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Why Deadly Premonition is a cult hit (and should stay that way)

Deadly Premonition Screenshot - Deadly Premonition York evidence

As celebrated as Deadly Premonition is, it’s still a largely underplayed game. Early reviews from sites like IGN and Game Critics belabored it, criticizing what they called the “worst driving simulation of this console generation” (true) and deeming its controls “a bad version of what you get in Resident Evil” (also true). But they also condemned the humor for sounding tactless and off-cue; the town for looking “cheerless”; and the writing for being terrible. They’re wrong.

Admittedly, Deadly Premonition is a partially broken game. The otherworld segments that put the main character, Francis York Morgan, in combat situations are often a pain to endure. Zombie-like corpses rise from shadow spots and grab ahold of York, and as frightening as this can be (they move awkwardly and certainly do enough damage), they’re even more annoying to kill. And once you’ve fought one, you’ve basically fought them all. Some even respawn ad infinitum, which can make health management a nightmare. Picking up items that are lying on the ground in the otherworld is risky because if your inventory is full and enemies come near, you have to scroll through a canned text message before you can react.

The game has its fair share of treacherous glitches, like the “disappearing story key” bug and the steering problem that occurs when you’re driving too fast downhill. What probably bothers me most, though, is running, which eats up your stamina. It’s a joke that in later parts of the game, when you have to traverse long distances on foot as part of a key scene, this meter is completely removed.

Deadly Premonition - 1

While much is monotonous, the final stretch is a major deviation from the rest of the game, with York facing three bosses in a row (which are the only actual bosses I remember). But Deadly Premonition is far from disappointing or bad, even if the graphics are poorly rendered, the music is obsessively overplayed, and driving (and wasting time) is a regular activity.

This is a game that’s both endearing in its low-budget quality and brilliant in its story and characters, including the town of Greenvale. York is a fascinating protagonist – he’s never once unbelievable, even if certain… qualities about him are a bit extreme. He compliments every headshot you make, and he earns “Agent Honor” for completing simple tasks like saving the game, changing suits, and shaving. He’s the supposedly “big-shot” FBI agent who takes over a small town but never once makes us dislike him. He’s soft at heart but practical when it comes to solving the case, and even though the lives of the townspeople slowly but surely fall apart, he remains focused. Up until the very end, he can’t help but make one final Hollywood-inspired comment – not because he’s a cocky hero or doesn’t care, but because he’s committed to the good in the world: a simple love of movies, beautiful women (whom he’s hopelessly bad with), and the boyhood companionship of someone named “Zach.”

York is painfully human. So are the characters that surround him: George and Emily, two police officers who accompany him on most of the investigation. They clash at first but eventually accept and open up to one another; even more minor characters, like Thomas, Carol and Diane, and Olivia and Nick are carefully crafted. They don’t just exist because of York; he’s the one walking into their lives, which carry on despite him.

Deadly Premonition Emily

Greenvale is very much an active town. People might not wander the streets, but their folklore – about not going outside during the rain – explains much of their absence. Other times, they’re driving around in cars or tending to their day-to-day responsibilities. You can spend a lot of time interacting with these people on the side, in between the main missions.

In almost every way, Deadly Premonition behaves like a small-town murder mystery should, only its horror aspects elevate it to something larger and more interesting. The case boils down to what you think it will – the people – but it spins off in different directions, all returning to the same point. It’s expertly handled and skillfully, thoughtfully constructed, in a way that the blockbuster games of today can barely achieve.

Even the mundane takes on meaning and charm. Driving around in a car, you travel long distances across town – chatting during the ride, occasionally crashing into other drivers, or activating your turn signals or window wipers if you choose. You know, normal stuff. Because if you were in a small town like Greenvale, working on a case with the local police, you would have to handle the informalities, too. These actions feel more poignant because you’re from the city, an alien environment to the people here, who are stuck in old-fashioned ways. It’s a town where everybody knows everybody else, and you have to drive half-an-hour (in-game time) to reach anywhere – but it’s an authentic experience, and it grows on you.

Deadly Premonition - Harry Stewart and assistant

Deadly Premonition functions in a way that forces you to slow down. You have to eat and sleep. Talk to the townsfolk. Use the long drives to enjoy the sights – however bland they seem, you’ll come to know this town and love it for its quirks. You’ll watch it change into something hideous at night, and when day breaks and calm settles over the town, you’ll appreciate the return to normalcy all the more.

The music, too, has a particular charm. You’ll hear many of the same tunes throughout the game, and they’re mixed and matched in a furious way, like no one patch of gameplay is allowed to be silent. But again – endearing. And the soundtrack is unusually good.

Much of the humor is accidental: York’s exaggerated smile, the characters’ outlandish expressions and gestures. Some of it is intended to bring you closer to the characters, like the infamous sinner’s sandwich scene and the discussion of music preferences with Emily. But Deadly Premonition can just as easily be serious and upsetting. The murders are violent and explicit, and the people involved feel helpless, alone, and angry. These characters have difficult pasts that they share with you, which give relevance to why they’re so troubled over the tragedies unfolding now. Their perfect town isn’t so perfect after all; suffering still follows them, and though the root of it is a deeper kind of evil, it’s brought out by the people who live there.

Deadly Premonition York

Greenvale, its people, the mistakes they make… big or small… this is what Deadly Premonition does so well. It creates genuine experiences and honest, believable interactions that are more than dialogue – they’re conversations, arguments, and idle banter. They’re debates about morality, nostalgic talk about what the times are coming to, and recognition of the good in people and why they need each other. See how quickly all they care about can be taken away.

What’s even more admirable is that Deadly Premonition doesn’t tell a clean story with a happy ending. By the time the credits roll, you feel the weight of all that’s happened, and you can’t say Greenvale is any better for it. Maybe York isn’t, either. But you get the sense that it’s okay. Life goes on. You did good here. You’ll do more somewhere else.

With a bigger budget and streamlined gameplay, I’m not sure Deadly Premonition would be anywhere near as good. It’s not about graphics or survival-horror combat – it’s about story.

Deadly Premonition released in 2010 for Xbox 360. A new version, Deadly Premonition: The Director's Cut, is scheduled to arrive for PlayStation 3 on March 15, 2013.

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Stephanie Carmichael Twitter: @wita
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