I crashed eight times during my playthrough of Deadly Premonition on the Switch, often at critical moments. In a game with long load screens, this seemed like an unforgivable sin. “So good it’s bad,” was testing my patience, even if I knew coming in that Deadly Premonition was a flawed cult classic. This wasn’t the original Xbox 360 version I was playing either, but the latest Switch iteration. They should have ironed out the bugs by now, right? Any other game and I would have given up in frustration after the crashes. But despite the uneven, buggy, and often bewildering game mechanics, I found myself continually returning to find out more about the mysteries lurking behind the city of Greenvale.
The allure of the game is hard to diagnose. It’s an uncanny concoction of strange murders, even weirder denizens, and an ecosystem within the town of Greenvale replete with bizarre rituals that somehow percolates into the subconscious ruminations of gamer’s minds. The uneven graphics, choppy animation, and miscued audio volume switches only increase the discomfiting mood. It’s as though the game’s programming is intentionally messing with your head. Several friends have described Deadly Premonition as Twin Peaks meets Silent Hill with a dash of the film, Kingsman, which, on a superficial level, makes sense. But this isn’t just a low-budget facsimile of past pop culture hits; the inspirations have birthed a chimera that left me unnervingly confused in the best way possible.
There’s this nostalgia for a time and place that never existed in the game, paradise ruined in a town that’s supposed to represent the American dream but is actually its cruel reflection. In Greenvale, FBI Agent Francis York Morgan comes across a slice of America that seems as foreign to me as going to another country. I’ve never lived in a small town before. So to enter a place where everyone pretty much knows each other seems idyllic. The side quests further highlight the routine of their lives, whether it’s cooking new dishes with Sheriff Emily, or moving boxes in the storage area for the Milk Barn’s owner, Lilly.
The pacing for Deadly Premonition is all over the place. At times, the momentum of the plot seems to build with surprisingly good urgency, only to fritter out into musings on food, old B-movies, and fishing escapades. The noirish rhythms go together well with the sleazy underbelly of the town, but it often can’t sustain the macabre mix, similar to the audio tracks in the game that are unable to loop properly when they reach their end. Deadly Premonition throws a whole lot of everything at the player all at once, whether it’s fishing, card-collecting, dart throwing, or just following the lives of the people of Greenvale. But the mundane abruptly becomes untethered from reality as the Otherworld takes over whenever the weather changes and rain becomes an ominous downpouring. The residents stay indoors as part of an urban myth that has been passed along through the decades that the rain causes harm.
In the rusted, nightmare-fueled dissipation of the alternate Greenvale, a feral chirality transforms the people of Greenvale into ghoulish zombies trying to choke York to death. The biggest threat, however, is the ominous Raincoat Killer who hunts York. The game doesn’t evoke much in the fear department and the combat is passable once York gains the proper gear. I obtained the legendary guitar Grecotch pretty early on, which is an unbreakable melee weapon that kills most enemies with one blow. Combining the invincible guitar with an unlimited magnum made a majority of the fights a breeze. The most intense parts of the game occur when the Raincoat Killer gives chase to York. York runs in a mad dash with the camera pointed at him instead of ahead so it’s impossible to see where he’s going. QTEs are often the only thing keeping York alive as instant deaths are the penalty for failure. Continues are forgiving and aside from these fatal encounters, most of the game’s villains pose little threat to York. At least until the giant demonic monster at the end that threatens to drive him to suicide by planting a tree in the womb of his loved one.
The Greatest Sin
The supernatural origins of the plight of Greenvale are convoluted, turning the mystery case into a conspiracy thriller with government plots and secret toxins explaining the corruption of the Otherworld. In retrospect, the identity of the Raincoat Killer and the puppetmaster pulling the strings is telegraphed pretty much every step of the way if you know where to look. But I was generally more interested in the prosaic; shaving, collecting the bones of a dead human, getting a carwash from a character that retired from wrestling in Rumble Roses, cleaning clothes to ward off flies, delivering packages for Quint and Anna, hearing the General regale York with tales about his days in the army, and finding good food.
In Twin Peaks, main character Agent Dale Cooper gives advice that I still try to follow. “Every day, once a day, give yourself a present. Don’t plan it. Don’t wait for it. Just let it happen.” While York isn’t Agent Cooper, Cooper’s DNA is definitely in his taste buds and he makes sure to enjoy his morning coffee every morning at the Great Deer Yard Hotel and lunch wherever he can get it.
I began to live small town life vicariously through York. No game is played in a vacuum and I played through Deadly Premonition during the pandemic, stuck at home for the most part, unable to eat out. Seeing York visit the A&G diner in Greenvale reminded me how much I missed going to restaurants. There used to be a diner near where I lived, 50s cafe style, that served the best scrambles and pancakes. Pretty good milkshake too. Every time I entered the A&G, my olfactory senses got triggered and I made sure to order plenty of food for York.
There’s been a recent trend in games to produce food porn that often looks better than real life dishes. Deadly Premonition showcases the ultimate in anti-food porn called the Sinners Sandwich, which is probably the most viscerally disgusting piece of food aesthetics I’ve seen in a game. This isn’t just a melted sampuru look either. The ingredients- jam, turkey, and cereal mashed together- resemble vomit and is cringe-inducing. And yet York’s reaction after taking a bite is amazement; the food is incredible. If the dish is a self-aware meta nod to the game and its ambitions, it succeeds.
There is an esoteric quality to Twin Peaks that is more humanized in Deadly Premonition just because you end up spending so much time within Greenvale and its people. A town hall meeting introduces the strange cast of characters, many of whom you never need to interact with again if you choose not to. But finding out more about them is rewarded with interesting backstories as no one is who they seem on the surface; in the case of Brian the Gravekeeper, one of the creepiest people York will meet, there’s even theories that he’s actually a walking dead guy. The odd thing about the game is that despite its reputation for being low budget, the voice acting is top notch. Some of the dialogue is quirky, but the delivery feels authentic, giving the game a sense of personality that doesn’t rely on witty repartees every other line. The voice talent for the main characters in particular are fantastic and had me engaged, even during moments of obvious exposition.
Throughout the entire journey, York addresses an imaginary friend, Zach, who seems a proxy figure for the player. Key decisions, moments of insight, and even private confessions are saved for “Zach.” I found this especially poignant because ever since I was a kid, I’ve always named my RPG avatars “Zach.” In a moment of uncanny synchronicity, the Zach that York addresses is the videogame embodiment of every nameable game character I’ve played as.
So in light of that, I was a bit disappointed that there was more to Zach than the game developers trying to make contact with gamers beyond the fourth wall. The final reveal about the Raincoat Killer and “FK” seems almost anticlimactic in comparison. At some point, I knew the mysteries had to have a resolution, but the process getting there was the most intriguing part. I’ve read that David Lynch never wanted Laura Palmer’s murder case to be solved in Twin Peaks. Instead, her murder would remain a macguffin throughout the show which would focus on the people of Twin Peaks and how her death affected them. I almost wish Deadly Premonition gave fruition to that aspiration.
Instead, the small town murder mystery becomes a monster mash rife with melodrama, split identities, and some of the weirdest boss battles I’ve ever engaged in. The best thing I can say about the final stretch is that I didn’t know what to expect and it just kept getting stranger and stranger.
After I finished the game, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. I still don’t know how to feel about it. I watched a bunch of YouTube videos explaining why it’s one of the most brilliant games ever despite its flaws. I don’t know if i’d go that far. But this seemingly disparate, imperfect game with jarring bugs left me wanting more. I could feel the passion of the developers from Access Games working with a minimal budget to weave together a game with more charm than many of its more refined kin possessed. I found myself wishing I could go back to Greenvale so I could spend more time with its people.
But Zach, I thought we were going back for the sequel?