I was honestly surprised by Alan Wake. I wasn’t expecting to like the game, hell, on paper I should have despised it. A game about a guy who loses his girlfriend (sigh pre-determ… do I need to go on?), ‘cinematic’ and ‘episodic’ experience, ‘survival horror’ dressed in a third-person action suit (also see Dead Space 2 [1 is also a culprit]). I should despise it. It’s about as far away from ‘interactivity’ you can get and, instead, I fell for it. I was truly sad to find out it didn’t sell too well, but with a PC game and a XBLA spin-off on the horizon I’m still kinda hopeful we’ll get a sequel. With this all said, let’s dig into why Alan Wake is… still what I said in my first few sentences.
The episodic format squeezes the best out of the pacing, you truly do lap it up. It’s like chapters of a book, but instead, the book’s chapters are cut by travels into incredible music. Everything from Bowie to Poets of the Fall makes it into these ‘breaks’ and they really do relax and prepare you for the next chapter. No other game does this. Half-Life 2‘s conversational bits help to ease down the tension and pulp out the pacing, but Alan Wake is the only game to make you truly feel inside of an ‘episodic’ experience.
But this is not revolutionary, the revolution will not be televised, video-games are an interactive media. I utterly love the ‘episodic’ format, and it worked incredibly well for the DLC plan they laid out. What I want, however, isn’t some old-age pacing device but instead something fresh. Half-Life 2 made me feel involved, but not a part of it. I think something like Mass Effect can truly show how a pacing device can be interactive, literally relying on progressive relationships between player and crew member. Alan Wake does a great job with its old set of tools, and it’s a good game to study if you’re looking to see how cinematic ways can be applied and still work quite well.
Except, cut-scenes have worked well haven’t they? Even I admit, Red Dead Redemption was one hell of an emotional ride. Except, it was all an illusion and I didn’t… really take anything away from it. Once you step back and look at video-games, you don’t see a lot of ‘game’ in most of them. Alan Wake does this too, and you can see the gaps where an interactive bit can slot in and do it even nicely. Red Dead Redemption fell into the trap of Alan Wake with the whole ‘wife’ thing, pre-determined char… yeah, but it went further into destroying all element of player choice. It does something like Alan Wake too, work loosely within the episodic model, cut its acts into chapters. With music.
The song that plays when you enter Mexico, Far Away, drags you kicking and screaming into this beautiful landscape. Space Oddity playing at the end of Alan Wake was probably the most perfect song to end on in the history of mankind. Music as a punctual device has worked in so many games, Shatter and Super Meat Boy wouldn’t be great without it, I fundamentally believe video-games to be a marriage of interactivity and non-interactivity. But, so far, developers and publishers alike have been pushing the model of ‘old age’ techniques for new age media. Where interactivity could have a potent effect, a cutscene or a pre-determined relationship just gets the job done.
The revolution, for interactive media, will not come from cinematic techniques or swayings of cinematography. It will not be televised. It will come from gamerkind itself, a cry out for interactivity, and it’s happening. Tim Schafer showed recently that people want that inertia of ‘point and click’, the most basic of all interactive platforms. Yet, here we are, and I’m still ranting about cinematic influences in video-games. I love Alan Wake, I love Red Dead Redemption (I say I don’t but… screw that guy!) but I love video-games even more. They’ve changed me into a better person, I owe it to them to make them a better medium.
Alan Wake is a tremendously well paced experience and it’s more than worth your time. If you’re jumping on late in the game, do pick up the PC version. The XBLA spin-off thing will probably not make any sense at all if you haven’t played through the main narrative due to what I’ve read up on so far. It has its flaws, it has its sins but it really is a solid experience. I enjoyed it tremendously, but it is an illusion at the end of the day. One big, well put together illusion. Think of these types of games as a magic show, one to be enjoyed and not to pick over and see how the trick was performed.