York has come to Greenvale to investigate the murder of Anna Graham, whose mutilated body was found suspended from a tree, clearly with some kind of sick ritualistic intent. As you might guess, Anna will not be the only victim in this story. Other characters York meets will be slain in similarly grotesque ways by the mysterious Raincoat Killer as well.
And now for the hopefully light spoiler: Toward the end of Chapter 2, there's a tense cutscene in which York saves another would-be victim from a grisly demise with some last-second heroics. Moments later, however, a terrifying accident - or is it, since the victim appears to be almost religiously rapturous about her rapidly impending death? - smashes the rescued individual to bits. It's a sudden and jarring twist, one that I'm sure some players might find darkly funny (or, worse, actually funny). By the time I'd gotten to that point, though, I was just horrified. After another seeming failure, the case was finally turning around. And then...this.
So we come to my favorite moment. York has just pushed budding love interest Emily, the sheriff's deputy, out of the way, saving her life as the victim is crushed under tons of stone. The camera pans from an image of the victim's arm sticking out from the rubble over to Emily's face. And Emily is in shock. Wordless, petrified, near-convulsive shock.
With York, in happier times.
Emily backs away, stumbling, mouth agape. In her expression the player can read any number of terrible realizations, as the young deputy comes to grips with - literally - the viscera of yet another mortifying crime she was unable to prevent.
And all I could think during this unnerving sequence was: Holy shit - shock. I've never seen a game so convincingly portray shock before.
Deadly Premonition is utterly committed to the player's emotional investment in the story and characters. So much so, in fact, that it makes the player role-play as York's alter ego Zach. And unlike most every other computer RPG, this one really does directly assume the player is inhabiting a role in the fiction. Hate to keep harping on this, but again, the "Zach" conceit is remarkably effective in encouraging the player to claim an emotional stake in the story. When a character talks to York, s/he is talking to Zach, too - to you. And after he's done talking to someone, York will ask Zach what he thought, engaging him/you in sometimes lengthy conversations reflecting on what they've just seen and experienced together. In this way the game demands that the player reflect on and emotionally engage with the story and characters in a way other games don't.
Finally, and this is something I'll discuss further in a future post, there are the Red Room and White Room sequences - dream-like intermissions between story chapters where the player explores weird symbolic spaces in York's mind. These scenes, which take obvious cues from David Lynch, build the player's investment in the characters by repurposing them in bizarre, surreal ways. You come out of these sequences saying, one, WTF, and two, why is York seeing [that person/those people] in that way? What could this represent? Are these the "premonitions" of the title, or something more abstract?
Like any piece of fiction, a colorful and interesting set of characters goes a long way toward engaging the audience. Greenvale is populated with an eclectic mix of inhabitants. Some of the more immediately recognizable, besides York and Emily, include amiable rockabilly convenience store owner Keith; his weirdly ethereal twin sons Isaach and Isaiah; traveling tree salesman Forrest Kaysen; kindly, deaf old hotel owner Polly; brusque, adversarial sheriff George; gas-masked, wheelchair-bound, weird-sandwich-loving millionaire Harry and his attendant Michael, who speaks only in rhyme; and SWERY's homage to Twin Peaks' Log Lady, "Roaming" Sigourney the Pot Lady (she carries an actual pot, not the drug).
Like York, the ancillary characters are instantly memorable. And unlike in Alan Wake, that other supernatural horror thriller of 2010, they're not merely props: when one of them turns out to be the next victim, we're genuinely sad, both for the victim and the characters who have to deal with the aftermath. (By contrast, what was Alan's wife's name again? Amy? Sarah? Gertrude? All I remember was the annoying sidekick Barry and the crazy lady with the paint and a bunch of demonic farm equipment.)
Throughout the main story York will gain plenty of revealing insights about his co-investigators, Emily and George, as they share intimate details of their backgrounds. These conversations were some of my favorite moments in the game, as York (and by extension, I, as Zach) begins to understand and empathize with the vulnerabilities of these people. Vulnerability is something most games portray inexpertly, if at all, and yet it's exactly this quality that audiences crave in their characters in order to relate to them.
[A brief aside: while I loved the "recruit your team" conceit of Mass Effect 2 - a phenomenal effort and the clear AAA GOTY pick for me - the vulnerabilities of characters like Jack, Thane, and Miranda rang a little more hollow for me. It's possible this is just because of the sci-fi trappings, but I think it's more likely that while the dialogue is undeniably polished and the production value is flawless, it's all a bit too Hollywood for my taste. One issue could be ME2's dialogue interface: When you can instantly (and, in my case, often inadvertently) replay the exact same lines of dialogue over and over, the emotional impact is necessarily deadened as immersion is broken. I'm not saying those characters' stories aren't rich and engaging; the emotional catharsis at the end of loyalty missions was the real reward for me, not the characters' newly-acquired loyalty. I just think it's more meaningful when there's no "game reward" (e.g. a boosted "loyalty stat") necessarily tied to characterization.]
As difficult as Deadly Premonition's side quest structure can be to parse - some only activate at particular points in the story progression, at certain times of day, and/or are dependent on the weather(!) - taking the time to meet Greenvale's characters and explore their lives can be immensely rewarding. As with any small town, there's a lot more going on than meets the eye. Although some of these tasks may be simple fetch-quest affairs, the player understands that as with a good deal of the "action" sequences in the game, they're means to an end. And that end is often not a tangible reward like a new gun or improved stats, but instead a more intimate view into the strange and fascinating lives of Greenvale's inhabitants.
Characterization as a reward for gameplay may seem an odd inversion of the norm. Usually we "endure" cutscenes, which function simply as context-building mechanisms to build investment in the action sequences that follow. But, like so many aspects of Deadly Premonition, it is precisely because of this subversion that I find the game refreshing.