Impressions: Alan Wake, Dearest of All My Friends?
Posted by deckard47 on June 10, 2010
A while ago, I wrote a little bit about why the Max Payne games were so great. Mostly, I talked about those games’ excellent, responsive controls, and the way both Paynes were fun, exciting games to play. Alan Wake certainly doesn’t look like Max Payne, and aside from a few slow motion flourishes, it doesn’t feel like it either. What it does share is the same penchant for not-quite-sensible grammar and tone. Instead of film noire, Remedy took inspiration from literary horror, specifically the (dubiously) famous works of the super-successful Stephen King. Remedy’s also wasted a lot of breath touting their love for David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, and other such weird, quirky treatments of small, mysterious towns.
I haven’t watched Twin Peaks (oh no he didn’t!), but after playing Alan Wake, I can safely say that the game bears little resemblance to Stephen King and his work (aside from lifting the author’s favorite plot device, the horrifying living work of the author), or to the little I’ve seen of Lynch’s show. Alan Wake both isn’t trying hard enough to be weird, and trying much too hard.
Instead (of Lynch/King pretension), it feels like the logical extension of the reasoning behind Max Payne‘s tone and story: take what is most obviously iconic and supposedly resonant about a genre and pound those themes into the ground, through story, but also through gameplay. That’s why in Alan Wake, light kills enemies made up of shadows. Nothing is ever what it seems, except that the unexpected and unknown is the most obvious kind of unexpected and unknown. Thus, the absurd and horrific becomes normal and everyday, simply because these are the most banal kinds of “horrific” and “absurd” things. What’s so scary about the darkness in Bright Falls (hardly the game’s least subtle moment, that name)? Well, at night, things are dark, and people made of darkness try to kill Alan Wake (and the people he meets). That might sound bad, but it’s really the same aesthetic Remedy brought to bear on Noir for Payne. Remedy doesn’t do anything by half measures, it seems.
What the game does have (and this will come as no surprise to veterans of Payne 1 & 2) is a constant barrage of references to previous Remedy games and ideas. In a flashback, Alan is working on a manuscript for what is clearly a story about a Max Payne-type detective. The narration that accompanies each page is even told using Max’s distinctive monotone. In it, Max bemoans his reliance on pain pills, and explains his troubles using self-consciously purple, “noir” prose. It’s obvious that the team at Remedy have an ear for criticism directed at their own game, which means that their next game will include heavy-handed narrators, blazer-hoodie-wearing writers (really, it’s the most ludicrous getup), and Light and Darkness. That actually sounds hilarious and fun.
What also isn’t surprising is that regardless of how seriously Remedy takes Wake and the game that surrounds him, the Finnish team still knows its way around a video game combat system. Wake is easy enough to control, and like most heroes these days, he has a limited sprint to get him out of (or into) dangerous situations faster than would normally be possible. As Wake, I’ve fought shadowy axe men, and shadowy axe men. I’m sure slightly more varied enemies are on the way (larger axe men, perhaps?), but what concernes me about these sometimes-insubstantial enemies is how I fight them. All enemies in Alan Wake are spun out of a book written by Alan the author. Of course, it’s a book he never wrote, or rather a book he plans on writing, and yet he regularly finds pages from this nonexistent book, pages that either reveal key bits of backstory or presage coming scares and threats.
If all of Wake’s enemies (called the Taken) are mixtures of shadows and men (no axe women, just yet), then by Wake‘s logic, the only way to kill them is with light and steel. Thus, flashlights, flares, and conventional firearms become Wake’s only methods of fending off the shambling, shadowy masses. To this end, every enemy is initially wreathed in shadow. The only way to kill an enemy is to shoot him several times, but an enemy is invulnerable to bullets while cloaked in shadow. To remove shadows from an enemy, Wake has to keep his flashlight focused on his assailant for an extended period of time. That’s where the combat gets fun, and slightly fiddly.
It’d be easy to light up each enemy in turn, wearing away their shadowy defenses, if one was to fight uninterrupted. That’s why enemies come in packs of two or three (at least), and are constantly trying to remove Wake’s head from his neck. To dodge the swing of an axe or a thrown object (an attack that feels like it was smoothly lifted from Resident Evil 4), I need to tap the left bumper. That’s all there is to combat. Different weapons can mix things up a bit: shotguns have a shorter range but are more powerful, flares guns are basically rocket launchers (all Taken explode in a burst of light when near the flare’s point of impact), and lamps and streetlights act as pools of safety. Despite all of this, it’s the light/gun/dodge dynamic that ends up defining every confrontation. A well-placed flare or shotgun blast can quickly turn the tide of battle in Wake’s favor, but bungled dodges and clumsy use of batteries and the flashlight lead to quick death.
It wouldn’t be a Remedy game, of course, if the last enemy in every group didn’t die in a quick slow motion tumble. Likewise, a successful dodge will often play out in slow motion, allowing you to watch as a swung or flung axe sails by. It’s this extra kick, this little touch, that makes every combat encounter in Alan Wake feel exciting and wonderfully choreographed (even if it isn’t). That might seem to imply that the rest of combat is bad: it’s not. Combat is fluid, aiming is perfectly accurate, and Wake can do everything you need him to do to dance around your enemies and destroy them without taking a hit.
I’d also like to attempt to explain why the woods and mountains of Alan Wake are really excellent. Part of their appeal stems from their beauty. They’ve been carefully rendered, and some excellent sounds give voice to their mysterious depths. Even without the game’s shadowy enemies roaming the forests of Bright Falls, these woods feel threatening and exciting. You can see quite clearly through the night, which makes sudden fog-banks dangerous and frightening. When the wind kicks up and the silence of the forest disappears, it’s not just an annoying enemy spawn-indicator: it lets you know that nothing is right about this night or this forest. All of these elements blend together to make the forest bits of the game by turns peaceful and suddenly violent.
Just as carefully realized are the old and disused buildings of Bright Falls. The ghost town surrounding the mine, the hotels and logging cabins, all look as they should, in a campy, X-Files way. Likewise, Remedy’s (by now ubiquitous) penchant for unsubtle self-awareness is out in full force for the duration of Alan Wake. The Twilight Zone knockoff “Night Springs” once again appear to have been filmed using actors and models taken from the developer’s ranks, and these short “shows” (found on various TVs ingame) are both amusing commentaries on the genre’s (and the game’s) tropes, and a chance for Remedy to do what they do best: break up the action into little pieces, in obvious, incredibly frustrating ways.
Every time an enemy spawns into the forest, ruin, or dank cabin that contains Alan, some special sound effects play. Often, the camera pulls out to focus on them. When this happens, two things are certain. First, there are enemies in front of and behind Alan. Second, the best option is to circle strafe/retreat until you’ve used your light to disperse the creatures’ shadowy protection. This reveal takes all of the suspense and tension out of combat. Every once in awhile, I’ll miss the telltale signs of the Taken’s (what Alan calls them) arrival, and those moments are precious. Dodging an incoming ax swing because I heard the quiet sound of its flight is a wonderful feeling. The frustration (and momentary shock) I feel when I miss those warning sounds and signs is just as acute. It’s baffling and disappointing that Alan Wake sets up this dark, frightening atmosphere, and then does its best to ruin that atmosphere at every turn.
Of course, one could argue that Wake is an action game first, “psychological thriller” second (whatever the hell that means), and horror game third. As far as the game and the designers are concerned, that’s an accurate analysis. I understand that this is a game about weird, amusingly acted and written Euro-Americans and smooth shooter controls, just as much as it’s about running around in the dark being scared by things. I just wish that the game didn’t go out of its way to take the few scary sections it includes and completely undermine them. It’s hard enough getting into the game, what with Alan’s meandering, out-of-touch (he doesn’t appear to be reacting to anything in-game) narration. I don’t need these blatantly telegraphed “surprise” attacks thrown in to add insult to injury.
I like the combat, but I hate the way that it is integrated in to the story and the world. It certainly doesn’t make things better that the aforementioned TV shows (and occasional radio shows) break up the action in a stilted, mood-breaking way. It’s possible that these diversions are meant as palette-cleansers, but they come off (along with the other completely pointless, “game-y” collectibles) as artificial-feeling: instead of adding to the game’s atmosphere or sense of fun/tension, they seem to exist in their own narrative world, one the in-game cutscenes and action don’t give a shit about.
That’s not to suggest that I dislike the game’s most obvious, ostentatious throat-clearing, pallet-cleansing act: it’s TV episode-like outros. I like the music that plays during the end of each episode, and I really like the idea of chunks of play separated into narratively discrete “episodes.” After all, a lot of games already do this, they just separate these different plot zones using “hubs” or the amusingly pretentious “Acts.” Games (Deus Ex, Diablo 2, etc.) love to do this. It gives the play a sense of narrative (temporal and spatial) progression that the game probably doesn’t possess, honestly. Alan Wake, for all its narrative absurdity and heavy-handed writing, certainly has a narrative that goes from place to place and time to time. It has to, thanks to the action’s (near) ubiquitous night-time settings. There are times when the jumps made by the story (in between Chapters 1 and 2, specifically) don’t feel necessary or meaningful, but some of the chapter endings feel like perfect places to stop and take a break, musically, play-wise, and plot-wise (I’m thinking of how Nick Cave’s “Up Jumped the Devil caps off Episode 3). This is how you do an action full stop: do it when your character gets knocked out, underwater. Do not do it while he’s hiding inside a cabin, watching for scary shadow beasts.
I like Alan Wake, but I’m aware that it isn’t as good as I’d hoped it would be, and I certainly don’t think it’s as good as Max Payne 2. Unlike Payne 2, it’s not honest with itself, or with us players. It constantly undercuts itself, downgrading its successes and triumphs into failures and annoyances. I hope it sells well, because I like a lot of Remedy’s quirks and self-referential proclivities (I was quite amused to hear James McCaffrey, who voiced Max Payne, narrating Alan’s “film noir” book pages, and I still think Remedy does shooting and dodging better than just about every other developer out there). They’re willing to mock themselves, to mock the things most game studios take as deadly serious (how many developers spend much of one game mercilessly mocking their last game?). So, here’s to Alan Wake, a game that obviously had its troubles and still has many of them. It’s not the dearest of all my friends I’d hoped it would be (and that particular friend is in the hands of a group of people I have no love or trust for), but maybe it’ll let Remedy go on and make a really great game. I’d even take a second Alan Wake, if they mixed up their formula a lot. Adios, Alan, and good luck Remedy.
[PS: Those stupid fucking animated farm implements can die in a fire. There is nothing scary about every single damn thing in the world "animating" and flying at Alan. It looks silly, it's broken (just hide behind a lamp post and Shine the things into oblivion), and it sure as hell isn't fun. Never take your cues from Stephen King. He's the reason Super Scary Native American burial grounds are in every damn thing. Think about that.]
[PPS: GiantBomb has nice screen shots. No one else uses screens in their articles (except Eurogamer?). Also, you should all thank Ashelia for this post getting written. I was planning on not writing/forgetting about it in favor of other posts. Unless you hate this post, in which case it's totally not my fault.]