If you've heard anything about Deadly Premonition in the past, chances are it involved the word "weird". (Oh look, we've used it just up there.) But that's an adjective falling well short of doing this obtuse masterpiece any kind of justice.
Released in February 2010, during the peak of the Xbox 360 era, Deadly Premonition marked the end of six years' tireless work by a young Japanese auteur named Hidetaka Suehiro – a man also commonly referred to as SWERY, or Swery65. In an age where big, boxed video games could be incredibly conservative in design, Suehiro offered the world a unique window into gaming's delightfully ramshackle and sometimes ugly past.
Production began at Access Games back in 2004 under the title Rainy Woods – an ambitious "cynical urban drama" with a strong focus on forensic science and murder mystery. The game was officially unveiled at Tokyo Game Show in 2007 earning immediate comparisons to David Lynch's classic TV drama Twin Peaks, but production was ceased shortly thereafter due to "technological difficulties". A more educated guess would be that Access risked facing a lawsuit for creative, or copyright theft, despite the end product remaining heavily in debt to Lynch's vision.
'Rainy Woods' trailer from Tokyo Game Show, 2007
Revived as Deadly Premonition, this deeply bizarre open-world survival horror is widely considered one of the most critically divisive games of all time. Set in the fictional mountain town of Greenvale, the player acts as a stranger in a superstitious community steeped in violent folklore, anxious locals and pastoral simplicity. The protagonist is detective Francis York Morgan, a troubled but good-natured eccentric living with a strange form of personality disorder. Summoned to Greenvale to investigate the murder of 18-year-old Anna Graham, York teams up with the naïve but similarly troubled county sheriff George Woodman and his conscientious deputy Emily Wyatt, who also serves as a later love interest. (And who is, in no way, completely modelled on Naomi Watts. Obviously.)
The game begins as a conventional whodunit, but soon turns into a surreal game of cat and mouse between York and a psychopath reliving the horrors of the Raincoat Killer (pictured, main), a murderer who terrified the town some 60 years prior. A core aspect of the game involves piecing together evidence found during nightmarish "Otherworld" sequences, analogues to Silent Hill's creepy parallel universe of the same name, which also play host to Deadly Premonition's disastrous combat system. It's unclear whether York is mentally ill or actually blessed with a supernatural gift for criminal profiling, as each piece of evidence allows him to replay the event of the crime in clear hindsight. This profiling is almost always informed by conversation with Zach, an unseen entity cohabiting York's mind. You'll never hear or see Zach, but his presence has a significant role in both the story and your understanding of the character's past.
The beauty of Deadly Premonition lies entirely with its cast and setting, which is arguably a character in itself. Greenvale isn't just a mundane rural town bereft of life – it's a diseased victim in dire need of saving. The barbarism inflicted during the 1950s Raincoat Killings still hits hard on daily life, leaving inhabitants slave to an unspoken rule to shut up shop, stay home and keep your head down during rainfall. This clever plotting gives Greenvale a sense of reality as you explore its community, only to see it descend into an eerie ghost town at the first sign of rain. These little moments transcend the game above its evident technical mediocrity and into something altogether more profound.
Then there's the music and dialogue, and for a game developed on a shoestring budget, the cast clearly gets it. York's distant but lovable inflection is delivered with a pitch-perfect comical sincerity providing just the right balance between cheese and drama. The same can be said of his peers George and Emily, particularly the latter whose growth as a character and love interest provides some of the game's strongest emotional punches. Sure, it all very much resides in B-movie territory, but given the nature of the plot and visuals, it wouldn't have worked any other way.
The trailer for the game's 2013 "director's cut"
Musically, the game cycles the same inane whistling jingle more times than many will care to count, but for others it's just another part of the peculiarity of this unique game. Other passages include a particularly rousing piece of anti-folk guitar that turns up during sinister moments, while investigations are accompanied by an eerie combination of sax, keys and synth. The soundtrack is likely as divisive as the game itself, ghastly to some but genius to others – but is that not the sign of universally effective art?
The character development isn't just left to conventional cutscenes but also York's wonderfully odd in-game narration. Some of the best moments arise during driving from scene to scene as York reminisces about past cases, love interests and, best of all, music. As a former punk rocker, the moment he begins rambling to Zach about his preference for "more cerebral" punk like Joy Division and The Buzzcocks over Zach's love of Sham 69 and The Clash is priceless. How this broadening of our protagonist's back-story is communicated lends further validation to the video game format's suitability as a storytelling tool.
The biggest hurdle for most players is no doubt the gameplay itself. Deadly Premonition is a phenomenal experience but, at the same time, a terrible game. Cast your mind to the shooting mechanics of Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space but take away the ease of movement, stability and fun. Controlling York in combat is a drag only slightly improved by the ability to move and melee attack in the Director's Cut version, which came out in 2013. Opposition comes from contorted ghost-like humans that bend into all manner of positions to try and grab you and, well, enter your mouth. You'll occasionally be confronted with 24-style split-screen quick time events, but thankfully these work in the game's favour, upping the ante in terms of panic as you wrestle the controls to avoid detection from the Raincoat Killer.
The driving is slow, the inventory is stupid and the cash perks and penalties system doesn't add up to a whole lot despite the odd chuckle to be had from being declared a "stinky agent" for not washing or changing York's clothes (complete with flies, which follow you everywhere). Still, we're in an era where high-octane first-person shooters and inane, fast food mobile culture reigns supreme. Gone are the days when oddball titles like Gitaroo Man, Shadow of Memories or Global Defence Force can get a look in next to a major project from a big publisher. Deadly Premonition is the hangover of a flawed era of creativity, a game that emerged from its cocoon too late. But it's also proof that, even today, gamers are looking for more than graphical prowess. They want something to latch onto, and to love.
There remain a lot unanswered questions about Suehiro's intentions during the making of what eventually became Deadly Premonition, but such mystery only elevates the purity of its nonconformity. There are more "WTF" moments to be had with this game than an afternoon wasted on 4chan, but as Suehiro has said, again and again: "I made Deadly Premonition the way I wanted it to be." Which is exactly why we've ended up with the most bizarre video game bastardisation of Twin Peaks the world could ever hope to see. Forget what the video game police might have said about it sucking on release, because this is gaming with its soul intact.
"Life is fun because of the mysteries. Right, Zach?"