In this new series of reviews we'll be exploring video games from a social justice perspective, examining content rather than gameplay. For our gameplay review coverage please check out our Reviews for the Lazy Gamer.
Warning: spoilers ahead.
There is no more critically polarizing survival horror video game than Deadly Premonition. That's not just me saying it, either. The game actually has a Guinness World Record for being the most "love it or hate it" game ever made.
The Director's Cut version was the free PS Plus offering a few months back and I jumped at the chance to play through it because it's essentially Twin Peaks: The Video Game. In fact, back when the game was called Rainy Woods the similarities between it and the David Lynch television show were so blatant extensive changes were made to tone down the resemblance.
Twin Peaks and Deadly Premonition have the same catalyst; the murder of a popular young woman with greater significance than is initially thought. Right away, though there is a distinct and unavoidable difference between Laura Palmer and Anna Graham, and it has to do with the Women as Background Decoration trope.
While Palmer is indeed discovered nude but wrapped in plastic on the shore next to the Packard Mill in Twin Peaks, Graham is discovered hanging in a cruciform on a tree in Greenvale Forest Park. She is topless with her nipples covered by her long hair, and a snake slithers seductively across her body.
There's a huge gap here in the manner of portrayal. Palmer is still beautiful despite being blue and drowned, but the focus is entirely on her face, which will be staring out at the audience from various picture frames over the course of the show. On the other hand Graham is posed to expose as much of her skin as possible, continuing the habit of gaming to use mutilated women as equal parts desirable object and destroyable object.
Over the course of Deadly Premonition four more women are also the victims of the Raincoat Killer. In two of the cases, Diane and Becky, the link between sex and death is just as pronounced as with Anna. Becky is found in her house hanging from various wires in her shower while dressed only in underclothes in a similar ornamental manner as Anna. Diane, by contrast, is fully dressed when she is killed, but madly waxes on about how erotic and powerful a nearby tree sculpture is before she is literally penetrated to death by it.
The whole "inventive murderer inventively murders young women while our hero races against time" is nothing new, but I find it interesting how far Deadly Premonition strays stylistically from the material that inspired it. The victims, potential and rescued, of Killer BOB experience terrible violence, some of it even sexual, but there's not this sense of parading the bodies of the victims around as decoration. Laura Palmer is more of a character presence as an inanimate corpse than Anna is giggling weirdly in ghostly encounters later in the game.
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Another weird change from Twin Peaks is how a man in a dress is handled. In the show David Duchovny plays DEA agent Denise Bryant, a transwoman and peer of Dale Cooper's. Bryant is an incredibly solid portrayal of a trans person, especially for television and doubly especially for the '90s. This right around the time of The Crying Game where a transwoman was basically a cause for vomiting in disgust and terror.
The equivalent in Deadly Premonition is Thomas MacLaine, who also doubles for Deputy Andy Brennan. Near the end of the game Thomas is revealed to spend his time dressing up as his sister Carol and is in such unreciprocated love with the game's antagonist that he aids him in acquiring victims and gets a tattoo declaring his love on his back. It's a far cry from Bryant, who is a well-written force for good in Twin Peaks, and instead reinforces the largely negative portrayal of transgender people as freakish villains. An analysis by GLAAD showed that out of 102 trans appearances in on television 54 percent were negative. Luckily, gaming is finally making some real strides on fixing their issues with trans characters.
Probably the most disappointing trope to show up in Deadly Premonition was a version of the Euthanized Damsel, where the woman you are supposed to rescue must actually be murdered "for her own good" and even begs you to do it. Deputy Emily Wyatt was a gift of a character from the moment she is introduced. She down-to-Earth, capable, and if you bother with the maddening set of weather and time conditions needed to do her sidequests she becomes really interesting as well. You even briefly fight as her and take on the first boss battle with her instead of York.
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But how does she finish out the game? With her blouse unbuttoned and exposing side boob not to mention inexplicably pantsless as the final boss licks at her face. Oh, and she's growing a tree out of her womb that is heavily implied to have been seeded into her through hypnotic rape. As she wakes up she begs Agent York to put her out of her misery, though in a rare twist she actually pulls the seedling out and kills herself rather than allowing the player to be responsible for violently ending her life. It's a tiny, tiny thing but does at least lessen the uncomfortable comfortableness gaming has with making you hurt the person your character is supposed to care for romantically.
Don't get me wrong; I loved, loved, loved Deadly Premonition. What an incredible accomplishment in storytelling and it's probably the best version of Twin Peaks we'll ever get despite the upcoming third season. It's a triumph of a game, but it still manifests common tropes that remain toxic and problematic.
Is there a game you'd like us to look at from an SJW perspective? Let us know in the comments.