Sunday, 25 October 2015

The Vale Between Twin Peaks

They say talent borrows and genius steals. We need a word for what glorious, deranged genius does; how it takes a structure and refashions it into something instantly recognisable and yet profoundly different. The sort of thing David Lynch did with his gigantically underrated Dune adaptation, an example of course which I do not remotely pick at random.

Deadly Premonition is not a good game. The graphics are hopelessly outdated. The controls are defiantly digital. There are only four enemy types in the entire game (aside from the occasional arrival of the Raincoat Killer), three of which don't show up until after the midway point. The open-world environment sprawls across a huge map which fails to allow you to set way-points. Playing this lumpen, leaden game is frequently an exercise in simmering frustration.

But playing this game isn't really what you're supposed to be doing. It would be more fair to say you're reading a graphic novel, and moving Special Agent Francis York Morgan from location to location is how you turn the page. Really the only difference is that this a graphic novel set up like a video game, which allows you to decide to some degree what order you read its pages in, and which to skip.  This feeling that you're simply here to experience a narrative is strengthened when you consider that the combat scenes in the game (by far its weakest aspect; imagine Resident Evil 4 with terrible visuals, a desperate lack of variation, and utterly awful controls; though I guess RE4 never let you decide whether you would attack a zombie with a crowbar or a cavalry sabre) was only included due to studio interference, acting just like the clueless suits that cram every TV show about TV shows, insisting western audiences couldn't be expected to play a game about unconquerable supernatural nightmares unless those same unconquerable supernatural nightmares could be shot in the face a few times. [1]

What's interesting to note is that without these forays into sub-par survival horror, the game would be almost entirely lacking in ways to get yourself killed. With the game giving you a hunger meter, it's possible to get so famished that you actually pass out from starvation, ending the game, but even then your restart point involves stumbling from the local hospital the next morning, and it's not like food is hard to come by in the town of Greenvale [2]. The only remaining threat would be the very killer you are trying to track down, who shows up every couple of chapters to make life briefly difficult for you. As imagined, then, this is not a game in which staying alive was much of a concern. The only impediment to player progress was how big the game is (I finally finished it just past the twenty-five hour playtime mark).  Deadly Premonition is not a challenge. It is a cartoon story in a non-standard delivery system.

Even this falls short of the mark, though, because of how obviously Deadly Premonition is modelled on early nineties television - indeed, every one of the game's most frustrating issues can be squarely explained away by the attempt to replicate as far as practical what playing video games was like during the early days of the 16-bit era.  Specifically, this is about as obvious an attempt to capture the windswept, lonely beauty of Twin Peaks as has ever been attempted (well, except for the currently-in-production season three, but that's cheating). The links are everywhere, most clearly in the plot: an eccentric FBI Agent arrives in a seemingly sleepy American town to investigate the brutal murder of a well-loved local teenage girl by a killer who leaves a baffling calling card, only to find nothing is as it appears, including the laws of reality.  But it's everywhere else too. There's tremendous overlap between the characters here and those of Twin Peaks, or Lynch's work in general. You have the aforementioned eccentric Fed, but you also have the nervous deputy, the no-mark teenage drug-pusher with links to something far darker, a woman we might as well call "Pot Lady", a powerful local businessman equal parts Ben Horne and Frank from Blue Velvet, and a love interest deliberately modelled on Naomi Watts as she appeared in Mulholland Drive.

Even her name is similar: "Emily Wyatt," with the switch of the first initial important because... well, that would be telling. Beyond these specific links, though, the offbeat nature of the inhabitants of Greenvale is overwhelmingly reminiscent of their Twin Peaks counterparts. Then you have the parallel locations - an opulent hotel by the water, a diner where everyone meets to swap gossip, a night-spot done up to remind us of Julee Cruise's in-show performances, dark forests in which dark deeds can take place and, most significantly, the game's very own Red Room.

But it's the themes where the two stories intersect most profoundly. Without wishing to give anything away (I'll put some spoiler-laden comments after the fold) Deadly Premonition is obsessed, like much of Lynch's work, with the duality of existence. The difference between who we are and who we show to the world, a discontinuity that exists not only at the level of individuals, but at the level of entire towns, and indeed civilisation itself. By day Greenvale is one place, by night it's another, almost literally, with the townsfolk safe in bed and the shadows of the dead stalking the streets. Almost every character hides a secret, some benign, others murderous. Just as with the investigation into Laura Palmer's death, every new twist in this tale reveals how far the murdered girl really was from the image everyone has of her. Drugs and sex and death and dreams.

Most importantly, as with the evil of Killer BOB, learning who is responsible for the murder doesn't necessarily mean learning who wielded the blade...

Given the fact that this is clearly meant to be an interactive homage to Twin Peaks, then, questions of control sensitivity and navigation issues seem more or less entirely beside the point. What matters is how well it captures the spirit of what it is referencing, and how well it stands as its own story. The news there is generally good; it takes too long for the story to get going, perhaps, but then ...Peaks was a slow-burner too, indeed its ambling pace continued more or less throughout. And when this story gets good, it gets good, full of allegory and symbolism and neat little linguistic clues that often only make sense in hindsight. Again, I can't say more for spoiling the surprise, but the balance between homage and originality is well-maintained.

There are problems here too, admittedly. Most obviously, a game intended to take more than a full day's play to complete, the score is far too slight, requiring endless repetition of the same pieces. This would be somewhat irritating in any case, but the real problem lies in the limited choice of music basically ensuring a large number of cut scenes being accompanied by horribly jarring music - most obviously the atonal saxophone amble that occasionally intrudes whilst York is facing instances of his quarry's brutality. Twin Peaks thrived on huge tonal shifts, of course, but in Lynch's trademark dream logic way, a flow from light to dark aided hugely by Angelo Badalamenti's exquisite score. Deadly Premonition's music doesn't imply the dream state, instead suggesting self-conscious attempts at zaniness.  Even here, though, the game improves as it develops, with some of the final scenes set to absolutely gorgeous pieces that, crucially, the game has not overplayed. And if nothing else - and I'm still trying hard to give nothing away - the game's ending is pure Lynch, insofar as the sense of bittersweet melancholy is overpowering, staying with you long after the game has ended.

(Major spoilers from this point on.)

OK. Having scared away those who've yet to finish the whole cherry pie - or the last ever batch of Thomas' biscuits - we can get down to business: I adore how loaded this game is with pattern and meaning. Let's start with the central dichotomy: Deadly Premonition replaces Twin Peaks' White and Black Lodges with the Forest and the Red Tree, respectively. On one level this is simple homage - the Red Tree even has its (sorry!) roots in the Red World, a supernatural dimension which contains a Red Room purposefully reminiscent of Lynch and Frost's famous show. But the reframing shifts things considerably. The Black and White Lodges were polar opposites, a metaphor for the duality of reality that fascinates Lynch (even if the Lodges themselves didn't really feature in the show until after his departure), as mentioned above. As much as this approach seems mirrored in Greenvale, though, rebuilding the supernatural locations as a heavenly forest and a malevolent tree replaces Lynch's Manichean approach with a metaphor for disease and corruption. The Red Tree isn't separate from the Forest, it exists as a tumour within it, corrupting it as it grows. Like the red vines that block York's progress as he investigates Anna's death, the enemy here is not some perpendicular axis of balancing evil, but a suffocating, choking force rising from the ground to drive insane or kill [3]. From this angle, Greenvale and Twin Peaks are very different; the latter showcases our dual nature, the latter comments cynically on mankind's ability to corrupt what it claims to value. What else is a town cut from the heart of a forest, after all, but an infection in a larger body? The resultant allegorical importance of the red seeds hardly needs to be stated. Tumours are our own cells malfunctioning; supposedly a part of us, they rebel and run rampant. They are not some philosophical dark mirror of anything, they're just a corrupting monstrosity killing the host.  A diseased tree, infecting those that surround it in a radial pattern.

This radial - and indeed fractal - pattern is repeated throughout the game, of course. The lash marks on George's back are an obvious example, but so too is the scar on Morgan's left cheek (note the dialogue about how current scars must once have been something else; a different pattern). The late-game reveal that the inverted peace sign was the Red Tree all along is our invitation to comb through all we have seen before to search for other instances of the image.  And yet somehow, buried deep as I was in my quest to bring George to justice (I had him pegged as Anna's killer early on, mainly because the Raincoat Killer's bellows sounded like the same voice actor) it didn't occur to me where the most obvious link lay.

You might say, in fact, that I couldn't see the Forrest for the tree.

Or the Forest for the Tree, of course; the structure of the game's mythology raises a pun to the level of existential crisis. The Red Tree is growing, blocking out glimpses of the Forest - both in terms of the crisis in Greenvale and in terms of Zach Morgan's own past. Given this obscuring effect, there's great irony in Forrest taking the name he has. It's not just a disguise, it's not just a deliberate mockery of the force he seeks to corrupt (by corrupting its own cycle of growth, of course), but a disgustingly sick word game. It's not the only one, of course. How else do we explain the effort Forrest has put into somehow engineering a situation in which George's secret club contains four women with the names Anna, Becky, Carol and Diane, who canto be killed in (almost) strict alphabetical order to point towards Emily's demise? And this, it seems, was always the point; Kaysen wants Emily so badly he'll happily sacrifice his disciple George to sow his seeds in her (and how fucked up is that misinterpreting that phrase as sexual innuendo is somehow less disturbing than what he actually does?). Though in fact there's a distinct advantage to doing so, because it means the letter "F" gets skipped over, ostensibly rendering him safe. That's one interpretation at least, though of course alternatively Forrest may simply be assuming the alphabetised death list will have Francis York Morgan in the sixth slot.

(Notice, by the way, that this tendency towards murder by letter ignores totally the death of Thomas. One could explain this away by suggesting Thomas alone was a death unplanned by Kaysen; a statistical aberration, just one of those things. A rather more solid and pleasant reading is that Thomas' status as a trans woman caused Kayen to ignore her. There is a very great likelihood that Thomas is not the name she actually identified with, which means she has a real name that we unfortunately never know. Crucially, that's a fact Forrest Kaysen wouldn't have any interest in; his sick kill-list would have no use for it. The Forest, however, obviously took a different view. Which is not nothing when it comes to attitudes towards trans people. I don't want to skip past the homicidal breakdown of "Thomas"; it is, without question, a shitty portrayal of a trans woman, played far too much for black comedy and carrying the idea that trans women are consumed by murderous jealousy for their cis sisters. That said, the game's ending scenes are absolutely unequivocal on the point that "Thomas" is a woman and should be accepted as such, that she deserved a happy ending no less than the cis women who lost their lives in Kaysen's spree. The Red World didn't want her, but the Forest knows better. Her inclusion at every point past her death is treated as utterly natural. Her dress is no different from those of her sisters.)

And it might have worked, too, if not for York's coffee, which we now know wasn't supernatural interference, coincidence, or even madness; it was a subliminal message, an oblique reminder of what Zach knew all along. Which brings me to my final point: the York/Zach duality. I've explained why I don't think the Red Tree and the Forest can be considered inverted images of each other, but that viewpoint certainly works when considering the two Francis Morgans and the murderer of his parents. Forrest Kaysen's external identity is corruption and co-option. His goal is to replace the actual Forest, to smother what he hates. York, in contrast, exists as the outside identity as an act of love, keeping Zach safe until the day he is ready to take control once more. Symbiosis, rather than the parasitical damage erupting everywhere else in the narrative. York is the forest that obscures Zach's tree.

The underlying message here is that eccentricity is a shield against the corrupting influences of the outside world, which is one I think that anyone sensible (or anyone who loves Twin Peaks, though surely I repeat myself) should embrace unequivocally. To the extent that this story has a happy ending - Emily's death is a classic fridging, with all the problems that come with it, but damn if it isn't utterly heart-breaking too - it's there, in the idea that eventually, no matter how great the damage we take from the world, we have the hope of healing, and we do it by utterly refusing to engage with the world on its terms.

We do it by acting as though life were a dream.

[1] In truth even the combat sequences are not totally devoid of interest, mainly because of how interesting the "shadows" that beset your characters look, move and act; all Joker smiles and bent-back staggers and attempts to suffocate you by ramming their hands down your throat. The problem is how quickly you get used to their weirdness, with still hundreds of the damn things to mow down.

[2] Which I keep accidentally calling Greendale, presumably because my subconscious realises a stop-motion TV show about a postman trying to deliver packages in a town haunted by undead horrors would be the most fun thing to watch ever. I'm trying not to think about it too much for fear the filking mood descends

[3]  Just as the purple fog rises, in fact. This is a rare instance of a narrative that associates altitude with evil, from the clock-tower to the tree of Anna to Diane's suspension above the tree sculpture to killer birds to giant Kaysen to... well, you get the point.

No comments: