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Opinion: revisiting Deadly Premonition

By Shaun Prescott on Wednesday 29th May 2013 at 11:47 PM UTC

Deadly Premonition begins with our protagonist, FBI agent Francis York Morgan, traveling to the backwater town of Greenvale in the dead of night.

It's tense. He's talking urgently into an earpiece to someone called 'Zach' about a very important and consequential conflict. It sounds very serious. In these opening moments you'll prick your ears, because this is obviously crucial exposition. Francis York Morgan doesn't look like the kind of guy to stuff around, afterall: by all appearances he's the type of law enforcer who cannot clock off. He smokes cigarette after cigarette and he's always 'on'. No doubt he's a firearms expert with a killer melee attack, because so far there's nothing to suggest he's anything but a quintessential video game protagonist.

So it's all business as usual, until you learn that Morgan - or York, as everyone calls him - is actually deconstructing the complex feud between Hanna-Barbera cat and mouse foes Tom and Jerry. York loves Tom and Jerry, and he also he loves bad horror films. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of arcane 1980s culture, and he's not afraid to share it during long drives through the barren country lanes of Greenvale. Listening to York hold forth about popular culture is one of the best things about Deadly Premonition. Seriously.

So it's not business as usual after all: York is basically FBI special agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks, and like the world Cooper investigates in that notoriously strange cult TV series, things are about to get a whole lot weirder.

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Ghostly World

Make no mistake, Deadly Premonition is a very weird game. Released for Xbox 360 in early 2010 and now reissued as a Director's Cut for PS3, it's not the type of game boardrooms traditionally green light. For the average gamer, it's a dog. It looks ugly and it's confusing. Deadly Premonition, by most units of measurement, is a failure.

So why is it considered by some - and by me - to be among the best games of the current console generation?

Deadly Premonition is a survival horror game set in the small open world of Greenvale. Greenvale is a tiny community in pine forest surrounds, gutted by the closure of its timbermill industry. As in Twin Peaks, a young woman has been found brutally murdered and it's your task to determine who's responsible. You'll frequently bump heads with the protective local sheriff George Woodman and his deputy Emily Wyatt, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Naomi Watts.

Deadly Premonition maintains a total ambivalence to realism and authenticity

The player learns about Greenvale via the town's community of awkward residents, but don't expect to spend hours happily exploring Greenvale, because it's ugly and mostly empty. Getting around is not fun, and the only people left in Greenvale to interact with are those immediately serviceable to York's investigation. Side quests can be completed, but Greenvale isn't an environment given to peripheral concerns, and picking these side quests up is usually done by accident. NPCs walk as if on conveyor belts. They're ciphers for exposition and you will laugh at their banality.

To reiterate: Deadly Premonition looks bad. The textures are mushy and flat and the world is soaked in a drab grey patina. Character models are stiff and unyielding to emotion. Deadly Premonition's low production values are distracting at first, but eventually the game's refusal to fill every gap in its visual lore becomes one of its most endearing qualities. Deadly Premonition maintains total ambivalence to realism or authenticity.

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Still, the graphics are hi-tech when compared to Deadly Premonition's sound design. York's footsteps on tarmac often sound like he's tapping on a tupperware container, and the blocky vehicles sound like lawnmowers running on methylated spirits. Sometimes the sound simply drops out for seconds at a time, which is at odds with Access Games' impeccable treatment of music and dialogue.

But all this is important because Greenvale, in all its lowly last-gen splendour, appears spectral and insubstantial. It's an impressionistic world. This strange forest town, with its tunnel-like country lanes and unseemly infestations, is not meant to feel real.

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