Sunday, 23 September 2012

Alan Wake

It’s funny how easily certain genres become inseparably associated with each other for little to no reason. I mean, you couldn’t imagine the word “sandbox” being used without the word “crime” to describe a game, even though a sandbox game focusing on literally anything other than working your way through the ranks of a criminal organisation would be vastly more interesting than doing infinite odd jobs until people respect you at this point. And for some reason, for the past 20 years it’s been forbidden to even think of making a “horror” game without the word “survival” appearing somewhere nearby. Why can’t we just have a nice dark atmosphere and a creepy story without having to constantly count supplies like we’re doing a fucking stock take during a power-cut? Well now we can, thanks to Alan Wake.

You play as Alan Wake, shockingly enough, a famous writer whose wife is kidnapped but then it turns out she’s been taken by evil forces and you have to fight them to get it back only to have the whole story revealed as a paranoid delusion maybe and the manifestation of a story you apparently wrote but maybe didn’t oh I don’t know! The story is incredibly dense and Post-Modern with seemingly endless layers of reality making it virtually impossible to tell what’s currently happening and whether it, or indeed any of the events at all, is actually taking place or if Alan’s just dreaming all of this up while wearing a Jack Daniel’s foam dome and bashing his head against a wall as I imagine James from Silent Hill 2 doing. I finished the game once and I only have a vague inkling as to the story’s true nature but it’s the kind of thing that’s supposed to be replayed, interpreted and discussed, with any number of explanations possible for all of the madness that takes place. My favourite kind of story.

One “problem” I do have with the story is the somewhat vague characterisation of the main characters. It basically goes as far as “You’re a writer. Here’s your wife, you love her because we say so. Here’s your agent, he’s your best buddy because of reasons.” Very little effort is made to make us care about these characters and even less to make the player feel as if they are playing as Alan Wake, a decision I’m assuming was made consciously. It feels as if the developers weren’t trying to make this feel like an immersive experience at all; it’s immersive in that the story is absorbing but not in the traditional videogame sense that the player feels like they ARE the protagonist. The episodic structure reminiscent of any US drama series and the narration-style similar to one that a protagonist in a book would have to use, not to mention the wearing of the developers’ Stephen King and Alfred Hitchcock influences not only on their sleeves but in massive cock-shaped tattoos on their foreheads, give the impression that the aim here was to create an experience more in line with film or literature, in that you’re experiencing someone else’s story instead of following your own. A point driven home particularly humorously when we see Wake reading pages from his own book explaining what’s about to happen or watch him watch himself write the next chapter, practically telling the gamer “This is fiction. All videogames are fiction. Deal with it and try and enjoy it anyway.” Fantastic for story and meta-narrative purposes, but if you’re the kind of gamer who wants to feel as if you’re involved in the action then you may find this a tad irritating. Maybe I’m giving them too much credit and they did want to create a wholly immersive experience. If that’s the case then they sucked at it, but I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Gameplay however is a somewhat blander affair, consisting almost entirely of modern action gaming clichés. You’ve got over the shoulder shooting using pistols, shotguns and rifles stolen wholesale from Resident Evil 4, entirely pointless vehicle sections with pauses for more gunfights scattered throughout that have more padding than Keira Knightley’s bra on a big night out and of course quicktime events. A great man in a hat once said that quicktime events work if they’re a core part of gameplay but given that you do maybe one for every hour of gameplay they’re very difficult to predict and as such are just fucking irritating. As stated earlier, there is very little ‘survival’ in Alan Wake’s horror, your inventory is basically reset between sections and weapons, ammo and flares are in plentiful supply so you can pretty much have your fill of mindless violence. I have to applaud the use of pacing; far too many games these days are all killing all of the time so it’s nice to see a game calm the fuck down for a bit to give the fights some genuine weight when they do happen. The environments, much like the rest of the game, are extremely repetitive; you get a big scary forest, an industrial area and a quiet dark down repeated ad nauseam, but at least the levels maintain a consistent dark and foreboding atmosphere that creates a constant sense of threat despite the fact that you’re often heavily armed, glad to see we've learned something from Doom 3’s failure, and even I have to admit that the scene in which you fight monsters from a massive heavy metal stage with a giant fire breathing dragon and fireworks going off around you was nothing less than fucking cool.

I wasn’t entirely happy about the complete omission of boss fights but given the choice between no boss fights and boss fights in which you shoot a giant glowing clitoris that Alan Wake would have almost certainly had then it would definitely be the former. Also, fans of horror movies and books will absolutely love the near constant references to classics of the genre; an entire section is devoted to a Shining tribute, for example. Luckily they’re always used in a way that serves gameplay; being attacked by flocks of birds works as both an effective piece of gameplay and a tribute to Hitchcock, as opposed to the Duke Nukem method of stopping you to look at a piece of paraphernalia from a recent game or film in a move that achieves nothing but furthering my case for the destruction of the entire human race.

The one aspect of Alan Wake’s gameplay that is unique, to my knowledge, and incredibly interesting is the use of light and darkness in combat. You can only hurt enemies after they’ve been exposed to light for a certain period of time and bright lights will scare them away and also heal Alan more quickly. Like most great gameplay features, this works as both powerful symbolism in story terms, as a visual representation of Alan’s phobia of darkness, and a strong enhancement to general gameplay, combat in this case. Enemies become stunned in the light but the standard flashlight can usually only touch one enemy at a time, making the use of flares, flash grenades and environmental light sources for crowd control fairly strategic, and the fact that the enemies *have* to be hit with light in order to be killed removes much of the potential for “running and gunning” found in modern Resident Evil titles, for example. Great for horror fans, but perhaps not so great for shooter fans.

One last aspect of Alan Wake that deserves praise is the soundtrack. Not the in-game soundtrack, which is fairly minimal and ambient, but the choice of licenced music for the game. Each episode has a song that plays over its ending and pretty much all of them are excellent; Roy Orbison and David Bowie were particularly inspired choices, “Haunted” by Poe is one of my new favourite songs and the various Opeth-meets-3 Days Grace tracks by Finnish band Poets of the Fall add not only a sense of reality to the world, acting as Alan Wake’s Lovefist and proving that any world needs rock stars to feel real/cool, but also many 0s on to their Spotify play counts from me. I have to remove points for the inclusion of Nick Drake but apparently one of the DLCs has a Depeche Mode track so swings and roundabouts and all that.

So despite the at times generic gameplay, the atmosphere and story and just the experience as a whole that Alan Wake provides make it a pretty great game. So like, get it, probably.

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