If you haven’t heard of Deadly Premonition, I don’t blame you. It’s not a game that frequents top ten lists, or gets extensive video essays written about it. You won’t see it get streamed on Twitch, nor does it have a particularly visible fanbase. It holds the Guinness World Record for ‘most critically polarizing survival horror game’, which is certainly a specific niche. Despite that, it’s somewhat of a cult classic, and – with only a hint of irony – I can call it one of my favourite games.
Not on a gameplay level, or even a fundamental storytelling level, but I think Deadly Premonition, the 2010 open world survival horror game by Japanese developer Access Games, presents an interesting question for gaming that was settled for older mediums a long time ago; do video games have to be enjoyable to be good?
It’s long since been acknowledged that, while competence is typically vital for art, there’s something appealing about idiosyncrasies in film, TV, and music. That’s not to say that The Room (2009) is a good movie, not by any means, but it still allows viewers to try and understand the choices being made. There’s something hypnotic about Wiseau as both character and creator – and trying to figure out what the hell he was thinking with his film is the reason for its continued appeal. Video games have a tougher time with this issue – as an interactive artform where the audience is tantamount to the experience, they invest considerable time and energy into a game. It has to be fun to play, right?
Deadly Premonition isn’t fun to play. On a mechanical level, it’s more than idiosyncratic. It’s borderline idiotic. Many of its controls and systems of play are ‘borrowed’ from the Resident Evil series, from its ‘tank controls’, to its save system, to its wider survival horror elements. But RE itself often struggles to be fun and enjoyable to play, and that series defined modern horror gaming. Having those delicate systems in the hands of a different developer, specifically in the hands of director Hidetaka Suehiro (also known, for some reason, as SWERY), is shaky ground to begin with. Despite being a mostly-linear story, the game is an open-world experience with driving mechanics and mini-games akin to Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption. The player also has survival mechanics, namely sleep, hunger, and hygiene, to deal with.
But there aren’t clear instructions on how to deal with them. Reportedly, when the game was released physically for the 360/PS3 generation, it came with a guide that seems fundamental for understanding the game. But, in 2022, that’s an aspect of gaming development and release which is long-since dead. The game has subsequently had a Director’s Cut released, and an Origins version – but neither of these seem to have included a tutorial to replace the missing, and frankly-vital, guide. Mechanics such as smoking a cigarette to skip time aren’t signposted. You’re left to figure out the bizarre phrasing of the text and fill in the gaps for the missing explanations of certain systems yourself.
Beyond that, there are points where the game is broken. Items that the player can pick up, such as food, healing, and weapons, will respawn infinitely, just by turning the camera away from them and then turning back. Throughout most of the game, you just have to hold down the action button to open a door – but there is one puzzle late in the game where you’re expected to know that you have to hold down the action button instead. It’s baffling that half of the problems in the game were seemingly decided upon, or that they weren’t altered during playtesting when testers encountered them.
There are extensive sections of the game focusing on combat. The same two or three enemy types are repeated throughout, and with only a few quick-time-centric action scenes and a handful of boss fights towards the end, the mechanical thrust of the main game wears thin quickly. The player character is hard to control thanks to the tank mechanism, and almost any weapons found are laughably useless. None of this contributes to a feeling to panic, as you’d expect in a Resident Evil game. It just becomes irritating very soon after you start playing. These sections weren’t intended by the developers, and were added in last, due to the publisher’s worry that the game wouldn’t sell in ‘the West’ without them. As if that was where the dev’s attentions should’ve been placed. Suehiro said in an interview with Game Developer that, “it’s a little bit embarrassing, but the shooting areas were the last things that we started to work on and I have to reckon that I should have paid more attention to this part”.
The combat gameplay was an afterthought, and a publisher intervention, so it’s fair to say that the real Deadly Premonition is in the story. The plot of the game is where much of its cult status comes from, from the tonal inconsistencies, to the bizarre dialogue, and the odd nature of the protagonist, Francis York Morgan, and his split personality/imaginary friend/meta-analysis of the nature of video games, Zach.
Morgan is a wildcard FBI agent sent to the small border town of Greenvale, in the US. He has a voice in his head, Zach, who he communicates with – but it seems as if he’s speaking to you, the player. Greenvale, an eccentric understanding of the All-American town from the point of view of a Japanese developer, was the scene of a recent grizzly murder of a young girl, Anna Graham. York travels there to improve his profiling for a prolific serial killer being handled by the FBI elsewhere. Deadly Premonition takes its mechanical nature from Resident Evil, and it’s clear (regardless of what SWERY claims) that its aesthetic nature is ‘inspired’ by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks. Soon, York discovers that the killing in Greenvale is related to the murders elsewhere – and eventually, his own childhood grows entwined with the unfolding events.
It may seem like Deadly Premonition is both uninspired and overly-cynical, but when we first meet York, he’s on the phone to a colleague explaining his view that Tom and Jerry is in fact a BDSM relationship as opposed to an antagonistic one. Nothing is as it seems in this game – and that isn’t a mysterious platitude. There’s a bizarre thematic depth to the story, playing with ideas of sex and violence, good and evil, childhood trauma and healing in adulthood. Now, don’t mistake ‘depth’ as meaning well-written. The game isn’t deft at dark, dense and surreal storytelling like, say, David Lynch. But it’s a commendable goal for a video game to have, especially a game from this era.
Games like Red Dead Redemption 2 are as expert in their mechanics as they are in their stories. That game, akin to Deadly Premonition, is begging you to become as invested in its characters and story as much as its gameplay. RDR 2 is very firmly and rightfully a Western piece of media, taking all the resonating depth and meaning that the best (or at least, most interesting) novels and films of that genre have, and beautifully transferring them to a new and different medium. Video games are art and gamers who still disagree are sad losers, is what I’m saying.
Deadly Premonition lacks that expert touch when it comes to storytelling. Aside from the imagery stolen from better (read: more competent) pieces of art, the game revels in extreme sex, violence, and sexual violence committed against its female characters. In moments where rape, grievous bodily harm, murder, and horrific supernatural distortions of the human body are the core events at play, the game will deify the victims as ‘Goddesses of the Forest’. York will even compare the deputy sheriff, Emily, to a Goddess of the Forest because he finds her attractive. The equation of sex and violence is a deeply modern and human idea, and one that is perfect for horror media, but the game doesn’t really get how to play it. It’s a concept that other pieces of horror have undertaken better, but here the only interpretation to make is how the developers view their female characters, or simply their lack of self-awareness when it comes to reusing old tropes.
It’s ambitious though, right? You couldn’t say any of this about The Last of Us, which is still struggling with the deep moral question of whether murder is bad.
The game, by some accounts, also features a transgender character. It’s very unclear whether it’s simply crossdressing as part of the game’s portrayal of non-standard sexual relationships and ‘depravity’, or whether it is an attempt to somewhat-sympathetically show people outside ‘the norm’ of sexual society. And by basic standards of representation, it isn’t that good regardless. It’s unlikely to make its way into ‘Top Ten Trans Characters in Gaming’ anytime soon – and speaking of The Last of Us, there’s a much more straightforward and earnest attempt being made in the sequel. But at the very least, Deadly Premonition respects video games as an artform enough to even consider this on a creative level.
I love Deadly Premonition. Its ability to resonate on an emotional level will obviously vary depending on players as individuals, and its cult status as a so-bad-it’s-good video game doesn’t do its intentions justice. Again, I’m not saying it’s good. At one point, the main story develops only through York deciding to literally go fishing for evidence based on the mug his coffee is in, and you are forced to play a fishing minigame that’s nothing more than a dice roll. It’s a bad game on many levels. But I don’t think it’s fair to call it bad art; that it doesn’t make an attempt to represent human ideas using fictional constructs. In a world where Spider-Man: No Way Home will enter itself for Best Picture with no hint of irony, that difference can’t be understated.