For a couple of months now, I’ve been wondering if there would ever come along a video-game that would, er, refudiate (damn it, it’s addictive) the now-famous Roger Ebert claim that the medium can never be art. Not, you know, wondering that hard. I have fiction-related stuff to be getting on with. That narrative form can presumably take care of itself.
Pictured: art. And ambiguous directorial motives.
But, still, it matters to me, so I was delighted to find the game that proves him wrong. It’s called Deadly Premonition, and it was made by a small Japanese studio, and then hawked over here a few months ago as a budget game. It got a couple of awful reviews for its dreadful appearance, unnecessary combat, odd design decisions, etc. Then some irritating hipsters began to declare that it was so bad it was good. Then some more irritating hipsters insisted that, actually, in spite of everything it was good in its own right. Now I’m planning to be the most irritating hipster of all.
Let me explain. Deadly Premonition is maybe fifty-percent ripping-off Twin Peaks – a coffee-sipping FBI agent travels to a surreal, pine-filled American town to investigate the death of a young girl – and fifty-percent ripping-off the quirkily-gory Japanese horror games of yesteryear, in particular one of the best (I’ll give you a clue. Deadly Premonition invokes it with mysterious rituals, a deranged killer who tends to pop out and force the hero to hide in nearby cupboards, and a clocktower. A Clocktower.). There’s actually also a little Japanese-style surrealism in there too; the gas-mask-wearing “mysterious capitalist” Harry Stewart, who whizzes about in a wheelchair and speaks only in benevolent proverbs through his rhyming butler, Michael, is pretty Murakami. Actually, has anyone ever taken the time to compare Murakami and Twin Peaks? Might be interesting.
What Deadly Premonition does have is a protagonist who’s pretty unique, and who actually gets to explore the problems and fascinations of the gaming medium without ever truly breaking the fourth wall. Y’see, ‘Agent Francis York Morgan’ is no ordinary FBI agent. In fact, judging from the way he shoves his badge into the face of every new person he meets and announces his full title, staccato, and the fact that he never contacts his agency, ever, we might be inclined to believe that he is no FBI agent, period. ‘York’, as everybody calls him, is a twitchy type with a habit of constantly raising his hand to his ear, as if there’s an earpiece there (there isn’t) and talking to his good buddy Zach, who nobody else can see.
Now Zach is an odd one; part imaginary friend, part spiritual guide, he sees what York sees and to some extent controls him. In the most intense moments, York asks him what he should do, in idleness, York chats to him about 80s movies, and often when he’s having a conversation with one of the townsfolk, York will mock them, in asides, to Zach. Nobody ever seems to notice this. York is obviously a nutter, a freak, though a well-intentioned one – but at the same time, Zach is us, the player; so we laugh at his jokes and warm to his position. The ‘normal’ people very quickly become the outsiders.
Pictured: also art.
I should also mention that, in-game, York has to go around town questioning suspects, calling meetings, holding autopsies, and so on. But everyone in the town has their own daily routine set out for them (they genuinely do follow an intricate pattern around the map), and the game plays out in near-real time. So York, the outsider with nothing to occupy him, is often left with time on his hands and nothing to do, as the town plays itself out all around him?
So what does he do? He smokes endless cigarettes, for one, which do actually cause time to speed up. But he also plays games, sad, lonely games. You can take York down to the lake and fish, in the torrential rain, a happy little smile on his face. You can partake in solo races around the parking lots of the town, which he seems to have invented on the spot, as he never breaks the speed limit. You can even send out for fresh laundry, predict the future in your coffee, shave, and, most poignantly of all, walk up to residents’ houses, which you cannot enter, and ‘peek’ at them going about their daily lives. His freedom is beautiful, but also oppressive. There’s a genuine world, all around him, that he can participate in, but never fully enter. Sooner or later he’ll have to leave the little town and venture back into reality – we can only hope – an improved man. (There’s actually a great deal more of this in the game’s often bizarre and laughable plot. But I spoil not.)
Pictured...actually, okay, this one's debatable.
This is the difference, in the end, between the majority of fiction and video games, or cinema and video games. Not this illusionary 'freedom' thing, but the fact that the two 'established' art forms allow us to remain apart, an observer to the last (in most cases - see my Second Person article). Video games take us further in; we become complicit in the action, and more fully immersed. It's far closer to 'pure' escapism. I'm often reminded of the danger implicit in the character of Jonathan in Angela Carter's The Magic Toyshop, who daydreams so thoroughly that he drifts out of the narrative and vanishes entirely. If games are to take us further into the illusionary other-world, my point is, they'll have to work far harder to make sure we come out with a heightened sense of ourselves, not a lessened one. But it can be done. There's no reason it can't be done.
What’s that, Zach? Freaks? I don’t remember being asked to write anything about freaks.