By James Hawkins in Unraveling Yarns
Monday, July 11, 2011 at 10:00 am
Part of the brilliance of the story is how it flits back and forth between the quirky, Twin Peaks real world and the phantasm-laced shadow world as violence and evil become focal points in the immediate plot. And, while that can be taken at face-value as a typical mechanism of the horror genre, I think there's something much more intrinsic and methodical about this approach, and one that enlightens us about our hero. It lies within Francis York Morgan's damaged psyche, and psychological deception within the walls of the narrative.
Warning: Game-ruining plot spoilers ahead. Only read if you've played the game...
Before dissecting York the unreliable narrator, it is imperative that we break down what we come across in the game as definitively actual. Or, that I am deeming definitively actual to make this hypothesis work.
First off, these critical and vague events of the game that are revealed late in the game, and can be considered real:
-Forrest Kaysen doesn't age, a direct effect of the Red Seed Tree's power
-The Red Seed Tree contains powerful drug that preserves youth when ingested in high quantities, and can incite an intense blood-lust when diluted
-Kaysen is a self-described "agent" of the Red Seed Tree, meaning he has become obsessed with its power, and he acts as a pollinator to propagate the Tree's existence by planting it in human abdomens
-The tree blossoms and grows when planted in human abdomens
-Forrest Kaysen tested purple gas on the town in the 1950s, but that gas only lingers and doesn't directly affect Morgan
-The gas still resides in the soil, and is released when rain falls, which can cause citizens of the town to get aggressive
-The gas was created to "pollinate" the population -- made from concentrated Red Seeds
-George Woodman killed the four girls, however he and the original Raincoat Killer are not the same
-Woodman discovered the seeds while hunting, and is ultimately a casualty of the Red Seeds, but only insofar as his obsession with immortality drove him insane
-Woodman kills when it rains, as a by-product of the gas, but also to cover his tracks (by blaming the Raincoat Killer)
No matter how York interprets these events, they are concrete -- not mystical or particularly paranormal, besides Kaysen not aging. George Woodman is at fault for ritualistically sacrificing those four young girls. Forrest Kaysen overdoses humans on red seeds, which sprout out of their intestines and begin to grow.
Now, with those facts set in place, we must fully comprehend the relationship between Zach and York to understand why the horrors in the game appear as they do. As we saw towards the very end of the game, York is actually a mask for Zach Morgan, who at a young age was traumatized into a crippling bout of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder when Forrest Kayson beat him in the face, planted a Red Seed sapling into his mother's abdomen, and forced Zach's father into killing himself. Francis "York" Morgan is the stoic, more resilient corner of Francis Zach Morgan's ego that appears almost exactly when Zach meets that awful death of innocence.
To the outside world, York is Zach. He's known as Zach in reality, and looks different from the dark, scar-faced hero we grow accustomed to throughout the length of the narrative. As we the gamers watch through the lens of York, we see him this way until the end, when his true damaged self is revealed and the twists of the story have all been unearthed. And when York talks to Zach, he is merely a liaison between the retracted Zach and the outside world. York is a protector of Zach, one that has been created in Zach's mind as a defense strategy against cruelty and pain.
This is where the mechanic of the "Unreliable Narrator" shakes all of these facts around and makes them nearly incomprehensible. When York approaches a crime scene, or is alone and surrounded by danger, the "shadow world" kicks in. This is not an actual place; instead, it is the developmentally sluggish part of Zach's brain projects a child's imagination on the situation, and changes it to a possessed place.
It is culled from pieces of the environment that influence York throughout the game. There have been murders in Greenvale, and the elementary bit of Zach's brain sees the murderer as a monster. The Raincoat Killer is suggested to him, and he runs with the idea until he confronts George, who is hiding behind the moniker of the "new" Raincoat Killer, and we truly see York's mind project the idea of "monster" onto him. He becomes a giant beast that forces York to use tremendous force to take him down. In reality, it isn't a tiered fight between a man and an ax-wielding juggernaut. Its just a brief fight, and Zach aggrandizes it like a child. It happens again when York confront Kaysen, after he dooms Emily to a gruesome fate. Kaysen's sins are far more painful to York than George's were, so the boss battle is that much larger, and Kaysen becomes a monstrosity before Zach's eyes.
For the majority of the game, we are threatened by the image of the Raincoat Killer -- any time the "shadow world" dominates the landscape, there's the threat of him killing York. He chases us, harms us, and yet we always escape from his grasp, and no one sees or mentions his presence. He is the embodiment of murder, and haunts the places that have been touched by death.
And the same follows with the ghouls that inhabit the place. They are projections of something unstable in York's mind. At one point, he states that these demons haven't attacked him as openly in the past, that it is markedly worse in Greenvale. This presents two facts to us:
1.) The gas is not the determining factor in York's "seeing evil" condition, though it might increase its vividness
2.) This is his ever-present reaction to these environments, not something intrinsic to Greenvale
So, we can glean from this that Greenvale isn't haunted, even though it is the habitat for the Red Seed Tree, which is as close to paranormal as we're going to get in the game itself. The zombies could be York's reaction to fear, or doubt, or insecurity. They get worse as he deepens himself in the case, so all of these points can be validated in those categories.
And that's how I believe Swery and his team can justify the events in the game. What we get, in the end, is a clever use of psychological disorder, imagination, and a storyteller that doesn't always paint us the full picture to purvey our horror to us. We play the game as a defense mechanism, and each side of that gateway that divides reality and delusion is revealed as the game lets out. Which compounds the ache that comes when Zach's true self is revealed, and all of those floating puzzle pieces fall into place, and we see his long-tortured life as one large image. That pulls you in close.
Unraveling Yarns is a weekly column that explores video games as narrative delivery devices. James Hawkins and Rich Schivener rotate week-to-week to discuss their opinions on some of gaming's most challenging and nuanced stories from all generations. Follow James on Twitter @JamesHawk1ns. Follow Rich on Twitter @RichShiv.