Deadly Premonition

Critical Distance is proud to present this Critical Compilation of cult classic Deadly Premonition by Robert Hughes, which represents the first in our new series of commissioned features.

Since its staggered transcontinental release in 2010, Deadly Premonition has been a source of continuing bafflement for the gaming press. It is a game so confounding and aberrant that it poses almost existential questions to critics’ reviewing methodologies. How could this game – with its dated waxen graphics, its jarring musical cues, its Resident Evil 4-lite dungeon slogs – be considered ‘good’?

And yet, Deadly Premonition is hypnotising. It is a singularity. A pure descent into the idiosyncratic vision of director Hidetake Suehiro (Swery). It is a game wherein it may take you fifteen minutes to corral your boxy vehicle across the bare map to the next objective but, damn it, you need to see what’s there. It was this cognitive dissonance which informed much of the critical discussion around the title.

Jim Sterling’s review at Destructoid was perhaps the initial harbinger of the sinuous cult trail Deadly Premonition would eventually leave. It is a hyperbolic and unapologetic declaration of enthusiasm for this flawed product. The review readily concedes the game’s shortcomings but still pronounces it:

[A] masterpiece of atrocious, a veritable triumph of terrible. It takes everything we’ve come to accept as bad in videogames and somehow makes it work in the most ironic of senses.

Sterling awards it a perfect 10/10. Importantly, he treats the game as if it is a B-movie to be mocked (or at least, loved mockingly) and describes it as “the very first game I’ve seen that has been able to pull off that unique ‘so bad it’s good’ flavour.”

This approach of viewing the game ironically was not uncommon. Kill Screen announced the 2013 “Director’s Cut” re-release of the game with the headline “Deadly Premonition in High-Def is like Remastering Tommy Wiseau’s The Room” while IGN’s review of that re-release similarly, and approvingly, notes that it remained “still the best worst game.” John Richard Albers at Altergamer was more affectionately blunt in his assessment: “What it’s meant to be: an homage to shit.”

The question must therefore be asked: what does it mean to ironically appreciate a video game? Outside of Let’s Plays, why does there not seem to be the prominent culture of laughing at bad games the way people gather to enjoy bad movies? Certainly, there are major differences between the two activities. While movies tend to be over in under two hours, a game will generally take far longer and will require the player’s direct input for the duration of the experience. How then, with the levels of time and energy required, can a game be played all but sarcastically?

“So Bad, It’s Good”

Several sites have considered this issue. Nick Dinicola at PopMatters contrasts the boredom of playing a bad game by oneself against the joy garnered through watching someone else struggle through the same title. A Kotaku blog entry by user Raw Danger expounds upon the idea and suggests, much like Dinicola, that the key element is socialisation. That a bad game alone is a bad game but sharing the misery can elevate the experience to real enjoyment. Victor De La Cruz at Gamemoir suggests that it is the reversal of scorn that is the reason for the absence of a prominent ‘B-grade’ game culture outside of Let’s Plays. That is to say, it is no longer enjoyable when we are not laughing at the creator — or individual artist or technician — responsible for a film’s folly, but instead find ourselves as the butt of the joke. When we are watching another struggle, either socially or through a Let’s Play, we can at least draw pleasure through their pain.

Nevertheless, since the first wave of reviews upon the game’s release, the critical appraisal of the title has shifted substantially. Discussion around the game now takes a more protective, almost defensive, tone. Shaun Roopra’s article “Deadly Premonition: From ‘So Bad It’s Good’ to ‘Life is Beautiful’” at Thumbsticks considers the factors which led to its “pejorative branding.” In particular, he blames:

[T]he contrast between the high and low scoring reviews, the Giant Bomb endurance run playthrough, comparison to other eccentric Japanese games […] These all shaped the opinion of Deadly Premonition and consequently it became known as ‘that’ game, the game that is ‘so bad it’s good’.

The import of this aforementioned polarity in review scores cannot be discounted either. The reputation of a game can only be muddied when it receives contrary scores from not only the same organisation (the transatlantic disagreement of IGN US’s 2.0 against IGN UK’s 7.5) or even within the same review (Altergamer awarding the game 2/10 and 9/10 simultaneously, in a review appropriately entitled “Deadly Premonition: The Janus of Video Games”).

This divisiveness does not stem from nothing, of course, and the individual responses to the game’s narrative and mechanics are as important as the broader considerations of the tenor of the critical response.

“Damn Good Coffee”

The game narrative follows FBI Agent York as he investigates a murder in a small town, believing it to be connected with a series of other grisly murders across the country — all with the same cultish undertones. He clashes with the local police force while gradually ingratiating himself into the life of Greenvale, filled with oddball townspeople and hidden horrors.

The clashing of small town sensibilities with big city oddness, all wrapped up in a gruesome whodunit, led many to make comparisons to David Lynch’s Twin Peaks TV series. These were exacerbated by the wholesale lifting of iconic imagery from the show found in one the game’s early trailers and then, slightly less aggressively, within the final game itself. Stephanie Carmichael at Kill Screen examines the intertwined relationship between these two creations in her article “How Twin Peaks finds new life in the world of Deadly Premonition.” The crossover has even inspired two separate, exhaustive archives of similarities between the two.

It is not just the subject matter but also the presentation which invites such comparisons. Emily Payton at Pixels or Death writes eloquent, impressionistic thoughts on the ethereal and dreamlike qualities of the game, and how Lynch achieved a similar result with his show. While the latter utilised his cinematographic assets, Swery is able to invite the player to be part of Agent York’s struggle and make even the altered controls upon a change in camera a means of invoking the power of nightmares.

There are other crossovers: Agent York, much like Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks, regularly monologues to an unseen character – in the show, Diane; in the game, Zach. While Zach is seemingly posited as an invisible friend of Agent York, it becomes clear that Zach is in fact a stand-in for the player themselves. This startling breaking of the Fourth Wall is fascinating to Mary Goodden at God is a Geek, who discusses the intriguing shift in perception this role lends the gaming experience, particularly in light of one of the game’s shocking final revelations about Zach’s ‘other’ identity.

“Cinephilia as Characterization”

Drew Byrd, in his blog entry “Deadly Premonition, Mass Effect 3, Bioshock Infinite: Three Choices, or No Choice?” praises the device as a “satisfying middle ground between choice-driven story development and a focused creative vision” when contrasted against other so-called ‘choice based’ narratives, stating that is in an effective mechanism for directly integrating the player into the events of the game world.

Such enthusiasm was shared by Daniel Weissenberger who put together an extensive 11-part series on Deadly Premonition, celebrating it as’s Game of the Year for 2010. While criticising the gameplay and the archaic shooting mechanics, Weissenberger asserts that the ‘Zach as the player’ premise turns the narrative into an admirable innovation in form for the medium. He further admonishes both the condemnatory IGN US review and the Destructoid veneration, criticising them as not properly engaging with the world of the game — albeit in inverse ways.

The game also features what has been described as one of the more successful romantic sub-plots to be found in modern gaming. Romance in gaming is an area usually fraught with disastrous attempts at recreating complex human emotion but Nick Burgener at The Nocturnal Rambler finds the burgeoning affection between Agent York and Emily, a deputy sheriff, to be surprisingly natural and subtly developed. This is despite many of the problems he has with the third act of the story and his castigation of the combat.

Many reviews and articles have poured scorn upon the shooting sections of Deadly Premonition, wherein Agent York is sealed within a discrete area and must shoot his way through undead creatures in linear corridors until he can return to the ‘real’ world, for being seemingly unrelated to the main thrust of the game. In contrast, the blog Chris’ Survival Horror Quest found these sequences complemented the game’s general aura of surreality. He posits that they are not irrelevant tangents but instead important moments of realisation and foreshadowing for York and player alike.

Key to the game’s narrative success is the singular figure of protagonist Agent York. His odd quirks, his incomprehensible non sequiturs, his passion for schlock cinema – he is a triumph of memorable character design. This latter trait in particular is examined in the blog entry “Cinephilia as Characterization in Deadly Premonition” which features an extensive comparison against the use of filmic obsession in the Metal Gear Solid games.

Steve Haske in his review of the Director’s Cut at Digital Trends makes the same observation and posits that Greenvale is deliberately sparse so as to facilitate this aspect of Agent York’s personality. When there are extended eventless trips to be made, the protagonist has time to wax lyrical and add this extra dimension to his personality.

That is not to say that Greenvale is a complete ghost town, however. Indeed, David Houghton’s article at GamesRadar praises Deadly Premonition’s open world, characterisation, and character writing — comparing them favourably to those found in Heavy Rain and the Grand Theft Auto games. He asserts that the low population and lack of traffic in the world are true to the game’s location and that it makes possible “little details like noticing the townsfolk all start to make their own way to a town meeting at the same time as you drive there yourself.”

“Lovely Useless Elements”

Others were less generous in their assessment. In a review of great ambivalence, Rock Paper Shotgun’s Adam Smith describes the town not as a living breathing universe unto itself but, instead, merely a “fairground attraction, a ghost train in which animatronic figures shudder in and out of position as their timers tick down.” Though perhaps Deadly Premonition’s failure to hide the illusory nature of NPC behaviour is not necessarily a fault in a game which already has such a strange view of its characters.

In fact, such an argument is made by Peter Shafer on the Ruminatron 5000 blog – that the artificiality of the world is irrelevant since it still operates on its own consistent (albeit eccentric) logic. Polygon were in agreement in their review of the Director’s Cut. Although otherwise fairly critical, Dave Tach praises the oddball jumble of characters and side-missions, while noting that the player must really get onto the wavelength of the game to take anything away from the experience.

Part of this acceptance is understanding the tone of the action and character interactions. Justin Miller at The Saquarry Analyses blog details the (common) scenario of finding the jarring and sometimes cacophonously loud music baffling at first, before accepting it as a strangely fitting piece of the experience. Despite this initial hurdle, he commends muddied reality of the narrative which leads to an ending “both disturbing and heart-wrenching.”

Shaun Prescott’s look back at Deadly Premonition (in an article that requires the Wayback Machine to access) embraces the tone and suggests that the murky graphics and sound design actually beautifully supplement the world of Greenvale. The piece describes the game as creating an “impressionistic world” in which the real mixes with the unreal in a unsettling way. It forces the player to clash their understanding of how games should feel against the compelling artificiality of the world of Deadly Premonition.

To be engrossed in such a world is a dramatic sensation. While technically rough in some ways and downright shoddy in others, the power of immersion cannot be denied. Oli Welsh at Eurogamer recognises that the game “borders on plagiarism” in the way it draws from Twin Peaks and lambasts the games shooting sections for being “nakedly lazy video game design.” He also dismisses the game’s villain The Raincoat Killer as half-baked and ridiculous (an interesting contrast to the description in the Destructoid review, where the same character is said to be “taken from the Clock Tower book of ‘shit your pants’ scary”). And yet – and it is an important yet – the author still finds himself unwittingly falling into the routine of Agent York and becoming wrapped up in the experience of becoming this character in a different world.

Amanda “AJ” Lange at Tap-Repeatedly finds herself in the same boat. She commends the open world, which the player (and thus Agent York) is free to traverse at their own pace. They can let the main murder mystery sit dormant while they wander aimlessly or interview townsfolk or find dumbbells for the Sheriff or fish for items. The game absorbs the player. Lange notes that even the map, which usually remains the one trusted objective companion in any game, is dreadful and almost more of a hindrance than anything. The player becomes York — a stranger lost in a town that they can’t even properly navigate.

This worldbuilding extends to the superfluous incidental features which colour life in Greenvale. Agent York must shave or he will grow a beard; he must wash his suit, otherwise it will grow dirty and attract flies; he may use his turn signal and window wipers as he drives through town. None of these features, nor many of the others present, have any tangible effect on the actual furthering of the narrative.

The blog Infinite Lag, authored by J.P. Grant, ran a 7-part series of articles celebrating Deadly Premonition as Game of The Year. While these articles thoroughly cover a variety of aspects of the title, GOTY Reason #5: Lovely Useless Elements salutes the game’s embrace of the pointless. He suggests it is a declaration of honesty — that the game “is telling the player outright that these elements are indeed useless — and that’s okay!” A comment by Michael “Sparky” Clarkson on Part 4 of the previously detailed articles amusingly notes that the in-game money Agent York is gifted for shaving and changing his clothes could be simply read as York “being rewarded for behaving like a well-socialized individual.”

Matthew Gallant, meanwhile, draws attention to another “lovely useless element”: the various squirrel keys the player is able to collect, making an interesting point about establishing space and character through a seemingly minor interaction, which fits in with both the game’s oddball characterisation and its small town atmosphere.

Although they do not formally add to the story, these gratuities are not without purpose. The game’s director Swery noted in his 2011 GDC address that he was attempting an intertextual link between the game and the player’s life — to make the player identify with the characters, certainly, but also to make the player think of the game when they perform these actions in their everyday lives. This GDC address further details a variety of strategies Swery uses to craft an engaging story. Indeed, he has been rather loquacious about the successes and failures of the title, with both Polygon and Game Developer magazine (archived on the GDC Vault) featuring in-depth post-mortems with the director, including revelations about the production and the reception of the game.

Despite its initial reputation as schlock to only be viewed through a deeply ironic lens, Deadly Premonition has grown to achieve a level of respectability its detractors likely never thought possible. The power of the idiosyncratic narrative and singular characters manage to overcome the game’s technical flaws, all of which is further enhanced by the intriguing subtextual insights into the distance between player and avatar. Deadly Premonition is a triumph of eccentricity; a victory for the weirdo. It is a game which flirts with normalcy before doubling-down on its strangeness. As Agent York announces before plunging into Greenvale: “there goes the civilized world.” Good riddance.

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