With the first interminable combat sequence left in the dust, it's time to a actually start meeting other characters in the game. But before that, let's take a look at a detail that captivated me the first time I played the game, and interests me still—a sequence of no seeming value or consequence.
When the "profile" ends, York doesn't immediately meet the local police who are waiting for him. Instead, he walks out of the woods a good five hundred meters from the bridge they're meant to rendezvous upon. This forces the player to spend a minute running down a wet highway to get there. Is this sequence meaningful? Is it just a strange design error? After the cliched Silent Hill-esque Other World sequence (hereafter referred to as the SHOW), did the developers want to give players a moment with a uniquely Deadly Premonition location and experience before the plot got moving?
I recognize that I may be reading a little too much into such a tiny portion of the game—it's not like this is Metal Gear Solid 3's climbing/theme song sequence. I think it's a telling scene, though, because this is the first piece of gameplay that defies genre convention and begins to establish the game's own tone. There's nothing new about crashing cars and gunfighting zombies in suspiciously narrow forest paths, but running down a wet highway at dawn in the Pacific Northwest? Now that's something I've never seen in a video game before. There's no score, either, nothing to interrupt or overpower the soft repetition of York's footsteps as he closes in on Greenvale, the game's main setting.
As I wrote above, I could well be reading (and writing) far much too into this, but considering the languid pace that much of the game moves at, I find this to be almost a perfect introduction to the real world that Deadly Premonition is about exploring—not the trite SHOW scenes, but rather the subdued depiction of an isolated community in the middle of the woods.
And after such an elaborate buildup, wouldn't this be a great time to spoil things with some awkward translation?
I've always wondered what it's like for North American voice actors recording the dialogue for translated games. When they're confronted with a line that's just a slight word-change away from being natural English, do they ever suggest fixing it? Or do they just read the scripts put in front of them without comment, happy to be working?
Not that Deadly Premonition has any particularly egregious examples of Engrish to offer, no one sets up anyone the bomb or anything like that… but Deadly Premonition suffers more than most games would from the occasional slip because there's such a fundamentally serious story being so well-told. It's hard not to snigger whenever something utterly unnatural comes out of a character's mouth, but for now I'm going to have to ask you to play along and just ignore the rare instances of awkwardness as much as possible. It's always going to be clear what people mean, so hopefully you'll be able to let the occasional awkward wording drift by without much trouble.
It's easy to forgive those small mistakes when you're dealing with a game that has such a strong sense of how to stage and execute a dramatic scene. Whether it's the broader notes of the power dynamic between York and George (like York's childish attempt to regain some control of the interaction by blowing smoke and suggesting that George get his luggage), or the subtler notes like George possessively standing between York and Emily, this first scene of character interaction lets us know the developers understand how important it is to establish strong personalities for their characters right away, so that their interactions can go on to provide a dramatic spine for the story.
We also learn why York does that thing where he touches his temple and tilts his head whenever he talks to Zach—it's a move designed to hide his mouth from anyone nearby—when combined with the way he lowers his voice during these asides, the goal is clearly to hide his conversations with Zach as much as possible. This way, at worst, he'll look like someone who mumbles to himself a little, rather than a full-on psycho who speaking to a second personality all the time. It's interesting to note that he does this even when he's alone—he's obviously so used to talking to Zach around other people that he's gotten into the habit of doing it all the time.
York does, in fact, retire to the hotel for a nap, where he has an unsettling dream…
This is something of an odd video—the Shadow is creepy enough, but the main thrust of the scene, that we're supposed to be learning a key gameplay component, never really hit home with me. The idea that enemies won't be able to detect you if you hold your breath is interesting, but it never really becomes useful in the game. I'll get into this a little more later on, but the fact is that enemies generally aren't fast enough to corner the player, or they appear in hallways so narrow that they can't be snuck past. In yet another failure for the terrible combat sequences, I was able to get through the entire game without once holding my breath to confuse a zombie.
The location York's waking up in is the Great Deer Yard hotel, which is about five times bigger than makes sense for the size of town it's in. Like most of the game's mysteries, this will be explained soon enough. In the room the player can futz about with York's inventory, change his clothes, and, of course, shave.
I find the game's seeming fixation on the minutiae of day-to-day life oddly endearing. It's by no stretch of the imagination a realistic game, but the few random nods to how things actually work—York will get stubble as time passes, if he doesn't dry clean his suit it will start to attract flies with its rank odor—serve as another thing that separates Deadly Premonition from the crowd. At every turn, it attempts to bring the player more fully into York Morgan's world, as he eats, sleeps, and travels from place to place during the investigation. The game only balks, thankfully, at addressing the bathroom situation in Greenvale.
After cleaning himself up, York meets the first of the game's "quirky townspeople", Polly the owner/sole employee of the Deer Yard Inn. The ensuing breakfast scene, in addition to providing a primer for where to travel in and around Greenvale, includes the game's single most referenced and mocked moment, right at the end:
"F.K…. In the coffee!"
Yes, that really happened. He mentioned it a few movies back, but that's not what the Internet fixated on. This seems to be the make-or-break moment for suspension of disbelief when it comes to the game, although I'm not entirely sure why. Perhaps this says more about my own personal craziness than anything else, but the only thing that occurred to me when I got to this scene was "Huh, so York believes in divination. Neat."
For those not familiar with divination, Wikipedia has an amazing list of every type you can imagine, and a few more. In short form, though, divination is the belief that you can find messages from the divine in everyday patterns, from the I Ching to tarot to astrology to reading tea leaves, any time you try to gain a glimpse of the future from a random pattern, you're engaging in divination.
What I find most interesting about this scene is not that York believes in divination (again, this might be the Twin Peaks influence showing through—see the video at the end of this article for a related scene), but rather that he's seemingly devised his own method of it. I'm familiar with reading coffee grounds, or wax dropped into liquid—but the shapes that cream makes in coffee before dispersing? That's a new one to me—and yet another reason I found York Morgan to be a fascinating character. Did he come up with this idea himself, along with all of the possible meanings for various squiggly shapes.
That's the last time we'll see coffee-reading play a role in the plot, but if the player so desires, they can always check their fortune a few more times—
Which one is your favorite? Mine, naturally, involves the Blues Brothers. Now, a warning: this is not the last time I'll be openly amazed by the amount of raw content that the game has to offer.
If you've found any other this craziness compelling (in any way), remember that Deadly Premonition is available for purchase at Amazon for less than 20 American dollars—there's more craziness to come, and I suspect that you'll enjoy it more firsthand than you would filtered through my alternating criticism/fawning.
Next time on my Game of the Year coverage of Deadly Premonition? I reveal my status as a stupe, and then examine the brilliant conceit I mentioned way back at the start of this thing.
And now, as promised, a favorite scene from Twin Peaks:
Next time: Riding in Cars with York (Deadly Premonition is the Game of the Year, Part 5.
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“Engagement is a choice. You guys, and Dan, chose to stay engaged with York.” I would say that some of the best stories are the ones worth struggling with. One problem I have with most games is that they don’t seem to understand that a lot of good stories, good art, must be worked for. Even the best AAA titles out there seem very intent on spelling things out, making things seamless, from their thematic intent to the interface. I go into a Bioware game expecting amazing writing, and it’s handed to me on a plate. I get exactly what… Read more »
I can’t add much to the debate at this point, but I must say that I’m with Dan and the others. In fact, the whole divination scene seemed pretty much natural to me, given the importance York gives to his coffee in some of his dialogues earlier in the game. Also, being a little strange myself, that scene actually strenghtened the bond between me and the main character, and further developed my interest in him; at this point, I was interested in York as much as the mystery he was trying to solve, because I felt like we shared some… Read more »
Well, one could argue (and Sterling did) that Deadly Premonition isn’t a failure if taken ironically, but of course to enjoy the game that way you must be detached from it. In these posts, Dan is arguing for a reading that accepts and engages with the game world, and is expressing some degree of mystification that most critics don’t seem to have taken the game this way. As Dan says above. “This seems to be the make-or-break moment for suspension of disbelief when it comes to the game, although I’m not entirely sure why.” But we do know why. This… Read more »
Thank you for giving Deadly Premonition this much attention, it certainly deserves it. Despite its flaws (and in part due to them) there are so many interesting lessons to be learned from the game in terms of storytelling, characterization and player agency. Personally I loved the coffee divination scene – York went instantly from “eccentric, possibly crazy” to “intuitive genius, demented by design”. It’s a bit of a shame that the coffee wasn’t used as more of a gameplay element – from what I could tell, the player triggered divinations seemed like generic fortune cookie advice? (Since I don’t own… Read more »
I’m a little confused as to some of the choices of words in Sparky’s posts, which seem to imply that, by some nebulous rules of narrative and characterization, York OUGHT to be more relatable for the player. I understand if you personally were turned off from it, but I don’t see what’s so wrong about risking alienation. The more specific the vision behind a work of art, the fewer people it will appeal to, and that’s what I’d like to see more of in games. I for one, and I’m not the only person who feels this way (my roomie… Read more »
You’re not wrong about the game alienating potential players with the off-putting parts of York’s personality, but, truth be told, and this is another one of those mileage-may-vary points, his oddness was one of the things that interested me most about the game when I began playing it. I’m fully aware that Deadly Premonition isn’t going to be for everyone – but the very fact that it’s unlike anything else out there makes it worth a look, and part of the reason I’m covering it so extensively is, hopefully, to let people know that if they’re willing to put up… Read more »
The one thing I really loved about Deadly Premonition was getting paid to shave or change your shirt. On one level it was fortuitous because I played the game not long after the game blogs flared up over the Jesse Schell talk at DICE. David Carlton has an excellent writeup about this with a wealth of links to other great responses. The short version is that Schell described a future in which games are used as a way to build brand identity and alter behavior by awarding points for things like brushing your teeth or riding the bus. It’s amusing… Read more »
But really, Dan, you’ve answered your own question here. Intentionally or not, Deadly Premonition‘s coffee scene alienates us from York. Up to this point the game’s weirdness has all been pretty reasonable. We saw the SHOW, and we accept oddities like characters addressing us directly because of the nature of the medium (a similar thing happened in Baten Kaitos, for instance). But here York does something inexplicable and painfully weird. That’s why it was murderous to suspension of disbelief. SWERY drove an enormous wedge between the player and the character, and in that case lots of players will choose the… Read more »
I’d actually say that it was because Agent York was so alienating and strange that I kept on playing. All of his weird personality quirk made me curious as to why he acted that way and the Coffee scene helped cement that curiosity. So many characters these days are made to be instantly relate-able or be almost devoid of personality that it is a nice change to have something different for once. Also in regards to the translation I also think that it helps the game, not hinders it. It furthers that strange, curious feeling that you get while playing… Read more »
It’s possible that the milk-bottle scene isn’t the greatest analog to bring up here – there’s actually a section of the game further down the line which uses a similar premise to different effect, and tells us something interesting about York in the process. I put the scene here as just a sampling of the kind of oddness that can go by without derailing the proceedings, but it’s important to note that the scenes are constructed in two vastly different ways to create two entirely different results. The Twin Peaks scene is accessible because it’s supposed to be – David… Read more »