I’m still not quite sure what to make of Deadly Premonition. Everything you’ve heard about it is true: it has atrocious combat, compelling mystery, laughable graphics, memorable characters, inappropriate music, etc. The game is full of fresh ideas and has stuck with me for months, but I still wouldn’t feel comfortable broadly recommending it. I would, however, like to examine one particular section of the game that I think was both absurd and oddly well-designed.
The sequence I’d like to highlight occurs very early on in the game. Having arrived in Greenvale the previous night, FBI agent Francis York Morgan (“please, call me York”) heads to the Sheriff’s Department to begin his investigation into the murder of Anna Graham. He is greeted there by mild-mannered deputy Thomas MacLaine. Visibly flustered by the small town’s recent tragedy, he has lost the key to the evidence locker and requests Agent York’s aid in retrieving it. He further notes that the key can be identified by its “Southern Flying Squirrel” key holder.
At first glance, this seems like a fairly typical time-wasting fetch quest, albeit one that eventually reveals a humorous twist. However, the hunt for the squirrel key rather cleverly addresses a number of high-level design considerations. Namely, it serves a purposeful role in establishing character relationships, aiding player navigation and setting a tonal precedent.
Right away, the reasons behind Thomas’s request tell us a lot about him and his relationship with the other characters. His reaction to Anna’s death shows that he is kind and sensitive, and the fact that he lost the key demonstrates that he is mildly incompetent (or perhaps just inexperienced) as a police deputy. It is strongly suggested that petitioning York’s aid is motivated by a desire to avoid confrontation with the Sheriff, George Woodman. This hints at the nature of their relationship: Thomas is meek and very intimidated by his grouchy superior.
After receiving Thomas’s request, the player is allowed to freely explore the Sheriff’s Department. The building is rather large, with several offices on the first floor and a prison and firing range in the basement. Depending on the player’s exploration path, she may first stumble upon a “Pointy-Tailed Flying Squirrel” key in an inauspicious storage room. However, when this key is returned to Thomas, he politely explains:
…Ah. You don’t know your squirrels, do you. This isn’t the right key holder. This is a Siberian Flying Squirrel. It’s closer to a land-based squirrel. The Siberian Flying Squirrel is larger than the Southern Flying Squirrel, and has a standing tail while the Southern has a hanging tail. But we’re looking for a Southern Flying Squirrel right now.
There are, rather absurdly, five types of squirrel keys strewn about the Sheriff’s Department. One key is hidden in the locker room, another in the kitchen and yet another outside the firing range. Furthermore, as items they are only identified by description, such as “long-tailed”, “grey” and “striped”. Agent York, who frequently voices his urban prejudice, presumably lacks the country knowledge to discern their exact species. The Southern Flying Squirrel key (described as “curvy-tailed”) is found in cell #5 of the basement jail, which is the furthest room from the starting point.
Having the player complete the same fetch quest up to five times may seem ridiculous. However, remember that this sequence takes place during the player’s first visit to the Sheriff’s Department. It’s a location that plays a crucial role in Deadly Premonition, and the player will have to return here very frequently during the investigation. Obliging the player to initially explore the building from top to bottom ensures that he will be able to comfortably navigate the space in the later sections of the game. If the player ever wants to talk to the Sheriff or interview a suspect in custody, he’ll know exactly where to go. Even jail cell #5 plays an important role towards the end of the game.
Finally, the absurdity of this sequence helps to establish a whimsical tone running in parallel to the more serious otherworldly murder investigation. Deadly Premonition is an open-world game, and Greenvale is full of colourful characters who ask York to perform optional odd jobs for them. These side quests are as strange and as varied as fetching ingredients, competing at darts, chauffeuring an old lady, answering medical trivia, and catching a legendary fish. The player may feel compelled to disregard these excursions in favour of concentrating on the serious task at hand. The fact that a trifling chore like the squirrel key hunt is integrated into the main storyline suggests that it is perfectly acceptable to indulge the local populace’s strange demands.
Deadly Premonition’s squirrel key hunt is remarkable because it subtly conveys a great deal of information about the game, the town and its inhabitants in a short playable segment. It’s emblematic of the best kind of tutorial: one that is completely integrated into the core game and teaches through play.