Thursday, February 9, 2012

Alan Wake review - heading toward the light

It seems so obvious after the fact and yet I never would have conceived of the idea myself. Model a video game on the pacing, structure and logic of a high-concept television series.

For example, what if we make a game about a famous writer who travels to the Pacific Northwest and stumbles upon a dark mysterious power that makes his words come to life? Or, perhaps more simply, what if Stephen King and J.J. Abrams got together and made a video game?

That, in a nutshell, is the high concept of Alan Wake on the Xbox 360, developed by Remedy Entertainment. And doggone if it doesn’t make for an interesting game.

It’s quite possible I’m just out of touch. I didn’t enter the current console generation until the very end of 2009, and I still have a lot of catching up to do. But I’d say more than any other current-gen game I’ve played, Alan Wake feels like it has the stirrings of something genuinely new.

Mechanically, it’s not. What the player’s got in his or her hands essentially is a linear third-person shooter with a flashlight thrown in to mix up the action. Shoot the bad guys first with light. Finish ’em off with the Second Amendment. Plus you can execute a cool slow-motion dodge maneuver. It’s clever. It’s tense. It can be a bit of a juggling act trying to fend off a pack of swarming specters and poltergeist logging equipment.

What makes Alan Wake really fresh, I think, has to do with a combination of the game’s setting, narrative structure and incredible production values.

Let’s talk about narrative. Specifically, let’s address some criticisms. I’ve come across some opinions regarding Alan Wake as a lousy protagonist. People say he’s kind of a jerk. He’s rude to his fans. He’s got a bad temper. I’d say that’s what makes him a complex character. These slightly embarrassing traits pop up pretty quickly and help establish some of the foreboding. We see that all is not quite well with the internal character. Through the course of the game we see this internal drama manifest in the external environment of the game as the protagonist works toward redemption. And I think Alan Wake has a lot of unmentioned redeeming qualities, i.e. his loyalty and determination. It sounds like L.A. Noire (which I haven’t played) received similar criticism for its central Cole Phelps character. So did Grand Theft Auto IV. My guess is that narrative-heavy games will likely continue to challenge players with this sort of set-up. Flawed characters have long been a part of literature and film. Some readers and filmgoers today still have a hard time engaging with books and movies dominated by what they might see as unlikeable or unredeemed protagonists. Video games introduce that other awkward dimension of direct player control and interaction, sometimes interrupted by bits of action—perhaps in cutscenes—where the protagonist might act in unsavory ways outside of that control or input.

There’s a pretty fun interview with Tom Bissell where he talks about the many ways Remedy misses the reality-check mark in developing a writer protagonist. No international bestselling author, he says, should have his best friend for an agent. No major publisher would let a writer’s spouse design the writer's official book jacket. These are all valid points, and yet obviously this is what happens in the realm of high-concept entertainment. Indiana Jones isn’t a typical archaeologist either. Barry Wheeler may not represent an actual New York agent, but he makes for a damn good sidekick character.

I like how the game introduces its characters, mostly without fanfare, and comes back to them in sometimes unexpected ways. I like how it slips in little storyline hints and clues that you might not at first realize are hints and clues. I like the game world's backwoods setting—its authenticity, consistency, its nods to Twin Peaks and that it doesn't rely on hyperbolic set pieces. I like the game’s measured plot reveals and, in particular, its TV-inspired episodic breakdown. I like that the game left me with lingering questions even at the end of the game, just as the opening narration more or less suggested was going to happen.

I like all of these things and yet I don’t necessarily like what it all portends—a future of episodic, download-only game releases being one likely possibility. I worry that I like Alan Wake probably more than I should, that I forgive too easily its faults and absurdities. It’s been suggested elsewhere and it bears repeating here that the actual writing in the game—as in the manuscript pages collected throughout each segment of the game—does not impress as great writing. The easy excuse, of course, comes back to the high-concept notion. It doesn't need to be Hemingway prose. It's a plot gimmick.

But this all leads me to wonder: Would I put up with cheesy narration and similar gimmickry in film or television? Does standard quality entertainment in one medium equate greatness when replicated in a video game, simply because it's novel to the medium?

Popular video games have long relied on their own version of the high concept, some cliché examples of which have been repeated with rapidly improving technology but slower-building narrative sophistication and/or creativity. You have the typically Western theme of the lone space marine battling vast armies of aliens, demons, etc. Japanese games have often maintained high concepts (A.K.A. absolute bizarreness) all their own. Ultimately, Alan Wake represents a positive step forward. I'll take the thought-provoking TV-style narrative incoherence of Alan Wake over the traditional video game incoherence of Bayonetta any day.

Sometimes I'm convinced that Alan Wake represents a type of game that wouldn't have been able to exist in a previous hardware generation, that its success hinges on the aforementioned production values. One game I have yet to play, however, is the sleeper hit Deadly Premonition, another 2010 Xbox 360 game that—oddly enough—also takes inspiration from the Twin Peaks series. How does a Japanese-developed game with a similar setting but notoriously low-budget production values test this particular theory?

I guess I'll let you know when I find out.

Alan Wake gets 3.5 out of 4 stars.

Images were borrowed from

Sunday, February 5, 2012

This game brought to you by...

Partly in honor of CorporateAmericaDay, A.K.A. Super Bowl Sunday, I wanted to take a break from my super serious memoir series to talk about a topic near and dear to all of our hearts.

There's a reason you and I love to play video games. It's the same reason we love watching action movies and reading the newspaper and listening to talk radio. It's the true reason for why we watch professional sports, including the Super Bowl.

I'm talking about advertising.

On the rare occasion I'm not being bombarded with logos, slogans, jingles and billboard ads—or basically any moment when I realize it's been longer than two minutes since I've purchased something from an online retailer, big box store, franchise restaurant chain or international beverage company—I just get depressed. I panic. I get this dreadful feeling like my life has no purpose, that I have no purpose. Then I'll check my computer or I'll turn on the radio. Or I'll look up at the frighteningly calm blue sky and—to my relief—see a sponsored blimp flying by, and I'll remember my place in this world as some mega corporation's valued consumer.

I had one of these life-saving moments yesterday while playing Alan Wake on the Xbox 360 [pick yours up today!]. My character Alan had woken up in some kind of therapy lodge for troubled artists (crazy individuals who create things for life-fulfilling purposes). Out of the blue this nice rustic lodge started turning into something out of a Stephen King novel [available from Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc.]. Poltergeist objects started chasing me through the halls, and this dark howling presence was taking over. The orchestral score was swirling at high crescendo as my character fled into a small room with a suspended television set. Curious, I turned on the television. And this happened...

I've seen some blatant product placement in video games, but this has got to be the most bizarre example I have ever encountered. Two commercials, sixty seconds long, one for Mustang Drift and another for Verizon.

How did this happen? How much money did Verizon pay to have this commercial inserted in the middle of the game? Did Ford pay more money to have their commercial come on before the Verizon commercial?

What's even more incredible is the game gives the player a “Boob Tube” gamerscore achievement for turning on this particular television set. An achievement for watching a third-party product advertisement! I say “this particular television set” because there are several others throughout the game. Some TVs turn on automatically and show short segments of the game's paranoid character in an isolated writing study and narrating to the camera, and it's part of the psychological mystery of the game. There also are a few other TV sets the player can manually turn on, and these sets air short film clips from a fictional TV series called Night Springs, a clear parody of The Twilight Zone. They're clever little diversions that bring some humorous comic relief to a high-action thriller of a game. That's what makes this mid-game advertisement so jarring. It's unexpected and initially confusing, and then it's over. The player realizes it was just a generic advertisement. There's nothing tongue-in-cheek about it. One might say it's an out-of-game or real life advertisement, and yet it's playing on that virtual in-game TV screen!

Product placement is kind of a funny topic. It's been in film for decades, made notably famous in 1982's E.T. and the young Elliott character's predilection for Reese's Pieces candy. It's become an omnipresent trend in blockbusters ever since, but not without some backlash. There are people on the side of director Michael Bay, perhaps the king of Hollywood product placement, who argues that brand bombardment is a reflection of reality. Then there are critics more on the side of David Lynch, who describes product placement as having a putrefying effect on the filming environment.

At any rate, it should come as no surprise product placement has become an embedded practice in our precious video games medium as well. Where there's a large enough audience, there are corporate sponsors willing to pony up for a piece of the space, be it physical or virtual. Some video games are barely more than product advertisements to begin with. Anyone else remember the comic book ads for Yo! Noid on the Nintendo?

The first in-game advertisement I can remember was, oddly enough, in King's Quest II: Romancing the Throne. It was an Easter Egg trailer for the same developer Sierra OnLine's Space Quest game. Midway through the game King Graham comes upon a screen where there is a large rock with a conspicuous hole. This being a King's Quest game, the astute player will be curious and—much like an Alan Wake player switching on the TV set—type “look in hole.” A humorous diversion commences.

The first time I really remember seeing blatant third-party product placement, however, happened several years later. It occurred in the Nintendo 64 version of Rush 2: Extreme Racing USA. The racing genre has probably always been among the most prone to potential product placement, simply because players enjoy the simulative aspect of being able to drive replica cars from name-brand auto manufacturers. The use of auto brands fits pretty comfortably and inconspicuously into the virtual universe of the game. It makes a certain amount of sense (as a counter example, the Nintendo 64 also had Beetle Adventure Racing!, which was a bit more conspicuous and came out shortly after initial production of the Volkswagen New Beetle). But it wasn't the car brands in Rush 2 that I noticed. It was the collectible Mountain Dew can icons scattered around the various tracks. This was obviously some paid soda-company placement, one of many examples of Mountain Dew cashing in on the “extreme” sports and lifestyle marketing blitz that permeated so much of youth pop culture during the late 1990s.

A couple years later I played Crazy Taxi for the Sega Dreamcast. In addition to the licensed music soundtrack (a feature that was becoming more and more commonplace for CD-based games) the game featured full-on product advertising for Pizza Hut, KFC, Tower Records, FILA and Levi's. This was more noticeable than ever as the advertising wove directly into the fabric of the central game-playing experience. Whereas some in-game taxi passengers had to get to some generic destination like the church or the sports stadium, others would spout out something like, “I need to get to the Levi's store!” I remember thinking this was pretty cool at the time. Not only did it lend the game environment a more familiar-to-life quality, it was just novel seeing an actual Pizza Hut restaurant rendered with such high-resolution (at the time) detail in a virtual open environment.

Since then the practice has become quite a bit more commonplace. Splinter Cell games from Ubisoft had players interacting with virtual Sony Ericsson phones (not to mention zip-lining past giant Axe deodorant billboards, among other things). The titular character of Alan Wake uses Energizer batteries, drives a Ford automobile and has Verizon cellphone service. There are many examples to be found.

I'm not going to necessarily take some high and righteous stand against in-game advertising and its affront on the artistic integrity of the medium. Well, all right, maybe I sort of am. The thing is I don't work in the games industry. It's not really my call. It's the game developers and publishers that have to make their own decisions both about the business and the artistic integrity (or lack thereof) of their individual projects. I've had a hard time tracking down concrete numbers for the amount of revenue generated from the practice of in-game advertising, but one group previously estimated the amount to be about $370 million in 2006 and growing to $2 billion by this year. I would imagine much of the current growth of the in-game advertising market has to do with social and mobile gaming, in addition to console games.

I will say that some games have been able to make great artistic statements about consumer culture through the parody of corporate branding. I've already alluded to the Space Quest series so I might as well do it again. The third game in the old adventure game series introduced a fictional space-age fast food franchise called Monolith Burger where the player character has to stop and fulfill some quest-triggering tasks. The experience at the burger joint involves waiting in line and ordering from a huge menu of products, then sitting at a window-side booth and eating the meal. If the player eats too much the character will later have to stop and vomit before re-boarding the docked spaceship. Developer Rockstar's Grand Theft Auto IV makes mind-boggling use of corporate parody through fake Internet ads, fake company billboards and all kinds of parodied franchises, including fast food restaurants. I'm not sure there is anything funnier than walking into a virtual GTA IV Burger Shot joint restaurant and having the customer service kid behind the counter greet the player with … well, watch this video (profanity).

Let's face it. Grand Theft Auto games would not be what they are if they had to kowtow to demands of corporate sponsors. Financial independence means creative independence. This sort of parody has a way of holding a mirror up to society and thus exposing its foibles and absurdities. Corporate product placement in games, I would argue, has more of a numbing, normalizing effect, further acclimating the masses to the ubiquity of public relations in every facet of our daily lives.

There's an interesting niche of post-modern philosophy and rhetorical criticism called hyperreality. Hyperreality deals with the concept of the human consciousness and its hypothetical inability to distinguish reality from simulated reality. Mass media and technology play a huge role in this discussion. For example, say a child grows up in a suburban home watching television shows that portray other suburban homes of similar décor and substance. A critical-minded child might grow up to question which came first, the so-called “real-life” suburban home or the simulated suburban reality depicted through the television—sort of a chicken/egg scenario. Does the TV living room look like the real-life living room or is the real-life living room made to look like the TV living room? What exactly is imitating what? Which is the copy? What is authentic? That's probably a poor description, but hopefully it points to something worth thinking about.

Sometimes I shudder at the conditioning effect of ubiquitous trends, be it in technology, advertising—you name it. Isn't our culture saturated enough with crazy consumerist mindsets and false implanted needs for certain goods and services? Did anyone happen to notice how many outraged Wall Street occupiers went around equipped with Apple iPhones and their high-cost service plans? I don't mean to judge, but are smart phones the new entitlement (just like bubble-priced, debt-mounting houses and college tuitions during the 2000s)? It seems to me the human race has precious few battlegrounds left to fight off the perception, if not the reality, of mega-corporate dominance. Why continue to normalize this practice if we can help it? How far removed are we from the world of Network, where everything we do—whether we acknowledge it or not—is for the glory of Dow Chemical, Starbucks and NBC Universal and their subsidiaries?

Or, as David Lynch asks, "What kind of a world is this?"

Final Disclaimer: I did not spend money to play Alan Wake. I'm borrowing it from a friend. (I'm not sure if that makes me a bad person.)

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Poor Boy's Complaint — a video game memoir [Vol. 3]


An interesting thing happened in our family that directly related to my dad's mid-life career as a freelance graphic designer. Sometime around 1987 my family got a home computer. Yes, a home computer. The kind of home computer that showed letters and images on a screen. The kind that emitted beeping-blooping electromagnetic sounds through built-in speakers. The kind of home computer that ran licensed computer games!

Well, sort of.

I mean, yes, it was a legitimate home computer and it played some games but … well … you see, Doctor, it wasn't just any old computer. It was … a Macintosh. An Apple Macintosh SE to be specific.

I guess you could say my dad was a man ahead of his time. He was so ahead of the times he didn't HAVE time to waste on convoluted operating systems that required the knowledge of entire secret languages just to run programs. DOS prompts? We haven't got any DOS prompts. We don't have to show you any stinking DOS prompts! No, really. It's super easy. Just use this thing called the mouse—drag it around with your hand on its cute little mouse pad and watch it correspond to your on-screen cursor. Yeah. Now move your cursor over to this “folder” and double click this button on your mouse to open this … ahem … “window.” Now just double click on the little icon thingy for whatever it is you want to run. That's it. Oh yeah, it's got a keyboard too, you know, for WRITING WORDS AND SENTENCES! Seriously, why didn't this Mac OS baby catch on with the rest of the consumer base? Okay, okay. That was obviously a trick question. It did catch on—as a bastardized version sold by a different company under a different name.

But that's neither here nor there. The point is that even when I somehow caught a break as a video game-deprived child I caught the most laughable break possible. First of all, this was a monochrome computer. In place of greens, reds, purples and blues, this monitor had gray, lighter gray, darker gray and slightly lighter or moderately darker gray. Secondly, this was a Macintosh. Companies didn't make games for the Macintosh! And when they did it was only out of sheer pity for moping people like me, sometimes months, if not years, after first releasing on the PC. Remember what I said about sloppy seconds? I mean, there were the exceptions. Prince of Persia? Classic game. Incredible game. Developed on an Apple II. You want other examples? Well, I haven't got any others off hand.

Here's my point, Doctor. Let's use an analogy. Imagine there's a kid who grows up and who just really loves professional sports. This kid learns all about collecting sports cards and—most importantly—rooting for the professional sports teams based in the nearest major city. This kid just pines and yearns for the day his nearest-major-city professional sports team has a killer season and makes it all the way to the national championship—and wins! Now, imagine this kid grows up in the greater metropolitan area of … I don't know … Seattle, Washington. What do you know? It's a city with three professional sports teams. Count 'em. You've got football, baseball and (this is still the 1990s) basketball. It could be worse, right? Those Supersonics actually won a championship, albeit before the kid was even born. The Seahawks made it to the playoffs that one time in the late 80s. The Mariners … well, they had a pretty amazing run in 1995. BEAT THE YANKEES IN FIVE GAMES OF THE FIRST ROUND OF POSTSEASON … before losing the American League pennant to Cleveland. Surely, one of those teams is bound to win a championship SOME DAY. I mean, come on, the odds! And yet, what year is this now? 2012! I'm sorry, I need to go … I've ... I've just got something caught in my eye.

* * *

Okay, maybe I got a little sidetracked. Macintosh or not, to a five-year-old kid who didn't know any better this computer was a big deal. We were talking about games right? Well, this thing had 'em. Loads of 'em. My dad, bless his heart, got hold of some floppy disks that held like 20 freeware games each! You would be amazed at the stupid things a little boy can content himself with when his experience can't comprehend anything more advanced. It was like giving a Christmas present to an infant who can't get over playing with the wrapping paper. It was like a Facebook game to a bored/retired housewife. This computer had a backgammon simulator, a Hearts card game simulator. One of the disks had a Missile Command knockoff. There was a simple turn-based strategy Daleks game where a tiny little avatar man had to avoid these advancing, randomly place Doctor Who cyborgs and get them to crash into one another. The player had a cool one-time-use force blast that disintegrated any bad guys in the player character's immediate vicinity. Or if the player was essentially stalemated, they could call upon the teleport function, which would respawn the character to any random tile on the screen—perhaps directly next to an advancing Dalek! That's what we call tension, ladies and gentleman. I remember another game involving a helicopter and clicking a button to make a skydiving stuntman try and land into a moving horse-drawn hay cart. The animation of that little stick man flailing its limbs as it fell toward the earth. Unforgettable. And the smooshing sound that resulted when the poor jumper landed on the earth—or the horse or the cart driver—so satisfying.

This was the era of fun. The era of innocence. An era when computer games and education really could go hand-in-hand. We played Math Blaster. We played Where in the World is Carmen SanDiego? Good God, my sister was a master sleuth at that game. Again, there was tension! Following a trail and apprehending the suspect, hoping to God almighty you had nabbed the right person. And if you were really good and solved like fifty cases—finally bringing to justice Ms. SanDiego herself!

But even these games, Doctor—talking about them is only like enjoying the cartoon short before the main feature. Our humble Macintosh may have served many purposes, but I will always remember it as the computer that played King's Quest. Wikipedia and other wonderful online resources will describe the King's Quest series as a seminal collection of titles in the graphic-adventure computer game genre. That wouldn't have meant anything to me back in 1987. To me, King's Quest was pure survival horror—text-based survival horror, yes, but survival horror nonetheless. I mean, here was this vulnerable Graham character wandering around a monster-infested medieval land with absolutely no means of defense (until, perhaps, you acquire the magic shield, but … never mind). Step into the wrong screen and risk being torn to shreds by a wolf, bludgeoned by an ogre, ransacked by a dwarf, enchanted by a sorcerer or kidnapped by a witch. The game had this wicked little musical cue signifying when a monster was present. It sounded like pipe organ. And it wouldn't have been so bad if it wasn't for the fact that this would happen seemingly at random. You would just be walking around the forest, trying to get to the next screen and—BAM!—there was that music. Dum-dum-dum-dum-dum-duuuuuuuum! At first I literally could not watch this game. Maybe I wasn't yet able to disassociate fictional danger from real danger. When I got older and began playing the game by myself, I was a nervous wreck. I would sweat. I would have to pump myself up just to traverse from one screen to the next. Eventually my parents purchased the official game map and hint-book, and I discovered how to beat the game without having to cross any of the potential monster screens.

Then a funny thing happened. I fell in love. It probably helped that this period of Macintosh gaming corresponded to the same period of my life when I learned to read and write. King's Quest was like a high-tech fairy tale. It had a dragon's lair, a Leprechaun kingdom and a land in the clouds—all in the same 30-minute-or-less adventure. It didn't matter that I'd played through the game before, because playing through again was like re-reading a favorite storybook.

King's Quest was just the gateway drug. Then there was King's Quest II. Then I discovered Space Quest, and oh how I loved Space Quest. If my King's Quest devotion was like going to church every Sunday, then I became a bonafide Space Quest evangelist! This game was so incredible, it's about a janitor saving the universe—how could I not share it with others? My poor friend Jon. It hadn't been that much earlier that I had been the poor boy being subjected to manipulative two-player Super Mario Bros. games on other people's Nintendos. Here I was inviting my new best friend over to our house to play a text-based adventure game. The whole game! Now, there was no easy way to accomplish this sort of task. One person would get to sit up front in the comfortable office chair and control the keyboard and all of the typing—me. The other person would have to sit in the hard kitchen chair and try to watch from about five feet back. It's a miracle I ever kept Jon as a friend. I'm sure I must have gone through every nook and cranny of that game. I know myself too well. It wouldn't have been enough for me to just plow through the screens, showing my friend the basic concept of the game before going outside and tossing around a softball, or anything interactive. I would have stopped to “look at...” every description of every pixel on every screen—because that's how I played.

What am I saying, Doctor? That's how I still play games! What's wrong with me? I can barely get through a modern Grand Theft Auto game without making myself practically role-play every stupid minute of the experience. I mean, here's an example of my neurosis. Say my GTA IV Niko Bellic character watches a few programs of an in-game television show—like one of those stand-up comedy bits with Ricky Gervais. Then Niko goes out on a mission and—oops!—dies. “Oh crap!” I inwardly tell myself. I didn't save my progress before going out on that mission, meaning my Niko Bellic character just lost that in-game experience of watching that TV show. This doesn't necessarily mean I will go and rewatch that program, but I would be lying if I said it didn't bug me. I feel guilty for skipping through ten-minute cab rides. I practically have to discipline myself! Thank God the game doesn't give me the option of watching the character sleep!