Game design analysis

Deadly Procrastination

Often Deadly Premonition is described as a game that’s “so bad it’s good” and as I groped to categorise this game it’s certainly a metaphor I used in the past. Upon finally playing it though I’ve realised that Deadly Premonition is utterly indescribable, pressing very different buttons for three distinct audiences.

Those that plain dislike what it does thematically, those that play it as a tongue-in-cheek parody, and those that completely appreciate the depth of its ambition.

I’m firmly in the latter category.

What Deadly Premonition does well

I think Deadly Premonition works because it attempts (and largely succeeds) in dabbling with subjects that most video games wouldn’t dare touch. I admire how it places humour alongside some really grisly subjects that you simply wouldn’t expect within the framework of a game. Cleverly it often mentions these grim subjects by hinting at the extremely dark backbone to the game without being inappropriate.

Cost of the game aside (it’s usually less than £20 new) there are few full-price games that even attempt the level of maturity that Deadly Premonition has, while also deliberately relaxing the player with its wry sense of humour. That’s the real beauty of the game; to emotionally involve the player in the motivations of its characters to the point of invading their “personal space”, while never feeling like it’s gone too far.

York thinks about the previous day in bed.Emily says how she's interested in finding out more about Zach.

Humour and intrigue

Agent Francis York Morgan is a remarkable lead character – a true mystery. A puzzle that we as a player slowly unravel throughout the game. We’re encouraged to delve into his mind through his audiable conversations with Zach. It’s an intentional story mechanic but hardly ever feels contrived. The identity of Zach is something that the player will stuggle to grasp for most of the game; as you eventually become more atune to York’s often bizzare (yet touching) conversations with an unseen person, you get more of an insight into the decisions behind his often brash personality.

Are these conversations meant for you, or someone else? They feel profoundly personal, occasionally breaking the fourth wall, sometimes awkward to hear, sometimes heartwarming, but always fascinating, the main reason to play is to understand York (and by association Zach) more. The answers the game eventually gives will not disappoint.

York looks over at Emily.Engaging in combat in the other world near the gallery.

A massive, immersive world

The development of York doesn’t mean that the supporting cast isn’t equally fascinating. In meticulously researching American towns to create the fictional town of Greenvale, the game’s creative team have tapped into what makes a living and believable open world. What is remarkable is that they managed this without the budget of other larger games.

This is primarily because of how involving the rest of the characters are, with each one adding another dimension to the town. The quiet normality of Olivia and Jim, the outspokenness of Carol and Becky. Polly’s hearing problems, Signorney’s troubling obsession with her cooking utensil. Every one of the 30 plus strong cast is memorable, fully dimensioned and easily describable without relying on caricature.

A typical red room menu screen, complete with deer.Polly and York sit on either side of a very long breakfast table.

The usability issues with the game are well known; the lack of a coherent map, and the often clumsy controls are the biggest bugbears. There are tons of things I would improve about this game, but at the same time, I’d be wary to tamper with the balance of it. It smacks of a development process that developed organically rather than in a much more sterile fashion. The result is a fabulous melting pot of ideas that makes it utterly unique and yet so utterly divisive.

By the time I came to leave Greenvale, it was hard to leave the world that had been carefully built around me. After completing literally everything I was able to do – it wasn’t enough – I wanted much, much more. Deadly Premonition is an utterly unique gaming experience. In fairness, (by reputation alone) it promises no less than that – no doubt to the chagrin of the majority of its intended audience.

Happily however, a handful of gamers will “get” the captivating world of Greenvale – a profoundly lucky few.

4 replies on “Deadly Procrastination”

It makes me sad that I won’t ever play a game like this again (what are the chances?).

I think, in the games-as-art debate, this game is streets ahead of anything else I’ve played; in fact when you put it down and play something else, it brings home to you how many games are merely an exercise in stick-waggling. Entertaining, yes. Resonant and profound (maybe I’m going a bit far with ‘profound’), no.

Is DP the Citizen Kane of videogames? I think, so far, it is. 🙂

Hi Pedro, thanks for your comment.

I must admit that I am staying clear of the games as art debate (at least for the time being :P). However I will say that I do agree that Deadly Premonition is an utterly unique game and any praise it gets is indeed well-deserved.

You may have noticed from the tone of this website that I like to examine lots of different games – but normally these fall under the description of unique, quirky titles that accomplished something a little different. I admire games that do something outside of the norm, and I particularly love how Deadly Premonition isn’t afraid to focus on intense and mature character development above tried and tested video game concepts such as speed and combat.

I agree with your sentiments based on the comparatively little of the game I have played, but I want to briefly approach Deadly Premonition from another angle and see what you think. Many of the major complaints I’ve seen for the game focused entirely around its graphics and control scheme. Regardless that we shouldn’t expect something as gorgeous as the latest flash in the pan from a budget title, these are complaints that are taken quite seriously in the gaming “mainstream”. They liken Deadly Premonition to an early PS2 title, criticizing character movement and combat, world interaction, and surface appearance before even considering the plot.

Yet the era they compare it to is really the time when the survival horror titles truly shined. If anything, this game feels like a throwback to the creative pioneering days of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, when developers were still groping with the jump to 3D and considering how to approach more adult topics in a console video game. There have been successful horror titles since then, but Deadly Premonition seems in terms of style to represent a bygone era of gaming, one where the awkward development of the controls helped reinforce the awkward and disturbing maturity of the content, and one whose vanishing I deeply lament. I think its ability to recapture those aspects reveals that this game was created by minds with an ear to the genre’s history and knowledge of what it is capable of.

Perhaps it won’t ever receive the critical attention it deserves, but it at least warms the heart of someone who enjoys the classics.

Ack, I think you’ve totally nailed it. I never quite imagined Deadly Premonition in quite those terms, but it makes a lot of sense now that you mention it.

Reaffirms my love for the game even more 🙂

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