ALAN WAKE – Review
ALAN WAKE is a videogame developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox 360. It was directed by MIKAEL KASURINEN and SAM LAKE.
This article contains the following type of spoiler:
This is the second review we have done for Alan Wake. Pat made the first one and found out it wasn’t her kind of game. Then I played it and thought the opposite. I think this is a great game and you should definitely play it if you can.
However, when I say this is a “review”, you have to take my word with a bucket full of salt. Saying I wrote a review is like that polite lie you tell your poor grandma when she asks what the rich grandma gave you for your birthday so that she doesn’t feel bad for only being able to give you love. What you are about to read is shameless fellatio. I loved Alan Wake. I loved the story, the combat gameplay, the collectibles, its sense of place, the music licensed by Remedy, despite the two initial control issues that I had (I used up all my flashlight’s batteries way too quickly and took me a while before I could dodge effectively). In fact, after re-reading this (er…) “review”, I felt a little embarrassed. This is what Matt Cassamassina must have felt after he finished his Twilight Princess review. Perhaps I went out of my way to defend the game’s apparent shortcomings. But I quickly shook these thoughts out of my mind, because passionate writing is something to be admired. In fact, it is indeed what I enjoyed the most from Cassamassina’s reviews.
I was destined to play Alan Wake. There was no avoiding it. I knew this ever since I played Remedy’s Max Payne 2: the Fall of Max Payne. It was one of my favorite last-gen games, not because of the dispensable silly story or the gameplay mechanics, but because of its noir theme and Remedy’s love of foreshadowing and metaphors. The original Max Payne didn’t age as well as Max Payne 2. It now feels mediocre, but its concept, upon which both the sequel and Alan Wake were built, is still solid.
Both games were built around their main characters and that’s already something to be praised in a medium that so frequently dismisses character development. Everything in Max Payne 2 was built as a metaphor to what the protagonist, whose life was a Shakespearean vortex of remorse and violence, was feeling: his frequent nightmares, every TV show he watched before bursting out of the door shooting people and even the combat gameplay itself – the otherwise unjustifiable mechanics of diving in slow motion, guns blasting, was nothing more than the manifestation of a man so eager to punish and be punished that his form of attack is slamming his body on the ground. You don’t play such a game for the plot. You play for this messed up protagonist. The game allowed you to step inside Max’s mind to that world inundated with metaphor-littered monologues, mythological references, gloom and darkness. There was always a storm outside in Max’s New York. Likewise, Alan’s Bright Falls is always intense and gloomy.
Alan Wake sets himself apart for the same reason. It’s a game created with a vision and not to fill bullet points in a Power Point presentation about what consumers would buy. Alan Wake is a more focused game too: from the TV show Night Springs that replaced the comical cynicism of Max Payne‘s shows Address Unknown, Lord and Ladies and Dick Justice to the plot itself. In Alan Wake, plot is king, which speaks a lot about Alan as the writer fallen from grace that he is. I’ll explain that another time, though.
By the way, the writer of this game, Sam Lake, is the same guy who wrote both Max Payne games and who was also the face model for the original game. In Alan Wake he makes a cameo in an interview for TV show. At the end of the show Lake is asked to ‘make the face’. He then proceeds to do the oddly permanent grin Max wears throughout the entire original game.
Alan Wake claims to be a psycho(il)logical thriller (although I find the word “thriller” to have more marketing power than actual meaning – I rather simply use the term “Suspense”) that is set at a small northwestern US city and borrows a lot from Stephen King. Coming from Deadly Premonition (DP) and the movie The Secret Garden (based on a Stephen King tale, no less), whose setting are also small northwestern towns, I was still hungry for that kind of stuff. It’s interesting to compare both games. Deadly Premonition works as a whodunit and therefore the protagonist, Agent York, is more imbued with power to solve it. York wears FBI authority to go everywhere and talk to everyone. He knows where all the suspects are (so he can follow their routines) and he will only enter the next stage when and if the player wants to. Alan Wake, on the other hand, works first and foremost as suspense. Alan as a character has little power – he is thrown left and right by plot devices. Whereas York hunts, Alan is the hunted. While Alan Wake’s town Bright Falls feels constituted mostly by bit and pieces (mostly nightmarish woods), DP’s town of Greenvale feels more like an actual town.
Alan Wake has issues, of course. The biggest one is certainly very first thing you see when starting the game: the Stephen King quote in the preamble.
I believe this was written primarily out of concern that people would get upset because the game’s conclusion offers new questions instead of giving answers. Isn’t it sad to begin like this? It’s condescending to its audience at its best and just plain cowardice at its worst. Can’t we gamers deal with open ends? Really? Do we want for all stories chew their own mysteries up for us?
The quote conveys the misconception that Alan Wake is a horror game. That’s not true. While the story in the game could be considered horror, the game itself is suspense. Explanations are not necessarily antithetical to fear – especially when you know ahead what is at stake, what force is driving your enemy and how bad things can turn into. However, having no explanations is usually better than having a lame one. With the abundant foreshadowing in Alan Wake, the result can be called suspense and suspense only.
There is not a single scare moment in Alan Wake. The game tells you when you will be attack long before it actually happens – either by giving you clear signs of an impending attack (the environment become more windy, dark and hostile and eventually the camera zooms out and, with a dramatic sound effect, tells the gamer he is surrounded) or by telling you about particular encounters via a manuscript. The manuscript is a collectible containing a novel Alan apparently wrote, but does not remember doing so. But here is the catch: the novel is coming true in front of your eyes. This is how the suspense is built: it’s not facing that dreadful enemy the manuscript told you about that matters. What matters is the waiting before the resolution. In order words, the game is making use of Alfred Hitchcock’s Bomb Theory. His conclusion applies in Alan Wake as well: in the scare-filled horror game the gamer experiences fifteen seconds of surprise at the moment of the attack. In a suspense game, the game will have fifteen minutes of suspense. Al’s conclusion is that the public must be informed whenever possible. The exception is when the surprise is a plot-twist, which is, in itself, the highlight of the story.
The game is set like a TV series. The logo on the cover, which is simple, powerful and brutally efficient (it alone conveys who the character is (Mr. Wake), what he does (he holds a flashlight and a gun) and where he is (a misty forest surrounded by darkness)), appears before each episode/stage, followed by a recap of the previous episode. Some blunders were made there. One is that the game doesn’t save until this recap starts so you have to watch the Previously, in Alan Wake segment that tells you about the stuff you have just done, and then you are able to turn the console off without losing progress. The other blunder is that the game forgets the nature of a videogame and only shows this summary once at the start of each episode instead of whenever you resume your play session (it’s amazing that a game so ridden with technical issues, like Deadly Premonition got this right and Alan Wake didn’t) – but since you can re-watch all the cutscenes from the start menu whenever you want, I’ll let this one slide.
There are two advantages of setting the game with this TV layout. The first is that, by giving me the impression I bought a season of a TV show instead of a game, the price becomes easier to swallow as the amount I paid is comparable to the price of getting a television season. The second and biggest advantage is that every stage/episode ends with a cliffhanger just like a TV series would. I applauded Remedy for that decision: it did wonders with the game’s pacing. Besides, why not always add a cliff hanger when a game has a plot? I mean, the reason games are separated into different stages is still mostly functional: usually they mark a change of gameplay or scenery. The reason they give us to continue playing is usually something like Hey, wasn’t it fun to play in that crumbling mansion? Now try this snow field. I don’t see anything inherently problematic with that approach, but now I experienced the Alan Wake cliffhangers-followed-by-awesome-licensed-music, I don’t think I can go back easily.
What a game shaped like a TV series doesn’t need is a game manual: it doesn’t fit the theme and is largely unnecessary in the tutorial era we live in. That manual, however, did crack me up when it described Alan’s wife by saying she has a natural sort of beauty – which, considering her actual face, is apparently an euphemism for ugly. Five years ago I complained that the ugliest game characters around were still Zangief and Blanka, but apparently it was only because ugly needs more console horse power – in the last 6 current-gen games I’ve recently played, there were lots of characters that were not much to look at. The cake still goes to The Darkness‘ Jackie Estacado, but Alice Wake gets a close second.
The game begins as Alice and Alan going to Bright Falls. They rent a cabin, start arguing… and then she disappears. Her disappearance is the main motivator behind Alan Wake’s quest and, since I’m taking about her, this is a good opportunity to comment on Alan’s outburst when he finds out the reason why she was so insistent (to the point of being annoying, I can imagine) about going to Bright Falls. I myself have experienced similar explosions. It’s not because of the minor event that set it off. It was because my frustration for not getting what I wanted despite my best efforts. People who cared about me told me to do things I obviously had already tried (which made me remember these recent failures as well), acted on my back to try to achieve something they thought I wanted (which is not necessarily true) and refused to listen to my complaints about their attempts. After all, I didn’t want help. Drawing the attention of others just made my flops more visible and me more frustrated. I could more than relate with Alan’s outburst. He came to a place in order to forget about his troubles and yet, as the game barely begins, his wife reveals that their coming was part of a plan she has made behind Alan’s back in order to help him get back into writing. When she asks Alan to get help from Dr. Hartman, a man he didn’t like nor respect, he explodes.
After such explosions, I usually feel guilty. Alan may have felt that way too, giving us what could ultimately be the real main driver of Alan Wake. Not devotion, but guilt.
Then the plot thickens. Something happens and Alan appears to be thrown into a nightmare. Dark beings (called Taken) attack him, he is missing a week, Alice is still gone and then there is that manuscript…
I feel that writing inside a game is more than mere writing. You can’t for instance, rely on written words within movies the same way you do with games. Writing, in this case, is an immersing tool – Metroid Prime‘s story told via the Scan Visor, the audio logs from games like Doom III and Bioshock, the notes left by the doomed scientists of Resident Evil – there are the chief examples.
This form of writing is a higher level of interaction with your environment. You explore the simulation of the avatar’s exploration and you may or may not find any clue, and whatever you find may or may not be useful – just like any real-life investigation. In a movie, the character is scripted to find those clues – and even if he doesn’t find it, the audience is already aware of the clue’s existence. So, whatever the case, you will know if there is a clue to be found in a movie or book. In a game, you are usually never sure (assuming you are not using a walkthrough).
This is an aspect completely unique to gaming. Books and movies cannot replicate it because they are not a simulating medium! And this unique ambiguity of not knowing about the existence of a clue, inherent to any exploration, only has purpose when the clue you are looking for is embedded with meaning: visual, written, vocal, whatever works. Those pieces of information might be optional for your avatar to advance, but their very existence is a testament to the features unique to the game medium.
The written work of Alan Wake, the manuscript, is the creation of a virtuoso. Games are function and feeling – and that manuscript adds to both. As function it serves as the central piece around which the plot is developed. As feeling, it adds a real layer of helplessness and foreboding – there is no way Alan can change the direction dictated by those words.
Patricia complained of how the game spoiled the surprise for some of the enemies – more specifically an enemy with a chainsaw. Me, I liked it. Let’s be fair, Alan Wake is not the only game trying to create suspense by revealing the appearance of enemies before they come: many scans from Metroid Prime not only told you about bosses, but also gave you hints how to beat them, Resident Evil frequently employs such tricks like revealing photos and descriptions of future enemies as well as leaving some of their weapons around for you to find (e.g. Executioner Majini). When said chainsaw enemy finally comes, the result is not a ‘hey, look at this new enemy’ cutscene, but a cutscene indistinguishable from the ones accompanying the appearance of other enemies. And yet you feel it is a bit longer. All the tension from that encounter comes from the manuscript (otherwise, I don’t think I would even notice the chainsaw buzz), so that alone is a testament to its power. The enemy itself is not cheap, but balanced: he is merely a Taken with a different weapon after all and therefore acts as such instead of receiving some arbitrary special treatment.
The manuscript also gives the player insights about what is going on with the lives of the secondary characters – giving them depth. Even if you don’t care about these characters themselves, the manuscript helps explaining their actions. Here, all that matters is the story and having a better sense of that is therefore good. Again, this sense of elucidation, in the way it takes place, is unique to gaming.
Ok, enough about that.
Combat. Let’s speak combat. It’s one-note, simple and worthy of gods! This is a simple, yet not simplistic nor boring-despite-constant-repetition mechanics in the same fashion of Gear of War‘s duck and shoot system. If only Silent Hill 2 had a combat this good.
The point in Alan Wake is not the shooting itself, but surviving long enough until the protective barrier around the Taken is gone. Then you have a beautiful “I got you now” moment and blast them to oblivion. In order to dispel their barrier, you have to shine your light on them – and this is when things turn into an odd dance between you and the one, two or six Taken coming with hatchets, scythes and throwing stuff at you, all at the same time. Alan must dodge all the attacks, while creating spaces between him and the Taken and using your flashlight (there is a risk-reward aspect in here – you can try using a stronger light bean, but that consumes batteries). It requires patience. You have to read the enemy’s movements to know when to dodge, run or flash your torch. When you win, your reward is shooting their faces. Each conflict feels like a small achievement. What Alan Wake lacks is an endless mode that allows me to fight wave after wave of the Taken. God, how I want one…
By the way, this is why it’s much harder to hit those exploding red barrels than the Taken, at whose general direction you just need to point and shoot. In Alan Wake going for the red barrels is like running with a cake to reach your girlfriend’s birthday party in time, while lashing out at enemies AND eating the cake. To support this design choice, the developers filled the stages with guns and ammo and, since you don’t carry those weapons between episodes, you have incentives to actually use the cooler weapons, instead of saving them for later.
This is a game where everything clicks and the feedback you receive is tailored to affect you. You kill the enemy and his body is sent flying while bursting with light and you can swear this took milliseconds more than it does. You beat the last Taken of the pack and the impact of the bullet is shown in slow motion; a perfect dodge also gets you a slow motion moment; using a flare just as you are completely surrounded by enemies grants you slow motion AND a 360° camera spin; the screen flashes yellow when the light finally robs them of their protection and flashes red when you are hit, as if blood is making Alan’s vision red. In other words, it’s a visceral experience and by visceral I mean that if you gave me a pie to eat and asked how it was. I would say it feels so damn good.
The flashgun works like a missile launcher. Like the other guns, it doesn’t matter if you are aiming directly at the enemy or not – just let this baby fly at his general direction and watch the bodies fly. The eye candy, however, happens when you do aim at an enemy. Then you get to see your flare travelling in slow motion until it hits its mark and the explosion of red light sends all the enemies flying away. Tim Rogers calls this sweet moment when awesome things that feel momentarily beyond your control happen after a mere push of a button a swish. Get four Taken with one shot and you get a Tetris.
On a non-related note, there are no female Taken. Odd. Perhaps waitresses throwing boiling coffee are not as intimidating as lumberjacks.
Still, Alan’s greatest nemesis is the environment he’s in. I could use a bunch of adjectives here to describe how the woods at night become more and more hostile, how the corners of your TV screen is subtly covered by darkness, while the middle of the screen is filled with fog, how the wind becomes stronger and louder and the beautifully textured bushes start dancing with it. I could describe the time I thought I heard footsteps, turned around, and it was only the tip of a tree far away… and that other time I turned around to catch a fluid, shadowy body creeptastically coming through the trees to cut me in half. Instead, I’ll only say this: everything at night looks vaguely delicious.
This game is a master of teaching through evolved gameplay, which made the tutorials feel superfluous. The player is smartly lured to the right direction with the information provided by the environment: light and visual cues that are only revealed when they reflect light – so both derived from the game’s light/dark language. The rule is: if desperate, run towards the light. Knowing you are always safe in the light largely removes the element of surprise – after all you will always know when you are liable to be attacked. As I said before, however, the element of suspense remains – you are still aware of Hitch’s bomb under the table, after all.
Alan Wake does have problems. One of them is the characters’ facial animations. Some of them are unsynced and others are just plain weird. This is more noticeable at the beginning, before Alice disappears – perhaps Alice is so ugly you have the impression that even when her face is still, stuff there is still in motion. Like Jell-O. It’s only a bit off-putting but what is really distracting not knowing how this issue slipped by unnoticed in a game being developed for so long.
A more infuriating problem is Alan’s fixed inertia. Every game character that is a bliss to control around must have inertia. If you run in Mario Bros and stop, Mario will continue to move a few inches forward unless you explicitly make him jump to the opposite direction.
Alan also has that… but Alan’s inertia is fixed almost at the same value no matter if you are running or walking. So you stop WALKING and the inertia is almost as strong as if you were RUNNING! I’ve fallen off cliffs WAY more time than I should have because Mr. Wake’s inertia made him walk too many inches into the abyss. I hate that. I’m always getting close to cliffs. They are good to have a better view of a game with such a wonderful sense of place. But man… it’s such a cheap death.
I don’t think I wrote anything about the story yet. The thing is that the story in Alan Wake is solid (way better than Max Payne‘s) but the true star here is the pacing. It is electric. The game takes you where it needs you to be, whereas Shemnue and Deadly Premonition would have you to drive all the way there. Both style choices can be equally immersive, but the first is better to make you dive into the story; meanwhile the second makes you immerse yourself as the avatar more efficiently. In order to do this, the script calls for plot devices that basically serve to throw Alan from the place he is into the place he needs to be. Two of them, in particular, felt a bit contrived, but that can be debated (and I plan on debating it, but not here, in order to keep the spoiler level low).
I can’t stop loving Remedy. Here is why. You are in the middle of the game and you meet an institutionalized game developer (he developed the game Night Springs, eerily similar to the game you are playing now). The doctor sighs and says that he knows videogames are trash but it still involves some small creative effort. The developer goes on and on complaining about the game writers, who would have even the toaster have dialog if they could, and the publishers, who demanded more “mullet-time” because that’s what the kids wanted nowadays (which I think is a way cooler – read: from the 80’s – version of Max Payne’s bullet-time (In fact, if someone announces that Max Payne 3 will be set in the 80’s, I’ll do something I’ve never done before and pre-order the damn game. It would be like mixing thunder with awesome)). I smile. Remedy, you had me at mullet.
From the reviews I’ve seen around, I believe that the best service is delivered by the three different reviews IGN posted (from IGN US, IGN UK and IGN AU). The worst service is done by Gamespot,which delivered another completely vanilla piece. Charles Onyett from IGN had some interesting observations about Remedy’s skill with crafting spaces that feel lived in. He cites a recliner ringed with beer cans sits atop a construction container reinforcing the bucolic life style of the Bright Falls residents and he is right. In fact, if you are interested to know how Remedy tries crafting realist level designs, Gamasutra has this very interesting piece. Another true observation from Charles is to skip the normal difficulty setting – Pat told me the same thing and she was right: the game was simply too easy on normal.
Where Charles and I disagree is about the product placement in Alan Wake (Verizon is the main offender here – Charles also mentions the branded batteries, but because I live abroad, I didn’t recognize the brand). I tend to like advertisement in games as long as they make sense and allow gamers some benefits (cheaper prices, for instance). In this case, Verizon is giving free a Alan Wake theme and profile pictures. How sweet. I believe product placement makes a game more grounded in reality. For example, I see a Ford in Alan Wake and can relate to that, because that’s what I used to drive. On the other hand, I still don’t understand what Pepsi has got to do with Bionic Commando. Maybe Pepsi wanted to convey the idea that their vending machines could survive the nuclear holocaust without a scratch. Or maybe Bionic Commandos worship Pepsi so much, they wouldn’t throw those vending machine at enemies even if their lives depended on it (and they do), but I digress. In Alan Wake, product placement is done right: they are not abundant or intrusive. Verizon doesn’t really relate to the game, but that tampon outdoor outside my window also doesn’t relate to my life. Ads can be random like that. G4TV once wrote a piece about how games cease to be work of arts and become commerce when they insert ads, but that is pure nonsense really. Commerce can be art and vice-versa.
Yahtzee, from Zero Punctuation, hits the nail on the head when he complains about how often and gratuitously Alan cites Stephen King (and perhaps that tells us about how limited Alan is as a writer, considering King is his only known influence). But then Yahtzee misses the head and hits the fingers when he complains about Alan knowingly making bad decisions whose outcome he knew about because of the manuscript – however since the manuscript doesn’t describe neither of these occurrences, that criticism is practically void – I say “practically” because even without knowing the outcome, the decision to get hammered inside a cabin surrounded by enemies (Yahtzee’s 2nd example) is still a prime example of the Dumbest Possible Action.
Thierry Nguyen, from 1up, comments on how the song choices for episode endings and key moments are spot-on (they are) and some of Remedy’s in-game quotes about not to listen to the trolls in the forums saying ‘Departure’ (the title of the manuscript and therefore the very game you are now playing) will never get finished that relate to the Alan Wake’s long development time.
His complaints revolve around frustration from frequently getting stabbed or slammed from off-screen and Alan’s bad jumping. Thierry minimizes the second problem because there weren’t many jumping puzzles in the game – I say there was absolutely no jumping puzzle whatsoever. Jumping in Alan Wake is just like rolling in Zelda: it doesn’t have any function other than giving the player something to do, so I don’t consider it an issue at all. He is right about getting stabbed from off-screen, though. If the player isn’t aware of its surroundings, he will get surrounded himself – and since the camera doesn’t allow Alan to have eyes on his back, you have to remain watchful.
Finally, Thierry notices that Alan Wake’s graphics may falter sometimes during the days. However, I’m the guy who enjoyed a Deadly Premonition even with its PS2-like graphics, remember? I really don’t think I’m the most qualified person to comment on that. So, I will just leave Thierry’s warning out in the open.
Chris Kohler, from Wired, was the guy that completely missed the point this time. His misconception is established right at the beginning of his review. If the game doesn’t explain everything, his logic dictates the game is naturally bad. He then follows by saying that it is your susceptibility to being spooked by Alan Wake’s horror story that is likely to determine whether you enjoy the experience. Okay, for argument’s sake, let’s assume his premise Alan Wake is a horror game. Horror games should spook you. If they don’t spook you, you won’t like the horror game and, therefore Alan Wake is true for a moment. But then Chris says When you strip away the creepy ambiance, you’re left with a relatively simple, one-note action game and fills us with bewilderment. Wait a second, Mr. Kohler… You are judging what you think is a horror game by removing the one thing that was meant to spook players? That’s like saying an ice-cream is only as good as the amount of sugar it has and then proceed strip away the actual ice cream and just chew on the wooden stick! By the way, there is nothing inherently wrong with a one-note action game. Gears of War is one and it is awesome (and I don’t even play the online multiplayer of the beast!). Chris elaborates this issue a bit more: there are barely any puzzles, no multi part objectives (all true, by the way). It’s a classical the others game have that, and this game doesn’t, so this game sucks complaint. He wants a puzzle so the game isn’t only about taking on the Taken, otherwise the game would be repetitive and repetition is an obvious gaming sin – despite the fact all games are based on it. The puzzle would break the repetition – and god forbids this arbitrary puzzle is ever boring or mindless or too complex. But my question is why the hell would you want to do that? This isn’t ActRaiser, whose gameplay flaws would start jumping on your face had the game not constantly intercalated between simulation and action stages. The combat in Alan Wake is a reward in itself. It doesn’t need puzzles to work.
I could go on, you know. I could elaborate on how I think Alan is an egotist and perhaps a serial killer. How Alan’s quest might be more about self-affirmation than guilt or love. I could waste pages trying to determine what is real in Alan’s journey. I haven’t only played the game, you see. I took part of it with me. I want to play it as I write this and want to write more as I play it and if that is not the mark of a great game, I don’t know what it is.
Other reviews for Alan Wake that were cited: