Thursday, 10 November 2011

Opinion: Alan Wake


With the release of Modern Warfare this week and the endless deluge of analysis, reviews and comment that will undoubtedly go with it, some consensus is already evident. While on-the-whole praised, the principal criticism levelled at Modern Warfare 3 is its lack of ambition - its contentment to tread a similar albeit more polished path to its predecessors, interestingly a charge that could never have been laid at Call of Duty 4, the first Modern Warfare title that came out in 2007 and single-handedly impacted the direction of big-name FPS titles for the next four years.

So, why in an article about Alan Wake have I opened with a paragraph about Modern Warfare 3? Put simply, because in many ways the two games present polar opposites and represent two very different ideals in videogame development.

Modern Warfare 3 is polished, accessible, balanced but somewhat predictable. Alan Wake is ambitious, quirky, unusual, charming but flawed.


Remedy’s first release since Max Payne 2 in 2003, Alan Wake is a narrative-focussed thriller where you play Alan Wake, an insomniac thriller writer suffering from writers’ block, whose sojourn to a small North-western town takes a turn for the worse when his wife is abducted. It is a game lumbered under the weight of its ambition to the extent that often the lost-in-the-forest combat sections seem far removed from the almost Heavy Rain-esque interactions with the town and its inhabitants. That’s without mentioning the distinct and highly unusual episodic structure Remedy chose to implement.

This isn’t Valve’s idea of episodic content (although, let's face it, Valve's idea of episodic content is fairly bonkers for other reasons). Rather the game itself was split into 6 episodes, each bookended by a “Previously...” segment and a closing theme song. A structure that for all intents and purposes shouldn’t work – if you wanted to watch a DVD boxset you would – and yet does work, giving you that extra milestone to pursue, “Oh I’ll just play to the end of this episode…”

Certainly, you could have characterised the release of Alan Wake as the noise of a generation of young gamers collectively scratching their heads.

With the exception of the odd videogaming trope – collectable objects such as the thermal flasks inexplicably and liberally scattered around the entire area – there is very little in the game that speaks to gamers’ traditional comfort zones.

This is certainly not helped by the games clear, obvious and sometimes derivative use of Twin Peaks and Stephen King as inspiration. Twin Peaks itself was an often challenging show, refusing to play by standard serialised rules of television but instead settling for a dream-like, often nightmarish, modus operandi.

Alan Wake’s debt to Twin Peaks is apparent and often playful. Both feature a small town filled with quirky characters that harbours a dark and sinister secret. Yet often Alan Wake will invert the types established by Twin Peaks and in doing so toy with your expectations. For example, whereas Twin Peaks visiting FBI agent is a charming, intelligent and moral character who the audience is encouraged to identify with and root for, Alan Wake’s visiting FBI agent is a belligerent jerk.

So many of the concepts Alan Wake utilises are novel – no pun intended. The manuscript pages you find as you progress not only fill you in on parts of the story but also manage to heighten the tension. For example, reading about being ambushed by a group of enemies creates a heightened sense of dread as you wait for the inevitable, not entirely sure when or how it is going to happen.

Likewise the combat mechanic is borderline profound. By utilising a combination of different light sources to first-of-all stun and weaken enemies before shooting them with your various firearms introduces an interesting level of strategy and variation.

Unfortunately the combat also, as the game progresses, leads to one of the games more prominent flaws. Seemingly unsure of how to develop the combat beyond the first few hours of the game, Alan Wake repeatedly strips you of your arsenal leaving you to slowly build up your resources again. This constant repetition of going from a state of well-resourced combat back to defenceless sprinting begins to grate towards the end of the game.

So too does the prevalence of get from point A to point B missions – another game design relic that has gradually been dissipated prior to and since Alan Wake’s release. Certainly there’s nothing more frustrating than wanting to find out the next plot development only to have to slog across some relatively empty terrain for 10 minutes to do so.

But you will slog regardless, because the plot is inventive and engrossing. It’s not literature gold – it owes a self-aware debt to various hammy thrillers and genre titles from the past 50 years – but it’s layered and toys cleverly with the games narrative. If you look back fondly on the first Max Payne’s meta-commentary on the nature of gaming when Max Payne realises he is in a computer game, you’ll particularly enjoy the twists and turns afforded by Alan Wake being a character in the story that he is writing, particularly towards the end where, without spoiling it too much for you, words become tangible things you can manipulate.

Alan Wake is one of those rare beasts, a game with some very real problems from pacing to repetition to disjointedness, yet one that I found myself completely endeared to nonetheless. A number of its flaws seem to have been borne out of its long-development time, a development time that saw it change from the open-world title it was intended to be to the more liner game is became. But, it is rare to play a game where it is so tellingly clear that the developers’ poured a lot of care, attention and, dare I say it, love into it. From the ambitiousness of the mechanics, plot and structure to the sheer wealth of pop culture references that enliven the game world – it is a game rich in detail. It is, in truth, a game that may not be perfect, but it almost doesn't matter.



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