Sunday, January 2, 2011

GOTY Reason #4: Absurd Story, Great Storytelling

Story is commonly cited as one of Deadly Premonition's key (and, some say, few) strengths, but I have to disagree. The story is patently absurd. By the end, the absurdity is so thick even Shinji Mikami is ready to take his ball and go home.

And yet, Deadly Premonition is one of the best examples of storytelling I've ever seen in a videogame.

In Japan, Deadly Premonition was released under the name Red Seeds Profile (and on the PS3 in addition to Xbox360) - a title that, while not immediately gripping or grammatically elegant, is far more fitting. Like the single letter first found under Laura Palmer's fingernail in Twin Peaks, the red seeds found on, near, or in each victim in Deadly Premonition function as the recurring clue that engages the audience in the mystery along with York. The red seeds are the (David) lynchpin on which the plot is fastened. [Wow, I'm really, really sorry for that. (Not really.)]

But as with Twin Peaks, the narrative is so fragmented that you end up wondering if the red seeds are not just a MacGuffin. While linear overall, the plot of Deadly Premonition veers off into bizarre territory pretty regularly. For example, there's the scene where York has a, yes, premonition that the only way he will be able to retrieve missing documents detailing the history of the Raincoat Killer case is to literally fish them out of the river. So he...fishes them out of the river. With a fishing rod.

Because the game presents a pseudo-open world - while organized into Chapters, there is still plenty of room for York to hop off into sidequests and exploration between story missions - Deadly Premonition suffers from a similar narrative disconnect as Red Dead Redemption. I'm not the first to point out how badly, say, stopping to pick flowers or chase bounties breaks Marston's "have to get back to my wife and kid" conceit. But because York is so unswervingly weird, and the atmosphere so surreal - and because we've been conditioned to question reality via the Red Room/White Room and Other World sequences - we learn to expect, and eventually embrace, the absurdity and cognitive dissonance. Of course York would fish the case files out of the river. That makes sense in this world.

There's also the fact that much of the insight we get into the characters and world of Deadly Premonition is delivered in a seemingly incidental way. The sequence where York joins the local cops for an awkward dinner, or where George discusses his traumatic childhood with York at the bar: These are entirely optional scenes, initiated with a QTE, yet so much more revealing than most main story sequences. Similar arguments can be made for many of the sidequests; for example, completing Quint's engagement ring sidequest makes what happens in the main story even more tragic. Yet looking back on the story after completing it, it's hard to argue these sequences are not essential to a full appreciation of the logic and progression of the narrative. The main story missions, in which York searches for clues in Other World sequences and then mentally connects the dots to profile the killer, are ironically often the least interesting or emotionally significant. Instead, it's what happens after or between these missions that's resonant.

As a consequence, I'd argue, Deadly Premonition is basically telling the player the plot is secondary to the player's emotional connection to the characters and world. While I absolutely love just tooling around in Red Dead, and while I agree the game encourages you to do so, it's hard to make the same argument; in signature Rockstar style, the ancillary characters (save Bonnie and the Marston family) are largely satirical ciphers. While the player may develop genuine sympathy for the plight and passion of Luisa, for example, that connection is totally negated by the ironic pompousness and indifference of Reyes. While the story missions in RDR are generally less meaningful than the incidental ones, there's not as much emotional payoff as there is in Deadly Premonition.

That's not to say we're not interested in the mystery, though. We still want to discover the identity of the Raincoat Killer, understand the nature and purpose of the red seeds, unpack the York/Zach relationship, and figure WTF is up with any number of other oddities in the main plot. It's just that the structure of the storytelling itself prioritizes our emotional connection to the characters, not the main plot itself. It's a scenario oddly reminiscent of LOST.

It's interesting, and I think totally intentional, that the promo image above is a patchwork of characters' faces. There are more dramatic images that could have been used to advertise the series throughout its six-year run, but nearly all of the promo materials had the ensemble front and center. LOST may have had a supernatural mystery at its core - what is the Island, and why are these people here? - but the producers and writers never forgot that the characters are what kept viewers hooked. Their innovative storytelling structure - the flashbacks, flash-forwardses(?), and flash-sidewayses(??) - was perfectly suited to a series that was much more about asking questions than providing answers, and much more about people than about plot.

Like Deadly Premonition, the story of LOST was absurd, and became increasingly more so as the series went on. By the time the show entered its time travel phase and concluded with its spiritual gumbo of a finale, the plot had gone so far off the rails that having the characters meet in the afterlife - a writing cop-out if ever there was one, if you ask me, but that's another topic - felt like one of the only options left.

But for the majority of its run, the overwhelming success of LOST was never its story, but instead the way it parceled out information to the viewer. By focusing on a different character (or pair of characters) each episode in both the present/Island setting and the past/future/sideways/Mainland setting, the show encouraged the viewer to patch together its disassembled narrative, using character backstory as a hook to entice him to put in the effort. For the more devoted fans (yours truly included), there were any number of tantalizing in-show Easter Eggs and assorted multimedia ephemera to keep us invested in the characters and the mystery after the TV was off. [Author Amelia Beamer's article "LOST as Hypertext" analyzes the show's storytelling technique, and is a terrific read for fans of both LOST and Deadly Premonition.]

From the beginning, LOST was dedicated to engaging the viewer in the construction of its story. That its story was absurd was irrelevant. It was that it gave us all these avenues into its world that was meaningful, the way it exploited the tension between authorial control and audience participation. This, I think, is also what Deadly Premonition does so well, and what is unfortunately often overlooked about the game.

1 comment:

  1. I think a lot of games actually do this pretty well. Silent Hill 1/2, Chrono Cross, MGS2/3, Suikoden 1/2, etc. Most games with so-called "linear stories" have hypertextual structures, which is what people often ignore when they accuse these games of being "just movies" or "just books". Even if you have no choice to affect the outcome of the story, the variating levels at which you can find or miss information--which can drastically affect how one interprets a "static" story--is not at all like other media. It's like reading a book for a second time and finding pages you missed.

    After a lifetime of playing games such as these, the validity and value of such storytelling strategies is rather obvious.