Deadly Premonition is Uncanny

“This wasn’t supposed to happen,” the internet (certain corners at least) collectively gasped when Nintendo announced a follow up to what may be the most divisively received game of the last decade. Ten years after Deadly Premonition arrived on the Xbox 360 to a critical reception that can best be summed up as befuddled, it takes a level of audacity verging on delusion to be unsurprised by this announcement. Deadly Premonition was a game that, by all rights, should never have been made, much less released, far too ambitious for its resources and open about its Twin Peaks influences to a level some considered plagiarism. It was made and remade multiple times, originally under the name Rainy Woods, and came out buggy, visually unpolished, and with simplistic combat that seemed like an afterthought because, as a last minute insertion to appease higher ups, it literally was. So go figure that Deadly Premonition has seeded and grown one of the most dedicated cult followings in the history of video games.

Of course I was ecstatic about the news that the sequel came with the announcement of a Switch port for the original game. My own attempts to play Deadly Premonition on PC were fruitless, owing to that port being an unplayably buggy mess, so finally I’ve gotten my hands on the game itself. Prior to this I’ve had to rely on supergreatfriend’s outstandingly exhaustive Let’s Play to get the experience. With my hands on the controller, I find myself struggling to figure out just what genre to call Deadly Premonition. It must be a survival horror game, right? There are zombies, and you shoot them. But, no, the zombies are gone, and now we’re in a pleasant country town. And apparently we not only need to solve a mystery, but we need to eat and sleep? Is this an RPG? A survival game? And the answer to these questions is that Deadly Premonition really isn’t interested in what genre you want to ascribe to it, it wants to create a world and tell a story and damned if it means it won’t be categorization friendly.

Under no circumstances according to industry logic should Deadly Premonition work. From robotic character animations to blocky and undetailed environments, to a good chunk of gameplay being taken up by driving from point A to point B across this non-vibrant open world utilizing a less than intuitive nav system, it’s a game from ten years ago that feels like it was made fifteen years ago. And yet, if you can get over scoffing at how Deadly Premonition fails to live up to the level of polish and apparent labor you expect from AAA games, you find yourself slowly becoming charmed in spite of its limitations. You find yourself wanting to explore the many rustic locations and interact with the sometimes cartoonish townsfolk. And you find that FBI agent Francis York Morgan makes an incredibly charming protagonist, dead eyes and all.

I find myself wondering how this game can grab me when so many more labored games bounce right off me. A lot of the more high profile games that come out seem to feature a high level of polish, but in the process of putting more labor into the game you see fear creep in, a lack of risk. Better to make a reliable amount of cash now than bother trying to make something memorable, and so sameness seeps into a large swath of what we get, as well as an incoherent vision as games like Far Cry 5 tackle the politics of small town America while desperately trying to offset those politics to keep from offending potential consumers. The wow factor is temporary, and what’s left is hollow. Now, compare this to Deadly Premonition, a game that’s so original I can’t really explain it easily.

“Original” seems like an odd word to apply to something that so openly cribs from Twin Peaks and David Lynch, much less because Lynch is such an influence on so many video games. In particular it’s hard not to compare it to the game Alan Wake from the same year, which itself featured combat with unexplainable demonic forces of the night and a forested small-town setting. You can also draw parallels to Silent Hill and many detective games. But Deadly Premonition incorporates its Lynchian tendencies in two ways that are rather unique. Firstly, Deadly Premonition is horrifying, disturbing, moving, and funny, often at the same time and not always definite about which the player is supposed to feel. Even when Alan Wake went for humor, it was obvious what exactly the player was supposed to find funny, and it was in specific cases. Deadly Premonition makes no attempts to define which you’re supposed to feel at which time, and when it’s a little more clear the tone can shift radically at any moment. You might be journeying into the bowels of hell, surrounded by demonic entities that want you dead, but no matter what Francis Morgan will just stand there and tap his shoulder, nonchalant and unfazed every step of the way. Any other game would consider this tonal whiplash, but like Lynch’s movies Deadly Premonition has zero interest in how it’s SUPPOSED to handle tone, it only cares that you react.

The other way it differs is something of a weird catch-22. I might even call it uncanny. The Twin Peaks influence at the heart of Deadly Premonition is so blatant, so obvious, that the player ceases to think about the ways in which it’s like Twin Peaks. You compare games like Alan Wake and Silent Hill to Twin Peaks. You look at Deadly Premonition and mostly notice the ways in which it DIVERGES from Twin Peaks, because it’s so close to Twin Peaks that its differences only become more pronounced. Take the similarities between Special Agent Dale Cooper from Twin Peaks and York Morgan: both characters are eccentric FBI agents with a predilection for coffee and confections, both utilize bizarre esoteric investigative methods in catching their crook, and both seem to talk to an invisible friend. The last part is especially interesting: Dale Cooper would frequently deliver updates into a tape recorder addressed to someone named “Diane,” an individual who originally (though this changed in Season 3) was completely ambiguous as to her identity and whether she even existed or was just an invention of Cooper’s. Morgan does the same thing…almost…with a striking variance. We first meet York talking to someone named “Zach” while driving to Greenvale, but there’s no diegetic evidence that it’s into a tape recorder or a phone or anything of the sort. Zach definitely appears to be an imaginary friend. But functionally, Zach becomes the stand in for the player, we’re in conversation with York. He looks to us for guidance and to make decisions for him. We talk with Zach about old B movies and punk bands. If you’ve seen Twin Peaks, this change actually means more, because it’s Twin Peaks remixed into something different, and something specific to games as a medium.

I think that’s why I would call Deadly Premonition truly uncanny. It looks like a video game, it has the trappings of a video game, and it has tropes and imagery you associate with past TV shows, movies, and games. But I cannot confidently compare it to anything else. It even looks like a game that should be dreadful, but it’s great taken as a whole experience, achieving enough of its own goals even with its budgetary constraints. Its imperfections coalesce in a way that almost doesn’t feel real, and for a game about the nightmarish faux reality of small town America, that’s kind of perfect.

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