What makes finding the mutilated body of a young woman who has been strung up and had her tongue bitten out scarier than it already is? When the discovery of the body is accompanied by free-jazz!
For the third instalment in my Horror Show series of articles, I’m going to gush over Deadly Premonition by Rising Star Games, possibly the strangest and most alluring game I’ve ever played. The game is set in the sleepy town of Greenvale where the inhabitants have been traumatized by the finding of the body of a pretty young called Anna, who has been brutally and ritualistically murdered and hung from a tree. Francis York Morgan, an FBI agent and the protagonist, is sent in to employ his expert profiling skills to catch the murderer. However, the more embroiled in the case he becomes, the more sinister the sparsely populated country-roads become.
I feel I must devote some time to the protagonist, Francis York Morgan (he prefers York) who is without a doubt my favourite game protagonist of all time. From the moment he introduced himself with a joke about Tom & Jerry I knew we’d get along fine. He’s a chain-smoking, suit-wearing former-punk fan with a passion for classic movies and an imaginary friend called Zach. He’s socially inept, and he considers idle chit-chat about a serial killer who urinated into skulls as appropriate talk for the dining table. His first reaction after finding hideously slaughtered young women is not to flinch or turn away in disgust as I did, but to pull a cigarette out of his jacket pocket. I felt close to York in a way that I haven’t for any other game protagonist, and that’s because he talks to the player directly. Uniquely, you don’t play as York. You control him, but you actually play for the most part as his imaginary friend Zach. York reminisces with you about movies you’ve watched together and gigs you’ve been too. Although to other characters in the game he seems arrogant and emotionally sterile, he confides in you and tells you when he is scared, or happy. The consequence of having a protagonist that the player genuinely cares about is that it makes peril more emotive. In games like Dead Space, although I wanted to play the game and get through it, I didn’t care about Isaac, and as a result, much of the emotional punch of the horror was lost.
I’d unashamedly say that Deadly Premonition is one of the best games I’ve ever played. What’s strange then is that gameplay wise, it’s fairly poorly made. The graphics wouldn’t stand out amongst PS2 releases, but the imagery is both beautiful and grotesque. The controls are fairly frustrating. The game is 3rd person and if you have to stalk through corridors, often the camera will shift suddenly and the controls will be reversed. This is only a major problem when shotgun wielding zombies are on your tail though. The game is laden with quick-time events, and practically every encounter with the main antagonist is solved with a QTE. The game has a sandbox map and side quests to complete in between progressing through the main narrative, but the vast town map feels empty, and the driving in the game, which you’ll need to do lots of, is truly awful. The cars feel as though they hover along the road and they handle like a bricks sliding on ice. For the most part the driving is bearable because York keeps you company with talk about 70’s B-movies, and to be honest, I looked forward to driving to and from destinations across the incredibly frustrating and repetitive landscape just so that I could catch up with the protagonist.
Deadly Premonition has a lot of misplaced effort. It has real-time and at the beginning of each day you’ll be given some task like ‘Visit Harry’ and a time-limit, usually spanning many hours. The only way to advance time is to either smoke or progress with the main story. In between solving the ritualistic murder case, you have to maintain York’s hygiene by making sure his suits are clean and that he shaves. You have to make sure he eats at least twice a day. He is a caffeine addict whose coffee often gives him clues about how to solve the case, so you have to make sure he gets his coffee in the morning. These mechanics are all very unique and unusual, but they don’t really add much. So let’s get to what Deadly Premonition is really about.
Deadly Premonition is terrifying. The imagery will stick with you long after you have finished playing. There were several brutally twisted moments that had me gaping at the screen even though I wanted so desperately to look away. I’m trying really hard not to spoil anything, but one moment, after a woman had been saved in a fantastic, adrenaline-pumping action scene, she got to her feet, even though she had been presumably disfigured and left for dead, and began lecturing me about the sexual, penetrative nature of art through the squelches of blood in her mouth. Two minutes later, I was following a dog through an art gallery to the sound of acoustic guitars and whistling. Deadly Premonition is certainly a game of juxtapositions. The soundtrack never seems to fit what is happening on-screen and York’s reactions never seem appropriate. One minute you’ll be sneaking down black, sludge covered corridors, dreading the next monster encounter, and literally a minute later you’ll be watching a comedy-based cut scene about buns. Some might say the almost audibly clunky changes in tone make the game un-immersive, but I think it makes the game scarier. The lighter, more confusing moments make the moments of excruciating horror even harder to stomach by comparison.
The creatures you fight manage to be unnerving and fearsome through-out the game, even though there is little variation in what you fight. They look a little like zombies, but instead of shuffling towards you early-Resident Evil style, they turn away from you, bend over backwards so they are looking at you whilst their feet are facing away from you, and then they teleport towards you in short bursts, making combat constantly panicky. There is no way to access combat situations and work out how much time you have, because the enemies can teleport up to you and attempt to stick their hand down your throat in a split-second. The fact that you can’t move whilst aiming makes the fear that is elicited when an enemy that was a good ten feet away suddenly and violently shift in purple light and appears directly in front of you more visceral. Also, when you do shoot them in the face, instead of making some inhuman noise and dropping to the floor, they say things like ‘I don’t want to die’, adding ambiguity to their zombified state. Are they evil, or are they attacking you unwillingly? However, the dread the enemies instil in you is mollified somewhat by the fact that headshots are as easy to pull off a threading a needle through a hula-hoop.
The game does go the same way as most horror games by losing all subtlety at the end and going loopy for the finale, but Deadly Premonition was loopy anyway, so the hugely over-the-top boss battles that conclude the game don’t feel jarring. The story, which is completely and utterly unpredictable and engrossing, is one of the best told in gaming and there are some moments of true genius, such as one particular section penultimate to the conclusion in which you play as the main antagonist whilst being accompanied by the most inappropriate and unnerving song imaginable.
It manages to be terrifying, emotional, funny, immersive, frustrating and baffling simultaneously. It marries beauty and horror successfully whilst being enjoyable. This is one of the games I’d show to Roger Ebert and say ‘this is art’. It is incredibly flawed, and strip away the pretension and you’ll find a shoddy, 3rd person shooter, but as a psychological and emotional horror experience, it is practically unmatched.
I’m a huge horror fan and I want to cover as many terrifying games as possible. If you have any recommendations for games that I could include in my Horror Show feature, please get in touch. Either leave a comment below, or contact me on Twitter (@thisisajoe) or message me on Tumblr (http://whatsjoebuildinginthere.tumblr.com) or drop me an email at email@example.com
A jaded horror enthusiast, I get my kicks hiding in cupboards from whatever hideous creatures happen to be around. However, I'm more than happy playing a wide range of genres on both consoles and PC. Apart from writing for Z1G, I'm also a History student.