Deadly Premonition, how I love it. Oops, sorry, I meant how do I love it? The stiff as a board controls, the Playstation 2 era graphics, the almost drunken sound mixing. These are just a few of the objective measures by which Deadly Premonition should have been an awful, unplayable mess. And yet, I’ve finished it six times. Six. Bloody. Times. That’s more than Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance, a game that I played to absolute death during my Xbox games as a second job phase. Somehow, this technical mess has all the replay value of crystal meth, due to a charm that is tough to pin down.
Part of it is the combat. Especially on hard. They tuned things down for the recent re-release, but Deadly Premonition on hard, despite the ill-conceived combat mechanics, was massively engaging. The only reason I can think of for this is counter-intuitive. Deadly Premonition’s combat managed to hook me by being bad. Really bad. It was so bad that at every moment I was aware that if I screwed up and died by losing focus during a fight, I would have to go through this crap again. On hard every enemy was a bullet-sponge, soaking up round after round after round even if you were aiming for the head, with the result that even now I can still hear York, the game’s protagonist, intoning “Great. Fantastic.” after pumping multiple head-shots into a foe with next to no result. So they made the combat good by making it bad, because having to go back to the previous checkpoint was a giant pain.
Of course, on easier difficulties, you could plow through waves of enemies with no bother, reducing engagement. But Deadly Premonition has other ways to pull the player in. One is an intense focus on the practicalities of York’s everyday life. Map reading, petrol refills and staying well fed are some of the exciting activities awaiting the player and separated from the aggravations of reality, are actually a lot of fun. Map reading comes from the time before video games had GPS arrows pointing you everywhere, and on a map as small as Greenvale’s it works doubly well, as you learn the whole thing off on your travels, making the town feel like a sort of comforting zombie-filled video game home away from home. Eventually, you are your own GPS. Watching the petrol and hunger gauges fall might not be much of a mechanic, but it increases immersion and each is paired with its own charming lore wrapping. Petrol station visits involve bribing Jack or charming Rose, while the food in the game comes from a surprising amount of sources, and varieties. The result of taking care of all these overall needs of the character is that when you are playing Deadly Premonition, you’re locked in to the game mentally.
But these are the small things. The big thing that Deadly Premonition has going for it is the overall tone of the game. It’s weird, or so bad it’s good, a game whose entire story and lore is based on the “Hobo With A Shotgun” principle. And not Twin Peaks. Definitely not Twin Peaks. York is one of the most eccentric protagonists in video games. In his introduction, the FBI agent is talking into a Dictaphone, explaining why Tom and Jerry are actually in an abusive relationship, and long drives in the game are broken up with him talking to the voice in his head, Zack, about old films and punk bands. He’s given bizarre physical tics and his interactions with the townsfolk are hilariously awkward. However, he’s just crazy, not a crazy asshole, as evidenced by his absolute dedication to ensuring the case gets solved and occasional selfless Kevin Costner dives to save other characters. This is probably the defining factor in making his crazy behavior charming rather than off-putting. He tells things as they are, but he’s not a psychopath. Moving beyond the protagonist, the game’s other characters are equally compelling in their strangeness. There’s a smaller emphasis than most games on conventional character development or relationship building. Instead, the game focuses on giant revelations of both character and story. Giant, unhinged revelations, matched only by the tonal insanity the game spirals into. It’s defined by its willingness to escalate, and to throw in offbeat moments of comedy at the oddest times, resulting in a mix that is bizarre and impossible to put down. Or not pick it up again when it ends. The game’s developer has announced a sequel is planned, and I hope to be drawn into one of his bizarre universes again whenever it shows up. And maybe have a piece of music as elegantly simple as Life Is Beautiful worm its way into my skull.