Five Things: Alan Wake

Right, so I’m cheating a bit.  I do have quite the list of completed games that I need to catch up on here, but I just finished Alan Wake, and I’m itching to write about it while the whole thing is still fresh.  Anyway, this is MY column!  I do what I want!  /belligerent

Alan Wake, AKA The Game of Eternal Development Time, is a bit difficult to put an accurate plot synopsis to in a sentence or so, but I’ll give it a try: a popular writer takes a vacation with his wife in a rustic mountain town, where she disappears under mysterious circumstances.  Creepiness ensues.  There is, however, quite a bit more to it than that, which I can hopefully shed some light on (see what I did there?) with these Five Things.

1. Stephen King- I read books like many other people watch TV; sure, there are a lot of times where there’s something specific I want, but every once in a while I’ll just have something around as background noise.  Stephen King novels frequently fall into that category for me.  I don’t say that to be insulting or derivative; I enjoy reading them, or I wouldn’t be doing it in the first place.  However, they’re not generally something I must have immediately, nor are they usually ground-breaking or particularly surprising.  You usually know what’s going to happen.  Frim its very first line of dialogue, Alan Wake makes absolutely no effort to hide its unabashed ripping-off of essentially all of the conventions that make Stephen King what he is.  Before I even started playing, a friend told me it was “like playing a Stephen King novel,” and he was absolutely right; that’s what they’re going for, and they definitely hit it on the head.

Interestingly (and, to me, humorously), the developers didn’t stop at emulating the best parts of King’s style, but rather went for everything, even when it ended up being sorta silly.  Small town filled with creepy locals hiding some kind of dark secret?  Okay, I’m with you on that one.  HAUNTED TREES?  …..okay, we probably could have done without that.  There are times when the whole “poltergeist” mechanic is genuinely creepy, but to me, it just seems shoehorned in most of the time; it’s like whoever the guy on the dev team is that has that signed Stephen King poster above his bed was allowed to go wild, and no one stopped him when he said, “Hey, you know what would go really well here?  POSESSED SHIT!  That’s what Ki…. that’s what *I* would do.”  The name-dropping is also a little excessive, but I guess if you’re going to plaster a guy’s work all over your own, you should at least give him a shout-out now and then, right?

2. The Light Thing- I guess I should go ahead and get this one out of the way.  You can’t really talk about Alan Wake without talking about its core schtick, which is the use of light and darkness to signify safety and danger, good and evil…. well, light and dark.  This is actually really cool, because it’s different.  You can survive without bullets (and if you intend to pursue the achievement “Gunless Wonder,” as I did, then you’ll need practice at this…), but if you run out of light… well, then you’re really fucked.  When fighting enemies, you must first use your chosen light source (usually a flashlight, although flares and car headlights are also frequently available) to remove the protective dark film around them before you can shoot them.  When you start running into posessed stuff, the light is actually all you need; if you can dodge around until you zap them completely, you’ll never even have to fire a shot. 

I’ve never been much good at traditional shooters (although I have gotten much better recently!), so the setup of Alan Wake was a refreshing change for me; you can’t simply shoot everything before it gets to you and starts gnawing on your face, because there are too many of them, and they are much faster than you.  They’re also eerily quiet, so when the camera helpfully slows down and zooms in on an incoming pack, remain on your guard, because there’s probably at least one behind you as well.  You’ll need to learn which enemies have their covering removed slowly and which quickly, and use that knowledge to keep things stunned while you pick them off.  Oh, and flashbangs.  They were my very bestest friends. 

3. Scarcity- One common complaint I’ve heard about Alan Wake is that it’s possible to run out of batteries and ammo much too quickly, leaving you vulnerable to the nasties that lurk in the literal shadows.  Maybe it’s because I’m a veteran of the survival horror genre, but I really didn’t have a problem with this.  It’s true that supplies aren’t exactly abundant, but would you honestly expect them to be?  AW at least makes an occasional attempt to explain why you can find shotgun ammo lying on benches around town (The not-actually-crazy-but-rather-the-only-one-who-knows-the-truth lady left it there!  Of course!), which is more than you get out of most games of this sort.  It’s true that I did get a little annoyed when I would end a chapter or sequence with a well-stocked armory tucked in my digital pockets only to have some contrived occurance (oh noes!  I fell out of a helicopter!) strip all of that from me and make me start over.  It was like the Metroid syndrome, only ten times in the same game.  However, with just a bit of rationing, I didn’t have any trouble making my supplies last.

A moment while I climb on my soapbox.  I’ve probably addressed this in the podcast before (and I know I did on Gamehounds a couple of weeks ago), but I feel it’s appropriate here; while I, like any other gamer, will yell and curse and squeak when I run out of ammo, in a survival horror game, it’s almost part of the experience that you should do so from time to time.  If you don’t have any fear for your own safety, then it’s not really horror, is it?  And if you’re provided with a constant stream of bullets and health, then you’re not going to be concerned about your survival.  The uncertainty and the need to watch out for yourself are what makes the experience unnerving and thrilling.  This is something that the Silent Hill series does extremely well, and I feel that Alan Wake does also.

4. Faces- I’m not normally a graphics snob.  I don’t care all that much if a game doesn’t look perfect, as long as I’m having fun.  So, when I say that the facial animations in Alan Wake were kind of an issue for me, you can take that as meaning that they pretty much sucked.  It’s a real shame, too, because the rest of the game was really immersive for me, so breaking into a cutscene where the characters’ mouths weren’t moving anywhere near the dialogue I was hearing was jarring, to say the least.  Alice was a particularly bad offender in this category; every time I saw her, I just thought that she didn’t look right at all.  The character models themselves were pretty good; upon looking through the artbook that came with the limited edition strategy guide, the similarities between the in-game graphics and the live models was quite impressive.  Even Alan’s body animations during gameplay, beyond perhaps an occasional clip or jolt, were fine…. but once they opened their mouths…. no good.  You’d think a game that was in development for this long would have gotten that sort of thing straightened out, but apparently not.  Oh well.

5. Product Placement- Oooooookay.  I understand that you have to pay for your game somehow.  I understand that you need sponsors, that you need to be able to pay all those people you’ve apparently been keeping employed for the last eight or nine years.  I can’t help but wonder, however, what the fuck Energizer and Verizon were doing that the developers felt obligated to kiss their asses quite this much.  Were they perhaps providing hookers?  Cocaine?  Free ham sammiches?  Whatever it was, it resulted in branded batteries being slapped into Alan’s trusty flashlight every thirty seconds (which seems a little backwards to me… wouldn’t you want your batteries to seem like they last forever?  I guess the fact that they repel evil was good enough for the marketing folks) to the point where there is actually an achievement called “Energized” that you essentially can’t help but get.  Likewise, Alan’s cell phone is provided by Verizon (similar to my Energizer complaint above, I can’t help but notice that Verizon’s product never seems to work when it’s really important), and while there isn’t an achievement related to it, there are quite a few in-game billboards that get thrown in your face any time you might have been in danger of forgetting who the top wireless provider is in these parts.

Overall, I was completely hooked on Alan Wake, and I’d definitely recommend it if you enjoy the Silent Hill franchise, or even if you’re just looking for something different to tide you over until… I don’t know, Halo or Call of Duty or whatever.  Just stay in the light.

Next time I *promise* I’ll get back to Mass Effect 2.  You understand, right?

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