest games I've ever played, which is funny because it's more-or-less set in a realistic place and more-or-less right now. York drives around town, talking about his favorite movies (through hitting the "A" button when prompted to allow him to Talk to himself/Zach). In addition to the main storyline, which quickly ties into a bunch of other murders York has investigated over the years, there are lots of side missions that you can undertake, many of which grow your understanding of the various players in the mystery. The game's concerns are so strange here -- there's a hunger meter for York and a health meter and a sleepiness meter, and there's even an adrenaline meter which I need to attend to when I'm in combat or running or driving fast. And there's a lot of driving -- you're covering the real space of this game as if it were GTA, but it feels eerily slow.

Early on, I was driving in the first significant player-controlled event where you have to get to the murder scene, clear across the map of Greenvale, and I'm going along, talking to the characters in the car with me about movies, and I'm just thinking "What the hell is going on here? What is this game doing?" It took forever. I started noticing that I didn't have tons and tons of gas left -- who ever worries about how much gas is in a video game car? -- and I wondered if I'd even be able to get back. Why this? Why this dead space?

Ultimately, fundamentally, what makes the game work so well is that it's very, very well realized; the sense of proportion and place directly contribute to the experience and draw you in. Each of these drives is an opportunity to get to know characters better, or York better. And there are perhaps a little over 30 characters, and all of them seem fully fleshed out, or at least memorably written. They have schedules of places they'll be, and they'll drive back and forth in the town to them or whatever. Everything plays out in close to real time - at one point I went to time it and forgot, but it feels like at best it's a little faster than real time. Certain main story events have to be attended to on the schedule the game sets, typically within a window, but otherwise you're free to drive around and talk to whomever, attend to side missions, etc.

There's some other weird stuff. The main story mostly surrounds going to locations, entering this "other world" creepy environment with combat and the finding of clues which turn into snippets of grainy video explaining what happened at the location. This is handled better, in my opinion, than the much more slick L. A. Noire, by gating progress on finding the important stuff and not having lots of superfluous dialogue about beer bottles and such. (Playing on easy, there was even highlighting in different colors indicating what was critical path and what was merely useful; I'm not certain that these little fountain particle effects appear in harder difficulties.) But even while I'm in the midst of doing that, I can walk into a little safe room and find myself able to shave, or change my outfit (and pay for the other suit to be cleaned!), or save the game at a pay phone. It's crazy and great.

It's a very rich experience and one I'd totally recommend. My quibbles are mostly with the combat and how it interacts with the controls (which are survival horror, character relative style) -- feels a bit like playing RE4, but not nearly as smooth, much more like an early iteration. I played it on easy and would recommend that, since it's rare that you'll die as a result. I would have been thoroughly annoyed had I been replaying the combat over and over due to dying in this game; the character mostly controls like he's a Mack truck, and I just am not interested in that kind of control-fighting anymore. If it doesn't cost me anything... I can live with it.

There are also... quick time events. I don't mind them so much here, as they're very sparing, not terribly difficult, and only used in connection with certain encounters. They do tend to really focus you, since you know that they're going to be coming and you really have to stay focused so as not to be defeated by them. The few times when I'd die in a scenario were typically because I let my attention wander to Twitter or whatever³.

Finally, it took me a while to understand the side mission cards -- they basically have a bunch of numbers at the top, which I thought related them to other side missions (which are numbered), but instead those referred to what "Chapters" of the game the side missions were available in. As a result, I missed quite a few early ones, which is too bad, because a lot of them seem to tie into the main storyline and enrich the experience even further. The ones I did do added an even greater sense that I was in this complicated town with all these different people; even if the main storyline itself is linear, the attendance to these side issues really made it feel as if it opened up and was more personal to me.

These quibbles are really minor. The whole game is a little bit janky -- I'm sure they knew that this wasn't going to be a big seller4, so they budgeted accordingly. The sensation of place is amazing, and the revelations of what's going on with York and Zach and the murders and everything at the end of the game are simply fantastic. In the end, I came away feeling that this was one of the greatest games this generation, certainly an overlooked gem, and perhaps my favorite that I've played from 20105. I believe they've recently released an updated HD or Director's Cut version of the game, and I imagine I'd recommend that too.

OK, as mentioned in the footnotes, I'm currently into Red Dead Redemption, so it may be a while before I have any game stuff to post, though I have a few from last year which I thought were fantastic and may get to soon (particularly Gone Home, which I was waiting to blog about until I had played again with my girlfriend, but that still hasn't happened, and The Novelist, which came out in December but which I playtested and therefore have played a couple times since September). Cheers!


¹I.e. something along the lines of "Small towns are weird," or, as with Blue Velvet, "There is a dark core underneath the American small town experience." Speaking of which, I really wonder what happened to David Lynch as a kid. Also speaking of which, did you hear they're making a little more content for Twin Peaks for the Blu-Ray anniversary edition? That's crazy. End footnote digression.
²The speed of traversing the environment changes over the course of the game, if you pursue certain side missions that increase the speed and gasoline tank capacity of your car, which translates into "any car you drive," since all police cars and SUVs share the same underlying data. It's weird.
³It's a situation which would compound itself, too. Having played a bit and been in a period of mild waiting around, I'd grow complacent and my mind would wander, so I'd end up dying and having to play that section over. Which meant that not only was I waiting again, but I was waiting in a situation I had already seen and which therefore even less held my attention. These sections almost encouraged a sort of meditative focus or presence. Not what I expect with a controller in my hand, and as a result, kind of interesting!
4And indeed it wasn't, with around 320K units sold, according to VGChartz, though that's not entirely accurate, it's probably within 10-20%.
5 Admittedly I have a few to go, notably Red Dead Redemption, which I started last week and which I also quite enjoy.

Posted by Brett Douville at January 9, 2014 10:22 AM