“I finally got to see the real Rainy Woods…”
I first encountered Deadly Premonition when I was a high schooler with no income of my own. When you’re put in that situation, you’re browsing for games around $19.99 and under. I think this might be where my interest with forgotten games, at least partially, stems from because I became intimately familiar with them when I was young. While folks in 2009 were playing Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, I was experiencing Kameo: Elements of Power for the first time. The way I first heard of Deadly Premonition sticks out in my mind because at the time it launched at retail at $19.99, which was pretty unheard of. A budget title for twenty bucks wasn’t odd in the generation before the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and Wii. In 2010, the same year Midway Games filed for bankruptcy and three years from the closure of THQ, a bottom tier game let alone a middle tier game was a rarity. Yet even at that price, I for some reason never got around to it.
I certainly could not have predicted how strangely significant that game would be to the culture of video games. Propelling its director out of obscurity, becoming a popular game to play through among streamers and content creators, and being awarded the unique distinction of “Most Critically Polarizing Survival Horror Game” in the 2012 publishing of the Guinness World Records Gamer’s Edition; this budget title made an impact. Which is why I struggled even covering it for this column. It has this reputation that kind of doesn’t follow the loose guidelines of what this column sets out to do. That being to discuss obscure, older games in the context of today while also considering the context in which they were originally made. But I also believe that we probably exist in the one reality where Deadly Premonition became a landmark, and it undeniably has the spirit of a lost oddity. So, seven years after it made its name known, I have finally gotten around to playing Deadly Premonition, I’m happy to report that it’s still an equally fascinating and frustrating game.
For those uninformed, Deadly Premonition presents players with two mysteries as they embody FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan, or York (that’s what everyone calls him) on his visit to Greenvale, a fictional small town in the rainy Washington woods. The first mystery is the one clearly presented to you through the narrative, one revolving a murdered young woman by the name of Anna Graham. She is the latest death in what appears to be a set of serial killings that are connected by the red tree seeds left at the crime scenes. In order to solve this mystery you need to get know the town and its residents, help York ask the right questions, and guide him as he traverses sudden, inexplicable encounters with zombie-like creatures throughout the game. It’s a simple pitch, but underneath that setup are stacked layers of strangeness that lead to the second mystery of the game, “What really even is Deadly Premonition?”
Deadly Premonition’s personality offers a lot to unpack, and York is at the heart of what gives the game its identity. York is unorthodox. He’s a nice guy who does a good job, but you might be thrown off the first time you meet him and his imaginary friend Zach, as they discuss the cultural significance of the 1978 film Attack of the Killer Tomatoes while you drive to the scene of a crime. And yes, he has an imaginary friend named Zach. There’s also the moments where he interjects serious conversations with his opinions on pastries and brings down casual conversations with his personal list of “Top Three Most Gruesome Crime Scenes.” And there’s so much more.
There’s the woman who carries around a stove-top pot wherever she goes or this wealthy bachelor at the center of the investigation who wears a creepy gas mask and eats turkey sandwiches smothered in jelly. All of this isn’t peppered throughout for the sake of being random, it’s here to add to the mystery and keep players asking questions. And of course it makes the relationships the player and York build with characters that much more engrossing. That’s not to say every character is perfect, far from it, some are actually pretty problematic, but it still works. There is so much wonderfully charming and engaging weirdness in Deadly Premonition, but you probably already knew that because the game is so notorious. Still, it’s good to know that years later, even after the birth of an indie scene with no shortage of bizarre games, its charms are still potent. But one of the strangest things I found about Deadly Premonition, isn’t the zany townsfolk, it’s just how ambitious of a game it sets out to be.
Greenvale spans about five real life miles. Inside that space are rows of trees and a lot of empty space that leads to some of the most plain “drive to your next objective” moments in video games; this is usually where those conversations with Zach take place. Between the trees and the empty road is a community of non-playable characters that live their lives in real time to the game’s clock. They clock-in and clock-out of work, and you don’t have all day to get your objectives done. In my interest to find out how committed to the bit Deadly Premonition was, I decided to hang outside the town’s diner until closing, and sure enough, at closing time the head cook walked out of the restaurant, got into his truck, and drove home. It’s open world design à la Sega’s Shenmue, one that tries to replicate the mundanities of everyday life in order to create a place that the player can buy into.
It’s also a design that often finds itself hyper fixating on the smallest details of living. In Shenmue, it’s the costly capsule toys that somehow always grab your attention and the highly detailed convenience stores. In Deadly Premonition, it’s having the ability to shave York’s facial hair and having to do his laundry or else you’ll receive a reduction in your FBI salary. Oh and like Shenmue, it has mini-games. Well, only one, fishing. Even so, Deadly Premonition doesn’t have the resources of a developer like SEGA, it’s a budget title, one with mighty goals that it just cannot fully reach. Perhaps it could have if it weren’t so held back by the rigid definition of a video game in 2010.
Whenever anyone talks about Deadly Premonition, they always talk about the murder mystery and everything connecting back to it. They usually fail to mention everything in between the mystery, they forget the repetitive shooting galleries that stand in your way of the next bit of story. As I alluded to earlier, the game has these combat instances in the third-person against zombie-like enemies. Very reminiscent of Resident Evil 4, except without the diversity, challenge, or tension of that game.
Also, like Resident Evil 4, Deadly Premonition received a re-release that implements motion control via the PlayStation Move, named the Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut. This is the version I played and I take umbrage with that name because it gives the impression that someone at the game’s developer thought, “You know with this director’s cut we really have the opportunity to deliver on the vision for this game, and you know what I think would really push Deadly Premonition over the edge and enrich the experience? Making the player waggle around a wand to make combat take twice as long. I think that would be a great use of resources and worthy of upping the price of the game to $49.99.” Naturally, I turned that function off after an of hour experiencing its splendor.
When the game’s enemies are first introduced, stumbling and shrieking “I don’t want to die” in a silly distorted voice, they are charming in the same way a cheesy B-level horror movie can be. But then you quickly find out that’s all Deadly Premonition has, the same slow, unchallenging enemies that demand that you stop and take the time to get them out of your way as you make your way through the foggy combat hallways of the game. You always have enough ammo to take them down, you always have enough health items, and you’re almost always left with this feeling that maybe your time could be put to better use. Which is so frustrating because seeing everything else unfold in Deadly Premonition is at the very least interesting.
It begs the question, why are these sections here? While playing the game, I could only come up with the answer of “It’s a commercial video game, so they felt like they needed combat.” Jump to me getting ready to write this post, and while doing some light research I stumbled upon an interview with Swery65, conducted by Polygon, which reveals that sure enough, an early version of Deadly Premonition had no combat and it was only introduced after the game’s publisher requested it because, “It would not sell in the Western market if there weren’t guns.”
How unbelievably frustrating is that?
Imagine if instead of spending those resources on making truly abysmal combat sequences, Deadly Premonition’s developers were given a better chance of being able turn Greenvale into an actual space? To get a chance of filling it with more buildings, shops, and characters. To be able to add more mini-games and focus on the detective side of the game. Perhaps find new ways in which the player could be given more agency in solving the mystery. What if they were just given the chance to make a focused and involved adventure game that really just went for it?
But of course, that’s not what Deadly Premonition is. It has heart, but it can be really hard to see it to the end.
The sum of Deadly Premonition’s parts is complicated. Its shortcomings, most of which are the result of great ambition not fully realized and uninteresting combat, frustrated me to the point of anger towards it at various points. It’s also a game with a poor framerate and low textures, but I don’t really care about that. Still, I can’t blankly, honestly tell you that I enjoyed playing Deadly Premonition. There were plenty of times where I wanted to quit, but now writing this from the city limits of Greenvale, I can’t help but look back on the whole thing and feel nostalgic reminiscing on it. The endless screams of “I don’t want to die” coming from enemies fade a bit into the background, and I instead clearly remember the inessential but intimate conversations with Zach as we drive through the pines. I remember the bizarre scenes where the game’s awkward delivery and eccentric dialogue meet harmoniously to create a scene where the game spends five minutes to discuss how not eating a sandwich says something about one’s moral fiber. At the same time, my issues with the game aren’t too far away from the things I enjoy.
Deadly Premonition is a game that teaches players that games can exist in the middle of the spectrum and still be worthwhile, perhaps even be important. Obviously the quality of games isn’t usually binary, things aren’t just good or bad, but it’s truly easy to forget that and just critique games in a knee jerk manner. I certainly have done it and I’m sure I will do it again. The elements that make Deadly Premonition good are just as potent as the elements that make it bad, and you can’t separate the two. Separating the two would be a dishonest take on Deadly Premonition. That’s why, I think, players find Deadly Premonition so fascinating. It’s why I feel like I needed to play it.
Should you play it? Yes. Will you have a good time with it and get something substantial from it? If you’ve read up to this point, you should know the answer to that question, which would be somewhere along the lines of, “I don’t fucking know, but I sure hope so.”