Zack and York
In Deadly Premonition you play as the voices inside of a man’s head. Created by the Japanese game developer Access Games, Deadly Premonition was officially revealed in 2007at the Tokyo Games Show. After significant delays, Ignition Games distributed the game in America in 2010 as an exclusive for the Xbox 360. The game officially casts the player as Special Agent Francis York Morgan, investigating the brutal murder of Anna Grahm in the peaceful town of Greenville. After an autopsy on the victim, York finds evidence linking to the notorious Red Seed Serial Killer to the crime.
A strange, quirky FBI agent tracking a serial killer after he strikes in a small American logging town, wonder where they got that idea? As any fan of David Lynch will be able to tell you, DP’s plot has a rather, ahem, striking similarity to the 90’s television drama created by Mark Frost and Lynch, Twin Peaks. The games not subtle about its “inspiration”, in fact, one of the main reasons behind the delays was redesigning characters and story aspects deemed to similar to Twin Peaks. I have to admit, though, making an interactive version of Twin peaks is an achievement in and of itself.
An image from the earlier build of Deadly Premonition, called Rainy Woods.
Game play wise, DP belongs in the school of over the shoulder shooters started by Resident Evil 4. Sort of, as DP is actually an open world game, similar to Grand Theft Auto, and your free to go where to want when you want for most of the game. You’ll be given main objectives to advance the plot, but otherwise your free to do as you wish. The actual mechanics of the game play are not what we’re going to focus on however. Instead we’ll look at the player and their role as a character in the story. When you first start playing you assume you’re controlling Special Agent Francis York Morgan (call him York, everyone does), ace FBI agent with a mysterious past. But that’s a lie, or if not a lie, it’s a gross oversimplification of the truth. As you play DP, you’re introduced to the character Zack. Zach, as far you can tell, seems to be a figment of York’s imagination, an imaginary friend who tells him what to do and where to go.
It goes deeper then that however. Zach doesn’t just give suggestions; he is also in control the combat. When you enter your first “dungeon” York says “I’ll leave it to you Zach, I trust you”. After that moment, York has officially given control to his alter ego. Zach is also given the power to choose when to explore the town of Greenville and when to do the main storyline. Story wise, yes, there is a mystery of who or what Zach is. From a design position however, the answer becomes clear. Zach is the player.
DP may have many of faults, its graphics are severely dated, its visual aesthetic is lack luster, and its controls are problematic. These faults don’t stop DP from being brilliant. The casting of the player as Zach solves a number of problems that plague stories in games. Take Grand Theft Auto 4, the actual plot revolves around Niko Bellic a eastern mercenary looking to find an easy life in America. The plot is full of murder, betrayal, and heartbreak. Ultimately creating a dark and heavy tone of grit and despair. It is also a game where the player can have Nico drive an eighteen-wheeler into a gas station and then wreak havoc with a rocket launcher. The amount of insane destruction Nico can let loose in Liberty City, while entertaining, is also completely out of character to Nico himself. Nico is constantly lamenting about how he just wants to settle down and live the American Dream. This creates a schism between the character and the player. The player may want to go crazy and turn the city into a smoking crater, but Nico, he never plays along. Whenever there is an in game movie and Nico starts talking, the player feels removed from him, as his decisions may ultimately be at odds with the players.
DP however, finds a way to overcome this problem, to certain degree anyway. When York is talking, it’s made clear it’s York, and not the player. This allows York to develop his own personality and relationships. We find out York is a huge movie buff (which I found particularly endearing), about his job, and eventually his legitimately tragic past. While at the same time, giving the player some breathing room to do what they want and feel like their decisions matter. It also gives the player some unique responsibilities. York has given you nearly complete control, you have to feed him, wash his cloths, and protect him in combat. If you don’t want to that however, you don’t have to, York will never actually complain. You as the player have to live with the consequences though.
I highly suggest giving Deadly Premonition a shot if one gets a chance. Make no mistake, the game is far from perfect, you’ll need to forgive quite a bit to enjoy it. But, and that is a significant but, if you can look past its flaws you’ll find a game like few others. It’s an example of how to design a place for the player. To give them control, while still telling your story about crazy FBI agents, the undead, and ax wielding psychopaths.