A York By Any Other Name

francisyorkmorgan

This isn’t going to be a full post, so much as a callout for something I really like in SWERY 65’s cult classic, Deadly Premonition. I’m playing through the game right now, and on top of the fantastic story, bizarre characters, and truly interesting focus on the pedestrian, one of the things I like the most about this game is the way it hyperfocuses on perhaps one of the most mundane parts of human conversation: introductions.

In Deadly Premonition, players assume the role of FBI Agent Francis York Morgan, who insists upon meeting almost every character in the game to “call me York. Please, everyone calls me that”. York is a real weird dude, constantly referring directly to the player as an imaginary friend named Zach, going on for far too long about classic movies, and discussing grisly murder with an unsettling lack of tact, and yet this introduction thing is maybe one of the weirdest things about him. It might be how persistent he is about it, or just how perfectly rehearsed it is every time, like he’s really done this for every person he’s ever met in his adult life.

Backing up for a minute, Deadly Premonition has a fairly wide supporting cast, and since the game is a murder mystery, they’re all relatively important, since literally all of them are potential suspects (the game goes so far as to just label characters you haven’t met “Suspect”). So, giving these characters distinct and memorable personalities is fairly important, and the game has a fantastic shorthand way to remind you of every character’s relationship to York: what name they give him.

You see, having such a wordy name as “FBI Special Agent Francis York Morgan”, in conjunction with the insistence that York be called, well, York, means that characters can actually demonstrate a lot through the way they refer to York. For example, Sheriff George Woodman, the head of the police department in this small town, is very hostile towards York’s commandeering of this investigation, but is still helpful to York’s efforts. This is encapsulated by the way he refers to York as “Agent Morgan”. By referring to the title of “Agent”, George is acknowledging York’s seniority and his command of this investigation, but by calling York “Morgan”, instead of the more friendly and preferred “York”, George reminds York, and the player, that he doesn’t like York much at all.

Harry Stewart, meanwhile, is the town’s resident eccentric millionaire, who wears a horrifying mask and communicates solely via manservant. Whenever Harry appears to give York cryptic advice and clues in regards to the murder investigations, he precedes every thought with “Mr. Francis York Morgan”. A few character traits are communicated here. First, Harry is weird, weird enough to use this extremely wordy way of addressing York multiple times in a conversation. Secondly, Harry doesn’t have much regard for the authority of the police or even the FBI, ignoring the title of “Agent” entirely in this name. Third, Harry is not friendly with York, despite the fact that he’s generally an aid to him, as he is not using the friendly moniker of simply “York”. Lastly, you know that despite all of this, Harry treats York with some regard, as this name is extremely formal and respectful, especially when you consider Harry doesn’t even acknowledge other authority figures like George in the scenes they share.

So, I guess, the takeaway from this is that writers and designers shouldn’t ignore the powerful communicative potential of mundane human interactions, as even those have the potential to do some heavy lifting for complicated plots.

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