Rainy Woods was one of the games that made me want a next-gen console back when last gen was still next. The unashamedly bold aping of Twin Peaks and the impressive next-gen graphics were a tantalising combination. Alas, we are still trapped in the disingenuous age of intellectual property where ideas are to be monopolised and coveted as closely as religious dogma, and so Rainy Woods disappeared before being reborn as Deadly Premonition—an Xbox 360 exclusive.
In the current-gen light of 2010, the graphics were not quite so impressive, and the similarities to Twin Peaks were consciously played down in the marketing instead of boldly embraced. But I could not help but long for one of the few non-Wii games that had captured my imagination. It was hard knowing that I would never play it—Microsoft having already done enough wrong for me to avoid their hardware long before the 24 hour check-ins and overt licensing decrees.
And so it is a little surreal that here I am; not only having played Deadly Premonition, but having done so with professional obligation. And it was only this obligation that made me force myself through what is one of the worst openings in videogame history. And it all begins before one even makes it to the main menu. The introductory cutscene shows off with extreme precision all of Deadly Premonition’s failings. Two identical twins wander with their grandfather through an ugly country setting; grass is spritey; textures are pixellated; and the characters themselves look little better. The twins giggle and chortle with one another; in awe of the world around them as if it is not a hideously ugly eyesore.
This is followed by some of the most overwrought and melodramatic voice acting you are likely to hear, which makes the long sighted characters crying while they stare at photos of lost loved ones—holding the celluloid as far away from their faces with their broken arms that extend impossibly from their contorted shoulders—all the more absurd. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
And what purpose is the opening cutscene supposed to serve? If, after such an offensive opening, one can bring oneself to begin the game itself, then what is a perfect opening begins: a short scene in a surreal, ethereal setting introducing the two previously introduced twins. This is swiftly followed by Deadly Premonition’s protagonist, Francis York Morgan, asking if the mysterious Zach can hear him; but it’s up to the player to answer in the affirmative. We are then treated to what would have been a disturbing description of domestic violence; if it wasn’t for the fact that York (as he likes to be called) is actually talking about the Tom and Jerry cartoon.
In one fell swoop all thematic elements that the rest of Deadly Premonition excels in have been introduced: the surrealism; the horror; the humour and the charismatic charm. Unfortunately Deadly Premonition’s teething problems do not end here. Once the gameplay begins and the rain starts to fall, the frame rate chugs along at a playable, but uncomfortable pace.
Movement is stiff, but functional; aiming on the other hand is awkward and imprecise, and ceases movement. The calibration of the aiming feels neither too slow nor too fast; but even worse, it feels inconsistent—something that one cannot adjust to. There is a lock-on feature, but that snaps directly to the lower torso of the enemies, which is completely unhelpful due to the weakness of the starting pistol and the various other ranged weapons that the player comes across early on.
But before one can amass a more powerful arsenal, this actually has a positive effect on the combat. It means that the melee weapons are vastly more efficient than the guns, which forces the player to get up close and personal with the enemies; thus adding tension and fear to the combat, as well as a degree of desperation.
Melee weapons degrade as you use them; so often one’s melee weapon may survive only one more kill—what if there are two enemies close by? If you were to stand back and pick them off with your pistol, it may be no less dangerous than if you were to rush in and endure the lengthy animation of York throwing away his newly broken weapon—which is usually enough time for the surviving enemy to get the drop on York.
The enemies are not exactly zombies. They are depicted as creatures closer to something from the Asian traditions of horror. They move with broken bones; sometimes even backs—stumbling backwards with their face facing you upside down. Nevertheless, they do like to bite, and can effectively sneak up on you unawares due to their ability to teleport forwards; which gives melee weapons another advantage over ranged—if you are aiming at an enemy, there’s every chance that by the time you’ve lined up a headshot they’ll just teleport forwards and your efforts will have been wasted.
These horror instances are generally short—rarely lasting over an hour—but despite the mechanical mediocrity of the combat, they are still engaging. As the enemies die, they ask York why he killed them, and declare that they don’t want to die. Although the vocal illustrations of these lines veer far closer to the comical than the sinister, there’s a certain gravitas to their apparent suffering thanks to the creepiness that is created by the very effective soundtrack.
The music and sound effects are—unlike in many modern horror titles—completely unafraid of being abrasive and uncomfortable to the ear. Single tone synthesiser noises infest the concrete; babies cry down dead end corridors, and there’s a certain dirtiness to the sticky footsteps of the moistly blackened enemies which are mixed in stark contrast to the crisp, loud footsteps of York as he navigates these labyrinthine levels.
The level design is convoluted even when compared to horror games of several generations ago, and there are dead ends in abundance. There’s no mini-map—although you can still access a map on the menu—but the confusing, surreal nature of the architecture only adds to the atmosphere. Whether this is serendipitous coincidence or clever design, the final result is the same: levels that are as creepy architecturally as they are aurally.
They are made all the creepier by the fact that they are often bastardised; defiled versions of settings that York has already visited. The majority of the game does not take place in these levels but in the real world where people who bleed tar and wander backwards almost on all fours do not exist; at least not before midnight when most people are tucked safely into their beds at home.
Tucked into their beds after they tucked themselves in as if they were real people living out their daily routine. Although many games have attempted to create a convincing character ecosystem, none have succeeded so strongly as Deadly Premonition. The characters’ daily routines give them believability, and one can even glean things about how the story will unfold simply from following a character around; almost as if Zach—err, you—were a real detective.
Not only do the routines add foreshadowing and details to the plot so that one can better dissect the story, but occasional glimpses of poignancy too. I returned to the house of a mother whose daughter had been murdered, after I had previously done a rather banal side quest there which developed her character further, but consisted of me ransacking her house then listening to a few poorly written, melodramatic lines that were delivered with the subtlety of a coffee enema—which is what the poor actress sounded like she was experiencing as she delivered her awful lines.
As I could gather from the offensive dialogue, she was a wreck. But on my return, she was not alone. A good friend of her daughter’s was in the house with her, which seemed like a cool enough use of the character ecosystem—showing that the characters had lives beyond going to work and then to bed and that they interacted logically with one another—but it was far from being imbued with much meaning, and was decidedly unremarkable.
But then I saw what he was doing there: making her lunch. Having already got to know the characters in question, it was a strangely touching moment; and one that was completely spontaneous and unrelated to even a side quest—let alone a scripted event in the main story that I was explicitly meant to witness. It was a moment of unexpected genius—and I had stumbled across it completely by accident.
This level of care and thought is applied not only to the ecosystem as it relates to other characters, but as it does to York himself. Time passes at three times normal speed which finds the perfect balance between a day seeming as if it passes in the blink of an eye, or the minutes dragging on and on so that it seems as unrealistically slow as real time. Thus, the passage of time is at all times completely believable so that as one is driving to a crime scene and the clock ticks over from 15:00 to 15:10, one believes that one has driven for 10 minutes; not three and a third point three. Plus point one. To be exact.
Although this seems like little more than a minor point, the authenticity that it lends to the world is invaluable. Indeed, as poorly rendered as the world is, it is one that is not only entirely believable due to the excellent passage of time and the character ecosystem, but is emotionally affecting as well: The sky seethes in pain during a storm as if alive and after the storm has passed, the tranquil blue sky is a relief not only to the player, but to the very elements of nature themselves. Which is vitally important given that the story centres on the weather. It was once called Rainy Woods, after all.
But this is making proceedings sound far too enjoyable; wasn’t I just talking about the unbearable opening? The truth of the matter is that none of this can start to be sincerely enjoyed until a few hours have passed. After one adjusts to the nauseating frame rate, one is exposed to a guttural buzzing that bounces around buildings like poisonous microwaves when York is indoors. One is forced to drive for upwards of ten minutes at a time in a car that is not only slow, but has the turning circle of a legless elephant with epilepsy, to a destination that one has never been to while guided by a waypoint that is useful only on a map that must be accessed from the menu and zooms out barely further than a block.
Sure, there’s the effortlessly enjoyable chatter to accompany such drives—whether it is between characters, or simply a motion picture monologue by York himself—but these sumptuous distractions never last the full trip, and this only helps to make the silent tedium of driving when the characters have said all they will, all the more soul crushingly boring and absurd. And God forbid you might need to check the map while they’re talking—doing so will shut them up immediately.
Even the chatter itself is a frustrating reminder of the myriad technical issues that the PS3 version of Deadly Premonition is inflicted with: sometimes characters’ sentences are played without fluency to the point where a following sentence seems to cut off the preceding one, while all audio often stutters mid-sentence; stopping for a brief second before reengaging with an uncomfortable thud.
This wouldn’t matter quite so much if the writing and voice acting were not so excellent—unpolished, and vastly flawed, perhaps; but even masterpieces can be flawed. Although both the writing and the acting falls flat whenever it attempts melodrama—disintegrating into the unintentionally absurd—and the dialogue is sometimes stilted and phoned in (especially during side quests), for the vast majority of Deadly Premonition, the writing is not only deliberately amusing and charming, but engagingly original and totally believable.
The dialogue is written in a natural tone, unafraid to use repetition for the sake of believability, and much of the humour is derived not from overt jokes, but from the characters’ personalities and idiosyncrasies that are illustrated so expertly through the voice acting and the writing.
Although the dialogue is written in a natural style, much of the characters have their own unique tone; but this is not overdone so most characters do not become caricatures. Dialogue is written within the confines of the general aesthetic of the writing, and also the geographical intricacies related to the characters’ dialects. And the voice actors respond to the incredible writing with aplomb, and a loving enthusiasm.
As primitive as the mixing may be at times, a great deal of care and effort has clearly been put into the audio design of Deadly Premonition, with much of the dialogue mixed to realistically represent the scenes in which the dialogue takes place. Reverb is applied to dialogue spoken in echoy indoor environments, and despite the primitive nature of the production, this alone puts it conceptually above the vast majority of English language dubs which generally aim for the cleanest sound; at the expense of performance and sound relevance in relation to the settings of the scenes.
And the music, though repeated relentlessly to the point of retardant repetition, is an original, eclectic mix of styles and genres; all perfectly complementing the scenes and themes with which they are used. The highlight is an incredible rendition of a ‘50s-style pop song that is suitably distorted by the decay of vinyl, and is hauntingly sad and desperate—the fact that the same vinyl rendition of the song is used when performed live adds a sense of depressing continuity.
There’s little doubt that some of the care shown to the audio production is not just due to the ambition and passion of Web Tone but also due to the fact that there is only an English dub. Even in the Japanese version, Deadly Premonition’s vocals are in English—which is surely a provocative and ambitious aesthetic choice—so one can easily speculate that Access Games had a hand in getting some of the production in line with Japanese standards. Which is not to denigrate or criticise Greg Webber and the audio engineers and voice actors to whom all previously mentioned praise is also justly directed.
Nevertheless, this Japanese influence places even more weight on the excellence of the script: as easy as it is to ham your way through poor writing, with a good script a voice actor’s standard can become irrelevant—even in a nuanced performance. There is much subtlety in the writing that is accurately delivered; the words in the script effortlessly mixing together the humour with the horror and the seriousness of the themes—although it never hits the mark when it comes to tragedy; usually descending into poorly executed melodrama, or sometimes strangely benign understatement when a sense of restrained malignancy would have been far more effective and appropriate.
As poor as the opening is, it does demonstrate yet more of Deadly Premonition’s strengths; some of which are completely unrelated to the presentation, and centre wholly on the gameplay. Now and then one is confronted by QTEs—but before you press square to dodge the game, do read on—which are smartly designed; prompting the player within the restraints of a button press time limit short enough to make the player rush and panic, but not so short that an unanticipated QTE will result in instant death. Even more impressive is the awkward fleeing scenes in which the player must move the left thumb stick left and right rapidly as if giving York marching orders: left, right, left, right, left. It’s intuitive, albeit painful, and just exhausting enough to give the player a sense of empathy with the exhausted York.
Plus, combined with the split screen—one frame focusing on York, and the other on his pursuer—the QTEs help to distract from the absurd running animation; thus allowing one to focus on the disconcerting awkwardness of the mazy escape routes which are nightmarish and seem to go on without end.
Also apparent early on is the original sense of pacing—or at least it would be, if not for the long; horrible drives—and the way that the side quests operate under the illusion of being integrated into the main story on a more meaningful level than if a character is dead, a side quest involving them cannot be completed. Although the time limit that the story based missions must be started in can be ignored, there is a palpable sense that they should be started at that time, with characters often offering to drive with you to crime scenes. The fact that you can eat lunch with the local sheriffs at lunch time every day; and that the characters live their lives around you, all help to successfully complete the illusion that Deadly Premonition unfolds in real time. And yet it’s hard to resist a character popping up with a side quest just as you’ve moved the story forwards; even if the clock is ticking. These are characters directly involved in the mystery, so what important nugget of information might be gained from helping them out?
At first it’s an almost jarring pace; and this makes the seemingly endless driving all the more abhorrent, but once one is accustomed to the pseudo-realism of the game world, it only helps to immerse the player in the story as well as the country town of Greenvale itself.
While the world goes on regardless, the story unfolds at the perfect pace to complement it—progressing through well arranged snippets of cutscenes; horror levels; and deduction. This progression is not done to a predictable formula, which makes the story all the more engaging and exciting: normally one would expect a symmetrical drip feed of the horror levels, but instead they are placed only where relevant to the narrative pacing, which allows the story room to breathe and unfold in a much more complex manner than if it was written to a symmetrical rhythm so as to allow the gameplay to flow in a more traditional style.
The deduction is another subtle touch that adds a great deal to the story, giving Deadly Premonition the sensibility of a genuine detective whodunit, and not just a horror story about a detective—well, technically an FBI psychological profiler. At the beginning of some story passages, the player is treated to a short cutscene; except the cutscene consists of audio and visual static. York must then search for clues, and with each clue he finds, a little more of the cutscene behind the static is revealed; allowing the player to try and guess just what will happen in the cutscene before it does happen through the tradition of detective novel clues, foreshadowing and stilted revelations.
Which is not to imply that Deadly Premonition relies on cheap shocks and plot twists. The greatest compliment that can be given to its story is the fact that everything in the ending is delicately set up and foreshadowed to the point where it is easy to predict exactly what is going to happen, but this knowledge makes the ending no less effective and powerful. Indeed, it reveals that the genuine underlying tragedy present in Deadly Premonition has been successfully expressed all along. Even though it was obvious for the player to see, it wasn’t so easy to believe until made blatant because the player had an irrational interest in believing it to be untrue.
Finding the courage and strength to get past the trying opening hours is not rewarded only with acceptance and resignation. As one progresses—completing some of the side quests; their spontaneity hard to resist—greater weapons; cars and upgrades are unlocked, all of which not only make the game mechanically functional, but perhaps almost mechanically enjoyable as well.
“At times we must purge things from this world because they should not exist, even if it means losing someone that you love,” is oft repeated throughout Deadly Premonition; but the tragedy in what this means is not in who it refers to, but what; or perhaps still who, if you prefer. And if you did, that was why the tragedy was so hard to see until it could not be rationally denied.