Friday, December 24, 2010

GOTY Reason #1: Memorable Protagonist

Commander Shepard and John Marston might star in two of the most (rightly) acclaimed games of this year. But both are positively boring compared to FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan.

Call him York. Everyone does.

Clearly based on Twin Peaks' eccentric FBI agent Dale Cooper, York is the hero of Deadly Premonition, the investigator sent to the small northwestern town of Greenvale to solve a brutal murder case.

He's also one of the weirdest and most endearing protagonists I've ever encountered.

SWERY goes out of his way to distinguish his main character in the way a screenwriter might: by giving him instantly memorable quirks. Unlike the gruffly amiable (and inexplicably compliant) Marston or the impassive cipher Shepard, York has any number of recognizable traits and tics that imbue him with a multilayered personality:
  • Signature movements. As in the pic above, he flicks his cigarette lighter open with a confident swagger. He taps his collarbone when he's considering a problem.
And his most distinctive motion: he brings his hand up to his face, as if pressing a phone close to his ear, when he talks to Zach (more on that in a moment). Great actors understand that distinctive motions are often just as effective as words, if not more so, at revealing character. What does Shepard do? Cross his/her arms? Dance poorly?
  • Identifiable interests. Turns out York is a film buff - not surprising, since SWERY studied film in college and his co-writer, Kenji Goda, is in fact a filmmaker. His encyclopedic knowledge of movies, revealed mostly during driving sequences, ranges from Superman IV: The Quest for Peace to the John Hughes oeuvre. And as York discusses films, the player gets a sense of how his analytical mind works, his attention to detail, context, history. By contrast, I don't know what Commander Shepard is into. Fish?
  • An odd mix of the mundane and bizarre. Like many of us, York loves his coffee - but he also reads prophecies in the swirling of the milk. Over dinner with his new friends in the local police force, he casually describes horrific crimes (a man who uses victims' remains as kitchen utensils, a serial rapist with over 800 victims) while enjoying a steak and a beer, oblivious to his companions' shocked reactions. At one point early on, he seems more interested in the taste of a homemade biscuit than the details of the murder case he's investigating. York's odd way of processing information and making seemingly random connections - in a socially awkward way, of course - is reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes. His speech patterns are also similarly strange, with resonant ruminations on the case, the town, and life interspersed with incomprehensible and colorful figurative language ("I'm in shock, like a weasel in an electric chair!"). Like Holmes, York's worldview is a combination of the esoteric and the mundane, and like Holmes, he's endearing because of this.
  • A history. I can't get into too much detail here without verging into spoiler territory. But unlike other game protagonists, York's backstory - which is parceled out in tantalizing bits throughout the game - is rich, and, crucially, ambiguous. In one scene, York reveals he used to be a punk rocker in his youth, a lifestyle tellingly incongruous with his current professional, if eccentric, demeanor. It seems an offhand detail that, like so many of the offhand details in the game, simply feels like a whimsical way to flesh out the game world. Yet when you learn exactly what befell York in his childhood, the revelation that he embraced a punk lifestyle as an adolescent is incredibly fitting. (And while we're on the topic, I should mention that almost none of the offhand details in the game are truly "offhand"; most relate back to the story in distinct and interesting ways.) York's dedication to ritual - his morning coffee, his repetitive movements, even his signature greeting "Call me York. Everyone does" - not only makes him relatable, but also provokes questions. Mainly, how did he get this way? Who is he, really? I'm hard-pressed to name a game protagonist I've felt as invested in figuring out.
And then, of course, there's York's most definable characteristic:

  • Split personality. Early in the game you discover that York has an "imaginary friend" he calls Zach, a personality with whom he regularly converses - out loud and in front of others, no less. It becomes clear very quickly that you, as the player, are Zach; there is a sort of bending of the fourth wall as you realize that York is issuing you direct commands ("Just stop the car if there's something you want us to check out, Zach."). I can't stress how unique and interesting I found this conceit. It instantly renders York an unreliable narrator - when's the last time you played a game with one of those? - and gives you the nagging suspicion that some or all of this story may simply be a figment of York's imagination. Since Deadly Premonition is very much interested in playing with what's real and what isn't - and is heavily invested in bringing you into its strange world - employing the "Zach" conceit is a brilliantly tidy way of immersing the player. For a generation of games that prides itself on "immersion," only a few succeed in meaningful ways. The makers of Deadly Premonition understood that while games rich in environmental/incidental storytelling (e.g., BioShock, Red Dead Redemption) can go a long way toward inviting the player to inhabit the game world in an emotionally gripping way, only a protagonist as multifaceted as York.
I'll be taking a short break from the series for a couple of days for the holiday, but will do my best to have my next entry up in short order. Meantime, happy holidays!

1 comment:

  1. Good post. I would like add two things:

    - The York/Zach conversations, which are mostly about movies, feel extremely real... more so than most other game dialog. They feel so real I would be surprised if they weren't just conversations SWERY had with friends of his that he recorded. They feel genuinely idiosyncratic, not like a screenwriter pretending to be idiosyncratic. I cannot stress how refreshing this is, and how much more I prefer it to even the "good" writing in games like Mass Effect, which isn't bad but suffers from the same waxy, Hollywood-screenwriting-workshop sheen most "good" AAA game writing does.

    - The split personality conceit is probably the game's masterstroke, but what's especially impressive is how coherent it reveals itself to be at the end, and how well it ties in with the story. York isn't a wise-cracking cool customer just to add comic relief. His utter obliviousness to even the most insanely dangerous situations is psychologically significant: because HE is Zach's defense mechanism. York is the cool guy, the movie guy, who isn't scared of anything, that Zach imagines and then becomes in order to deal with his traumatic childhood. York is the Tyler Durden of the story, and it feels very cathartic at the end when you have to say goodbye to him and "become" Zach again, who you've really been all along. Zach, once he re-emerges at the end, is different from York. He isn't as wise-cracky. He, of course, doesn't talk to himself. He is the same person... but also different, and the subtle differences in behavior makes you reflect a lot on how much of York was "really" Zach, how much was conjured from his movie-saturated imagination, and how much of it was you. Brilliant.