Saturday, 21 July 2012

GOTW: Alan Wake

Throughout the strange, unbalanced thread of Alan Wake's narrative, the writer, who gives the game its name, is mockingly referred to as, among others, Stephan King, Raymond Chandler and, most strangely, James Joyce. Personally I felt more like Garth Marenghi, but it's Stephan King, and his supernatural thrillers, whose presence is most heavily felt throughout. Alan Wake exists in that same liminal place inhabited by many of King's novels - where trashy fiction can be both utter nonsense and kind of important; kind of profound - well, at the very least genuinely enjoyable. Alan Wake gets away with a great deal because it seems to know this; it's trashy nature slips into the game as a whole, leaving memories behind which skitter between pure joy, genuine scares, ham-fisted acting, awful smiles and a few large holes in which moments of the game just disappeared into shear ordinariness. But, as with Deadly Premonition -  the cracked-out Japanese brother to the more straight-faced Wake - the game's faults and instability help it to become endearing. It's a bit messy, but when it hits the mark it does so incredibly well and the messiness only helps to underline the moments of quality.  

One reason for Alan Wake's strange balancing of its narrative - as well as its detailed environments - is that it was originally developed by Remedy as an open-world, sandbox game. Understandably the game's strong narrative propulsion would  have been toned down in an open-world, but clearly Remedy's love of narrative won out. Director Oskari Hakkinen recently told Edge Magazine that the sandbox design "simply didn't fit with our story-driven focus". The remnants of this design are still apparent in Wake. The town feels very much like Deadly Premonition's Greendale - with a cafe, petrol station, police department and so on. Driving sequences also have an uncanny GTA-meets-Deadly Premonition feel to them, with the opportunity to change your car by simply stealing another (all of which, in good DP style, are atrocious to drive).

However, in the finished game,  environments are only ever  best described as semi-open (ajar, perhaps). There are always areas to explore; buildings to investigate for light-giving loot; nooks and caves to search, but the player is still directed and exploration is only ever allowed within corridor of narrative events. It's closet comparison in my mind is environments such as Half-Life 2's Highway 17 or, perhaps stylistically more fitting, Silent Hill 2, in which the player is allowed to explore, get lost, and find interesting areas and objects off the beaten track.

Unfortunately the radical change in level design did leave the game lacking in certain areas. The beginning portion of the game feels like its undecided - having the player visit different places and people, which are never fully developed, as if they were missions in a sandbox game. While the open environments allowed Remedy to "make reference to things that could be seen in the distance and so foreshadow events", there are many areas which feel quite disjointed. The trailer park, the cafe, the police station - it's often hard to tell where these sites exist in relation to each other. We see the town when we begin the game and again at the end, but we never engage fully with it - never do we have a chance to get our bearings and understand these places as a unified whole.

However once the game finds its feet these open designs become integral to level structure. Later levels such as the farm and the power station use foregrounding incredibly well. This is achieved through defined and visibly present goals - such as the 'well-lit-room' which glows on the horizon, or the farm house moodily rising out of the low, murky fields surrounding it. These levels also utilise great pacing in their design - with environments causing the levels to open out then contract into smaller spaces. The farm level for instance has the player working his/her way across cliffs with the farm below to the right. They reach a shack - then drive down at a faster pace to the farm. This momentum is then halted when Wake and Barry (the ever irritating though strangely endearing side kick) reach the outer parameter of the farm - the gothic structure looming in the open fields. Here you work through tight buildings, then in the open encounter a larger enemy before backtracking a little way to free Barry. Together you then leg it across the fields towards the level's magnificent finale. By moving between visually open environments, such as the cliff and the fields, to the tight, dark, claustrophobic spaces of buildings, Alan Wake manages to create suspense and tension in its very level design.

The story itself is suitably confusing and ridiculous, taking reference from King's sci-fi thrillers as well as TV shows such as The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits. I won't risk ruining the garbled mystery for those who haven't played it but to its credit I was genuinely hooked at times - and by the end I was still enthralled by the game's world. The relationship between the two writers in the game (Wake and Thomas Zane) is fascinating and never really concluded. Unfortunately Wake is the only character which really sticks out - ok, I'll give you Barry, but it's for all the wrong reasons. Unlike DP which fills its textually bland landscape with expertly weird and interesting characters, Wake only gets about halfway there. None of the characters get enough screen time and we're left, like with the town, not fully understanding them as developed individuals.

It's therefore Alan himself who kind of makes the whole game. Like Max Payne before him, Wake encompasses a whole cliché so well he instantly becomes etched into your memory. Wake oozes that New York, city slicker, self-obsessed 90s pop-writer cliché so well - even appearing on a late-night American chat show! Like Max, Alan is built within a defined cliché, but he also has character - the note perfect script allows Wake to be both obnoxious as well as vulnerable; self-obsessed as well as caring. Walking the line between an over written cliché and a genuinely engaging character Alan Wake sums up the game perfectly while the other characters linger in the background.

There is much to Alan Wake which feels unfinished or imperfect, but as a whole its schlocky narrative and beautifully clichéd writing give the game its drive, while the level design, thanks to the radical change in the game's structure, at times provides impeccable pacing. It's not always the case - there are moments where the game feels repetitive and I couldn't help wondering whether an open world Wake would play better. But overall I would say it's one of the most enjoyable narrative games I've played in a good while. We can only hope that Wake never stops having his self-indulgent, incredibly entertaining, psychological episodes. 

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