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Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year (Part 1)

Daniel Weissenberger's picture

My first encounter with Deadly Premonition came when I spotted it on the shelves of a local video store. Suffice to say, the cover art stood out from the crowd:

Who wouldn't rent this?

In a field of sports games, militaristic shooters, space marines, and the occasional swordsman v. dragon, a hooded person screaming as blood runs down their face counts as something of an anomaly. The axeman, naturally, sealed the deal. I rented the game immediately, and started playing it later that night. Just two hours in I'd already decided that I had to purchase my own copy, which I proceeded to do the next day.

I was ready to write an article nominating Deadly Premonition of the title of "Game of the Year" just halfway through its runtime. I'd already started grabbing screenshots and outlining when I noticed that the website Something Awful had posted a satirical article making the same suggestion. This left me thinking that I really ought to see what general critical consensus was before stepping up to make a fool of myself (once again). I quickly finished the game, and once I'd stopped weeping openly, I swung by the old Internet to see what various sites had to say about the game. After a little skimming I came to the conclusion that people were universally hard on the gameplay and graphics, but divided on the story. There was a "so stupid it made my brain bleed" camp, as well as a "so stupid I couldn't stop laughing" camp.

I wondered, for just a moment, anyhow, whether they'd played the same game I had. You see, the thing I responded most positively to in Deadly Premonition was the writing.

It may not have Heavy Rain's graphics, it certainly can't compete with Alan Wake's omnipresent product placement, but it has something I've rarely, if ever, seen in a videogame—a truly great story. Not great in the "so bad it's good" way, not great in the "high camp" way, not great in the "we're too hip to step into the world of a game and actually appreciate it for what it is, so let's just snigger from the sidelines" sort of a way. I'm not blind, mind you—I'm fully aware that the game can be enjoyed in all of those ways, I'd even admit that it invites those interpretations with its broad characterisations and supernatural flights of fancy. There's another, better way to approach the game, however. For anyone willing to take it at face value and suspend their disbelief, the game offers a rich world full of fascinating characters and enthralling mysteries. Players willing to engage with Deadly Premonition on its own level will find a story unlike anything they've seen in a videogame—and they'll find themselves wishing more games went that extra mile to create truly compelling narratives.

Deadly Premonition Screenshot

The game received a 2.0 from IGN, and a 10 from Destructoid, but both reviews approached it in exactly the same way—from a place of ironic detachment. Neither one was able to engage with the story, and so they couldn't see the game's true value. IGN couldn't get past the craziness of the plot, and Destructoid found the whole thing hilarious, going so far as to give it an ironic grade. By not being willing to just suspend their disbelief and inhabit the game's insane world, they missed out on one of the most special videogame storytelling experiences of all time, as well as the opportunity to really get to know a videogame character like never before.

That's right, because of a brilliant gameplay conceit that I'll expound upon at length later, Deadly Premonition allows the player to get inside the head of its main character in a way that no game (and nothing outside of novels) ever has—by the end of the game a player who has fully explored Deadly Premonition will know York Morgan more than they've ever known any other videogame hero, and once that's the case, they'll find it impossible not to be touched by his experiences. This is one of the most rawly emotional stories ever to appear in a videogame, and it has the ability to, if you let it, pull you in like no other medium could manage.

I'm not saying that Deadly Premonition should be the template for how every game should be designed—yes, the "gameplay" is largely abominable and dated—but it should be looked at as a singularly brilliant example of videogame storytelling, one that deserves to be studied by every game developer out there, so they can see how a story can succeed where 99% of video game stories don't. Deadly Premonition makes you a part of the story, and luckily, it's a fascinating story to be a part of.

Deadly Premonition has no real competition for title of "Horror Game of the Year". I'd even go so far as to say that, despite it being, in many ways, a terrible game, by December there won't be much competition for calling it the flat-out "Game of the Year".

But hey, I'm getting ahead of myself. I'm not just here to talk about Deadly Premonition in general, I'm here to present some highlights of the game, go in-depth about some of its details and mysteries, try to explain just why it's such an incredibly special experience—basically to convince anyone who takes the time to read this to play it for themselves.

In fact, let me just pause right here to encourage you to go out and buy the game—the rest of these articles are going to go into exhaustive detail about the game's plot, characters, and mechanics, and I can't stress enough how much better a time you'll have discovering all of it for yourself, playing late into the night with all the lights down low. You can always come back and read the articles later—they're not going anywhere, but your lack of knowledge about Deadly Premonition's secrets is.

Okay, now that the convolutions are done with, let's start the game!

As mysteries must, Deadly Premonition begins with a corpse. An artistically posed corpse at that. More importantly, what the hell kind of tree is that?

A murder tree?

Seriously, though, just a minute into the opening movie and I already know I'm in for something special. You've got sex, violence, biblical allusion, demonstration of character traits without dialogue—this is clearly the opening of a real story, one that's shooting at a target slightly more difficult than the average murder mystery.

The snake represents communist expansionism.

You've got an Eve crucified to the tree of knowledge as a flesh-coloured snake slithers between her nearly-naked breasts. I generally prefer my imagery to be a little less incredibly on-the-nose, but the game wants to make it absolutely clear that the woman's death was caused, at least in part, by a curiosity about the forbidden (specifically sex). The fact that Deadly Premonition's opening gives me a chance to talk about the imagery being employed alone serves to set it apart from the crowd, and is just the first of the game's many, many wonderful flourishes.

The movie then goes on to check in with a variety of the characters we'll be meeting over the course of the game, each of whom is dealing with news of the death in their own way, before the whole thing ends with as interestingly-framed a shot as you're likely to see in a game.

Moody bar!

The game hasn't even started yet, and we're already being shown that violence has crushing real-life consequences, causing people to run the gamut of reactions from stoic resignation to utter hysteria. Before we know any of these characters' names we understand they're important, and can start to make guesses on how they fit into the overall picture. The mystery's already begun pulling the player in, and we haven't touched the controller yet.

Next time, we'll meet our main character!

If you don't want his identity and details of the plot spoiled, I'd like to encourage you once again to zip on over to Amazon where you can order a copy of Deadly Premonition for under twenty dollars. In fact, if at any point in this series of articles I manage to make you feel like this is a game worth taking a look at, I absolutely want to encourage you to immediately stop reading and go get the game—you won't be disappointed.

And if you are, hell, it was just twenty dollars. Send me a bill. I won't pay it, but feel free to send it along.

Oh, and while comments on this article are fine, try to keep them spoiler-light.

Next time: Meet York Morgan (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 2).


Category Tags
Platform(s): Xbox 360   PS3  
Developer(s): Access Games  
Key Creator(s): SWERY 65  
Series: Deadly Premonition  
Genre(s): Horror  
Articles: Editorials  
Topic(s): Humor  

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Finally someone whose

Finally someone whose understanding of Deadly Premonition is close to mine.

I decided to buy this game impusively after reading the ironic and misleading Destructoid review, seeking a funny, out-of-the-box video game experience I could laugh at, or at least, something so different and weird that it could wash away the awful taste left in my mouth by MW2's single-player campaign and all the other over-hyped games I was blindly buying.

What I found in Deadly Premonition forever changed the way I play video games. It is charming, witty and funny, but also demanding and heart-wrenching. The story is deep, rich and engaging, as are the atmosphere and the characters, and the gameplay, sound and graphics, although they have flaws, are so unique it adds an extra layer of identity to the game. But Deadly Premonition is much more; it is a deeply affecting personal experience for the player willing to give it a chance.

For the first time playing a video game, I felt a bond forming between me and the main character, in this case, York. It is mainly because he kept breaking the 4th wall to express his inner thoughts, struggles and opinions, refering to me, the player, as a friend and a part of himself. This was helped by York's incredible personality and character development (his voice actor is also excellent), which made him, in my opinion, the most human video game character to date. He is a complex character, with a split-personality disorder and a distorted understanding of human relations, worthy of a novel. Furthermore, he is a distant and solitary person, and he only shares his world with the player, strenghtening the bond that unites us to him. After finishing the game, I felt York had become one of my close friends, someone I could relate to and learn from; I never thought a video game could achieve this. And I haven't even talked about the other characters, who are as interesting, and the touching events and relations that build up (and come to a crushing, heart-breaking end) throughout the game.

Never have I been so emotionally invested in a game, and I fear it won't happen again, since a lot of people won't recognize the genius that lies in Deadly Premonition's superb story-telling and carefully created and coherent world. Deadly Premonition sits proudly on my shelf with the likes of No More Heroes 1&2, Killer7 and Okami, and gives me hope that video games will someday mature and evolve in a way that suits my needs for intelligent, original and involving gaming.

I like your take on the

I like your take on the opening shot of the victim quite a bit, Dan, though I think you're belaboring the point when you get to the barroom scene. I'm interested to see more of your discussion of this game.

Perhaps you'll get into this later on, but why do you think the game intrinsically supports an immersive approach to interpretation? I tried to approach it this way myself, because it's my usual way of dealing with a game, and found that I just couldn't sustain it. The broadly played comedy, the "soliloquies", and the weird shifts and disconnects in tone just made it very difficult for me to take the game seriously on its own terms. I hope you (and maybe Lunar Coyote, too) will discuss why you didn't feel these were problems or why they didn't interfere with your accepting the game world at face value.

Off topic, Lunar Coyote, as a Killer7 fan you might be interested in the ongoing VGC playthrough and discussion.

Okay that's it. I am finding

Okay that's it. I am finding way too much positive reception of Deadly Premonition to pass this up. People keep lauding it as terrible (mostly because -- and I quote X-Play "It has PS2 graphics") but since when is good storytelling to be shunned to the shadows because of the graphics? I'm sure they had a small budget, and to get a story that unique for $20? No one deserves to talk trash about this game. I can't wait to check it out for myself finally!

Tonal shifts, et al

Sparky,

I'll get around to discussing the tonal shifts and humour as they come, but as a quick way of gauging reactions to DP, I'd like to ask, what are your feelings towards Twin Peaks?

Response to Sparky Clarkson

I didn't find the humor, soliloquies, abrupt changes in tone/atmosphere, and other inconsistencies to be much of a problem; Deadly Premonition obviously doesn't take itself too seriously and is quite self-aware that it is a quirky budget title, so the jokes are numerous and the weirdness is omnipresent.

However, this does not change the fact that the characters and story are deep and interesting. York is still a well-crafted and touching character, and, in a way, the brutal changes in tone and the weird humor are very reflective of his personality and of the unique game world he evolves in. While what happens on screen may not make much sense to us at times, it always makes sense within the boundaries of the game world; you just have to accept its rules and immerse yourself in it, which is quite easy, considering York's 4th wall breaking efforts to keep the player involved.

I must admit, though, that I didn't find much sense in the symbolism interpretation. On my first playthrough, I didn't pay attention to any of it, focusing instead on the characters, the atmosphere and the unravelling of the mystery (it is after all, at its core, a murder story). From what I read on the official website, the symbolism revolves around good and evil, represented by the green forest (inhabited by the goddesses) and the red trees (home of the Shadows), the « white room » being somewhere in between. I'm really looking forward this series of articles to learn about what I've missed and see Deadly Premonition's story from another angle.

Off topic, I'll be sure to check the Killer7 VGC discussion. This game left me with many questions.

Twin Peaks

It's a natural point of reference, I guess. I liked Twin Peaks quite a bit, but I thought it was occasionally "too much" in Sontag's sense. I'm a bit suspicious of this reaction though, as I've found that different people find different aspects go over the edge for them. One could argue, for instance, that Major Briggs' stilted dialogue isn't the sort of thing any actual person would say, but I've actually met several men who talk like that all the time (most of them are preachers). I have the feeling that Twin Peaks was created by assembling the largest number of barely-plausible characters who could possibly fit in a story together, and hoping the actors could pull it off. Sometimes they don't.

Thanks for your response, Coyote (Lunar?). I think the fourth-wall breaking is actually a major sticking point for me, mostly because York's asides are as real in the world of the game as they are in the world of the player. If they'd been played off in some way (like Special Agent Cooper's endless dictations to the possibly nonexistent 'Diane') they could have worked better for me. The fact that everyone in the game is listening to these asides and not really reacting to how crazy they sound made it feel like the whole exercise was not to be taken seriously.

At any rate, there are many ways in which I feel it is better to be interesting in one's criticism than "right" (whatever that may mean), and I suspect Dan's immersive interpretation will be much more fascinating than the majority's "camp" take. So I don't mean to argue strongly against analyzing the game this way. I just think it would be of interest to discuss the reasons and reactions that led different people to their divergent interpretations.

looking forward to part 2, 3

looking forward to part 2, 3 ... a game were the story is great?!
But as i may have an opinion so far, videos seem like i could not enjoy it. Pretty laughable dialogs, characters and animation. The graphics look ok enough for me.
It doesn't take itself too serious? But it looks quite serious, serious in a soap opera fashion?

Is Call of Cthulhu slightly similar? Despite a major bug in the end and the obviously low budget it was fun. If its at least the same quality i might want to get it.

Nevertheless, i would have problems to get a running PAL-Version of Deadly Premonition.

Not for everyone

If you don't enjoy the humor, I'm not sure it'll be able to pull you in very quickly. Through my experience the humor encouraged me to invest myself in the game-world (as per Daniel's recommendation) so that the first tonal shift's force solidified my attachment. I can easily see it going exactly the other way if the humor just isn't your cup of coffee.

But I'm really replying because you mentioned CoC (Dark Corners of the Earth, yes?). It's an interesting connection--and I think it's apt. Similarly flawed, with moments of absolute genius making it a game whose good points ought to be known whether or not the whole thing should be experienced.

It's not a perfect comparison--for me, it was the first two or three hours of CoC where the real meat stood out, and though the rest of the game had some intriguing design (using Lovecraft that was no surprise) it just couldn't impress. Deadly Premonition is a much more consistent title.

Here's what I'll recommend, knowing you could at least look past CoC's flaws: find a way to experience the first two hours, whether by renting, borrowing, or (worst case) watching a Let's Play/Endurance Run. If you aren't drawn in by about Chapter 4 or so I'm not sure you'd like the rest of it.

Deadly Premonition rap

twin peaks with a japanese filter
smalltown murder, a little off kilter
xbox 3 and a lyrical tilt and you'll find squirrel keys but the Sheriff'll jilt ya
at the alter, worshipping the goddess
never falter, this oddysey's the oddest
inhabiting Jake - the imaginary friend
a double personality, the player has to bend
like the f*****-up zombiez, black-mouthed corpses
gotta hold your breath, the tutorial taught this...

(don't) hold your breath, just do the side missions
the wrench never breaks and it r*pes all the demons
the radio you get does some funky transmissions...

cut-scene, dodge the raincoat killer
hide on your side by the crumbling pillar
namecheck movies by hollywood directors
suda51's got their teeth on a necklace
damn fine coffee, f-k creamer
pinching Lynchian themes for the dreamer
using sixth sense like bruce did on haley
psychicly divine the crime like old bailey
no, not psychic, just psychological
profiling fools down to their last follicle
first on the scene were the ranger and twins
but they're tripped out on mushrooms and biblical sins...

york morgan,
no fear.
the critical gamer's game of the year.
;)

It's time for a trip to gamestop

I found this article through a search engine. It's only the first portion of it and I'm already planning a trip to buy Deadly Premonition later today. Although the video sealed the deal, your writing didn't hurt matters. Thanks for such an interesting read. I look forward to the game and the remaining articles of this series.

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