We recently finished playing Deadly Premonition on Kotaku’s Twitch channel. In Deadly Premonition, FBI detective Francis York Morgan tries to find the murderer behind a series of serial killings in the town of Greenvale. Greenvale is full of colourful residents with daily schedules and humanising side-stories. Its villains are complicated and human, but once their villainy is revealed, the game trades their complexity for cliches and tropes.
Near the end of the game, it appears that sheriff’s deputy Thomas MacLaine is responsible for murdering numerous women across Greenvale. Throughout the game, Thomas is shown to be a kind figure who brings York and the local police together with home-cooked lunches. The player can visit the police station every day for an extended cutscene where York enjoys his lunch and bonds with the local police department. Thomas is also portrayed as highly emotional: He is often the first to cry when discovering victims and his idle poses are much more feminine than other male characters. When York finally encounters Thomas after evidence ties him to the murders, Thomas attacks him while wearing an evening dress and a wig.
The sudden revelation of Thomas’ transvestism is tied to his presumed villainy. His dress is slightly ill-fitting, and his face contorts with jealous rage as he speaks, further driving home the ways in which he stands out. Like Resident Evil: Code Veronica’s crossdressing Alfred Ashford, he is made a spectacle: his voice changes, and he moves languidly and dramatically in front of giant windows that draw attention to his figure. Thomas becomes hard coded as an “other” whose crossdressing comes hand in hand with moral degeneracy and mental instability.
Thomas’ villainy is also associated with his homosexuality. When deputy sheriff Emily Wyatt confronts him in an attempt to rescue York, Thomas reveals that he’s ruthlessly jealous of her for stealing the attention of sheriff George Woodman, whom he says he loves. While Thomas is painted as a tragic figure, the game suggests he’s a villain because of his queerness. Eventually he’s killed in the resulting boss battle, falling off a platform and impaling his skull on an inexplicably placed metal hook.
Thomas is not the actual killer responsible for Greenvale’s murders. The true culprit is George, who carried out the murders in hopes of gaining eternal life. Certain trees in Greenvale drop red seeds with magical properties, and George has been ritualistically slaughtering his victims after consuming the seeds in order to gain immortality. George and York butt heads throughout the murder investigation but seemingly resolve their differences once George opens up and reveals how he suffered at the hands of his abusive mother, who beat him regularly with a stripped tree branch.
While this original revelation is treated with a surprising degree of care, George’s villainous reveal suffers from unfortunate implications about physical abuse. George’s abuse is offered as the primary cause of his viciousness, alongside the sexual frustration he feels about Emily. The implication that he turned to violence as a consequence of his abuse feels like a lazy bit of rationalisation for his actions. George is initially given a chance to open up as a character when he reveals his abuse to York, but the game never addresses this aspect of his character again it needs to explain George’s actions.
Some of the mishandling stems from George’s outfit during his reveal as a villain, a leather ensemble with tight laces and spike bracelets that evokes images of sadomasochism. The connotations of the clothing—that George might derive sexual pleasure from inflicting physical pain—stands in contrast to his previously stated aversion towards physical punishment. His clothing suggests BDSM imagery, inaccurately linking what is usually a consensual practice in the real world with George’s extreme and violent actions such as forcefully kissing his victims and biting out their tongues. Like with Thomas, Deadly Premonition employs a visual shorthand for villainy that uses misunderstood generalisations as an explanation for his cruelties.
George dies in a bossfight with York only for traveling salesman Forrest Kaysen to step forward at the true mastermind behind the murders. Kaysen is from an alternate plane of existence, and he masquerades as a friendly salesman. He kidnaps Emily in order to draw York into a final confrontation. Kaysen is overweight; in the early game, this is used to paint him as a jovial figure. When he reveals his demonic nature, his belly expands and he grows to comical proportions.
Fatness is regularly used in games to express gluttony, selfishness, or lack of willpower. Overwatch’s Roadhog use fatness to communicate childlike simplicity and single mindedness. Prey’s Alex Yu is an overweight autocrat who is portrayed largely as duplicitous and self-serving. Kaysen literally grows in size and shifts into a pale-skinned demon as his appetite for violence mounts. Like the villains who came before him, Kaysen employ visual shortcuts to further codify villainy.
Deadly Premonition’s enemies are given genuine human moments before their villainous turns. They feel like real people, and their shift into something lazier clashes with the game’s previous attempts to portray them as real human beings. Deadly Premonition often succeeds in creating likeable characters and gives them plenty of time to express hopes, dreams, and strange idiosyncrasies. But when it comes time for villains to reveal themselves, Deadly Premonition gets far less creative.