Friday, May 4, 2012

Alan Wake Review: Omega 3 Fatty Acids Are Good For Your Heart!

"Remedy's Alan Wake (Minimalist Poster)" by L--Bo

Reviewing a game like "Alan Wake", which is so heavily focused on narrative that gameplay tends to take on secondary importance, is no easy feat. This is hardly meant to imply that the gameplay is weak, or that the story is overbearing; in fact, "Alan Wake" manages to balance these two elements admirably, compelling story segments interspersed with a unique - and, I have to admit, fiendishly difficult at times - gameplay mechanic. However, the interactive "game" parts of "Alan Wake" exist largely to serve the story, and while one might make the argument that games should be built around a strong narrative, making a fair assessment of "Alan Wake" requires that one approach it not so much as a game as an interactive novel.

It's probably worth mentioning here that the interactive novel videogame genre is a very real, very defined thing (see, for example, "999: Nine Hours, Nine Persons, Nine Doors") and I don't mean to suggest that "Alan Wake" falls into that category. What I mean instead is that "Alan Wake" deals with the themes of writing and storytelling so innately that the game itself begins to take on the quality of a book. The difference here is that, where an interactive novel game offers relatively weak puzzle- or adventure-game trappings, bounded by lengthy choose-your-own-adventure-ish dialogue trees and exposition, to justify its 'game' designation, "Alan Wake" is equal parts game and narrative.

I'm drawn to videogames that tell a good story. "Bioshock", for me, was one of the greatest games of all time, because it merged its story and its actual game portions in a sophisticated, and occasionally shocking, manner. "Alan Wake" attempts something similar, and pulls it off skilfully enough (though perhaps not with the same impact as something like "Bioshock"). The game is divided into six episodes, the intros and conclusions of which play out like actual television episodes, with a "Last time on Alan Wake" recap and often ending with a cliffhanger. Each chapter tells a distinct chapter in an overarching narrative arc, typically confined to a particular environment and often completely revising the terms set out by the prior chapter.

For example, Episode I involves Alan and his wife Alice arriving in the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls and heading up to a rented cabin. After some misadventures, the Episode closes out with the apparent death of Alice after she sinks beneath the surface of the nearby lake. Chapter II, however, suggests that not only did Alice not arrive in Bright Falls with Alan, but there is no cabin by the lake, or even the island the cabin resides on. While Alan never truly doubts his sanity, the player is given a number of cues - some subtle and some overt - suggesting that Alan is in denial and there is more going on that we are privy to, confined as we are by Alan's limited knowledge and perspective.

"Bright Falls Deer Fest" by Nathan Bayfield

I talked a bit about the unreliable narrator role in videogames back when I reviewed "Bioshock", and I think that for the most part, the same thing applies here. The story we are being told is done entirely through Alan's eyes, and believe me when I say that Alan clearly has some issues. The lack of objectivity in the game, combined with the deliberately obtuse ending, add up to a certain external portrait of Alan which does not match his own internal self-impression. Whether or not Alan has lost his mind or is vindicated in the end wholly depends on how you choose to see the increasingly pervasive supernatural elements of the game.

In "Alan Wake", Alan and the townsfolk of Bright Falls are plagued by creatures called The Taken - regular people, their friends and neighbors, who are consumed by shrouds of darkness and shadow which must be burned away by a high-powered flashlight before they can be harmed. The Taken are animalistic and violent, often hiding in wait to ambush their prey, and repeat certain catchphrases which, in context, have lost all deeper meaning and are simply the lion's roar of The Taken. There is no clear indication of what The Taken are and very little exposition on that subject, the game preferring instead to explore the themes of dark vs. light, liminality, perceptions of reality, and the psychological import of storytelling. As time goes by, The Taken appear with more and more regularity. Although they do seem to impact others (Alan's agent Barry Wheeler, for example, is just as affected by them as Alan, over the course of the game,) The Taken are somehow Alan's problem to deal with moreso than anyone else. Hints are dropped regularly to suggest that Alan is not exactly sane, and if this is the case, then The Taken may very well be a rather alarming figment of his fevered imagination.

If one chooses to see The Taken as actual, physical manifestations of a malevolent supernatural force, then Alan is the sanest guy in the room. After all, others can see them, most notably Barry but also the sheriff Sarah Breaker, and a number of secondary characters are killed by The Taken. On the other hand, if The Taken exist only within Alan's mind, then he is at very least suffering from a severe narcissistic disorder and at worst is not only manipulating his perception of reality to match his psychotic delusions, but may very well be harming others in the process. The last person Alan meets in the course of the narrative who has been independently affected by The Dark Presence (the force behind The Taken) is Cynthia Weaver, a woman who has some psychological shortcomings of her own; once he leaves her he becomes essentially the last human in a world dominated by Taken, a world that becomes increasingly less coherent the deeper he delves into it.

"Alan Wake Demake" by PyramidHead

The fact that we can ask questions like, "Did the entire thing take place in Alan's imagination?" and not come up with a simple, satisfactory answer is both the genius of "Alan Wake" and its shortcoming. Given that there is so much manipulation of the player's expectations, by the time the story ends, it isn't possible to give a conclusive explanation and say, "Okay, this one is the REAL truth." By that late stage in the game, we inherently distrust the narrative, since it has lied to us a half-dozen times already. Since "Alan Wake" is such a profoundly subjective experience, the real truth of what is going on is less important than how successfully the game has presented a study into the character's psyche. By the time I finished playing "Alan Wake", I didn't exactly know how things resolved, but I had a pretty clear idea of who Alan was. The game paints a fairly complete portrait of a damaged fictional individual.

I can honestly say that "Alan Wake" is one of the better-looking games I've played in my time. Living as I do in the Pacific Northwest, the forested, mountainous landscape felt authentic and immersive; lighting and water effects were about on par with what I've come to expect from a contemporary game, and I never felt a sense of the foliage or objects being texture-y or repetitive. Much of "Alan Wake", though not all of it, involves Alan running through the woods at night, with paths that may disappear into the underbrush and an impressively large area to suddenly find yourself lost in. It's both a testament to the game's high level of tension and a recurring source of frustration to me that I didn't really have as much of a chance to explore as I would have liked, but when you're high-tailing it through the trees at night with half a battery left on your flashlight and six rounds in your handgun and there are a solid handful of aggressive Taken right around the corner, poking through every nook and cranny in the game takes a back seat to survival. I never felt like the game was a walk in the park, in other words, and while I made an effort to track down every thermos and manuscript page hidden in each episode, at times they felt like such typically videogame tasks detracted from my suspension of disbelief.

The central gameplay mechanic - that of burning away the shadows of enemies before shooting them - is a unique one which stayed fresh throughout "Alan Wake". It added a new element to the survival horror (and at the end of the day, "Alan Wake" is of that genre) experience, where one must not only conserve ammo but also battery power. I never felt like it was a slog to get through, and played on "Normal", the challenging moments were present but never insurmountable. If I have one criticism of the game, from a purely practical perspective, it would be the lack of a fall-back melee weapon: at one point I was surrounded by Taken, burned through the last of my ammo, and had to restore from an earlier save point and try to scrounge up some more bullets before venturing forward, a process which took significantly longer than I particularly enjoyed. In fact, I found it so astounding an oversight that I went online to find out if maybe there was just a mapped key or something that I was missing that would allow Alan to put away his gun and whip out a Bowie knife. I'd much rather find myself backed into a difficult corner that I have the option of fighting my way out of than be left high and dry because I missed an ammo cache fifteen minutes earlier.

That said, I think that "Alan Wake" is a viable, and even important, entry into the recent slate of narrative-driving action games. While the "Silent Hill" franchise takes its inspiration from J-Horror films and "Resident Evil" from Western action-horror movies, "Alan Wake" draws from a uniquely American literary tradition in the vein of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and has as much to say about those authors as it does about the stories they've told. And Alan makes for an interesting videogame protagonist: rather than being a cartoon superhero with incredible physical skills, he's limited by his physique, running out of breath while sprinting and occasionally being drunk or hungover; rather than subscribing to a cavalier, kill-the-bad-guys, shoot-first-and-ask-questions-later philosophy, he's haunted and lost and trying to piece together the mess his life has become. Along with games like "Heavy Rain" and "L.A. Noire", "Alan Wake" makes a priority of addressing character and narrative simultaneously, and the fact that the gameplay doesn't suffer for it is, I would say, a significant victory for Remedy.

"Alan Wake for Atari 2600 Box Art" by Element

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