The Importance of Not Being Francis York Morgan

How can you not love this guy?

How can you not love this guy?

Deadly Premonition is a strange, strange game. Strange both in the fact that the cult hit budget title jam-packed with weird, quirky moments, mildly insane writing, and off-beat voice acting. But also strange in the sense that we’ve given it almost two full playthroughs and we’re still not sure if it’s good or not. The combat gameplay’s atrocious, the open-world is perhaps one of the clumsiest ever implemented, the story is deranged, and the whole thing constantly veers between good, so bad-it’s-good, and bad.

There’s one part of the game that we unreservedly love though, and the reason you should pay the pocket change needed to pick it up: its hero, Francis York Morgan. He’s well-written, well-acted, funny, and likeable, sure. But he’s also, honestly, one of the most important protagonists in gaming– one who’s wholly unique, one who could only exist in this particular medium, and one that should be studied by anyone trying to create games. (WARNING: Spoilers for Deadly Premonition follow.)

Francis York Morgan– just call him York, everybody else does –is a bit of an oddball. He’s basically all the weird parts of Agent Cooper from Twin Peaks, Agent Mulder from The X-Files, and a hefty dose of schizophrenia. He receives messages in his coffee, is obsessed with 80’s movies, and is cocky to the point of being unbearable. He’s also incredibly kind-hearted, brilliant, a crack shot, and the FBI’s greatest detective. This is what brings him to the sleepy town of Greenvale: he’s investigating the murder of a young girl, believing it to be connected to a string of other cases he’s worked on.

"My coffee warned me about this Zach."

“My coffee warned me about this Zach.”

But what really makes York special is his imaginary friend. He speaks constantly to a “Zach”– a secondary personality that helps him solve mysteries, tells him where to go, and gives him extraordinary deductive powers and psychic sensitivity. This Zach, you’ll realize fairly early on, is you, the player. When you nail one of the game’s enemies in the head, York mutters “great shot, Zach!” When you open the start menu, it takes the form of the Red Room– the dimension that Zach resides in, outside of time (thus pausing the game). When working on a crime scene, you find the clues that are highlighted and point them out to York, who makes deductions. Even the game’s quick-time events have a neat justification– they all occur at times when York is panicking and scared, and you hammering buttons and waggling sticks is to keep him focused and brave.

This is a brilliant overlap of game design and narrative. First, and most obviously, it provides a great way to frame York’s actions as a player character. He’s erratic, detached, and unpredictable because he’s never really in control, instead taking orders from a being outside the world. York never questions Zach– if you want to blow off the case to go fishing, drive around in the rain, collect the skeleton of a separate, unrelated murder victim, you can. York trusts you completely, and won’t even eat or shave unless Zach tells him he needs to. At one point, York is captured and you need to go find another character and guide them to him. What in other games is immersion-breaking– the disconnect between the player and their avatar –is here a central part of the story. York could only exist in games because the central element of his internal conflict, his mental illness and his need for a friend to guid and protect him, is expressed entirely as a form of game mechanics.

York and Zach's discussions are the only things that make the driving sections bearable.

York and Zach’s discussions are the only things that make the driving sections bearable.

It’s also just wonderful storytelling, as it creates a bond between player and protagonist. We’d routinely throw the game’s other characters out of the car so that we could drive alone with York, talking about the Superman movies and Jaws. Although a lot of the game’s writing is strange and nonsensical, the moments between Zack and York always feel warm and friendly, putting the serial killer mystery on the back burner so that York can talk about movies or ask you for dating advice. Whereas most game heroes are loners, York actively reaches out to the player. And even though there’s murders to solve, lives to save, and coffee to drink, Deadly Premonition is at its core the story of York and Zach’s relationship. If Zach wasn’t the player, the climactic twist– [highlight to reveal] that Zach is York’s childhood self who suffered a grievous trauma, and York has been looking after their shared body for years, talking to Zach and giving Zach control to try and draw him back into the real world –would seem hokey. The twist seems tired when told in third-person, but when you’re involved in the story, when it’s about you and York’s relationship, it’s a surprising and powerful moment. Like Bioshock, it’s a twist that redefines your role in the game, turning the “player” of the game into a real character in it. It’s not exactly Bioshock’s level of  writing excellence and wit, but it’s an incredibly interesting and unique twist in the middle of a game that seemed like a cheesy, weird horror-comedy.

Not quite as good a character as Andrew Ryan, but just as...memorable.

Not quite as good a character as Andrew Ryan, but just as…memorable.

Like Bioshock, Deadly Premonition (and there’s a sentence you never thought you’d see game critics start) is about finding an emotional core to what the player accepts as standard mechanics. Whereas Bioshock took player agency as its core–making the player the protagonist, not just their controller — Premonition is about finding the emotion implicit in the difference between the player and their protagonist. York is brave and professional (one of the best lines in the game is when he tells a supernatural monster with godlike power that “you’re a first-degree murderer. And I’m a federal agent. Of course you’re going to lose.”), but he’s also profoundly lonely, more scared by falling in love than by ghosts and demons. He may seem like a super-detective with no social skills to other characters, but the player sees him in his intimate moments, when he’s weak and needs help. When he’s in the most dangerous situations, it’s not just an issue of the player being threatened, but the character that they’ve been protecting and guiding. It changes the way you look at a character, and creates a relationship between them and you that wouldn’t exist in another game.

The game’s ending is an especially beautiful use of this. By the end of the game, York’s trauma is revealed. He’s faced down the monster responsible for his parents’ deaths, he’s stopped the killings he’s spent years chasing, and he’s pulled Zach back into the world. But there’s a problem: Zach no longer needs him. Not only that, but Emily, the woman that York loved, is dead. And so you lie down in your hotel room. You discuss the case, as you have at the end of every mission, and talk about what’s happening next. And the protagonist asks the player if they’re ready to say goodbye.You can keep playing if you select “no,” but because the game is fundamentally about your relationship with York it doesn’t end until that relationship does.  The last action you, as a player take– the last button you press –is selecting “yes.” From that point on, the story plays out via cutscene, as you can only watch as the character you’ve spent the game guiding goes on to live his life without you. For all of Deadly Premonition‘s faults– Dreamcast-level graphics, awful combat, out-of-place and poorly-thought-out open world, bizarre survival mechanics, strange writing, unbelievable characters, unbalanced weapons, unintuitive sidequests, fishing minigames, uneven pacing –it’s a fantastic ending, one that mines the mechanics of the game for a wealth of emotion.

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Chaos vs. Order: The Eternal Struggle

“You have destroyed so much– what is it exactly that you have created? Can you name even one thing? I thought not.”
–Wallace Breen, Half-Life 2

Video game plots have long been accused of being the run of the mill good vs. evil stories. And for the most part that’s true, even the best game plots often feature mostly black and white characters and or morality systems with purely good and evil options. But the real underlying conflict that most gameplay features is actually not good vs. evil, but the struggle between order and chaos. This is probably, in part, due to the element of agency in gaming– unlike other mediums, the core principle of the medium is about the player having freedom in a premade world.

So in this article, we’re going to shed some light on this never ending battle and show how some of your favorite games portray this eternal conflict.

The Player as an Agent of Chaos

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

Link may be the messiah, but keep him away from your house.

This is really the underlying conflict in the majority of video games on the market. The player controlled character invades an area controlled by the enemy with carefully laid out obstacles, traps, puzzles, enemy formations, etc. Essentially a carefully set-up environment that the player character is meant to ride roughshod through (like that time you knocked over that block tower your little brother was building). Despite what the background story may say about how the villains are invading and disrupting the status-quo (also chaos vs. order), when you take over and start actually playing through the levels, you’re wreaking havoc on the carefully arranged battlements set up by the enemy. Even something as grotesque as the R-Type series’s Bydo Empire, a strange alien army composed of machines and deformed flesh, is still an organized group that spends time building and fortifying defenses that you need to penetrate/destroy. Even more mundane gameplay activities, like smashing pots and slicing up carefully groomed bushes for cash in the Zelda series, involve messing up or destroying some other character’s hard work.

Hire at your own risk!

Hire at your own risk!

Perhaps the game series that is the most honest about this perpetual conflict is the famous Grand Theft Auto series, which might be one of the reasons we like it so much. Obviously rampaging around the city fighting the cops makes you a force of chaos, but the story missions carry out this theme just as much, especially in IV. Niko Bellic is honestly just as dangerous to his employers as he is to everyone else in the city. At least 6 (more depending on some of the choices you make) mission givers are killed by Niko himself and several more are killed or brought down by the whirlwind of danger surrounding him. He not only disrupts the order of Liberty City, but disrupts the order of its criminal underworld as well. GTA: Vice City’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, takes a slightly different approach. Anyone who’s played the game knows that Vercetti deals out as much chaos as any other GTA protagonist, but during the second half of the story Tommy does begin to restore some order to the criminal empire he just decimated. After destroying Ricardo Diaz’s organization halfway through the game, Vercetti’s focus shifts toward building up his own organization, which causes a bit of a gameplay shift. He purchases businesses around the city and builds them up as branches of his own criminal empire. Even though the missions for the businesses usually involve wreaking havoc against someone else, you still have the sense that you’re building something, which makes Vice City a little bit more toward the middle on the order/chaos spectrum.

Bringing Order to Chaos

It's always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

It’s always satisfying to see your cities grow and evolve.

This is the approach that most strategy games take, where your entire goal is to build your own army or settlement from resources that you collect. One of the best examples of a game in this category is the Civilization series, where you literally start off in an untamed wilderness and must build and progress your own society through the different periods of history. While you can choose to wage war against rival civilizations in order to win the game, you can also win via negotiation, science, art and other less chaotic methods, which places the Civilization games firmly on the order end of the spectrum. You even build your society’s values, transitioning from a chaotic tribe intent only on survival to a culture with a very focused and specific set of principles. Even further in the order category are titles like SimCity, the Tycoon games, and the strangely popular Euro Truck Simulator, where the entire goal of the game is to manage something in an orderly fashion, whether that be a city, an amusement park, a zoo, or any of the other kinds of businesses the Tycoon games feature. While these kinds of games certainly have a dedicated following, there aren’t nearly as many titles that focus on creating order. There are probably a number of reasons for this but perhaps the main one is simply that causing chaos is just more fun. Even in SimCity, causing natural disasters and watching buildings topple is very enjoyable, despite the fact that it’s supposed to be an event the player wants to avoid. Despite this, these kinds of games can provide a welcome change of pace and we may see some intresting twists on gameplay dealing with bringing order to chaos in years to come.

Surviving in a Chaotic World

Remnants of a normal life.

Remnants of a normal life.

Games that fit into this category don’t quite belong on the order to chaos spectrum like the games mentioned above do. Instead, the locations these games take place in are designed to be chaotic and the goal is to push through and survive in a harsh environment. Many survival horror games like Silent Hill 2 and the recent indie hit Lone Survivor fit into this category. While combat is technically an option in these games, the ability to inflict chaos back against your enemies is intentionally limited to make you feel all the more helpless. In Lone Survivor’s case, the game actually rewards you for not killing enemies, despite the fact they won’t hesitate to do you in. The game also encourages you to preserve what you can of your normal, more routine life, like eating regularly (and well), limiting your intake of pills, and even adopting a cat. The emphasis here is truly on surviving while surrounded by utter chaos and even making the most out of such a situation, instead of destroying or instituting order. You win by keeping yourself under control, not the world.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Not a typical day at Black Mesa.

Of course, like how Vice City is a partial overlap between the above two categories, there are games in this category that overlap with one of the others too. The original Half-Life takes place, for the most part, in an incredibly hostile environment where Gordon Freeman cannot fight all of his foes directly (like that obnoxious tentacle monster). The game beginning like just another day working at Black Mesa even enhances the chaos that you feel after everything goes to hell. However, your ability to fight back against the Xen aliens and the resilient commandos (who are trying to cover-up the whole affair) is substantial enough to set it apart the survival horror titles listed above, as Gordon Freeman ends up causing a fair amount of chaos himself during the course of his adventure. The protagonist’s world is being destroyed, but he can’t rebuild– only fight back.