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 “” 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.