Edit: This is part one of a ???-part series on Deadly Premonition. This is an in-depth look at the game; my attempt to explain why I find the game so interesting, and a catalogue of all the strange thoughts I have had about the game over the past four years.
Writing about contentious games is tough because it's difficult to avoid spending the whole time responding to external sources. Generally, writing about these sorts of games ends up being either antagonistic (like Jim Sterling), or very defensive. There are people who leap to respond to every criticism, saying "No, you just don't get it!", and there are people who accept the criticisms and say "Yeah, it sucks; it's the worst, but I like it". Neither of these feel very worthwhile to me, so I am going to attempt during this piece of writing to not respond to others, but instead explain my own very personal and very cool opinions on this very cool game, Deadly Premonition, by Swery and the fellows at Access Games.
I have now been thinking about Deadly Premonition for three years. For most of those three years I have had the idea of writing something about the game, but never before have I felt like I could find the words. I was finally inspired by the latest Bombin' the AM where Patrick and Danielle discuss games that are difficult to make sentences about, but how satisfying it can be when you do finally find a way to express your opinion. When I used to discuss Deadly Premonition with my friends, the best I could come up with was "You drive past a lake! And it feels like driving past a lake! You're like, driving! It's in Washington!" While these sentences do, in fact, pretty much sum up why I like Deadly Premonition, it takes a bit more to turn them into something that human people can understand.
I live in a suburb of Vancouver, about five minutes away from the border between BC and Washington state. I've lived here my whole life! And I absolutely love this area of the world. I love the big trees; I love the open roads; I love wooden houses and fish and the ocean and everything. Media that take place in the Pacific Northwest speak to me like no other thing. Obviously, I adore Twin Peaks (which I actually watched after playing Deadly Premonition) and I even liked Alan Wake. Before playing Deadly Premonition, I had no idea how much I would enjoy playing something that feels so close to home. But it's not just the fact that it is the place near to me that makes it cool. Deadly Premonition does a better job of evoking a sense of place than most other games I've played. The graphics are unintentionally low-fidelity, but as you drive past the environments, the individual objects, which look bad on their own, blend together into a backdrop that creates a fantastic atmosphere. This is what I mean when I talk about driving past a lake. It really feels like driving past a lake! And you're like, driving! In Washington!
Speaking of driving, Deadly Premonition is the greatest driving simulator of all time. (And I've played like 40 hours of Euro Truck Simulator 2. (In reality, I'd say they're probably tied, but it sounds better to just say Deadly Premonition is the Greatest of all time.)) I played this game first before I knew how to drive. I have since learned to drive, and I have to say that it feels very similar to playing Deadly Premonition, though obviously not in a mechanical sense. The cars in Deadly Premonition (of which there are about 20 to unlock, each being a copy of the vehicle a character in the game drives, and each with their own theme song) control like slippery snakes. Technically, they all control differently, but none of them facilitate driving like a rational human being. However, they all have windshield wipers, turn indicators, and a built-in GPS, which is awesome. Also, mirrors that seem functional, but on close inspection, are not. Of course, the only way to notice any of this is to drive in first-person mode, which obviously I did for the whole game because I am a smart guy. The game defaults to that, and the car models are very poor and don't interact with the ground that well, so it's best to stay inside instead of switching to third-person. In first-person mode, the game allows you to move your head around (sadly without TrackIR support) and look outside the windows. It is from this perspective that the game's environments look best, as it is difficult to see the details. Just like when driving a real car, it's best to look ahead, but sometimes you will find your eyes wandering over to the side and then bam, you've struck an oncoming vehicle and losing honour.
Driving erratically is easy to do in Deadly Premonition, but not fully supported, as is evidenced by the speed limit enforced in your car. This is probably there because of some weird bug that occurs when you drive fast, but I prefer to believe it was an intentional restriction to force you to drive the town slowly and really understand it. In a similar vein, the map in the game is difficult to understand at first, as you can not rotate it, or zoom out very far. I enjoyed the way this forced me to learn the town, and for my last twenty hours or so, I only checked the map to find out locations of NPCs, not to find my way around. There is technically a fast-travel mechanic in the game, but the only way to get it is to do a certain quest that gives you the item. I did the quest, because I did all the quests, but I never used the item. I preferred to drive everywhere. It was very relaxing.
The game takes place in a fictional logging town called Greenvale, which used to be quite populated, but then was vacated when the main logging business was shut down by protests. Because of this, the town is very big, but very empty. There are no random civilians that walk the streets, and few random cars that you see driving along the roads with you. Inside buildings, you will sometimes see weird faceless people, but most of the time the only people you will see are the thirty-or-so characters that are associated with the main story of the game. One of the remarkable things about the game is that all of these characters have regular schedules, and can be found wandering around town and doing jobs throughout the day. They all have routines, and if you follow one in your car, you will find that they are actually going somewhere, instead of just driving around aimlessly.
This ambient character development is probably the strongest facet of Deadly Premonition. It is the one thing in the game that I would actively suggest developers look at and think about, a lot. This is a way of telling stories and interacting with characters that is entirely exclusive to the world of video games, and has amazing potential for story-telling. In Deadly Premonition, you will see a character drive across the town just to have dinner with another character, when you had no idea previously that they ever interacted. There are a lot of things that are never explicitly described to you by the game, but are learned just by observing what they do. This is brilliant! You feel like you are actively participating in the process of learning about the characters and understanding the underlying workings of the town. In a more traditional game-y mechanic, each character also has one or more side-quests that you can do for them to reveal something about their character. These, while less interesting than the open-world mechanics, are well-done, and give the world a large amount of character. The town is interconnected in ways you would not expect, and exploring and learning about these are the main appeal of the game.
This is part one of a somewhere-between-two-and-a-thousand-part series about Deadly Premonition. In the next part, I will talk about the least-loved aspect of the game: Combat. I will also probably talk about seven-to-ten other things. I tend to get a bit rambly when discussing this game. I have a lot to say about it!