Amnesia is an oft used (and overused) trope of video game narrative. Certainly, one can understand the allure of introducing a character unfamiliar with the world and himself as the basis for an avatar for the player just loading up a video game. This state is more or less the state of the player, and, thus, introducing the player to the world and the character that he will be inhabiting over the course of the game makes practical sense. It is about as similarly useful as the old chestnut in fantasy literature of introducing main characters from another world into a fantasy landscape (a la Narnia) or the country bumpkin into the larger fantasy world (The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings), which likewise allows the reader to be introduced alongside such inexperienced characters to the workings of an unfamiliar world.
While Access Games’s Deadly Premonition falls back on this idea of the player being familiarized with a world through an “outsider” to that world (in this case, a reversal of the usual “country bumpkin” model, as Francis York Morgan is an experienced, urban dwelling FBI agent who finds himself on assignment in the weird world of small town America), it suggests a much more interesting way of defining the relationship between the player and this character in another way. Rather than creating a parallel between the amnesiac and the newbie player, the schizophrenic becomes the metaphor in Deadly Premonition for the relationship between the player and the character. That metaphor is a fairly compelling one.
Much like Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks, Agent Morgan is constantly in “dialogue” with a disembodied confidant. Cooper (while certainly kooky) was not certifiable in that his discussions with “Diane” through a tape recorder are intended to be heard by an actual person (indeed, there are episodes of Twin Peaks in which Cooper receives things by mail in response to requests made to Diane). However, all of Morgan’s chatter is to someone named “Zach,” and there is no tape recorder in sight.
The relationship that exists between Zach and Morgan, though, is meaningful to the player. Indeed, on screen Zach is nowhere to be found, but the player certainly exists on the other side of the screen to serve as receiver of Morgan’s sometimes astute and sometimes plainly bizarre diatribes. Additionally, that the player is intended to serve as a surrogate for Zach becomes more and more clear as Morgan sometimes asks Zach for advice on decisions that he needs to make or to recall essential clues in the case that Morgan is trying to solve. When he does so, the player determines choices for Morgan and is required to remind him of clues through onscreen prompts. In other words, not only is Morgan “talking to himself,” but he is also hearing a voice in his head, one that is encouraging and directing his behavior. A very apt description of the relationship between player and character.
In fact, while the game makes the idea clear that the player serves as the voice in the head of the schizophrenic, these moments remind one that frankly all input in a video game is fundamentally like this. While video game characters don’t normally speak so directly to the player to ask his advice, they are constantly being “encouraged” by input from the player. That’s just the nature of basic controller input. The player controls the character.
Deadly Premonition develops this idea even more as the game progresses. The player makes all sorts of decisions for Morgan from what he wears to when he shaves to who he chooses to eat with in town. All of these decisions shape outcomes in the game’s narrative, as characters respond in differing ways to Morgan based on his appearance and friendliness. It would seem that “Zach” has a very direct influence on what Morgan does and, thus, who he is.
In other words, the choices that the player makes shape Morgan as a character in the story. This idea comes to a head at the conclusion of the game, when Morgan asks Zach to make a crucial decision to extinguish one of three characters, the woman he has fallen in love with, the villain who is largely responsible for creating the madness that drives Morgan, or Morgan himself. All of these choices boil down to the same thing for Morgan though; his choice in all three cases is to extinguish himself, literally through suicide or figuratively by destroying a man who “made him” or a woman who he has been reshaping himself around to gain the affection of. Interestingly, the result of this choice is an extinction of the Francis York Morgan persona. After this scene, York becomes Zach.
Significantly, this transformation is metaphoric of the relationship between the character written for the player to act like, Francis York Morgan, and the character that through the act of role playing has really become more like what the player desires him to be. Thus, in the game’s epilogue, there is only Francis Zach Morgan. Schizophrenia is a model of the doubled persona at the core of any avatar and indicative of the transformation that occurs as players immerse themselves more deeply in their roles to replace the scripted persona that they are initially asked to play.