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Love GTA, Heavy Rain and Resident Evil? Well Deadly Premonition is better than all of them. Here's why

You will rarely have felt closer to a lead character. Fact

Character attachment is a bigger problem than you’d think in modern gaming. And there’s no genre in which it’s a bigger issue than the narrative-driven sandbox game.

The problem is this: In any game, for the narrative to be truly effective in terms of video game storytelling (which is very different, in terms of both mechanics and the effect it can have on its audience, from movie storytelling), the player must be bonded with their character on as close to a 1:1 level as possible. With current technology, that goal is impossible to attain. Monitors, controls, and anything less than a dirty great Matrix jack right into the back of the head all see that the player is aware of their physical separation from their character. Even in first-person. Even with the biggest wraparound monitor set-up in the world. Even with the most immersive storyline and the best acting in the world, you’re still aware, even subconsciously, that you’re operating a keyboard and mouse or a controller. And that constantly reminds you that you are not Gordon Freeman, and you are not Jack from Bioshock.

 

There are ways to greatly limit that though. Valve, in particular, excels in this area. Its silent protagonists never alienate you with words or actions that you yourself wouldn’t say or carry out. Valve's lack of third-person cut-scenes ensures that you’re never pulled out of the main gameplay perspective, and its refusal to pre-render anything means that you're never divorced from the world. Its ambient storytelling through little details hidden within the environment makes sure that the player’s understanding of the game world is always at the same stage as the character’s at any given point in a story, and most cleverly, the way that the House o’ Gabe manipulates emotional and dramatic peaks and troughs to incite reactions and create empathy with a character’s situation ensures that in a Valve game, to put it plainly, you are not actually playing a character at all. That character is an extension of you.

The upshot of all of this technical rambling? Most sandbox games have a real problem with storytelling, because most of them do the opposite of everything listed in the previous paragraph, and compound all of the problems listed in the paragraph before that. The issue comes from the fact that in a genre (supposedly) so inherently built around the player’s freedom to do whatever they want, whenever they want, trying to tie in some kind of prescribed identity for the lead character is nearly always at odds with the identity the player creates for themselves. Red Dead Redemption does alright, by making John Marston a fairly ambiguous type in terms of morals, but Grand Theft Auto IV fails pretty badly a lot of the time. A protagonist who repeatedly professes a desire for a quiet, peaceful life of repentance, in a game which continually encourages the player to cause havoc and destruction wherever they go? It just doesn’t work.


Above: Agent Francis York Morgan. Your new best goddamn friend

How does Deadly Premonition get around that? How indeed, does it go beyond that, to create one of the most solid player/character bonds around while maintaining the character integrity of one of gaming’s most quirky and unique protagonists through a raft of non-interactive, third-person cut-scenes? It does it effortlessly, with a neat bit of gameplay trimming and a little stroke of genius called Zach.

The trimming? When exploring the world at large, your options are somewhat limited. No lead-blazing rampages here. Much like the way that L.A. Noire limits the possibility of your creating a graveyard’s worth of collateral damage every time you drive down to the shops for a pint of milk, in Deadly Premonition you are not going to be shooting up the whole town on a a whim. You just can’t do it. And why would you? You’re an FBI agent, fuggodsake.

But you never feel hampered in your freedom by this. Because Deadly Premonition does a great job of making sure you want to stay in character. Aside from masking your inability to shoot passers-by, by way of some plausible narrative justification for the town’s quiet streets, the game bonds you with Agent Francis York Morgan via of one of the cleverest and most rewarding player/character relationships in current gaming.


Above: York will grow a beard if you don't shave for a while. And start to smell if you don't change suits every so often. But it's not annoying, You'll want to look after him. Please look after him. He's awesome

York, you see, has a split personality. His literal other half is called Zach. York and Zach remain very separate people, meaning that York never succumbs to the control of another personality, but both live inside York’s head, and we’re frequently treated to wonderfully written conversations between the two, of which we only ever hear York’s half.

Did  I say that York never succumbs to the control of Zach? That was a lie. Because while there are no schizophrenic breaks, and the character called York remains resolutely York within the reality of the game world, in a meta way, Zach is always in control of York. Because Zach is the player.

Well he’s not, but he is. You see the thing is that while within the narrative reality of Deadly Premonition, Zach is very much a part of York’s psyche, he, or rather the conversational gaps created for him by York’s dialogue, are written in such a deftly ambiguous way as to make the conversations between the two of them feel just as much conversations between York and the player. And crucially, there is never any conflict between the two.

York is completely supportive of everything the Zach/you hybrid wants to do. He’ll ask if you’re tired and want to take a break. He’ll tell you to let him know if there’s anywhere or anything in particular you want to check out. He’ll reassure you that there’s plenty of time if you want to ignore a story mission for a while in order to go exploring or finish some side-quests instead. This dialogue is both pre-emptive and reactive, laying open the gameplay options available and backing up any decision the player wants to make.


Above: I SAID LOOK AFTER HIM!

But because all of these conversations happen within a narratively cohesive justification which is established as existing within Deadly Premonition’s world early on in the story, none of it breaks the fourth wall. Which is wise, because by definition that kind of narrative masonry demolition is designed to pull an audience out of a fictional reality. German playwrite and director Bertolt Brecht knew this. He used it on purpose to engage his audience’s critical faculties, and force them to consider intellectually the issues being presented during his work. But Deadly Premonition manages to do that without excluding emotional attachment. It walks around the fourth wall rather than breaking through it, allowing direct player/character conversation while maintaining the narrative integrity of its world.

York will ask Zach what he thinks about certain situations and characters. He will reflect on in-game events the two have been through together, both intellectually and emotionally. He will try to solve the mystery at hand by talking it through with his unseen partner. He’ll fill the time on long drives with lengthy dialogues about the people and places around him, and somehow always manage to segue into some of the most deliriously, loveably nerdy conversations about classic genre TV and film you’ve ever heard.

Thus, you build a far closer relationship with York than you ever could by way of traditional third-person video game storytelling, because while you are York you're also alongside York. You gain the deeper, objective understanding of him as a person that can only come from being allowed to think of him as a separate, external entity, but at no point are you ever pulled away from the all-important sense that you’re not external from him at all. And all of this happens in a narratively cohesive way that never ever pulls you out of the reality of the game. It's a relatively simple method, but a stormingly clever one and powerful one, and it's rather staggering that I've never seen anyone think of it before.

Next: People are strange. And why that's a good thing

94 comments

  • godisanarc - July 8, 2011 5:38 p.m.

    I just went out and bought it because of this article. $17 seemed well worth it. Thanks as always GR.
  • leejohnson222 - July 7, 2011 8:29 a.m.

    when you have to use s sensationalised title that would sit right at home with the BS opinion peices passed off as fact on n4g i think your heading for trouble. I feel that dave is simply trying to show how everyone else is wrong and he is right.Its almost like this game is so bad its good, but the problem is it really isnt, dave is trying to show everyone missed a gem and you need to look deeper into this title.This article is just an exercise in self importance. comparing games and stating that one game is better than 3 others is just a pointless excercise unless you nejoy n4g.com.
  • Bamford38 - July 6, 2011 12:06 a.m.

    I ended up buying it after hearing Dave go on about it on talkrader a couple of weeks ago, and just finished it last night. I almost gave up on it at the start like so many other people. The terrible lip sync and graphics were severely getting me down. But its absolutely true what he said in the article, once you get sucked into greenvale you never even notice the things that annoyed you at the beginning. The only bad thing is that with the general bad impression people have of this game, i cant see it getting a sequel. Also, is it wrong that by the end of the game i was really starting to fancy Emily? My missus didnt think it was ok!
  • TheExperiance420 - July 5, 2011 3:41 p.m.

    Was looking for a new game to buy and this article made my decision for me. Deadly premonition is only 10 quid on amazon for those considering buying this :)
  • HitmanSB07 - July 5, 2011 11:19 a.m.

    DAMN IT!!! It's €29.99 in Ireland!!! I thought it was going to be €19.99? Damn it, I don't have enough points.
  • jonathancaddock - July 5, 2011 12:17 a.m.

    I bought this game a while ago, and after 5 minutes i hated it. Still i didn't put it down, after 10 minutes I still hadn't put it down. Thus I couldn't let go of it for hours at a time until I completed it. Begrudgingly I decided it was quite good despite my early reservations. That was until I saw article after article posted here about how this game is Jesus in a 3d rendered sandbox disguise. Articles like this actually remind me of everything which is wrong with this game. If we set aside the dated graphics and awful control system, then we can consider the story itself (We could also go and read a book seeing as we've removed a large chunk of the usual pleasure derived from gaming). The story is rather unusual for a game and kudos for trying, but it is also a blatant homage/Rip off of Twin Peaks. Combine that with some plot points which make no sense, some horror sequences which are actually less terrifying than the awful voice acting in the more relaxed dialogues and a script which might as well have been written by a cat walking over a keyboard hooked up to Google translate and you may find yourself disappointing. The thing is, as i said, I really did enjoy this game. But its surprisingly good considering everything that's wrong with it, to list three huge titles and suggest that this half baked (if rather unusual) cookie outstrips them all is ludicrous.
  • MancisFrorkYorgan - July 3, 2011 8:01 p.m.

    I hate to sound like an elitist; I hate to imply that one has to 'get it' to truly enjoy Deadly Premonition. But one does.
  • VaneTrago - July 2, 2011 11:04 p.m.

    After reading this article, I went out and bought the only new copy of Deadly Premonition in all of the GameStops in Alaska. The tank controls don't bother me in the slightest, because I'm the gamer who still goes back to play Contra and Twisted Metal on a semi-regular basis. I have got to say, that I am really starting to love this game. I never would have even looked twice at it if it weren't for reading this. Thanks for the recommendation, and any other obscure gems like this that you guys find, you should really give us a heads up.
  • YoungZer0 - July 2, 2011 4:53 p.m.

    "Valve, in particular, excels in this area. Its silent protagonists never alienate you with words or actions that you yourself wouldn’t say or carry out. Valve's lack of third-person cut-scenes ensures that you’re never pulled out of the main gameplay perspective, and its refusal to pre-render anything means that you're never divorced from the world. Its ambient storytelling through little details hidden within the environment makes sure that the player’s understanding of the game world is always at the same stage as the character’s at any given point in a story, and most cleverly, the way that the House o’ Gabe manipulates emotional and dramatic peaks and troughs to incite reactions and create empathy with a character’s situation ensures that in a Valve game, to put it plainly, you are not actually playing a character at all. That character is an extension of you." God, this is getting ridiculous. He doesn't say anything! No, he's not an extension of me, because i'd talk when Gordon doesn't. I do things different when he doesn't. This bullshit needs to stop, seriously. Silent Protagonist are all but unique, or good, it's in no way, shape or form an extension of you. They are dull, shallow hulls. Nothing more. If you give Valve so much credit for that, why not go ahead and give Infinite Wards the same amount of credit. "You know, like real people do." I never played this game, just saw the beginning with the Woman hanging on the tree. And a grandfather and two kids finding her. You know what real people wouldn't do? Let the kids stay and let them watch the corpse of a woman.
  • gilgamesh310 - December 19, 2013 3:02 p.m.

    I'm not going to defend the points he made about Valve but you'd really have to actually play some of Deadly Premonition to see that he is right about the characters. Sure they tend to be over the top in their quirkiness at times but they do stand out as real people more so than 95% of game characters overall.
  • MrBlond - July 2, 2011 10:08 a.m.

    Having played it through to it's completion I can't say I agree with all the obsessive praise it gets. Sure, it is a breath of fresh air in that it has a genuinely interesting story and character development but these things alone in my opinion do not make a great game. Starting with the controls, they really are some of the most cumbersome I have encountered in both the third-person perspective and the driving. At the time I was also playing Stranglehold and Saints Row and to compare it in terms of its controls with those two stinkers is to me, justified. Next up, the repetition of enemies that you have to lay waste to is staggering, at first I really enjoyed them especially the moans they make (I dooooon't want to diieee!) but it becomes tiresome fast and there are literally around 3 or 4 different types. Along the journey, around the mid-section of the game you come up against what can be termed as 'the boss battles'; a blatant rip-off of the 'Ring' girl who scurries along the walls and ceiling trying her best to attack you. This happens around four times through the game, with no explanation of what she is and why she is any different to the other enemies. Despite this the same cannot be said about the last boss which is actually decent. Now I don't want to rip into the game too much as there were genuinely moments in the game that I honestly enjoyed and I would be interested to see a sequel if only to see if they can fix the problems. But it seems to me that if any higher profile games had even one of the many flaws this game has - it would be ripped to shreds by the gaming press. And that is what I can't understand. Yes it has a compelling story and quirky characters, so does GTA IV and many other games but if they had serious flaws in their gameplay mechanics like one this does they would not gain such high praise. The 8 and 9 scores being thrown around are just far too high, at best it's a 6 or a 7 and to compare it to the games in the upper echelon shows a disrespect to the people who have worked their arses off on games like Fallout 3, Dead Space and Mafia II because I cannot state that the same level of hard work has been put into this game.
  • spektreumek - July 1, 2011 1:27 a.m.

    I am going on Amazon now and getting it thanks to this review. Excellent review mate, I honestly cannot wait to play it. After reading this i searched for DP and found something awful.com's review, which had me laughing my tits off. Anyone who wants a proper belly laugh, i suggest you go and read that review too. Thanks for bringing this to my atttention, i know i am going to love it.
  • skankmustard - June 30, 2011 3:13 p.m.

    I was intrigued by this game when it came out, but this article made me buy it yesterday. What a strange, wonderful and creepy game. Thanks for persuading me to take the plunge! There were loads of copies in HMV in Oxford Street for £15 if anyone's in London and can't locate a copy...
  • yagirlfriendsfavoriterapper - June 30, 2011 12:24 p.m.

    DP is a bad game, I played it and was not impressed.
  • philipshaw - June 30, 2011 11:23 a.m.

    I get that it's a strange game but I watched GB play the whole of this game and that was enough to know that I never want to play it
  • nathstyles - June 30, 2011 9:15 a.m.

    Okay its on the lovefilm list now - but if the above comment is to be believed I'll be waiting a while - dont think with my limited funds I can risk a purchase of such a divisive game (the user reviews on lovefilm are certainly that). Why am I such a sucker for story? Well whether they ever send it or not I hope at least he gets a good publisher for his next game as it sounds as though with a bigger budget he might be able to put the polish on that us pampered modern gamers crave - imagine that game.
  • papergoon - June 30, 2011 9 a.m.

    i'm still with eternal darkness being my favourite survival horror game. aside from the overhyped (but still fantastic) sanity meter, i felt that it was able to nail the essence of horror and fear.
  • TheShape108 - June 30, 2011 6:09 a.m.

    I bought a xbox360 specifically to play Deadly Premonition. To this day I consider that to be one of the best decisions I've ever made. Fantastic game, I pledge my 60 dollars to whatever Swery does next.
  • Shanetexas - June 30, 2011 3:24 a.m.

    Dude, let it go. This game sucks and will forever suck. It's a niche game. Just because a niche game is fun for you doesn't make it fun for everyone else. Better than GTA? Come on now.
  • TriforcePlayer - June 30, 2011 2:33 a.m.

    Its good game but better than GTA? I don't think so.

Showing 1-20 of 94 comments

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