Deadly Premonition: Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On
I’m at my college, which is not really my college; it looks nothing like it, but that doesn’t seem to matter. We are walking down the steep hill from our dormitory to the campus center, and there is a stiff breeze. I comment on this to my friends. But they won’t stop changing shape! Their faces keep blurring and morphing. For some reason, I don’t find this disconcerting in the slightest.
I stumble on some loose gravel, but manage to catch myself. Aside from demonstrating reflexes that I don’t typically possess, something remarkable happens: for but a moment I am buoyed by the wind, like a kite, before slowly returning to solid ground. I start performing experiments. What happens if I take a running start? What if I’m jumping downhill? How best do I exploit this glitch in gravity?
I repeat the process a few times before it dawns on me: this is a dream. However, unlike most of my dreams, this does not trigger my immediate return to consciousness. Rather I am completely aware that I am dreaming and yet, somehow, not fully awake.
So I try to fly. But I can’t!
Even in my lucid dreams, I am somehow beholden to the laws of my own stupid, made-up physics.
You are in a forest, but it looks all wrong: for one, everything is a deep, blood red. The ground is carpeted in crimson leaves and you are surrounded by a wall of red trees. You’re starting to feel claustrophobic. Sitting directly in front of you are twin blonde-headed cherubs, whispering to one another. You approach them.
“Could you wait just a little longer?” says one.
“This won’t take long,” says the other, with a creepy smile.
When you begin exploring the strange red room (or is it a clearing?), you notice that it is filled with surreal objects: a television displaying nothing but static; a fireplace connected to nowhere, yet a roaring fire within; mannequins; an amplifier; a clock that is ticking away much too fast, “though the room itself makes you feel as if time has stopped…”
The angels summon you: “Sorry to keep you waiting, it will start soon,” says one.
“It’s about time to get started,” announces the other.
They disappear. And you wake up.
I dream about video games all of the time. In fact, my dreams tend to mimic the environments and mechanics of the games I play the night before. For example, when I was playing Fallout 3 and New Vegas, most of my dreams centered around nuclear warfare, and I was even able to enter into VATS (the targeting system) to gun down my enemies. And when I was playing Skyrim, I kept dreaming of fighting dragons with a bow and arrow and my overpowered fireballs.
But Deadly Premonition is the first and only game to make me feel like I was dreaming. I’ll go one further: playing Deadly Premonition is like having a strangely vivid lucid dream. There is something uncanny about the experience and gameplay, but you can’t quite work out what it is.
It’s like being in a David Lynch film, which is appropriate considering it is very much an homage to Twin Peaks. There are countless overlaps, from the plot itself (an FBI agent is sent to investigate the murder of a young woman in a seemingly upstanding rural American town), to the bizarre cast of characters (with dark secrets of their own), to the uncanny vibe. But, whereas Lynch used cinematography to achieve the uncanny and dreamlike qualities of Twin Peaks, in Deadly Premonition this is done through its strange, some might even say “bad,” gameplay and mechanics.
For example, the controls are ridiculous (and by “modern standards,” rubbish). You play as Agent Francis York Morgan (Just call him York, everyone does), but due to the mechanics you never really feel as though you are in complete control. In terms of combat, Deadly Premonition is mechanically comparable to Resident Evil: you play entirely in third person, and the aim mechanics are clunky and nearly impossible to use. Thus, when a monster is coming toward you, there is actual fear: chances are, you’ll miss.
And there are instances when, for no reason whatsoever, the camera angle shifts drastically, like in a Hitchcock film. You’ll go from standard third-person mode to looking at York from above, in near bird’s-eye view. Or suddenly you’ll be looking at York’s profile, only to shift back to the standard camera angle.
This can be disorienting, and even frightening, enough on its own, but what makes it worse is that the controls reverse when this happens (left is right, up is down, etc.). Imagine fighting (or running away from) a monster while trying to work out controls that are opposite what they should be, the reverse of what they are in the remainder of the game! You feel helpless, paralyzed even. There is no better way of putting it: although lucid, it is nightmarish.
And then there are the dream sequences in which we enter York’s sleeping brain. They usually revolve around the case he’s working on, Anna’s murder, and important witnesses and suspects often make appearances in them. Sometimes they give York clues, but most of the time they just say random, weird shit. Like you’d expect in a dream. But York’s dreams also prompt him to re-examine his own dark past, and uncover the things he’s kept buried since he was a child. Dreams, the unconscious, repression…all very Freudian stuff right there.
I’m not going to delve too deeply into Deadly Premonition’s plot or its characters, lest I give too much away. Suffice it to say, it has the most surreal story and uniquely strange characters I’ve encountered in a videogame to date. And it’s the only game that feels like a lucid dream.
Playing a video game is very similar to having a lucid dream. As a player, you are fully aware that the world in which you are immersed is not real, despite all sensory evidence to the contrary, yet this awareness does not grant you omnipotence. You may do as you please, to an extent, yet you cannot escape the mechanics and controls of the game.
You’re in red wooded corridor now, and you run toward the door in the distance. You hear your name, and turn to look. It is a little boy in space-themed pajamas; he looks sweet, but scared. Behind you, there is a monster, a shadowy zombie ambling toward you.
“Don’t breathe. Hold your breath!” the little boy says, tugging at your jacket. “They can’t see you if you hold your breath”
You take his advice and hold your breath. Together you side-step slowly, hand in hand, past the monster, pausing only when it comes closer to you, as though it’s sensed your presence. You finally reach the door and the boy uncovers his mouth.
“Who are you?” you ask. He opens the door. You wake up.
I remember most of my dreams, but very few of them are lucid. Even the ones that are lucid, I seem to have little control over. . The god-like ability to manipulate one’s dreams takes a lot of practice. And I am conditioned as a gamer to observe and control the actions of my character, or my dream-self, without the ability to radically alter the world or mechanics of the game.
Qualitatively, this is exactly what it feels like to control a character in a video game. Which makes sense: “If you’re spending hours a day in a virtual reality, if nothing else it’s practice,” says lucid dreaming researcher Gackenbach. “Gamers are used to controlling their game environments, so that can translate into dreams….” Or as Poe once said, “Those who dream by day are cognizant of many things that escape those who dream only at night.”
“Are you thirsty?” an angel asks.
“You must be verrrry thirsty,” the other chimes in.
“You only take milk with your coffee,” notes the first cherub.
“Coffee with milk. That’s all.” says the second, echoing something you’ve said the previous day.
When suddenly, an attractive young woman in waitress uniform appears before you, pouring coffee into a mug. Her name is Anna. You’ve never met her, but you recognize her from the autopsy and the crime scene photos; it is her murder that you’ve been sent to investigate.
Another young woman appears behind her. “Who are you?” you ask.
“My name…is Becky.”
“What are you doing here…?”
“My name…is Becky.”
“Anna’s friend…?” you push, a little farther.
“My name…is Becky.” she repeats, in that same uncanny way.
You take a sip of your coffee when all of a sudden, they disappear, the angels and Anna and Becky
You move from this room to the next. There is a mannequin, and ghostly white trees against an almost perfect black canvas. The little boy in the space pajamas is there.
“That’s…me,” you say, in a moment of realization. “That’s me when it happened.” And you wake up.
My nightmares, specifically the ones that are lucid, don’t really scare me anymore. They feel like I’m playing a video game; sometimes in my dreams I even have a fully functional HUD, complete with a health meter and inventory. Not only that, I’m usually kicking ass.
You’re in the black and white room. The floor reflects everything, like glass.You open a door.
The room looks exactly the same, and there are doors on every side. You open the door to your left…only to enter the exact same room. This time you open the door to your right. And it’s the same room. You’re starting to panic; it’s as though you’re trapped.
Now you’re running to the door straight ahead. Same room, still. You continue running to the door in front of you, but as soon as you go through it, you’re back at square one. It’s as though you’re caught in a strange loop, but you persist, and this time when you go through the door, a man, bearded and dressed all in white, is waiting.
“Open this door. There is no turning back. You still want to enter?” he says.
“I do. It’s better than staying here,” you say, earnestly.
“Very well then. Off you go, Mr. York.” he replies. You open the door.
You’re in the same room, but this time, you are the boy in the space pajamas. Before you is a horrific tableau: your mother, splayed out on the ground, dead, and your father still pointing the gun at her.
“Look carefully, boy,” he says, with a nasty drawl. “At times we must purge things from this world because they should not exist. Even if it means losing someone that you love.”
You begin sobbing. As you kneel down to touch her, one last time, her head jerks back: it is hollow and grotesque, like one of the zombies in your dreams, and you back away as she tears at you with her hands. When you wake up.
Good old Freud believed that dreams are fundamentally a form of wish fulfillment. Video games are a form of wish fulfillment, too. So you want to fight dragons? Cool, here are some dragons.
Ever dreamt of going into outer space as a kid? Sweet, hop on board! Have you always longed for the ability to have magical powers, such as hurling lightning bolts at your enemies? All this, and more! Do you wish you could fire a semi-automatic rifle with the skill of a trained veteran and feel little to no remorse? Sure, go for it!
And, the most profound form of wish fulfilment in video games: Oh, you died? No worries, just reload a previous save game!