Alan Wake and the Push of Video Game Action

I've played through the Xbox 360 game Alan Wake twice now and really enjoy it. It's super-moody with a lot of noir notes and an emphasis on storytelling. It builds great suspense in the first hour of play and only escalates from there with an unpredictable story. Yet, in an attempt to provide a psychological action thriller rather than a psychological thriller, developer Remedy tipped their hat toward third person shooter tactics that don't evolve nearly to support the story. Alan Wake is a well-known writer with a bad case of writer's block. He goes on vacation with his wife to try to restart his creative juices but winds up plagued by dangerous nightmares instead. Possible stories he could be writing come to life at night. His only source of protection is light, a scarce resource in the middle of the woods.

Alan Wake Light

The light conceit is excellent. It's evocative of the writing process itself. I couldn't help but recite Emily Dickinson's "Tell All the Truth but Tell It Slant" the first time the game went into the nightmare world.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant, Success in circuit lies, Too bright for our infirm delight The truth's superb surprise;

As lightning to the children eased With explanation kind, The truth must dazzle gradually Or every man be blind.

Light is the source of inspiration for writers. It is the lens that focuses your perspective of the world. It's everything you see and care about in the subject you're covering. You put your own spin on what you want the audience to see but the spin must reflect reality. If it doesn't, the audience feels betrayed and no long buys your conceit.

Alan WakeAlan Wake uses light as a savior and a weapon. A lone street light on a winding path can be the difference between life and death in the middle of the night. A found flashlight, however, becomes a weapon of mass destruction. Point it at your enemy and he loses his ability to hurt you. Wake's greatest weapon is overexposing his opponent so that no mystery or fear remains.

The trickiest aspect of the exposition is Wake's use of light. Part of the mystery in the dark is eliminated each time he fights, chipping away at the threat the night poses. The exploration during the day is, by comparison, beautiful but nonthreatening. If you're walking down a dark hallway, something will confront you; if you're walking in a lit room, nothing will happen.

This creates an interesting situation in Alan Wake. The early scenes in the dark build a really palpable sense of suspense. The first nightmare has a sequence inside a cabin that almost made me pause the game and walk away. I was trapped, unable to do anything while the threat of a vengeful hitchhiker was held back by an old wooden door. I knew what would happen if the villain reached me, but I was powerless to save myself until the game provided a way out.

Alan Wake More GunplayYet as the game progresses, the tricks become less effective. The technique of building suspense is a constant and repeating series of cinematic tricks that would work great in a two hour film. Yet, in an eight hour or longer video game, the tricks become predictable. The story has enough twists and turns to hold your interest. It is the in the moment gameplay that poses the greater problem. Even if you can't figure out where the story is going, you can sense when the story is going to change or a new challenge is going to pop up.

Alan Wake doesn't help itself with the difficulty curve. The third-person shooter aspect of flashlight plus other weapon is harder to control than necessary. Even if you assume an intentional device of a writer not being a crack shot right off the bat, there's a lack of responsiveness in the firearms and a disorienting aiming system that adds more challenge than the actual narrative-driven changes of the story. The gameplay does not always reflect the style of storytelling. The suspense signals during in-game action sequences wouldn't be as distracting or predictable if the game mechanics were challenging, not distracting, in their own right.

Alan Wake ActionThis is not to downplay the quality of Alan Wake. It is a very engaging suspense game for people who want horror to go beyond zombies or vampires. The control/pacing flaws are only a distraction because the rest of the experience is so strong. Wake's story, in and out of the nightmare world, is great. The characters are interesting and the environmental conceit strong.

I just have to wonder if the game wouldn't have benefited from a less action-oriented approach. Without the sameness of the fights drawing extra focus to the structure of the game, the darker areas could have focused more on surviving the story rather than fighting the game itself.

Thoughts on Alan Wake? Share them below.

Zombie by Joyce Carol Oates: Twisting Fate

News from Sketchy Details and Best of March 2013