Deadly Premonition and The Value of Schlock

I swear I’ll get back to anime reviews shortly- I was planning on reviewing Berserk recently, but my thoughts are proving difficult to articulate as a post. I’ve also decided to stop episodic posts- the blog is just starting out, so I need to find my niche and what I’m most comfortable writing, and episodic posts reflect immediate reactions to shows that are a mere fraction of the show’s complete picture. I try not to be too arrogant in my presentation of my opinions, but nonetheless I don’t want them to be half-baked. Anyway, with the season ending, expect reviews of the currently airing shows shortly.

Until then, more games I finished recently, that will maybe be read by one or two people a few years down the road if I’m lucky. Spoilers for Deadly Premonition: Director’s Cut.

It’s difficult to analyse the themes of a narrative like Deadly Premonition’s. For one, game journalism is largely caught up in describing a game’s technical aspects, largely ignoring the overall emotions that a game presents. This is reflected in Deadly Premonition’s wildly fluctuating review scores. But yes, the game has subpar graphics and generally doesn’t play like a PS3 or Xbox360 game. It’s an old game released later than it probably should have been.

But I don’t really care about that. The other difficult thing about analysing Deadly Premonition is that most of one’s time thinking about it will largely be spent figuring out the logic- many aspects of the game’s story are either left intentionally ambiguous or had to be cut during development for whatever reason. Of course, sometimes the story flat out makes no sense. But, lets take this slowly- I believe I have a solid interpretation of what this game is about. Greenvale and Deadly Premonition’s supernatural universe as a whole is a psychological landscape that the protagonist projects his emotional and psychological state onto in order to cope with childhood trauma.

The premise is rather simple- York is an FBI investigator with a particular interest in the murders of young women, which for some reason are almost always linked to these ‘red seeds’, although prior to the events of the game he hasn’t figured out their significance. The game takes us to Greenvale where a murder of a young girl named Anna Graham (Haha puns) took place. As he progresses through the case he has various run ins with zombies that the game refers to as shadows- York never seems bothered by their existence, other characters don’t notice them, and York never brings them up, even by the end of the game, they seem to have no significance to the overt narrative, their only function being to seemingly insert action and survival horror elements to an otherwise violence free game (in terms of gameplay). York is wisecracking and almost immediately likable, but also noticeably unhinged- he has an alternate personality named Zach who he frequently talks to, often in front of other people who pay it no mind. He is unfazed by the zombies and will rather casually bring up past murder cases (such as a killer using a woman’s skull as a urinal) over dinner, as if they were regular ice breakers as smooth jazz plays. Deadly Premonition is a comedy- its horror elements are mostly effective yet completely irrelevant, and the whole thing is one big homage to American B movie schlock and, of course, Twin Peaks. The game isn’t just one big joke-fest, and to list off too many specific lines and scenes and to describe too much of the games zany cast would be redundant, the game speaks for itself and it speaks for itself just fine. However- there’s some actual drama, some actual character underneath its multiple layers of overt and diverse genre homage and parody.

York is genre savvy, and he’s an experienced agent. He’s seen the same types of crimes go down many times before. “He hated women. That was his way of dealing with it.” Usually when a story presents this kind of self awareness, it will try to subvert the expectations it establishes or it will play the story line as usual whilst poking fun at it. The motivations of the Raincoat Killer are largely played straight, however. George the sheriff had an abusive mother which gave him a power complex, and a need to dominate others. He has a female complex, too, and thusly he has an obsession over Emily and ritualistically slaughters young women in the town so that the red seeds will grant him immortality, as per the legend. York makes plenty of wisecracks at his expense, and before the second phase of his boss fight, George whines and pleads comically to his absent mother- much like a child. George’s motivations are entirely based upon basic Freudian principles, and there’s a sad inevitability to how this reveal plays out, alongside the jokes. York knows how the story goes, and he is basically unfased by the Dragon Ball Z super form George takes on to fight him. Fundamentally, he is no different to any other serial killer that ever existed. He’s just another criminal, visualised metaphorically as a monster. In essence, Deadly Premonition plays out almost identically to most other stories of this genre. The difference here is in the ending following the George boss fight, which I’ll get to soon. Until then, however, the major difference is in how the game presents itself. Namely, the supernatural elements are merely reflections of how York views his crime procedures. The Raincoat Killer is a legacy, an idea, rather than a person. The shadows aren’t literally zombies, in universe, it becomes apparent that the shadows are actually the ghosts of the Greenvale Citizens killed during the 1956 Raincoat Killer massacre, reflected in their period appropriate attire and the purple fog that caused them to go berserk in the first place. When York gets close to figuring out a part of the case, the past actively tries to scare him away from and hide the truth, metaphorically represented by the ghosts of the citizens from said past, including the Raincoat Killer himself. George is visualised as a monster during his boss fight, as is the game’s mastermind, Forrest Kaysen. The supernatural elements inform us of York’s psychology, specifically his approach to investigation. The framing device featuring an aged grandfather retelling the events of the game to his granddaughter even confirm this. “It’s all fiction dear, don’t believe everything your grandfather says.”

So what is the game about? It’s all very well and good that the game’s lore doesn’t have to make sense since it’s all inside York’s mind. Well, it’s about childhood trauma as it relates to media.

W’d been led to believe that Zach was York’s alter ego, who never speaks but nonetheless has an impact. The player, from the perspective of Zach, frequently make choices as York consults us. Therefore, most players will quickly come to the conclusion that Zach is merely the player’s representation in Deadly Premonition’s universe. An invisible entity with little control over York’s actions. Soon, it is suggested that Zach is York’s coping mechanism for when he saw his father kill his mother before killing himself, a childhood trauma that needed an entirely new personality to protect himself from psychological damage. The actual truth of the matter is actually more complex, however.

So, the big twist is thus- that Zach is actually the original personality. York, the savvy, likable B movie hero was actually a fabrication of Zach’s psyche, to protect himself from a darker truth surrounding his parents- his mother was made to suffer by the game’s big bad, and his father was unable to kill her out of mercy, because he loved his wife too much. He lets her die in agony before shooting himself, leaving his son with the arc words, “Sometimes in this world you must destroy something that is not supposed to exist, even if it means losing someone you love.” His father’s words are what allows Zach to save the woman he loves from similar suffering at the hands of Kasen. Mercy killing, and what helps him fully separate himself from the York persona and become his own person in time for the final boss fight.

So how does this relate to media? It’s fairly simple- York is a representation of the media Zach enjoyed to block out his childhood trauma. Deadly Premonition is created as a loving homage to all the movies and TV shows that Zach enjoyed to save himself from his own sanity, and York is his self insert protagonist, his power fantasy. York will frequently talk to Zach while driving, reminiscing fondly of old movies, classics like Jaws and Superman and good bad movies such as ‘attack of the killer memories’ offering up thoughts an opinions very casually. By looking at their character through the lens of media saturation we see how and why the supernatural elements visualize themselves as horror and schlock. Their metaphor, their job, and their jokes are also their coping mechanism.

So what is the overall message of Deadly Premonition? Media cures all? Kill your wives? Amazing Grace can make even brutal serial killings seem deep and meaningful? (That sequence was actually really, really good, giving us wordless insight into the original Raincoat Killer’s true motivations and tragic fate) Well, Deadly Premonition doesn’t really seem to have a moral. It’s a character study, and It’s simply a smartly constructed story wherein all the elements of the game from the comedy to the horror drive the poignant drama. When the game starts to take itself seriously at the end, you may not understand it fully, but for most people, I think they’ll feel as though the game earned it. I certainly did. This is a wonderful game presenting a wide range of emotions and tones seamlessly and allowing for and welcoming a wealth of interpretation both narratively and thematically. Deadly Premonition is a wonderful, unforgettable experience.

For me personally, Deadly Premonition is not only a love letter to the genre films that so inspired Zach, (and likely the game’s writers and developers, too) celebrating the bad and good of the genre, but it’s also a game that understands the value of these films, so called ‘schlock’ or inferior art. Even if they can’t literally protect us from grave and psychological damage like in the game, we can still become better people due to what we watch and what we love. We can become trapped in our love and emotional dependence on art and media, yes, just like Zach was trapped inside his own mind, his own red room swimming with repressed memories and genre cliches, depending on York to carry him through his life from a child to a thirty-something year old FBI agent. Ultimately, however, Zach comes out on top due to what he loves- due to who he loves- and he comes out a more fulfilled and emotionally independent person as a result.

Sure did take him a bloody long time, though!


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