Tuesday, December 28, 2010

GOTY Reason #3: Shifting Perspective

Good mysteries and good horror stories have at least one feature in common: they keep the audience off-balance.

Psycho is the easy example. When the main character can be killed off halfway through the film, the audience is being sent a clear signal - all bets are off. What you thought this film was about? Guess what: Not what it's really about. Or whom it's really about.

This act of shifting narrative focus, when done well, is remarkably effective in engaging the audience. It takes the viewer out of his comfort zone. It forces him to reevaluate his assumptions - about characters, plot events, themes, sometimes even genre. It makes him think critically about the messages he's being sent and asks him to consider how he's being conditioned to respond.

Deadly Premonition is heavily invested in making the player ask questions about what he's experiencing. These obviously start with the player's avatar, York. Namely, why is he so weird? How come he's so oddly nonchalant about these horrible, supernatural goings-on? And who the hell is "Zach," anyways? (At least, who does York think Zach is?) And the biggest question: what does it mean that I, the player, "am" Zach?

York encounters ethereal versions of the Ingram twins in the Red Room.

As I mentioned previously, the fact that York is an unreliable narrator calls into doubt whether any of what we're experiencing is real. Like David Lynch films, the game trades heavily in the symbolic. The combat sequences, which generally take place in the supernatural "Other World," may or may not be figments of York's imagination. Add to that the surreal Red Room and White Room sequences that precede each new chapter, and it's clear the game is demanding a different kind of approach than players are typically used to.

Alan Wake suffers, I think, from too closely approximating a conventional third-person action game; its most successful sequences, to me, were the weirder ones, like the bit near the end with the objects made out of words from Alan's typewriter. Deadly Premonition, on the other hand, only makes at best a half-assed attempt to approximate a conventional action or horror game; viewed as such, it is an abject failure, deserving of the bad reviews. But I don't think it's really interested in doing that. Instead, I think it's appropriating certain action game conventions (and intentionally subverting others) to unsettle the player so that his emotional and intellectual responses are continually off-balance. [And again, and I hope you can see this is not me being an "apologist" but merely acknowledging the obvious, it royally cocks up a lot of those conventions - which have become conventions not necessarily because they're "safe," but because they work.]

Speaking of unsettling: Deadly Premonition takes obvious cues from Twin Peaks, but I would argue the more resonant connection to Lynch is his 1997 film Lost Highway.

It's nearly impossible to describe what Lost Highway is "about," but, like other Lynch films Mulholland Dr. and Inland Empire, it is a highly figurative and fragmented narrative in which a central character is quite literally a split personality. In each of these films, there occurs a point (or several points) at which the protagonist suddenly "becomes" a totally different person - played by the same actor - in a totally different situation. If there is a narrative logic to this splitting, it is fluid at best; the viewer is compelled to consider the film on a symbolic level, as logic either breaks down or is abandoned entirely.

But what makes Lost Highway, in particular, relevant to Deadly Premonition is the way the splitting of its main character can be read as a psychological defense mechanism. Film critic John Kenneth Muir's brilliant analysis of the film as Lynch's depiction of a "psychogenic fugue, a state of disassociation with oneself," could almost be applied to the game with equal precision. As in other Lynch films, certain events, characters, and details in Deadly Premonition that seem to make no sense at first acquire symbolic and sometimes narrative weight later on.

And, as in Lost Highway, internal conflict is rendered externally, in the physical world. In Lost Highway, the "Mystery Man," played with demented aplomb by Robert Blake, is a manifestation of the main character's growing mental instability. In Deadly Premonition, there are similar physical manifestations of abstract concepts and conflicts, represented by objects, people, and in some cases the environment.

Happy nightmares! Love, future accused murderer Robert Blake.

The fun part of Deadly Premonition, to me, was continually guessing not necessarily what was going to happen, but what the things that were happening represented.

Unlike the Iron Mans or Raiders of the Lost Arks of the gaming world - the Mass Effect 2s and Red Dead Redemptions, the well-produced, beautifully drawn, meticulously play-tested, deservingly-lauded blockbusters - Deadly Premonition is not as interested in telling you a story or having you experience it or having you create it as it is in getting you to think about what it all means. It wants you to shift perspective, to reassess what you thought you were playing and who you thought you were playing as. (In fact, the game literally forces you to shift perspective in a few key segments, though I can't discuss them without getting into spoilers.) Your sense of "agency," that big gaming buzzword, is toyed with throughout, and outright subverted on several occasions.

Just like I don't want every movie I see to be a David Lynch film - my head would asplode! - I don't want every game I play to be Deadly Premonition. But I do want to be challenged to think differently about stories and about games, and that's one of the big reasons Deadly Premonition is my pick for Game of the Year.

2 comments:

  1. I really enjoy reading your thoughts on this game.
    Sadly, I'm in no position, in terms of available time or money, to be owning and playing it.
    However, back in the day, I did own and treasure a game that, in my opinion, did what you praise Deadly Premonition/Red Seeds Profile for doing.
    Have you ever played Killer 7?
    If so, what are your thoughts about it?

    ~David~

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  2. Hi David,

    Thanks for reading and commenting. I've heard and read lots of praise for Killer7, but never got a chance to play it. Once I get around to buying an old PS2, it's one of the games on my list to check out, along with Haunting Ground and SWERY's previous game, Spy Fiction.

    I hope you get a chance to pick up Deadly Premonition soon - if you enjoyed Killer7, you'll like Deadly Premonition.

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