Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Alan Wake Is Too Much Game

I like Alan Wake, despite it being composed of numerous things that could easily be disliked. Unfortunately, those were usually the most game-like parts of the experience.

There have been many criticisms of Alan Wake discussing how the game isn't "scary enough." I think this is a misdirected criticism. Rightly or wrongly, that wasn't the game Remedy was trying to make. Hell, on the box it says "A Psychological Action Thriller." And while I'm not convinced games should need to dress up their covers with vague genre potpourri, I think that is indicative of the experience Remedy was trying to craft. To me it seems misguided, at best, to criticize a game for not being what you wanted it to be, rather than what its creators were intending it to be (of course, there often isn't an easy way to determine that).

In Alan Wake, Remedy has crafted a fantastic environmental atmosphere. I grew up in an extremely rural, heavily wooded area (just south of Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming). Simply, going into the forest at night is unsettling. With naught but starlight, or at best a flashlight, there is no question you feel unwelcome. No matter how many times you've been in that part of the forest, you know there are things out there that are far more familiar with it than you will ever be. There is a quiet menace to the forest at night and Alan Wake captures that very well. Combine that with threatening industrial spaces and believable abandoned structures, and the resulting environment hits its tonal marks well time and again.

As an aside, I don't usually care much about cutting edge visuals in games (versus having an interesting art direction), but god damn, the lighting in Alan Wake is stunning. Obviously it ought to be given that it's the central theme of the game, but it's still staggering. Alan's flashlight, a road flame, car headlights; all of the light sources have a varied and tactile feel. Conversely, the facial animations and lip sync are poor to the point of unsettling. But as long as you're looking at Alan's back instead of watching him conversing, the game's visuals greatly enhance the atmosphere.

There is a sizable weakness to Alan Wake's environments though. While the spaces are dressed and lit excellently, their actual physical layout is at times downright bizarre. The areas are weirdly sparse and empty. Usually there will be a direct path through an area with massive open stretches on both sides. But only one time in three will there actually be anything to find off the path, even with the numerous and well-derided collectables. The indirect path is rarely safer, as the heavy brush gives enemies more cover and disguises their approach. So as often as not, you're blundering off the path, shining your flashlight everywhere, only to discover after scouring half an acre that there is nothing to be found. Yet, in the next area, there will be a coffee thermos inexplicably purchased on the far edge of a boulder.

Alan Wake is positively bloated with collectables, a great many of them pointless. There are the now infamous coffee thermoses (David Lynch homage or no, they're awful). There are 100 of the things and literally, the only purpose they serve is to award an achievement once you've found 25 and another once you've found all 100. I'm well convinced objects without any endogenous value in a game should be banished. Period. The manuscript pages of the novel Wake himself has/is writing, that describe events happening in parallel or just ahead of the story, are more tolerable but still too numerous. Beyond the manuscript pages (some of which are only available on the hardest difficulty that is only unlocked when you've finished the game once) and thermoses, there are also can pyramids, radio segments, TV shows, supply chests and signs. Achievements are awarded for each, of course.

Aside from the can pyramids and thermoses, which are just daft, any of these things in isolation is fine. I actually found the "Night Springs" knock-off of the Twilight Zone to be pretty darn amusing. But combined, the sheer volume of stuff becomes way too noisy. It completely derails the game's pacing and atmosphere time and again. Leigh wrote about Alan Wake being too well made to be successful. While she said it "isn't all the scary," I think she is just observing how often the atmosphere is pierced by Alan Wake's design screaming, "HEY, DON'T FORGET YOU'RE PLAYING A GAME!"

The excessive collectables are the most egregious, but the wholly unnecessary yet persistent mini-map and objective marker plastered on the HUD certainly doesn't do any favours to the aesthetic. Aside from the weird spaces off the path, the levels themselves are quite linear. And given the game's heavy thematic leaning on light, I cannot imagine making a highly navigable space would really be that difficult. The mini-map and HUD feels like the number of playtesters who circled 3 instead of 4 or 5 on the Likert scale response to "I felt like I knew where to go at all times" passed some ostensibly vital threshold. And, as Leigh noted in her piece, the presence of enemies is telegraphed to an extreme that torpedoes the ambiance.

It's a real shame too, because there are actually some really interesting things going on with Wake's character. It's buried under a mound of Stephen King paperbacks and VHS cassettes of Twin Peaks, but it's there. Wake has been wrestling with severe writer's block, but it's only noted once (late in the game and in passing) that Wake had written a long successful series of serial detective novels only to have killed the main character in has last book. Now he's seemingly unable to produce anything since. And if there's anything the games industry is familiar with, it's being unable to walk away from past successes.

And I'm only half-kidding with that. Becoming a victim of your own success and being unable to truly get out of your own shadow is something very successful creators (e.g. Douglas Adams, Andy Kaufman, etc.) have wrestled with. It's certainly something I've never really seen addressed in a game before, despite it being pretty well in the background of Alan Wake.

There are interesting things going on in Alan Wake, without question. It's just a shame that Remedy's design ending up being so diffident. It's almost as if they were afraid the experience wouldn't be good enough on it's own, so it had to be filled out with "more things to do." But rather than be filled out, it becomes bloated and unwieldy. There's an extremely compelling atmosphere and even some interesting themes, but it's been buried in an avalanche of pointless collectables and excessive hand-holding. It's possible the DLC episodes might be more stripped-down, and if so, they could be real solid. We'll just have to wait and see, but in the mean time, I do suggest giving Alan Wake a try. There's some good stuff in there, if you can peer past all the gunk.

Oh, and getting an achievement for watching a god damn Verizon commercial in the middle of the 4th area of the game? Inexcusable bullshit. Sorry, I can't pretty that one up.



Blogger Unknown said...

Very salient points (probably more so than anything else I've read about the game so far - although to be fair to Leigh, perhaps her urban lifestyle doesn't afford the same fear of rural night you describe). :)

The coffee thermoses annoyed me quite a bit too, until I think I finally discerned their key purpose - the thing is, the openness of the levels adds a very important tension to Alan Wake's particular brand of psychological horror. Generally they're linear but with a wide path of intersecting ways you can go - so you often go the right direction, but you can never be 100% sure, and sometimes you end up off in a complex dead end. It makes you much more cautious in choosing which way to go. That tension is a key element in balance with the combat & resource gathering.

But when it happens, if you've gone a long way on a dead end, it could end up being a very frustrating thing - but a significant portion of the time theres's usually a thermos there. At which point, you're like, "Oh, well a least I got a thermos (even though their dumb)" and you can write off your poor navigation. (not every time, but whatever percentage of time that makes you feel not too bad for wandering off, in my case anyway). I kinda wonder if they weren't perhaps added after results of player feedback w/the open level design - seems like they were trying to retain the tension in navigation while humoring people that could be frustrated by it with an admittedly non-creative solution.

June 8, 2010 at 11:42 PM  
Blogger Eyvah Ehyeh said...

"Inexcusable bullshit."

Haha, how come? Good thing they can distance themselves from their own tools of trade at least, even if they make the same dumb-fuck mistakes many others seem to be doing. Now if I could only shut off the damn "you got an achievement" sign, or make it so that I can be online without seeing when one of my friends log onto live...

June 9, 2010 at 10:58 AM  
Blogger Nels Anderson said...

@Borut I'd probably wager those thermoses weren't part of the original design ;) It's possible they were added to compensate for dead-end and otherwise uninteresting paths, but it still left to me like a lot of spaces "off the path" were completely empty, even of thermoses and the like. Maybe I was just crap at spotting them though.

I appreciate wanting there to be a risk/reward decision with venturing off the path, but it was still never clear when there wasn't something to find. I felt like there should be something, so I'd end up running all around the same area (totally derailing the mood and pace) until finally saying to myself that there wasn't anything to find. In turned into basically a hidden object game, which is about the antithesis or what I wanted.

Now, would those empty spaces have been even emptier still without the thermoses? Maybe. It's totally possible it was the least terrible thing they could do given the constraints (but god, it's still pretty terrible. I would have just preferred more flares or something).

@Ava Getting an achievement for watching a commercial? That's just awful. I'm really not keen on product placement in games as it is (Burnout Paradise did it well, or at least tolerably), but that's the most pandering, terrible thing I can imagine.

And you can turn those notifications off. Hit the X-Box guide button, then Settings -> Personal Settings -> Notifications (or something very similar to that).

June 9, 2010 at 5:27 PM  
Blogger Vic 2.0 said...

The Verizon commercial was hilarious! I picked up on the humor right away, and I'm surprised so few others did.

But yeah. Main character may just die within 5 seconds? PERFECT time for a commercial break! ;)

And the only purpose a collectible needs is just to be collected. If you don't want the coffee thermoses, don't get 'em. But don't take away any of my excuses to play and replay this game til my fingers fall off! :P

March 26, 2014 at 7:14 PM  

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