Sunday, December 12, 2010

Alan Wake not enough to keep me A.Wake. Get it?

About halfway through the second chapter of Alan Wake, I decided I'd had enough. I got the game because I thought it would be a psychological thriller, for reals, at least as real as, say, Hard Rain. What I got is an annoying rail shooter.

I like a good rail shooter, don't get me wrong. But what Alan Wake has in common with an increasingly high number of shooters is lack of an enemy radar. Some people might say that an enemy radar is unrealistic or takes away from immersion. You know what else takes away from immersion? Lack of stereoscopic hearing and peripheral vision. In the real world, you in fact have a number of cues from the environment when someone is coming up behind you with an ax. As a result, I think games that both don't have a radar and base their gameplay around enemies pouncing you from all directions as faulty game design. At no point with a video game should the game be designed around weaknesses in the interface (in this case, the fact the game is 2D and will be heard without stereoscopic sound), and a game that has enemies appear behind you while at the same time depriving you any meaningful cues that you're about to get hit with an ax is using the interface against you. It's a cheap way to make a game more difficult and I don't like it. I like my interfaces to work with me, not against me.

The game also had spawning enemies without having spawning resources. While it wasn't particularly a problem when I stopped, it would, I'm sure, eventually become a problem. It should be basic game design -- if your enemies spawn, so should bullets.

But the real reason I quit the game, which will be the bulk of this post, is because the plot elements of the game stank to high heaven. There are going to be considerable spoilers from this point out.

The first really big problem is that Alan Wake is an idiot. He's totally that guy who, in horror movies, you say, "Don't go out alone" and who always goes out alone. Except he's your character and because the game includes no choices whatsoever, you have to do the stupid things that you know are stupid. And when you bill your game as being "psychological horror", you've got an obligation to the audience not to be stupid. When psychological horror works, it works in part because we can see ourselves having made those same decisions, that we can imagine a reasonable person making such decisions.

The hero has a dream and that dream seems to be real, including darkness zombies that appear out of nowhere and a light that is suspiciously like many people's interpretation of the Christian god. When his wife, who is completely helpless, of course, with the additional enforced helplessness of having a crippling phobia of the dark (ugh), vanishes, he tries to find her . . . though when he speaks to the police he learns the place where his wife vanished does not exist.

See, that would bring me up full stop and I think pretty much every reasonable person out there -- when your internal narrative has places that don't physically, objectively exist. When your wife vanishes from the place that doesn't exist, an intelligent, sane person would start to consider things in a very particular way. Either your worldview is totally wrong and the universe is fulled with supernatural events or you'd have to consider the very real possibility that you're deeply insane. In the first place, if you become convinced of your sanity and the existence of supernatural events, then you should reasonably and logically proceed from that understanding. Your wife is in the hands of supernatural beings, or perhaps is an illusion or supernatural manifestation of some kind.

Or you say you're insane and realize that you can't help your wife. You're crazy. "Doing something" would be a crazy something and you shouldn't do it, you should institutionalize yourself immediately.

Of course, there is supernatural stuff in the world . . . at which point is stops being "psychological horror" and becomes "supernatural horror". And only slightly "horror", really, because, y'know, it's really an action game, so it's more like dark modern fantasy. The character never seems to make this jump, though, that he's now in a world of magic -- that the world has, in fact, always been magic and he has simply been ignorant to this fundamental truth. So, y'know, maybe the worst idea to follow would be to dance to the strings of your supernatural puppeteer who has kidnapped your wife.

This also makes sense from a purely criminology point of view. Kidnappers want something. As far as I got, Alan never bothered to ask what the kidnapper was or what the kidnapper wanted. In short, he was an idiot. His wife is being held prisoner by supernatural creatures and he doesn't ask a single bloody question of himself or anyone else in the game. (I am given to understand that he eventually does ask questions, when an Explainer makes herself clearly known. More bad writing. If you need an Explainer to explain your plot, you need to do a rewrite.)

He was an idiot who didn't even get properly equipped. The idiot, for instance, knows that darkness damages his foes and enough light holds them entirely at bay. So, he never once stops and gets an industrial strength flashlight, relying on the flashlight from the glove box of his car. While, of course, it would be unlikely for a small town to have a 5000 dollar battery operated searchlight on the shelves, since they're next to a state park, they would have a camp store where one could get . . . elaborate lightage, including lamps that are really, really bright in a radius and very large, intense flashlights. Not to mention he could also get a gun a little more macho than a .32 revolver at the local gun shop.

Additionally, he might want to bring his friend along. Another set of hands, another big ass flashlight and another gun. Or, y'know, the fuckin' cops who might believe you a little more when you can demonstrate the existence of the supernatural. They absolutely do have ten thousand dollar portable searchlights and paramilitary weaponry. I mean, come on, the kidnapper says to you not to talk to the cops you ignore them. Yeah, maybe if there is a supernatural force involved, that force might magically know. But even then . . . so? Maybe doing the bidding of monsters is a bad idea, y'know? He never considers that following the advice of a monster is a bad idea.

This might come off as being a little big "boy gaming". Y'know, that "real people" would not actually do that. I guess that depends on the real people. I consider myself a real person and, amongst my friends, I'm actually the pacifist of the bunch. I have several friends who have several of these things just hanging around their house and a number of them wouldn't even imagine visiting a state park without a couple of guns and they'd definitely arrive with a lot of light sources. Indeed, I'd arrive with more light sources than these guys.

But the disturbing thing is . . . this is simply never discussed. The "psychological horror" element seems to be the character is an idiot who does what monsters tell him, even though he knows they're monsters. You can't even say that the fear and terror of his wife being in their hands drives him to irrational decisions -- he is very calm. Indeed, far, far calmer than I find plausible from this wimpy writer guy who has not, who admits he'd never shot a gun before, and yet seems comfortable and capable of gunning down multiple attackers in a world turned topsy-turvy because of all the, y'know, monsters and magic. The character just makes no kind of sense.

He's also a jerk. He's a writer who hasn't written anything in two years, even though he's otherwise a national best seller. When they go off to the woods together, his wife gives him a manual typewriter to encourage him to write. (As a writer, I was definitely, "WTF?" A manual typewriter? Really? Not, y'know, a Macbook Air? It was another one of those poorly scripted moments that took me out of the story. I understand it was an homage to Kubrick and Stephen King and The Shining, but the book was written in a time where many writers still did write with typewriters. Y'know. Decades ago.) He freaks out, bites off her head completely out of proportion to her "offense" -- which was a well-meaning attempt to be helpful. I believe it was meant to demonstrate that Alan Wake was sensitive about not being able to write. But it came off like he kicks puppies in the nutsack. He verbally and physically bullied his wife and stormed out into the dark, knowing her crippling phobia would prevent her from following him.

When his friend, after a week incommunicado, comes down to check up on Alan and his wife, that guy gets treated with the same sensitivity -- which is to say, none. Alan is a jerk. So, not only is he an idiot he also has no human emotions. By this time, the psychological horror angle is in absolute tatters. Yet, that's why I got the game. If I had known it was really just another horror shooter, I wouldn't have bothered. I find horror shooters insipid. It's evil . . . that you can shoot! Seriously, you're going to go with that for your plot? Shootable evil? I understand that video games are a bad format to discuss teleological questions, but it's not like there's someone making them do it. Really, it's okay to make the enemy something that could plausibly be beaten with a gun. Or, y'know, in your game of psychological horror make it about, I dunno, psychological horror. Start with putting a character with accessible human emotions into the game, even just one would have been nice.

The plot is also juvenile. I think it's an indictment of video games that their reviewers are so debased as to give a plot that starts off with saving the helpless woman a passing grade. That is, in and of itself, a terribly, horribly hackneyed plot. Great. Another helpless girl to save. Whatever. Unsurprisingly, the plot under that plot is the incredibly predictable "the world needs to be saved" plot. Which is the plot of something like eighty percent of video games. So the game slides from the clich├ęd to utterly, remorselessly predictable. Of course, video game reviewers and most video game players have painfully debased ideas on what constitutes a "good story". Almost none of them realize that an infinite procession of games about saving the game world from ultimate evil simply cannot be called "creative".

The plot was also a pastiche of things much better than in. In particular, many of the salient features of the plot seem lifted fairly wholesale from John Carpenter's In the Mouth of Madness (but also The Shining, The Dark Half and old school World of Darkness that I could see in my limited play of the game). Reading the plot summary strengthened this idea quite dramatically. It's always a bad idea to remind someone of a good movie in your bad game.


  1. Huh. That's a really interesting point, about why psychological horror works (when it does). It's hard to be horrified when you don't agree with anything the character is doing, or at least it's a different kind of horror (possibly the "why did I agree to watch this movie" kind).

  2. Yeah, you've got to basically understand the character. Sometimes a writer will try a psychological horror about a character who is deeply abnormal, like Hannibal Lecter, but what's horrible about Hannibal is people's reactions to his madness -- because we see ourselves reflected there.