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


  1. Just started reading--likely to post another comment later--but: is that first picture computer graphics? Because if so, damn, the Uncanny Valley has been traversed.

  2. It's interesting to me that you dismiss the actual play of the game and focus on this: "the game’s setting, narrative structure and incredible production values."

    As you said, maybe it sucks you in because it's novel to video games. But wouldn't an Alan Wake TV show or movie or novel scratch your itch better if, as you say, it's a pretty standard third-person shooter? I get that you're writing about video games as total experience on this blog, and not just as *games*, but as someone interested in the medium of game qua game, reading this review, I have to wonder: What makes Alan Wake a worthy *game*?

  3. Hans, how dare you ask questions! Especially good ones. This might be a long response.

    I actually think Alan Wake is a pretty good third-person shooter. I haven't ever played anything quite like it. The enemies are kind of zombie-like in that they do their best (as A.I.) to surround and flank the player (almost like those old 2D street brawlers where enemies try to surround the player from the front and the back ... but in this case a lot more sneakily and sophisticated). Battles really end up being this kind of frantic exercise of keeping tabs on who's where at all times. Usually frantic would probably mean sloppy and bad and annoying to play, but in this game that's not the case. I think Remedy could have made it a little more interesting (or challenging) by being more withholding in terms of items and ammunition, because there were a few times early on when I didn't have enough ammo to take out the bad guys and I had to figure out some fancy evasive maneuvering to get to the safety of some light. So as a combat simulator, I think it's a pretty good game.

    I chose to focus more on the game's setting, narrative and production values because those were the elements of the game that seemed the most interesting to discuss and because I was attempting to write something not too much longer than 1,000 words. There is more to talk about, but I decided to just pick out what I did, partly because I'd be interested to know if anyone else felt similarly about how the game felt like a novel experience (or if it was just me) in terms of its narrative.

    I still agree with everything I wrote, but what I didn't really get to express is how the game really feels like this kind of beautiful mess. It could have been better. The way in which the player goes around collecting manuscripts could have been improved and integrated better into the narrative of the game. Collecting coffee thermoses (it's optional and doesn't add anything) could have been replaced by a better method of collecting manuscript pages ... maybe a radar type of function could have pointed the player in the right direction to the pages ... and this would have created a better and less distracting way for the player to explore the beautiful game environments. I'm getting into stuff that will only make sense to people that have played the game, and I'm probably not answering your question. But my point is that the game is still strangely good, despite its rough edges. And the narrative aspect of the game is a part of what makes it such.

    I suppose the basic narrative premise of Alan Wake *could* have been applied to a TV show or movie, and that is a part of what makes me a little worried about praising it as a game. I don't necessarily have a lot of artistic respect for high-concept entertainment. But it was made as a game, and I'm glad it was. It gives me hope that some really incredible storytelling and characterization will be achieved through video games (that isn't to say it isn't happening or hasn't happened already). Still ... my worries persist.

    You say that I'm writing about video games as a total experience. I think that's more or less true, even though it isn't necessarily my intent. I think I have to go back to what I said in my very first post. To me this blog is still very much an "experiment" in which I attempt writing and thinking about video games (with the reader as my guinea pig). I feel pretty strongly that I don't have any real niche expertise or specific angle for discussing games. To be honest, for whatever piece I'm writing at a given moment, its particular angle or approach might be directly influenced by whatever (or whomever) I've been reading at the time. I try and learn something new from each post. I'm still trying to figure out what's most important to analyze and critique in games, as well as what can I best contribute to the conversation as a writer.

    So I appreciate feedback.

  4. Oh, and to answer your first question, I'm pretty sure that first picture of Alan Wake is of the real-life actor for the character ... not an in-game still. The game doesn't look *that* uncanny.

  5. Thanks for your comments, Flynn! Good stuff. About this:

    "It gives me hope that some really incredible storytelling and characterization will be achieved through video games (that isn't to say it isn't happening or hasn't happened already)."

    Is it important to you that this stuff is tied to the play of the game, or is it fine if it's mindblowing storytelling that happens in cutscenes? Like, the emergent properties of play, when looking back, tell an amazing story vs. maybe my choices impact what happens in the amazing, Oscar-quality cutscenes. (does that make sense?)

    1. I hope I’m not misinterpreting what you’re asking. It seems like a big question. I think there are probably many ways of talking about storytelling in games.

      Resident Evil—through the use of cutscenes, character dialogue and some in-game writing—tells the story of an evil pharmaceutical company doing crazy terrible things in a hidden laboratory in a backwoods mansion. But the experience of actually playing the game tells another kind of story. It’s the story about the player figuring out how to simply get from one room to another without dying or running out of resources. You could almost make a board game out of it. And I think it was that second story, more so than the first, which resonated with the people who played it. (It probably also had to do with the game’s at-the-time dynamic environment) So normally I think it’s more interesting to have great storytelling that *is* tied to the play of the game and discovering those emergent properties. I like game narratives that play out differently for different players.

      But … I think I’m open to anything done well.

      What impressed me with Alan Wake was that it managed to tell a more sophisticated story in the traditional sense, sort of a switch on the Resident Evil example. The third-person shooter mechanics were quite good, but my standout memories didn’t have as much to do with anything traditionally “gamey.” It was more the concept of the game’s setting and overarching narrative and how the production values helped bring that all together. It was pretty cool seeing the environment supernaturally alter throughout the game. There wasn’t really any significant player choice involved, meaning—as with a novel or film—everyone is going to have the same basic experience. And yet I still found it a worthwhile experience.

      If we’re talking specifically about cutscenes, I think it usually works best to keep that stuff to a minimum. And I think game developers understand that. They’re savvier today about using in-game mechanics and maintaining as much constant player input as possible to convey most of what they need to convey. I’ve certainly never seen an Oscar-worthy cutscene and I can’t imagine it happening anytime soon. But who knows?