Alan Wake: Enh

Ordinarily, a critique of storytelling in a mainstream game would end up as a Homer in Silicon column. But I don’t quite like to do that with a game that I couldn’t finish, despite multiple bouts of play.

Alan Wake was widely hailed as “story-driven,” a “psychological thriller,” and “movie-like.” Its wikipedia article says it is “often revered for its narrative, pacing, and atmosphere” (though that looks like it’s just begging for a “[citation needed]” tag to me). The premise could be interesting: the eponymous hero, a horror writer, comes to the Pacific northwest for a bit of R&R but rapidly finds himself plunged into a nightmare based on his own work, in which creatures attack him every time he strays into the darkness, and his light source becomes as important as his weapons.

So I wanted to play it and wanted to like it. Neither of those really worked out.

Some mild spoilers, but as I haven’t seen the ending, I don’t spoil that.

Part of of my dissatisfaction has to do with the fact that I’m not very good at shooting things, and even playing on normal mode, I died enough to get frustrated.

But mostly my impatience came from the fact that the story and the gameplay are peeling apart like cheap veneer from the very beginning.

Almost everything interesting that happens from a story perspective happens during some minimally interactive scene; almost all of the gameplay focuses on fairly repetitive fights and meanderings through dark woods. The music and visuals for the horror scenes are effectively creepy, at least the first few times, but I felt as though the levels could have used a lot of tuning: it was easy to get turned around on the dark paths despite the minimap (because following the minimap directly often led off the side of a cliff or into a river); some fight scenes killed me the first time I tried them and were easy the second; objects that introduced significant gameplay variety showed up more haphazardly than I would have liked.

I realize that my not being a very good player of this kind of game probably means the game felt worse than it was. Other reviewers have praised the tactical challenge of figuring out the best order for light-burning and shooting your opponents. But I found the play too unpredictable to let me do this. I sucked at Halo: ODST too, but at least there it was clear how and when I might get new weapons, how to use the environment to my advantage for cover, how to capitalize on downed enemies. My failures there seemed justified, even if frustrating. My successes confirmed that I’d understood the game dynamics properly. In Alan Wake I rarely felt that way. The difficulty of the same situation varied drastically depending on whether I happened to see the right things at the right time, and my success or failure often felt arbitrary.

The ambiguous play does some unfortunate things for the characterization. Alan isn’t portrayed as a bad-ass kind of guy. He doesn’t act tough. His thoughts, when hinted to us, reflect fear and possibly some resentment. This would work fine in a story with a slow build-up, where the protagonist doesn’t even meet any of the forces of darkness directly until late in the tale. Plenty of excellent horror stories do their best work with suggestion and delay the big encounters until the very end. But Alan tiptoeing through the darkness, nervous but actually completely unmolested by monsters, would presumably not have provided a compelling gameplay experience.

So instead we have Alan repeatedly encountering entities from the dark side and defeating them — because that’s how the game can be made to go forward. And he does this not by intelligent use of his surroundings, not by stocking up in town with headlamps and an ammo belt and a big-ass lantern like anyone with half a brain would in this situation; not by chilling by a lamp post picking off his attackers until they ran out; but by running half blind through the woods hoping to find generators, bullets, and flashlight batteries lying around.

It’s a scenario that simultaneously frames Alan as a non-heroic guy and makes his sinister attackers seem a lot less powerful than they ought to be. Survival horror only works fictionally if we actually believe that the person doing the surviving is using every possible means at his disposal.

Gameplay messaging only part of the problem, though. The reciprocal issue is that the gameplay bits are there (presumably) to sell you the story of how dangerous and scary this place is, and to introduce some unnerving hints of things to come. The cut-scene parts of the story do not capitalize on this at all effectively. Alan as seen in the cut-scenes is relentlessly foolhardy and dense. I consistently felt as though he had a different set of information than I did: that he hadn’t learned to fear the woods (as he ought) but he had some other drives and motivation. Again and again he sets out for dangerous places through dangerous ground, seemingly without sufficient reason. I understand that the guy wants to rescue his wife, but it’s not always clear that he’s going where his wife might be found.

The story especially tested my patience when Alan (unprompted by me) attacked the man he thought was his wife’s kidnapper. Great idea, Alan: if you kill him, how are you going to find Alice afterward?

At the end of the day, I felt Alan Wake had a lot of the same problems as Heavy Rain. It’s working with a big batch of genre clichés borrowed from movies (and, in Alan Wake‘s case, books), but it strings them together in a way that doesn’t have sufficient internal logic and doesn’t integrate consistently with the gameplay. It may succeed in evoking for some players the memory of a much better constructed Stephen King book they happen to have enjoyed. I haven’t read much King, though, and without that crutch to lean on, Alan Wake feels leaden and unconvincing to me.

17 thoughts on “Alan Wake: Enh”

  1. Yeah, I kinda figured you wouldn’t like this. I have to say I loved it. But it’s probably because I read a ton of Stephen King when I was young and identified with Alan and so didn’t experience that ludonarrative dissonance. Check out Matthias Worch’s GDC talk about the bubble of character. It kinda explains why so many dislike and yet so many like this game. A lot of what you describe resonates with that theory. I’ll definitely admit that my enjoyment of the game is predominantly due to my subjective ego and wouldn’t try to claim that it is objectively great narrative/gameplay. SEMI-SPOILER. By the time you get to the end, though, the deeper ideas and themes of the narrative have emerged a bit more. At its root it is an extremely mythological tale. Pun intended.

  2. Now I don’t feel so bad that this game isn’t coming out on PC. I wouldn’t like it either. I think another point you hinted at but didn’t make directly is that atmospheric survival horror is the more effective the more helpless you are. I don’t know if you ever played the Penumbra series, but it is a good (positive) example of that. While the first one is very good, the second one, “Black Plaque”, is significantly scarier as you have no way to directly fight the baddies. (Those two games are best examples of that genre I’ve ever played, and I would highly recommend them, BTW.)

  3. Total agreement. As a survival horror game, I was really lukewarm on this title. It was okay, but, enh, as you put it. I think a lot of the issues with the character’s empowerment that you talk about have to do with audience profiling – game designers have mostly discovered it works out better for their sales figures if the main character is more powerful than the threat, which tends to take the edge off of horror.

  4. Emily, some triple A games has secret codes that allow you to pass the game in god mode, without dying or take harm. Maybe this could help you to have the bigger picture of the game and submit this to Homer in Silicon.

    Although I think this article fits pretty well there, so, go on, I think it is very interesting, I think it doesn’t matter if you didn’t finish the game if you warn first about.

    Regards.

  5. “And he does this not by intelligent use of his surroundings, not by stocking up in town with headlamps and an ammo belt and a big-ass lantern like anyone with half a brain would in this situation…”

    I concur with your review in pretty much every respect. This made me laugh, though, because it reminded me one character — Alan’s agent, I think? — who wraps himself in a string of X-mas lights plugged into a portable car battery. I despised that character and was miserable every time he had dialogue, but I had to admit, he was the only one who seemed to have a good plan for dealing with the shadow-things.

    AGENT: “I got an extra strand of lights here, Alan. Are you sure…?”
    ALAN: “No, no, I’m good. I got my Itty Bitty Book Light, and I’m pretty sure I’ll find more batteries once I’m good and deep into the woods. Thanks, though.”

    1. Very belated, but: when I was a kid and we went camping, we took along one of those really long D-cell Maglites. That thing could pretty much floodlight an area for multiple hours at a time, and was heavy enough to double as a blunt-object weapon if you were so inclined. Not that it ever saw that kind of use, obviously. But I kept wishing for it while I was playing.

  6. On the note about Heavy Rain: did any of you also think that it was deficient as Alan
    Wake? I was pretty excited about Heavy Rain, but I ‘m wondering now whether or not to get the game.

    If these types of video games are trying to turn sandbox 3rd-person worlds into pieces with a storyline, then how could they do it better? Part of the ambiguity that comes from not knowing where to go in an open-environment game adds to the enjoyment. Having to bounds means that you can go wherever you want, you can be free. However, was there a lack of instructions in these games than detracted from their open-endedness? Sorry for so many questions. I just interested :)

    1. are trying to turn sandbox 3rd-person worlds into pieces with a storyline

      Alan Wake and Heavy Rain are neither of them sandbox games. That’s especially obvious in HR, but even Alan Wake doesn’t usually give you much choice about where to go, in a real sense — the options are essentially “forward towards the end of this scene/level” and “not forward.” (That you can sometimes get confused about which is which doesn’t represent a greater amount of freedom, just a loss of agency.) A given scene/level may allow for some very localized exploration or use of the environment, but it’s not as though you can ever choose to try making your way across the countryside to some place you saw a lot earlier.

      Contrast: all the GTA games, Red Dead Redemption. (Which I still haven’t finished because every time I play I get distracted with sandbox activities and don’t complete enough missions to make real progress.)

  7. Currently I’m playing through Alan Wake, about 2/3 of the way so far. I admit that I am enjoying it to some degree, but I’m probably not as rubbish as you claim to be at this sort of game. (Although I am pretty rubbish at games.)

    Very much agreed as to the gameplay not really matching the cutscenes. A cutscene or semi-cutscene; then you wander through the woods for a while; then another cutscene or semi-cutscene; and then you wander around in the woods some more. Somebody called this a “scary forest sim” and he’s not too far off. But I enjoy the gameplay well enough and never seem to get lost, and it can even get a little exciting (such as when you’re holding off hordes while another character does something behind you, a gimmick used a time or three too many).

    I’ll disagree, however, with an earlier comment about survival horror. Although with some care you frequently have as much ammo and as many batteries as you can use, other times keeping yourself stocked is next to impossible — especially if you’re not the kind who obsessively looks for hidden ammo caches. And the game has no compunction about frequently taking all of your supplies away, leaving you nothing except the ability to run panicked to the next light source.

    I share some of your thoughts about Wake’s unbelievably low level of preparedness. This is more obvious in some sequences than others — when a sequence begins as he (say) escapes from a psychiatric facility then failure to plan is understandable. But in others … why doesn’t he go buy a packpack to store as many batteries or as much ammo as he could possibly use? Why not pick up a couple battery-powered spotlights to scatter around when attacked?

    To some degree you can plead away these issues. He’s in a tiny and remote town, possibly reachable only by ferry; the selection at nearby stores may be scarce. The protagonist is foolish and quick to anger, but he appears to have been some kind of celebrity drink-and-get-in-fights badboy prior to the game, so at least it kind of fits the character.

    (Speaking of celebrity … I was amused by how famous they paint Wake to be. Stephen King’s probably the only novelist most people could pick out of a lineup, and even that’s a stretch. I’ve never seen a cardboard cutout of an *author* at a bookstore.)

    His propensity to go into the dark forest didn’t bother me so much, because he generally had at least some reason for doing so. His car broke down; he was forced to by his wife’s kidnapper; he was escaping from the police.

    What did bother me: plotholes. Why in god’s name did Mott ask Wake to meet him deep in the woods at night? Twice? There’s no sense in that (and it lead to Mott’s death). The dark presence needs Wake to finish his story, so why are the taken attacking with clear intent to kill? Why didn’t Wake or Zane just write the dark presence out of existence? Or write everything to be less dangerous and result in fewer deaths? Where did all those taken come from, anyway? There are hundreds of them — and yet we only hear once about the report of a missing person (Carl Stucky). After the second time Nightingale shoots at an unarmed Wake who’s standing *right next* to innocent people, wouldn’t he, you know, be officially reprimanded?

  8. I’ve never played the game but instead watched someone do so on nightmare difficulty. I found it very absorbing as a story.

    Yes, the hero is dumb and inept, but dumb heroes are a staple of horror literature. While playing Silent Hill, another well known horror franchise with whimpy characters, I never thought that the main characters acted in a way that seemed rational or reasonable. The biggest difference between a good horror character and a bad one is that with a good one, you understand why the person is acting in a stupid way.

    1. I wonder whether watching the game rather than playing it made this more palatable. Maybe it’s just a personal difference, of course, but part of my annoyance came from not being able to do anything about the stupid situations. My sister, who was watching me play, seemed to have more interest in the story than I did, though by the time I gave up on it she was also pretty much ready to let it go.

  9. Alan Wake isn’t really the deepest game if you are going to try something like that. I would recommend some older games like:

    Worlds of Ultima: Savage Empire
    Ultima VI
    Utima: The Black Gate
    Rome: Pathway to Power
    Star Control II
    KOTOR
    Elder Scrolls Morrowind

    Among newer games I recommend (Xbox 360):
    Naruto Broken Bond
    Asassins Creed II
    Mass Effect series
    Fallout 3
    Elder Scrolls Oblivion
    Red Dead Redemption

  10. I meant Ultima IV, not VI :) By the way Ultima: Martian Dreams and Savage Empire aren’t bad either. Neuromancer is also great. These can be played with Dosbox

  11. Heh, I just traded in my barely-played Alan Wake game so I could get LA Noire. I had all of the same gameplay gripes and problems as you, a huge crushing sense of how repetitive the game was going to continue to be, and a very real problem that you didn’t allude to, which was the vacant eyes of all the characters, which never looked at each other in any focused way. They were all as dead-eyed as mannequins or puppets, and it seemed like a weird thing to not put any effort into, because other games preceding it have done better. Everyone working in the medium of animated CG characters has to deal with this, but I honestly felt like I’d never seen a game do it as poorly (and smack squarely in the uncanny valley) as Alan Wake’s team managed to do it.

    Of course, I would have dealt with everyone staring into a vague middle distance if everything else had been compelling, which is the real problem.

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