Saturday, September 17, 2016

Dave Critiques - Alan Wake: When horror becomes tedious


Hey hey, folks. Dave here. Just a friendly reminder that this is a critique. I will be talking about Alan Wake today, and those that are worried about spoilers should go play the game before watching. For everyone else, let’s continue. So, like my Broken Age video, I initially played and wrote this critique of Alan Wake last year. I was wondering if, like Broken Age, my thoughts on the game would have changed given enough time. That ended up not being the case. To be honest, my thoughts are a lot stronger the second time round. I have a feeling that the majority of this critique will be my original writing. Enjoy!

Does anyone remember after the release of Bioshock Infinite, how articles were decrying that it was a first person shooter? How the story Infinite was trying to tell was at odds with its gameplay? That’s exactly how I feel with Alan Wake. I had a friend tell me that one of the reasons he loves the game so much is that there is really nothing else like it out there, and on that point he is correct.

There is a lot to like about Alan Wake. Growing up in the Pacific north-west myself (Woodinville, Washington), I was engulfed in the atmosphere that the game surrounds the player with. The forests, lakes and mountains exude that crisp sensation of the outdoors, and remind me of many hours spent driving to hiking trails, visiting streams, rivers, and waterfalls. The small towns were full of log cabins and diners that sold delicious pie. Twin Peaks wasn’t presenting a caricature of such places, and while Alan Wake wears its Twin Peaks homages on its sleeve (as well as nods to The Twilight Zone and Stephen King among others), it has captured an essence inherent in that television show’s location.

You spend most of your time in Alan Wake amongst the trees at night. As this is primarily an action game, and a third person shooter at that, this impressive amount of world-building put into Bright Falls and its citizens seems misplaced, or at least not fully realised. It is said that before it became a shooter, Alan Wake was an open world game similar to the GTA series, and likely the town and its denizens were conceived in that stage of development. It’s a shame, especially since my favourite part of the game was traversing the town with the sheriff. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to explore each building and talk to its inhabitants on my own terms, but the game only allows exploration in short ‘off the beaten path’ bursts, while anything having to do with the townspeople funnels the player along through cutscene or brief interaction.

Perhaps if the story had more room to breathe it would have made a greater impact. Any story about a writer and has to do with writing itself is hard to pull off. I think the creators were somewhat self-aware of this as there is an exchange late in the game between the sheriff and Alan about her reading his books. She remarks that he leans too heavily on metaphors. As I spent most of my playtime groaning at the bulk of Alan’s narration (with its heavy leaning on unnecessary exposition), this small exchange almost felt like a partial apology. I think though that the attention to detail in the world and in its characters shows too much integrity to use a fourth wall moment to point out and thus excuse a potential failing of their work.

As for the tale itself, it has all the right ingredients. There is an air of mystery about what is going on, and what the motivation of the darkness actually is (or where Alice has gotten to, what happened in the missing week of time, and is any of what the player is experiencing real). Heck, even having the possibility that Alan is just a fictional character created by Thomas Zane is bold, especially when Alan as a character is so unlikable. While the game ends on a somewhat ambiguous note, I feel satisfied with the conclusion as Alan defeats the darkness and rescues Alice. What happened to Alan is of little concern to me, and as the game itself left me cold for at least the last half (definitely since the episode titled ‘The Truth’ which starts to spell out everything for the player), the added story DLC held no pull. Even ignoring the annoying practise of having the true ending of the story in a piece of DLC, the bulk of my reasoning is I had absolutely no desire to encounter one more fight with the Taken (the name given to the spectral enemies throughout the game that require the ol shine n’ shoot strategy™).

I dreaded every fight with the Taken. It wasn’t because I was scared of them. It was because combat with them is one of two extremes. It’s either mind-numbingly tedious or teeth-grindingly frustrating. If the Taken are in small packs, shining your flashlight at them and firing your weapon can quickly dispatch them with little effort. Even the instances where one appears behind you (a gimmick that the game is guilty of overusing far too often) only requires some quick repositioning before the dispatch occurs. As the game goes on however, the way the Taken swarm the player and the ratio of small, fast enemies to lumbering brutes shifts and multiplies. While you do have tools to manage packs of foes (such as the flare or the flashbang), it is the dodge that is usually your best friend. That is if it works properly.

When an enemy is about to attack you via melee swing or throwing a projectile, a well-timed press of the dodge button will reward the player with a slow-motion reaction that is quite cinematically pleasing. The parameters to set this off must be very specific, because most of the time you effortlessly duck, move a little, and get hit anyway. Either that or you spam the dodge button when the game enters slow motion to show you the Taken appearing behind you, but then it doesn’t let you dodge and you take the hit. The most enjoyable form of this evasion when it works is when an enemy is trying to get a hit in behind you or to the side. I must have had a sixth sense on some encounters, because I decided to press the dodge at seemingly random times, only to have the slow-mo engage and reveal a foe taking a swing at me. Those instances show off the potential of such a mechanic, but because the camera is so close to the player, and the only sound cues seem to be the enemies themselves, you have to rely on such positional awareness (or blind luck) to gain the full benefits of the system. Most of the time a misplaced dodge just leads to being trapped, attacked and killed by multiple enemies.

And a mention should be made of the poltergeists which possess random objects throughout your journey and fling them at you, requiring a long stare down with the flashlight to dissipate. While this breaks up the idea of a traditional fight with the Taken, the camera and dodge functionality make these almost more frustrating, considering the size of most of the objects. I will say it does lead to some quite unique boss fights where you must battle possessed vehicles alongside Taken that can be enjoyable with the right strategic approach (and the final boss was enjoyable if just for its uniqueness), but like the Taken themselves, the frequency of such encounters overstay their welcome. It’s almost as if there was a script in the game that says “You’ve explored long enough buddy. It’s time for one of those enemy encounters you despise. Let’s spin the wheel. Will it be ghosts, Taken, or both? Yee-ha!”.

In the end, it was the world itself that kept me going. The foggy haze among the trees, following specs of yellow paint to a hidden hideaway, even visiting the watchtowers just to listen to the radio updates; these elements brought a world together that I wanted to return to, despite the game’s combat and over-explanatory narrative telling me otherwise. I’ve followed Remedy as a developer since the early 2000s, enjoying both the first and second Max Payne games. Those games suffer from some of the same issues, but they didn’t take themselves too seriously (or at least balanced the serious parts with humour and an overt noir cheese).

Alan Wake does not wink at the camera however. Yes, the game is playing with the tropes of horror and thriller, but it is trying its best to be faithful to the genre rather than using it for laughter. I think it mostly succeeds. The story isn’t the most original but is well woven. It could just stand to have had less of what’s going on spelt out for the player. For me, the world and its characters were the most accomplished aspects. The gameplay falls flat through its repetition and mechanical inconsistency, and while it would be nice to imagine this as an open world game or an adventure game, it is a third person shooter, and at least the combat is thematically consistent with the rest of the work.

Thanks for watching

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