19 March 2013

Post Thoughts: Alan Wake


'Nuff said, really.


The characters are pretty well put together and realistic - for the most part. There's always a disconnect in characterisation and choice when dealing with surreal circumstances such as horror films. The same appears to be true here. For the most part, people react normally to the circumstances they find themselves in. However, there are various situations that are beyond believable... as is usually the case in the same vein and genre of films and TV shows. These scenes and actions threaten to take the viewer and gamer out of the developer's carefully crafted "suspension of reality" and they detract from the media being consumed. Good writers can mitigate or minimise these scenes through careful construction or direction of interest.

So this is a positive aspect to the game.

Don't they say that hell is being stuck in a room with someone you hate?


One thing that works quite well is the snippets garnered from the manuscript that the player can find. These lay the foundations for the story within the game and allow even more director's input than the monologues that Alan himself presents to the player. Unfortunately, these were tied into the "collectables" side of the game, meaning that you miss out on key insights and thoughts and actions that are explained and expanded on within these excerpts. These also result in added time within the game that is wasted as the player tries to find them all (if they care).

The story itself is confusing. I'm going to go with "on purpose" because someone confused is more scared and curious than someone who knows exactly what's going on! The most egregious instance of this is the FBI thing... I mean. WTF?! That's even more seriously out of left field than anything I've ever encountered in a game. An FBI agent brings in maybe 20 or 30 agents/police (because, let's face it, the local police department doesn't have that many) to chase a guy who punched someone who didn't want to press charges and his wife is missing. Sounds like good use of the agency's resources right there!
I never saw any explanation for his presence in the game or his justifications/reasons. I mean, who even called in the FBI? I actually expected there to be something in his lodgings about it but if there was I failed to see it.

The writers/developers are also very careful to avoid actual human harm: for the most part you'll not seen anyone die... just implied take-over to become one of the taken and people already dead. It actually detracts from the presentation a little as you have, in one instance, a police car being hit by a train but which is empty upon examination.

Oh, and that one scene where you have an "old" generator part being "fixed" by kicking it back into place? Puh-LEES, developers. Come up with something MORE realistic.
Yeah, Remedy... that's NOT how electricity works. Note the non-functioning generator in the back.... and even if it WAS operational, there wouldn't be sparks flying from the cable connecting it to whatever. 

I think the twist of the sanitorium was pretty cool though. Even though you know it isn't true due to the circumstances of ending up there, you still question what's going on as the artist appears to know you quite well. It would have been more funny if the cut-out that Barry is hiding behind was a tool that Hartmann used to brainwash the patients into knowing who you are and believing you are a patient there with them! A missed opportunity, methinks.

What is most distressing in the story, is that all of the advice you get from the mysterious painter (and apparent apocalypse hoarder) is given too late. You're told in the mine facility that "they fear the light" or some crap. Well you know what, Alan Wake the game? I knew that when you told me within the first 30 minutes.

Maybe I should trust that guy?
I think the story itself is probably fine - if they would just cut down the length of getting from A to B. Yes, it's realistic but man... I don't want to schlep from one place to another with not much happening in between for what feels like 40-50% of the game.


It took me a while to refine the controls in this game. I had to keep tweaking the mouse sensitivity to what I preferred for quite a while. I'm not convinced that the way they present the game is scary at all. It's not even "jumpy terror" as popularised by Doom monster closets. At normal difficulty, (full disclosure: I died quite a few times very early in the game until I was able to really understand the combat mechanics) you don't really even need to use your batteries very often.

The reason for this is that blinding an enemy is enough to slow it or stop it throwing missiles, and a normal beam strength, as opposed to a focused beam strength, still hurts them plenty. This results in an odd dichotomy whereby the scarcity of ammo is more pressing than the scarcity of batteries... which is the opposite of what you want in a horror game: you don't want your players thinking "Where's the next ammo clip, I'm killing these guys like there's no tomorrow!" but instead, "Holy shit! I can't see where they're coming from! I need more batteries!". Even then - most of the time you're not wanting for ammo either!

In fact, I think the developers missed a key trope and idea behind horror and fear: namely that which you cannot makes you more fearful.

The taken are not scary. They are VERY known quantities and you kill too many of them and never see any real people get taken themselves. This is a problem in this game because it basically turns into a basic shooter, whereby ammo management is more important than understanding what is going on in an encounter.

If I were to "do" Alan Wake, I would have had more "show" and less "shooting". I would have used the characters you are introduced to as the seeds of your fear by taking them one by one - some in front of your very eyes. I would also make it so that during the day they are ALL like the waitress in the trailer. All touched and all controlled... yet you are the only person to see the change. Much less killing of enemies in general... and, in fact, I would have had it so that encounters with the darkness and the taken are less about killing and more about escaping.

The torch is, despite being a key gameplay mechanic, an ancillary piece of equipment. It's worthless compared to the flares and flash-bangs and its "focus" mechanic doesn't really improve its effectiveness all that much until late in the game where there are enemies that can't be harmed by the normal beam strength. No, if I were to make this game I would have the torch as a central piece of the experience. Akin to Luigi's torch in Luigi's Mansion or a cell phone/video camera in Supernatural (when dealing with ghosts). The torch would be to see and reduce the effectiveness of the enemy - not to merely remove their defences. After all, an invisible or partially visible enemy is far scarier than a fully visible but spectrally armoured enemy.

Haha! Missed me!

During the middle of the game, when the enemies are thick and plenty, you find a lot of batteries and less ammunition. This leads to a problem because you don't need batteries to remove the protection from your enemies... and your flash light isn't strong enough to slow them down in order to run away. No, in fact, your fastest speed is still slower than your enemy's. This causes an imbalance in the game play - and not one that feels fair - since the dodge mechanic is quite iffy when using mouse and keyboard, and since you can't see behind you, cannot be executed properly... nor when you are running.

It might even be preferable to have your flash light do some damage to an enemy when using the focused beam after revealing them from behind their shadowy murk in order to make the placement of batteries appear logical, at least. This would actually bring it in line with the rest of the game world logic - where flash bangs and flare guns kill opponents. Having other light-based "weaponry" not have the same effect (flash lights and flares) means that there's a cognitive dissonance between what "works" and what does not... and before some smart Alec goes around in the comments stating that the former two have "bangs".. well, it's funny how sound has no effect on the enemy by itself, isn't it!

Or at the very least - don't have your batteries/torch magically rechargeable...

What's more is that light isn't treated as a constant in this game. By this, I mean that lightning doesn't strip the spectral armour from the enemies and other light sources, unless they're spot-like in their application, also do not have any effect on the Taken (e.g. the copious amounts of moonlight throughout the game). Electricity will kill them, no problem though - despite it not really generating light.

I also didn't really appreciate the fact that of all the mobile power company lights that you come across, you are never able to reorient a single one... as if you're some sort of JRPG character that has to walk 10 miles because there's a ledge higher than half a foot between you and your destination.

The game is quite tetchy on what it lets you get away with an what it doesn't - depending on what the designers want you to do. Sometimes you're allowed free reign and sometimes you're not. A good example of the designers doing this is escaping from the police/FBI in the rut/riverbed or whatever, you are invisible to these guys with high-powered beams as long as you stay in it's 2 ft trench but as soon as you step off that little track everyone immediately spots you and starts shooting. Ugh!!

The game is also constantly telling the player that "Ooh, sometimes it's better to run as enemies will keep on spawning in!" but I never encountered a situation like that and I never ran out of ammo unless it was purposely taken from me.

Now, Alan. You can have your gear back when you end up like this poorly constructed jab at games developers and not a moment sooner!

One thing I really dislike about the game is the constant removing of your inventory. It's an unfair choice by the developers to not balance their game and instead enforce balance by restarting you every chapter or so. It's quite frustrating to go through the gamey side of things: managing your inventory and encounters, only to end up starting from scratch when you are next reset by the story. I wish they would have found a better way to deal with these inconsistencies than just stripping the player of all their power in a cutscene.

Always with the cutscenes... It seems developers, in general, are unable to come up with valid ways of dealing with player potency in games without the aid of cutscenes to make what they desire to happen. It's an interesting problem and I understand the issues regarding giving players agency vs what the story requires... but, I think I fall on the side of the player every single time. There is no good time to reduce or change player agency via cutscene - whether that's stating the complete opposite of what the player wanted in Mass Effect 2/3 or having your very powerful player overcome by some inane means in Far Cry 3, Alan Wake or any other myriad games you may chose as an example. It's not okay. The sooner developers figure this out and figure out game-specific ways in which to deal with this problem, the better.

This is fun. Trust me! It's like an episode of Dr Who.

Playing Alan Wake as a horror or suspense thriller is just not going to work for most people because there are generally too many enemies... However, in the fourth act (I think) he ends up with two other people for brief periods of time and, in my humble opinion, these are the most fun parts of the game. On the one hand you have the comedic relief of Alan's closest pal and on the other the Sheriff, the dependable one. It's just great having that banter along with the gun play and increased - but very manageable - enemy count.

One last game play gripe: Driving. Oh. My. God. The driving model in this game is so terrible. I just wish they'd left it out entirely.

I meant to do that!

I think, if I could sum up my thoughts, the solo gameplay is annoying rather than scary...

Technical aspects:

I really find the PC controls very clunky and, when I say PC controls, I mean mouse and keyboard. The main problem I have with the game is that "centre" is actually, to my perception, off-centre. In other words, when my character is moving forward, the beam of light and his frame point off to one side of centre just a little.This means that when you're near things, like when you're being chased by enemies, you find it difficult to navigate without getting stuck on geometry.

Not to mention that Alan controls like a tank. Seriously, I think it's worse in this game than anything like Dark Sector, Gears of War or Afraid in the Dark (the original). It's quite frustrating when a possessed tree picker can outmanoeuvre you, a human being who can't even dive or sprint faster than a 2 year old human child. I mean, I'm out of shape but, BOY do writers have it bad!!

This is all compounded by the fact that the development team saw fit to sometimes place you on the left or right of centre, which means that, all of a sudden all your controls are controlling slightly differently.

Yeah, THAT'S not confusing...
I'd be all for this if it actually added to the sense of danger or fear... but these things do not - at least not in this game. All's they do is infuriate the player by being obtuse.

One last thing to be annoyed about in the technical aspect is exiting the game. Every other aspect of the game is via mouse control so, when it comes to exiting the game and clicking on "exit" or "escape" or whatever it's called and having a "confirm you want to quit" pop up on screen but finding no clickable options to go with it is quite frustrating. It's a blatant hold-over from the console design of the interface and means that the player is confused because the indicators are actually hidden down in the bottom right of the screen instead of the centre where the message is. Not very good for a port.

On a positive note: as far as set and level design are concerned I think this game is very well made. There are lots of interesting things to take note of and even the design of the Taken and the characters is quite nice.


I think Alan Wake has two failings that really upset the balance and purpose of the game:

1. The number, frequency and lethality (or lack thereof) of the enemies.

2. The length of the story.

The first undermines the whole thematic concept of the game and genre and results in the developers having to constantly remove the player's strength through cutscenes in order for the "tension" to be kept at an acceptable level. Games such as Fatal Frame 2 or Luigi's Mansion, while not perhaps being scary, manage to limit the strength of the player and rarely remove their abilities in order to make the game more challenging.

The second is just what it says on the tin: this game is too long... WAY too long. It was a good job that the game play was mixed up a bit when you got your buddies because I was ready to quit long before that but forced myself through - mostly because I wanted to see what was up with the resolution of the events. After the buddies were left behind once more and I was forced onto a never ending path of boredom that feeling quickly returned. I think this game would have been a lot better if Barry had been with you from as soon as he showed up in the beginning, making his transformation all the more powerful. His comic relief, observations about the ridiculous nature of certain genre staples and general emotional contrast to the stoic Alan who seems quite at home in the world that has been created would have created a better atmosphere for the player to enjoy. Yes, it would take away from the horror and scares but, really... are they present in any tangible form in the game in the first place?

Oh, one last minor thing: fix everybody's eyelids!

Don't worry, Barry. It'll soon be over... NOT!

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