Trouble Thinking

June 18, 2010

Alan Wake Impressions

Filed under: Video Games — Tags: , , , — Chris @ 11:31 pm

I don’t consider this a review, as I only really feel right reviewing a game I’ve beaten, and I don’t see myself beating Alan Wake anytime soon, if at all. Allow me to explain why.

From a storytelling perspective, Alan Wake is a Max Payne game that is trying very, very hard to be taken seriously, and failing. For those who never played them, Max Payne and its sequel were a pair of third person shooters developed by Remedy (the same minds behind Alan Wake). They starred the titular Max Payne, your standard cop with nothing to lose, in a gloriously over the top modern day noir. Max narrated his adventures with ridiculously florid, hard-broiled dialogue, and as dark and the games were, you could tell that Remedy was well aware of how absurd it all was and reveled in it.

Anyone who has played either Payne will immediately notice that those games share a number of storytelling methods with Wake: the protagonist’s near constant voice over, the weird little TV shows you stumble across that use real actors, and so on.  The difference is, as dry as it was, Max Payne always had tongue planted firmly in cheek, never intending you to take it too seriously. Alan Wake on the other hand, would like you to take it very seriously.

Alan Wake bills itself as a “psychological thriller,” but basically it’s a horror story. If you’ve read anything by Stephen King, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory here. The goal of the game, is to keep you tense and a bit confused as to what is going on, in that exciting way that a well written scary story does. Unfortunately, the tics the game has inherited from Max Payne end up working against this end. Much like in Max Payne, Alan Wake’s protagonist (who, if you haven’t guessed, is a dude named “Alan Wake”) narrates pretty much constantly. Unfortunately, whereas Max’s narration was amazing, overflowing with extended and absurd hard-boiled metaphors and allusions, Alan’s is boring. And stupid. In fact, I think the game might think the player is stupid, because most of the time Alan simply ends up describing exactly what is going on, just in case you weren’t actively engaging and interacting with everything that is happening. Which you are. Because it is a videogame.

While Max Payne’s narration enhanced the tone of each scene, Alan Wake‘s detracts by pointing out the blindingly obvious, in the most uninteresting way possible.

Furthermore, for a game that opens up quoting Stephen King, explaining that in the best horror stories much goes unexplained, Alan Wake sure likes to explain an awful lot of shit to you. In addition to Alan’s first cut of Bladerunner-esque narration, there is pretty much nothing going on in this game that is left to mystery. The plot finds Alan, a best-selling author, and his wife visiting a small northwestern town named Bright Falls. Without spoiling too much, Alan almost immediately finds that the town is home to some ghostly dark presence, which lives in the shadows and possesses town people towards nefarious purposes. Could such a fantastic premise possibly be real, or is Alan simply descending into madness, and the whole scenario is a product of his overwrought writer’s imagination? Nope. The game makes it abundantly clear, very early on, that the dark presence is real. It attacks a number of others, who all work to confirm Alan’s belief and point out, in detail, that he’s not crazy.

Well surely it must delay the reveal, if not reveal at all, the source of this presence? Nope. It basically explains what’s going on and where all this came from a bit of a ways into the second chapter, even giving the dark presence a name: The Dark Presence. Economy of storytelling at work, folks.

At least the townspeople must be oblivious to the Dark Presence, and unawares of the ghastly goings-ons, right? Ok, that one is true, but for the life of me I can’t figure out how. Every night DP (as I like to call it), comes out and basically starts tearing shit up. Ripping giant trees out of the ground, filling the sky with hundreds of evil, black birds, possessing lumberjacks left and right, and just murdering the fuck out of any supporting character who is unfortunate enough to be granted a name. Seriously—DP aint subtle. The only reason I can think of that this is even remotely possible, is that the townspeople are well aware of what’s going on, but figure if that they close their eyes, wish hard enough, and pretend it doesn’t exist, DP will just go away. Like I said, I haven’t beaten the game yet, maybe Alan Wake will deem fit to explain to me that that is exactly what is going on later. It’s pretty much the only question I have left unanswered, anyway.

Actually, I do have one other: Alan Wake is supposed to be a popular writer, right? So, is he supposed to be really hacky as well? The game is littered with his writing in the form of “manuscripts” you collect, and well, it’s all pretty sub-par. Now, I know that oftentimes “bestselling author” does not equal “most talented author,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what Remedy is going for. This is the risk of making your protagonist another writer, especially a great writer: you better be pretty confident that you yourself are a great writer, or you just better not show any of his writing, at all, ever.

Also, Alan’s fucking manuscripts shift constantly between the first and third person, and that shit just drives me crazy.

Graphically, the game is just confusing. The environments and the shadow/lighting effects (which play a key part in the gameplay, as I’ll get to later) are amazing. In fact, the lighting is some of the best I can ever remember seeing in a game ever, and with all the beautiful games coming out recently, that’s really saying something.

On the other hand, the character models are so bad it’s jarring. Faces are stiff, plastic, and inhuman (Alan’s wife is the worst victim of this), looking more like mannequins brought to life than actual people, and for a game that revolves around telling an engaging story, I have never seen worse lip-synching in my life. None of the character’s mouth movements are even close. This was actually the very first problem I noticed, and I found it so distracting I couldn’t even focus on what was happening. Not a good idea if you’re trying to craft a “psychological thriller.”

The gameplay itself consists of segments of either walking around talking to people, or running around somewhere dark (typically a forest), and fighting enemies. The enemies are called “Taken,” and they’re people possessed by DP, who are wrapped in shadows. As Alan, you have to shine the beam of your flashlight onto them in order to burn the darkness off, at which point you can unload into them with whatever firearm you have handy. It’s a clever concept, and the game does a good job of finding ways to mix it up, giving you a variety of light based weaponry such as flare guns, flashbang grenades, and searchlights. Unfortunately, the combat grows tiresome pretty quickly. You fight a lot in this game, and at no point is it ever very challenging. You will quickly find the proper rhythm with which to best win each and every fight, at which point the only problem you have to deal with is the fact enemies never stop coming. You start to fear combat, not because it’s hard, but because it’s tiresome. You know that feeling you get in a Final Fantasy, or some other RPG that has random encounters, where you just want to explore the corner of a map somewhere, but get aggravated because every two steps you’re stopped and have to fight another group of trash enemies? That’s Alan Wake all the time. Combat in this game isn’t scary, and it isn’t fun, it’s just a grind.

Alan Wake also has some of the most egregious product placement I’ve ever seen. Normally product placement doesn’t bother me; in fact I think that including real brands can often times help a setting feel more genuine. Alan Wake’s is just so damn ballsy though, that I have to point it out. As I mentioned, combat revolves around using your flashlight. Obviously, flashlights don’t last forever, they need batteries, so throughout the game, Alan has to keep collecting batteries. Energizer batteries. Giant frigging blister packs of Energizer batteries. It’s so blatant and shameless that you sort of have to stand back in awe.

The reason I’m so hard on Alan Wake, is that I admittedly had high expectations for the game going in. It’s no secret that most videogame stories are simply terrible, and when I heard that this was a game built entirely around telling a story, my hopes were raised. There are games out there that are well told, but unfortunately Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be one of them. Who knows though, I haven’t beaten the game yet, and if nothing manages to distract me, and I’m able to keep my interest, it’s possible it may yet change my mind. I’ll let you know if it does, but don’t hurt yourself waiting.

1 Comment »

  1. “I don’t consider this a review, as I only really feel right reviewing a game I’ve beaten, and I don’t see myself beating Alan Wake anytime soon, if at all. Allow me to explain why.”

    So in reality, you are reviewing this game without knowing just how good or bad it is… You just don’t want us to call you on it.

    “From a storytelling perspective, Alan Wake is a Max Payne game that is trying very, very hard to be taken seriously, and failing.”

    Of course, lots of people DID take it seriously, so there goes your first argument (as if it really counts as one).

    “Anyone who has played either Payne will immediately notice that those games share a number of storytelling methods with Wake: the protagonist’s near constant voice over, the weird little TV shows you stumble across that use real actors, and so on. The difference is, as dry as it was, Max Payne always had tongue planted firmly in cheek, never intending you to take it too seriously.”

    I disagree. Just because they put quite a lot of comical relief in it (with a story like Max Payne’s, you kinda HAVE to just to keep everyone from getting too depressed!), doesn’t mean the story wasn’t meant to be taken every bit as seriously as that of Alan Wake.

    “Alan Wake bills itself as a ‘psychological thriller,’ but basically it’s a horror story. If you’ve read anything by Stephen King, you’ll find yourself in familiar territory here.”

    Yep, and that’s another thing they have in common: They’re both thrillers that people (who don’t know any better) insist are actually horror stories.

    “The goal of the game, is to keep you tense and a bit confused as to what is going on, in that exciting way that a well written scary story does. Unfortunately, the tics the game has inherited from Max Payne end up working against this end. Much like in Max Payne, Alan Wake’s protagonist (who, if you haven’t guessed, is a dude named “Alan Wake”) narrates pretty much constantly. Unfortunately, whereas Max’s narration was amazing, overflowing with extended and absurd hard-boiled metaphors and allusions, Alan’s is boring. And stupid. In fact, I think the game might think the player is stupid, because most of the time Alan simply ends up describing exactly what is going on, just in case you weren’t actively engaging and interacting with everything that is happening. Which you are.”

    This is really just a presumptuous way for you to tell us that you didn’t care for the whole television series-like presentation. I personally thought it was a nice touch. He’s usually putting into words what he’s thinking or feeling anyway (which is exactly what you want in this sort of game – a connection with the character you’re playing). There are very few moments where Alan narrates the obvious, and in those few moments I think it’s to keep the pace – keep you moving forward.

    “Furthermore, for a game that opens up quoting Stephen King, explaining that in the best horror stories much goes unexplained, Alan Wake sure likes to explain an awful lot of shit to you. In addition to Alan’s first cut of Bladerunner-esque narration, there is pretty much nothing going on in this game that is left to mystery.”

    Well, this is a total lie. Alan sounds every bit as confused as the player on his/her first playthrough, in fact, which is half the point of the narration to begin with.

    “The game makes it abundantly clear, very early on, that the dark presence is real. It attacks a number of others, who all work to confirm Alan’s belief and point out, in detail, that he’s not crazy.”

    You’re really out of touch with the whole point of the game, which is what I expected from someone who hasn’t even finished it. But what’s sad, is what you’re ranting about is something that simply reading the frickin’ case the game comes in could’ve assisted you on! It says plain as day “A dark presence stalks to the small town of Bright Falls”, lol, so yeah, clearly that’s not the (rather predictable, been-done-to-death) angle.

    “Well surely it must delay the reveal, if not reveal at all, the source of this presence? Nope. It basically explains what’s going on and where all this came from a bit of a ways into the second chapter, even giving the dark presence a name: The Dark Presence. Economy of storytelling at work, folks.”

    Yep, they decided to call it the only thing they know to call it instead of giving it a proper name. Because the latter would’ve been explaining the SOURCE of the dark presence… like you just finished claiming it did (which it didn’t even come close to doing, BTW). You should really make up your mind what you’re going to claim and stick with it. Because “They reveal exactly what this presence is, but can’t think of a name for it” doesn’t really work.

    As for the townspeople being oblivious, the game tells you (if you were paying attention) that the dark presence was “sleeping” and “woke up” when Alan arrived. And there’s really nothing to suggest the town is oblivious that some insane things are happening, just clueless as to what exactly is causing them. Clues are very few and far between until the last night featured in the game, after which we’re not shown the town’s reaction.

    “Alan Wake is supposed to be a popular writer, right? So, is he supposed to be really hacky as well? The game is littered with his writing in the form of ‘manuscripts’ you collect, and well, it’s all pretty sub-par. Now, I know that oftentimes ‘bestselling author’ does not equal ‘most talented author,’ but I’m pretty sure that’s what Remedy is going for.”

    You’re not “pretty sure” of anything, let’s get that straight right away. And I can’t say too much regarding the manuscripts or I’ll spoil the game (for you, master critic of a game half-played, and everyone else), but let’s just say the circumstances were far from conducive to creative writing! Trust me on that one. There’s absolutely zero evidence that Alan’s writing is sub-par.

    “Also, Alan’s fucking manuscripts shift constantly between the first and third person, and that shit just drives me crazy.”

    There are theories that this suggests he wasn’t the only one writing in it. Again, I can’t elaborate or I’ll spoil the game.

    I’ll grant you the facial animations needed work. I think they corrected this a bit, though, as my copy looks a bit different than earlier Let’s Plays I see online. At least that’s what it seems like to me.

    “Unfortunately, the combat grows tiresome pretty quickly. You fight a lot in this game, and at no point is it ever very challenging. You will quickly find the proper rhythm with which to best win each and every fight, at which point the only problem you have to deal with is the fact enemies never stop coming. You start to fear combat, not because it’s hard, but because it’s tiresome. You know that feeling you get in a Final Fantasy, or some other RPG that has random encounters, where you just want to explore the corner of a map somewhere, but get aggravated because every two steps you’re stopped and have to fight another group of trash enemies? That’s Alan Wake all the time. Combat in this game isn’t scary, and it isn’t fun, it’s just a grind.”

    I thought the combat was a LOT of fun. Played the game six times now for the combat and the atmosphere alone. And you’re partly right about the endless respawning, but mostly wrong, There are only a handful of areas that are actually infinite respawn, and most of them are in the latter stages of the game. And while the enemy models and types do repeat, it’s not much different than most shooters out there. Plus, the game plays with your inventory quite a bit. Giving you better weapons, taking some away, taking ALL away, giving you vehicles to cruise around in, etc.

    “Alan Wake also has some of the most egregious product placement I’ve ever seen. Normally product placement doesn’t bother me; in fact I think that including real brands can often times help a setting feel more genuine. Alan Wake’s is just so damn ballsy though, that I have to point it out. As I mentioned, combat revolves around using your flashlight. Obviously, flashlights don’t last forever, they need batteries, so throughout the game, Alan has to keep collecting batteries. Energizer batteries. Giant frigging blister packs of Energizer batteries. It’s so blatant and shameless that you sort of have to stand back in awe.”

    Didn’t bother me the slightest. I just took them and kept going, who cares?

    “The reason I’m so hard on Alan Wake, is that I admittedly had high expectations for the game going in. It’s no secret that most videogame stories are simply terrible, and when I heard that this was a game built entirely around telling a story, my hopes were raised. There are games out there that are well told, but unfortunately Alan Wake doesn’t appear to be one of them.”

    Well I’ll be damned it the story hasn’t made sense to you yet; you just started the frickin’ thing! What did you think a psychological thriller was supposed to do?

    Comment by Vic 2.0 — October 15, 2013 @ 10:30 pm


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