June 26, 2010
Maybe it’ll make yours too.
June 5, 2010
Hey guy, this post may have spoilers. I’m going to talk about some specific things the game does to tell stories, so your experience may be corrupted by reading this. If you haven’t played the game as far as I have (through chapter 4) maybe you should go do something else.
I’ve long maintained that video games have the potential to be an amalgam of all other story-telling media. While the actual story Alan Wake tells is of a caliber you might find on expanded cable, the way it delivers it is masterful. It’s hard to wrap your head around how it all fits together if you don’t have an appreciation for the individual pieces.
I’m most familiar with literature, so let’s begin with the way Remedy works the written word into the game. As you progress you find pages from an unfinished book scattered about. Narratively they serve two purposes: it provides the reader with a reliable voice and it constantly foreshadows. In Alan Wake you are told not to trust the other characters. The story also does a decent job of casting doubt onto the reliability of the protagonist as well, but the pages always tell the truth. Some pages will tell you about the developments other characters are experiencing, which is something books have always been able to do well. So the pages serve to keep the story cohesive by providing all the information you need clearly without splitting your focus. Compare that to your memories of the Snake/Raiden/Gekko/Vamp scene:
The pages also serve to fill in missing spots of the story. For example, there’s a sequence where Wake is incapacitated and he found himself in a mental clinic. During his escape, Wake coldly damned the doctor to a painful death. I felt it was a bit out of character for Wake, and an extreme punishment for a villain with such undefined motives. A few minutes later I found a page that detailed the methods the doctor used to get Wake into his care, and what he was doing to all of his patients. I retroactively felt proud of taking the doctor out of the story.
The way Remedy handles game elements also assists in story telling. You get metroided a lot in Alan Wake. Every hour or two (and sometimes more frequently) you lose your entire arsenal. Since becoming more powerful isn’t really the player’s goal, I never felt like I was being forced to starting conditions. These ‘player resets’ typically follow a dramatic story element, which leaves the gamer with a heightened sense of tension. I never knew what to expect while empty handed. In one instance I was given a gun and limited ammo, so the segment was tense as I waited for the exact right moment to attack my enemies. In another I was given a ton of weapons, ammo and random lights (which doubled as a weapon, checkpoint, and health station) while waves of enemies attempted to overrun my position. It played out like a high-adrenaline action scene. In yet another situation I was separated from my partner. He wound up with all the weapons, leaving me to run through the woods completely unarmed with no safety in sight. I felt defenseless, hunted, and terrified.
Finally there are the cut scenes and dialog. This is the element that most closely resembles the television shows the game pays homage to. With the exception of Barry, you’re never exposed to a character enough to see how two-dimensional they are, which helps lend credibility to the cast and setting. The random lines enemies throw at you are so common place you could almost suspect the speaker of suffering a psychotic break — except for the Delightfully Disturbing Distortion™ sprinkled throughout each sentence. This makes the bad guys equal parts sympathetic, pitiful, and horrifying.
Using a small amount of education in cinematography, I recognized several cleaver uses of the camera during cut scenes and even a bit during scripted sequences. Typically a game’s camera will pull back during a triggered event, so the player can see exactly what is happening – but this isn’t always the case with Alan Wake. One time I entered a cabin and the camera swooped low, which made my perspective as small as possible, while the doorway and the roof’s A-frame loomed over Wake. As soon as the shot snapped into place and registered in my brain, the cabin began to shake violently. I think Hitchcock and Carpenter would approve.
While this isn’t the best example of how all of these elements come together, I think it will give you a feel for it:
Taken as a whole I think Alan Wake succeeds at pushing the limits of narrative as an art form. I’ve never seen this combination of methods before, and I feel they performed exceptionally well together. If this game were a painting, it would demarcate a new school of art. As a game player I’m elated to be alive right now as the pieces start to come together. Welcome to the future of story telling.