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Alan Wake Review

 

This October we’re going to be bringing you a bunch of horror reviews, and I figured Alan Wake, being fairly recent, well-received, and as-yet unreviewed by Koku Gamer staff, would be a great way to start things off.

Alan Wake came out a couple years ago, and got pretty great reviews across the board, which is easy to tell just from looking at metacritic. I checked it out knowing only that the game was a horror of some kind, and being kind of vaguely aware it was by the people who brought us Max Payne, which I also wasn’t at all familiar with, though it became evident throughout the course of playing the game. Additionally, this review isn’t spoiler free, but I’ll warn you when we get into the big stuff.

If you’re unfamiliar with the plot, the basics are that you play Alan Wake, a sort of thriller-writer version of Stephen King (it was probably too obvious to make him a direct horror writer) who is quite popular and in his world quite ubiquitous, since his book seems to get more ad space than most films. Unfortunately he has come down with a two year case of writer’s block, and his wife, Alice, has tricked him into coming to Bright Falls, an idyllic pacific northwest town, in hopes of curing it. There also seems to be a psychiatrist who specifically treats creative individuals. Somehow the plot all meshes together really well, but we’ll get to that. Anyway, his wife vanishes into the darkness of Cauldron Lake, the set piece around which all the action wants to flow but unfortunately doesn’t, and Alan Wakes up a week later after a car crash and having no idea what happened during his lost time.

The gameplay isn’t anything particularly innovative, but it manages to be just interesting enough to keep you going. The basic mechanic is that all your enemies are being controlled by the dark presence which took your wife, and they can’t be damaged until you shine your flashlight on them. The basic dark vs light metaphor carries throughout the narrative of the game, and is made almost immediately apparent by Alice’s fear of the dark. Unfortunately, it comes off a bit awkward in the gameplay. There’s an ample amount of ammo both for your gun and for your flashlight (as in, batteries. Batteries are flashlight ammo.) but this ultimately ends up being a bit frustrating. On normal difficulty, you can drop most enemies in two shots from your revolver, and very few of them take more than the full chamber to down. Once an enemy gets weakened by your flashlight, they’re basically dead, whether or not you’re even bringing the pain with a rifle or shotgun. One shotting an enemy with the rifle is, after all, only a single shot less than two, so it never manages to feel very powerful in comparison. And because of your reliance on weakening all enemies with your flashlight before you can kill them, the shotgun never feels like the room-clearing, monster-ending beast that it does in other horror games. What this means as a horror game is fine: horror in games is usually achieved by making the player feel helpless. But in Alan Wake, it’s a bit too much, or maybe it’s just that the implementation of it is awkward. You have plenty of ammo, but it does no good against the foes you’re fighting. What you spend the whole game looking for and wanting are the instant kills: flare guns and flash bang grenades, which are surprisingly plentiful for such a small town, but once you get them it sort of undermines the basic mechanic of weakening and then shooting your enemies. While survival horror style ammo hoarding isn’t the intention, the game loses something by dumping your inventory at the end of each of the game’s six episodes. Once you get a flare, there’s no real reason to keep it, since eventually they’ll take it away whether or not you managed to conserve your ammo. You might as well use it immediately. The gameplay is indisputably action focused once these heavier pieces of equipment show up, and ultimately there’s nothing wrong with that—but it isn’t the perfect match for the tone of the game, which is likewise indisputably horror.

Despite this, there are some real elements of intense horror in the game, which basically all come at the start of an episode or after they make you start over with no inventory. Running from streetlight to streetlight for the safety the light brings is always a nice experience, and on occasion they ask you to hold back a siege of impossible odds by using stationary floodlights or a car’s headlights. Those are the elements that shine, and are what the entire game should be made of. As an action game, the gameplay is fairly weak, but as a horror game it works well. The big problem with the combat is the lack of options. Without flares or flash bangs, every battle is “shine a light on it until you can kill it, then shoot at it until it dies,” which is admittedly better than just “shoot at it until it dies.” There’s a dodge, which is extremely useful, and you can stun an enemy by concentrating your flashlight on them, which is probably even more useful, but that’s about all there is to it. Especially aggravating is the tendency of enemies to spawn in a circle around you, which is not conducive to using a focused beam of light to weaken them, since you can only get one or two at a time. Additionally, the camera zooms in when you’re focusing your light, which prevents you from looking around easily. The best strategy is to run past them and turn around, or run backwards and turn around, so that you can actually get them all in front of you, and once you realize this it’s a bit simplistic, especially for how often they want you to fight. There’s not a huge variety of enemies, but eventually the darkness starts flinging train cars and crates at you, which while aggravating is at least a welcome change of pace. Also, running over shadow dudes with a car is pretty sweet, and the game gives you plenty of opportunities to tour the scenic pacific northwest environments while doing so.

The graphic effect of the darkness is really lost in screenshots. The game is beautiful, and not because of it being a powerhouse of graphics, but because of the wonderful lighting effects. Looking at a strong light source is enough to bleach out all the other colors, and weaker lights filter through in beautiful rays. The darkness is thick, and the shaking and vibrating effect that comes with it make it seem real, like it’s really blotting out what you can see, instead of just making it impossible to see anything, like darkness does in other games.

Despite the flaws in the game side of the game, the main draw to it is, for almost everyone, the story and writing, which I have to admit is pretty stellar, especially considering that it’s a video game. And I’m not just saying that because of the clear inspiration from Twin Peaks, which is probably my favorite TV series of all time.

Now for the spoilers. Basically what gets revealed throughout the story is that Alan’s missing week was spent with him being coerced (via kidnapped wife) into frantically writing a story by the Darkness, who is using his creative juices to come to power in the real world. The Darkness takes the form of Barbara Jagger, the dead wife or lover of Thomas Zane, a poet who was formerly put into the same situation as Alan. The story that Alan wrote is the one that he lives throughout the course of the game, that is to say, the story he wrote is coming true and he wrote himself into it in an attempt to save his wife. Throughout the game you find pages of the manuscript he wrote, and try to prevent them from falling into the hands of the Darkness, though the reason for that isn’t entirely clear. The manuscript pages are usually found moments before the events they detail come to pass, or provide extra background information. Except… maybe that’s not all true? Maybe what really happened was, Thomas Zane wrote Alan into existence, and that’s how the clicker got in the box in the well-lit room. It’s definitely open for some interpretation, which is sort of the point of the game.

The story starts off with a quote from Stephen King: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations. …The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end,” which is probably the most important part of any sort of plot analysis you could do. Don’t expect answers. Don’t expect a sequel to give you any answers. It’s honest about this from the get-go, which is great. The epigraph and short dream-like (because it is literally in a dream) prologue beautifully sets up everything that is to come, so you don’t feel cheated when the game refuses to explain anything that just happened. Of course, the game does explain a lot, probably even more than it really should if its goal was to keep the air of mystery even after you put down the controller. Everything you need to understand the game is there, not even looking at the additional DLC areas (which are included gratis in the Steam version of the game) or the sequel. If you’re clever and like exploring, you’ll get it all in a single pass. But the ending is still left for your consideration, even after the newer content. The plot can’t really be described as anything but flawless. The world you’re in is consistent, the characters are quirky and engaging in that oh-so Twin Peaks style, and they manage to explain any plot gap you may find if you’re just willing to take a second look at the game. The aforementioned odd plethora of flare guns and flash bang grenades is because of a character who has prepared for exactly these events to happen, because they’ve happened before. Your wife brings you to the town to visit the psychiatrist, who specifically treats creative individuals like songwriters and poets, who set up shop there specifically because of the Darkness, which grants otherworldly powers to those creative individuals. Everything is contained and explained in an elegant manner. The world has a cohesive whole, which is something lacking in a lot of game plots. Alan and Alice’s relationship, though briefly shown before the action begins, manages to feel very real, which makes the drive to find Alice that much more effective. It isn’t solely fairy tale style love, which prevents Alice from being devolved into solely a macguffin. Alan himself is a great atypical action hero, since he runs around in a tweed jacket with leather elbow patches. Sort of like a Gordon Freeman type of character, but a distraught writer instead of an unlucky physicist.

The problem is the narrative is worth bupkis, and that it’s terribly integrated with the game as a game, and that maybe they should’ve just made a TV show, if they wanted to make a TV show so bad. Check it: two characters, aptly named Tor and Odin, are old washed-up rockers who spend their days escaping from the psychiatrist’s place to go to the local Oh Deer Diner and listen to Coconut. They’re hilarious and great characters, and their dialogue exhibits some of the greatest sentence-level writing games have seen. The problem is that to listen to what they have to say you have to stand next to them for several minutes, which is extremely disruptive to the overall flow of the game. This is especially true when you encounter them in the mental institution, since they jabber on basically infinitely, and show no sign of having a coherent conversation that has any point of ending. If you want the full experience of the game, you have to just stand next to them for upwards of five minutes. This isn’t true of all the NPCs—when your agent talks to you, he’s usually quick and to the point, and the scenes with him are all related to the plot instead of being merely fluff, so they have clear end points and implications within the story. A lot of the game’s text is in watching episodes of a Twilight Zone inspired show that Alan himself used to write for, and those are both funny and do have a clear ending, but seem to appear randomly in a shack in the middle of the woods. Also, you always catch them at the start of an episode, and what sort of TV program only lasts a few minutes, anyway? In any case, a break in the action is occasionally nice, but their placement is odd and seems to lack forethought. Rather than hearing a radio show or watching an episode of Darkness Falls after an intense encounter, they tend to appear after an already relaxing walk through the woods, or when you should be in a rush to go somewhere. And while they add flavor to the game or make clever jokes about the existence of the game itself (as the first episode, Quantum Suicide, does) they don’t seem to have that much of a place within the game.

In contrast, take a look at the scan data in Metroid Prime. You can scan an enemy, and it occasionally gives game-relevant information, like how to destroy it. The blurbs are universally short, and the information all helps to build the world the game takes place in. Nearly the entire plot is conveyed through those logs, but they’re primarily an optional aspect of the game. Many of the logs themselves also seem to be written by Samus, so reading them adds to her character. Additionally, once you scan an enemy, you can view its data at your leisure, which isn’t possible with the TV and Radio shows in Alan Wake, though it is possible with the manuscripts you find. However, the manuscripts usually foretell events, and it seems like they’re intended to be read immediately to heighten the tension, as they never perfectly clue you in to what’s going to happen, but do give you just enough information to pull you forward. They’re also beautifully written.

In fact, the sentence level writing—that is, the dialogue, narration, or individual lines—is pretty much fantastic through and through, save for one thing. Alan, as a writer, has a tendency to over-explain his metaphors, which kind of ruins a bit of the mystery. As the epigraph denies handing over answers, it’s especially odd that he doesn’t really leave anything in terms of the meaning of the game up to interpretation, which is a real shame because that would make the game a lot more enjoyable. The basic metaphor itself is also pretty simplistic. Light is safe, and darkness is not safe, and that’s mostly just because you can’t see what the heck you’re doing in the dark. The game ultimately doesn’t seem concerned with good versus evil as exemplified by light and dark, but it’s pretty hard to not see those elements at least a little bit. The game doesn’t hold meaning on the level of Silent Hill, and that’s alright—but you’d think something focused so much on writing would offer a bit more in terms of depth.

Ultimately the only real flaw with the writing is that it isn’t integrated well with the game on a game level, which is the source of all the friction in the narrative. The plot itself is great, and the writing, barring the over-explained metaphors, is also fantastic. While listening to the townsfolk or watching episodes of Night Springs is disruptive to the overall flow, it’s still enjoyable. Cutting the game up into six episodes, complete with credits sequences and “previously on Alan Wake,” is sort of unnecessary and uninteresting, though it does manage to lend the game the feel of a television show, which is what they were going for. The problem is that it doesn’t add much to the game, it’s just sort of there.

Anyway, the last part of the game is fantastic and redeems everything. You use the flashlight to literally peel back the darkness, revealing the world you inhabit, as that’s what Alan has been doing for the entire game. He writes the world into existence as he progresses through it, and it feels good and manages to be a wonderfully unique scene and moment in game storytelling. It’s something that really has to be experienced, but when you do so, you’ll see what I’m saying. The storytelling and gameplay are truly one in this scene. Slugging through the game might be a bit difficult at times, but it was always ultimately worth the task for the witty and well-done writing, even if it wasn’t perfectly implemented. The story pulls you forward, but let’s be honest: this is a video game. The best writing should be integrated with the game on a game level, and I can’t elevate a score above what the gameplay deserves just because the story is fantastic. Well, maybe just a little wouldn’t hurt, so let’s call it a 7 out of 10. I recommend the game for anyone who’s interested in writing games, not just for what it does well, but also to learn from what it does poorly, and anyone who’s into horror, or Stephen King, or David Lynch, or In the Mouth of Madness, or hell, just about anyone. It’s definitely worth playing. Just don’t expect the game to answer anything.

Be sure to check back for the rest of the month for more reviews of great and not-so-great horror games, where we hopefully will answer at least a little bit about what games can really chill you to the bone.

1 Comment

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  1. Anonymous says
    October 4, 2012, 5:02 PM

    I fucking LOVE Alan Wake.
    Good job.
    The XBLA sequel left much to be desired though.

    Reply

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