Friday, 17 June 2011

Story and Writing in Games #3: Deadly Premonition

Deadly Premonition might be a bit of a controversial addition to this series of blogs, at least among those who know its name. The game was released in February 2010 and has achieved cult status after some of the mixed praise it received. IGN called it the definition of a system seller - "once you play it, you'll want to go sell your system". Other reviews since then have been kinder, some sites like Destructoid even deciding to give it their top honours and a perfect 10/10 score.

Detective Francis York Morgan. Call him York.

Deadly Premonition follows detective Francis York Morgan as he travels to a rural town of Greenvale to solve a mystery murder case. When zombie-like creatures that only he can see start sprouting out of the ground upon his arrival, it's clear that there's something supernatural going on behind these murders.

The game utterly reeks of Twin Peaks - hell, Greenvale itself is a recreation of the same town which was used to shoot the show. The gameplay is, admittedly, terrible and the controls are at times unbearable. The graphics don't look acceptable for a game from five years ago, and the music has a habit of playing the wrong tunes at the most inappropriate of times. But - at least in my opinion - the story has enough twists and enough of a payoff at the end to make it worthy of playing.

I don't really want to focus on the story today as much as I want to focus on one particular character, though. Francis York Morgan is one of the most interesting player characters I have ever seen in a game - perhaps even my all time favourite. More details after the jump, but be warned that there may be significant plot details below. (or not. I often can't bring myself to spoil a good story... but just in case:)

Deadly Premonition sets York up as a pretty weird character from the very beginning of the game. Immediately the player notices that this isn't your typical detective. You start off in a red room in an unknown location, with a mystery pair of angelic twins speaking in riddles to you - whether or not this is a figment of York's imagination is still unknown. [Sidenote - there's actually good use of Chekhov's Gun in this scene which is interesting to note after playing through the game already.]

The game soon cuts to a black screen and York asks a mystery character named Zach to respond if he can hear York. A button prompt appears on the screen for the player to respond before York continues talking. The game has just conveyed that you, the player, are assuming the role of York's friend, Zach. Thus begins one of the most interesting player-character relationships that I have ever encountered in a game.

The game deliberately keeps this relationship ambiguous, though. Is it a simple player-character relationship, or is York just clinically insane? The next scene cuts to York driving down the highway to Greenvale on a rainy night. He multitasks - cigarette in mouth, laptop open on the seat next to him showing photos from the case, phone in hand talking weird specifics about the Tom & Jerry show to an unknown person. At one point he holds up a couple of red seeds in a plastic bag and states "these puppies are making me go to another town in the boondocks again" and the player character is left wondering whether he's on drugs or what. I don't think I have ever analysed scenes in videogames in this detail, but in Deadly Premonition these opening scenes are extremely important in portraying York's character.

The rest of Deadly Premonition's cast members aren't bland at all - they've all got their own little quirks and charm which makes them lovable in their own way, so it's not as if York is a great character just because everyone else is awful. Rather, he's great because the player connects to him on a level that they won't have for any other game character before. He has his own backstory and personality; his actions and quips make him likeable. But above all - he actually converses with the player in a way that doesn't blatantly break the fourth wall like other games might. Take a lengthy car trip and York will converse in great detail with Zach about his favourite movies from the 80s like Ferris Bueller's Day Off. He'll ask if Zach remembers specific things, and will ask you to think about your (or Zach's) own opinion on these matters. If you end up reaching your destination before York stops talking, you'll find yourself wanting to stay in the car to wait for York - these conversations are just that engaging.

I want more characters in games like York. I'm not sure exactly how to get the same effect without a split-personality relationship like York has - but I'm sure there are other creative ways to create this player-character relationship which just haven't been explored yet. If a relatively unknown developer like Hidetaka Suehiro can figure it out, I'm sure there are many other designers in the industry who can discover something similar, if not better.

1 comment:

  1. This is my girlfriends favorite game thus far released on the 360 and falls within her top 10 best games of all time. I really enjoyed both the story and the characters as well, though not to the same degree that she did. As you said, the game has horrible controls, horrible action sequences, and rough graphics. Luckily, graphics are never an issue for myself, but the controls can be aggravating. The game is a great game to watch, but not always a great game to play. I have watched both my girlfriend play through the game three times, and both endurance runs on Giantbomb, and each time have been a pleasure to watch. The game is both enjoyable to watch AND enjoyable to watch other people interact with the dialogue. I really hope that Sweary65 is able to get the funding he is looking for to begin developing another fantastic story.


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