Driving and Talking in Deadly Premonition

It’s no surprise that many modern video games revolve around shooting and driving. As the modern video game blockbuster has gravitated towards shooters over the last few decades, the modern game controller has evolved towards something that feels like a gun. The Xbox 360 controller and Dualshock 3 are the stagnant and inbred results of this progression. The modern day controller is built around dual analogue triggers, which are suited perfectly to replicate the key verb of shooting. Shooting is what our index fingers are constantly poised to do. We may take it for granted, but the controller very much is a gun.

To a lesser extent, the common, modern gamepads with their analogue triggers can suitably represent the accelerator and brake pedals of a car. Driving games, particularly racing games, are a well represented genre. Although I’m very attracted to the use of cars in video games, I have never found myself engaged in racing, or running down pedestrians, or any of the other common ways we utilise them in our digital worlds. I’m the farthest thing from a ‘car person,’ but it’s obvious to me that beyond their builds, brands and technicalities, cars are woefully underrepresented in video games. (Like most things, I suppose.)

Deadly Premonition is a horror game of which you’ll only be spending half your time playing the horror part. The distinction is explicit, indicated by two different coloured loading screens. Any player will soon learn that if the loading screens are red, they are about to shoot zombies. But when the loading screens are black, the town of Greenvale goes about their ordinary, daily lives. Protagonist and FBI Agent Francis York Morgan spends this time visiting the different locations around town, talking to people and trying to uncover evidence for his case, which the story is centred around. There is almost no acknowledgement of the zombies in this “normal” half of the game.

Most of this time is spent driving across town.

In one scene, York spends the night in a bar and ends up in sentimental conversations with the town sherriff, George; and deputy, Emily. George, feeling threatened by York’s ‘big city’ intrusion to his ‘small town’ domain, had previously gone out of his way to be alienating. In this scene, we see George open up to York and the player, shedding some light onto his childhood. This night is also the first time York sees Emily dolled up, not in her police uniform, much to his infatuation.

When the night is over, York drives home. If this were a film, most of the drive would be omitted for pacing issues. In Deadly Premonition, you witness its entirety in the first person. It is around this point in the game at which York begins to acknowledge and solidify his feelings for Emily. Both York and the player are given the chance to digest this new perspective on the events and to explore their thoughts and emotions.

What Deadly Premonition expresses with its driving is these moments of reflection which punctuate the more involved events of a narrative. This made me realise that I don’t need a game to be so insecure that it needs to constantly keep me occupied while in a car. I don’t engage with the exhilaration of traditional video game racing, or the content drip-feed of exposition from someone in the passenger seat or the radio.

All Deadly Premonition provides is the vocalisation of York’s thoughts as they drift away from him. He muses over movies he watched when he was young and remembers past cases from when he was new to the Bureau. The movie references are what tip the balance from York being an interesting character to a loveable one. Games have an aversion to referencing popular culture, at least on a diegetic level. Even games set in our real world are only really in some approximation of it, with popular brands understandably replaced by mimics and faux labels. To hear York speak about the sadomasochistic subtext of the Tom and Jerry Show and to make reference to Robert Zemeckis and Back to the Future comes as a bit of a shock, and makes York’s character feel genuine.

I am not a car person, but this is something about cars to which I can certainly relate. To me, long car drives represent this self-reflection and aimless pondering which break up the more involved parts of my life.

The only time which Deadly Premonition comes close to a car chase or racing sequence is when York receives an urgent phone call which requires him to hurry to the scene of a crime which is being committed at that moment. But it doesn’t become “racing”, as much as “driving with a sense of urgency”. And crucially, this is the exception to the rule. In these segments the traditional jazzy music which usually accompanies driving is replaced with an unfamiliar silence. York stoically drives to the scene with just the noise of the rain and the drone of the wind-screen wipers.

When you do have a passenger in the seat, the game recreates the awkwardness of conversations in cars with people who you aren’t entirely familiar. In Deadly Premonition, passengers never mechanically repeat the same identical quips about your bad driving when you crash or break the speed limit, nor do they have a continuous script which is written to fill exactly the average time the player should take to reach the quest marker.

Instead, much of the car trip is made in silence intermitted by sporadic micro-conversations. The prompt to talk will pop up as if a potential conversation has just popped into York’s head, and the player can decide whether they will pursue it or continue driving in silence.

The game avoids being transparent and contrived and sells these drives so well that in my first person perspective, I kept feeling the need to turn the camera to look at Emily as she spoke or just to snatch a lingering glance of her sitting beside me, before having to return my attention to the road as a responsible driver should.

The other vital thing which sells the characters and the world is the game system which delivers the dialogue. These conversations aren’t triggered by any player progression. After a while of driving in silence a prompt will appear, letting the player press A and hear what York is thinking. It doesn’t drive the story forward, or deliver supplementary narrative content in an audio log fashion.

The irregular occurrence of these in-car conversations or monologues is the key to suspending the player’s disbelief and works on a similar principle to operant conditioning. Compare Deadly Premonition to Portal 2: a game in which this conversational content is systemically distributed as the prelude and conclusion of each test chamber. When a player completes a puzzle, they are rewarded by another highly entertaining and cleverly written taunt or joke from GLaDOS.

If a game relies on this, then when they fail to maintain this consistency, the world immediately becomes hollow. Luckily, Portal 2 does maintain this consistency throughout, in no small thanks to its meticulous and linear pacing. Not all games are able to keep this up. For example, Bringing Down the Sky, a DLC mission for Mass Effect promptly shattered my immersion in the Mass Effect world when it became obvious that my teammates would remain silent throughout the entire mission. Obviously, BioWare couldn’t afford to bring back the voice actors for all party members that any player might choose to bring along for the mission. Their avatars followed me through the cover based shooting, and stood, rendered in the background in all of the cutscenes. But they weren’t there.

Deadly Premonition, which is comparatively a budget title, has to subvert this with subtle and elegant design. Outside of cutscenes, conversational dialogue “content” is not distributed on a fixed interval. Reinforcement on a variable interval leads to good resistance to behavioural extinction, and likewise, my familiarity of the sporadic nature of the dialogue helped to prevent the world from feeling dead when there was no script or voice acting to patch over whichever particular segment of the game I was playing.

While racing games place focus on ensuring the sound of high speed engine roaring is visceral and delicious, the sounds which really sell the driving are the ones that Deadly Premonition gets spot on: the contrast between a gentle hum and silence when you turn off the engine. York enters the car then starts the engine in a methodical manner. The prompt which lets you get out of the car only appears when the car is stationary, preventing you from diving out of the vehicle at high speeds at the tap of a button, a la Grand Theft Auto.

The ability to toggle headlights and windscreen wipers on and off is a trivial, but an enormously welcome inclusion. The town of Greenvale is under constant rain, particularly in dramatic moments of the story (unless the rain is actually completely systemic and I have been influenced by selection bias). You are free to drive with the wipers off, but switching them on will clear your windscreen.

These tangible sensations of interacting with a car are just some of the many small, human touches in the game, along with the need to eat, sleep and shave.

As I see it, there is only one improvement the driving in Deadly Premonition could have: an animation of York pressing the horn with his hand instead of its playing by itself. Every game in which you can drive, I immediately check to see if there is a horn, and if an animation of the avatar pressing the horn plays when I use it. Grand Theft Auto 4 is the only game I have played which does this, and it doesn’t even have a first person mode (that can be accessed without the laboured affair of mod installation).

Deadly Premonition also imbues personality into characters through the personification of the different cars that the townsfolk of Greenvale use themselves. In Shamus Young’s autobiographical series on his blog (specifically parts 2 and 9), he describes an association and synecdoche of cars to their owners he developed as a child.

When I was very young, I made some sort of connection between people and their cars. Someone would visit, and I’d look out the window and observe that their car was outside. Certain cars always went with certain people, and I could tell who was knocking on the door just by seeing what car was parked outside.

Each character in Greenvale has their own unique car which they use to traverse the world in their daily routines. Driving past the local diner, players may notice a truck with a doghouse sitting in the back, undeniably belonging to Kaysen, and know that he will be having lunch at that diner. Like many objects in the world, York can approach cars and press the context-sensitive ‘Examine’ key to make an observation about it and how it reflects the personality of the owner. These thoughts come natively to a criminal profiler like York. Upon inspection on George’s car, the “Elephant T-3”, the largest and fastest car from the department, York comments on how it is representative of George’s compulsion to flaunt his strength and superiority.

York himself develops his personality, becoming a different character over the course of the game. This change begins when he first meets Emily and first experiences the titular premonitions. It’s no coincidence that the game opens with the wreckage of York’s car on his entrance to Greenvale.

There is much more to cars than just racing, and there is much more to conversation than just exposition. Deadly Premonition is one of the few games which explores that space.

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