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 alanwake.wikia.com.