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Some Thoughts on Story in Video Games (By Way of a Review of Alan Wake)

Written by: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer


ImageAlan Wake fails at the one thing it should have gotten right: a satisfying story.

First off, yes, I know. This review is a bit late. But I have a perfectly reasonable excuse, which I won’t bore you with. But the (perhaps only) advantage to writing a delayed game review is that I get to see what all of the other critics have had to say about the game. Certainly interesting, when you’re going to write a dissenting opinion (as I am about to). Read on for my full review!

So Metacritic has bestwoed Alan Wake with an averaged score of 87. Sure, there are some scores in the 70’s and even 60’s, but all the major gaming sites (Joystiq, Official Xbox Magazine, Videogamer, Destructoid, IGN, Gamespot, and others) gave the game scores of 85 or higher.

Not that I get the opportunity to review games for Metacritic, but if I did, I couldn’t justifiably score Alan Wake above 65. 70 if I was feeling especially generous.

I could go into the controls that aren’t as fluid and responsive as they should be, graphics and facial animations that aren’t as polished as they should be, or level design that is more monotonous than it should be (any and all for a game that has been in development for 5 years or more). Instead I’m going to focus on the element that has been touted as a focus and strength of the game: it’s story.

Unlike other forms of media entertainment, in video games almost always the story is secondary. In other words, you may read a novel primarily for the story contained cover-to-cover, but in a video game, usually the story serves as a means to propel you from one action set piece to the next. That doesn’t mean that story is unimportant, but (not unlike an action movie) video games can be forgiving of a poor or underdeveloped story.

But with a game like Alan Wake, a game billed as a “psychological action thriller” (it says so right on the box), story becomes paramount. If it does nothing else right, it should at least deliver an exciting (dare I say thrilling?), well developed, satisfying story.

Perhaps the fact that the developers at Remedy are so obviously enamoured with Stephen King (he’s name-dropped several times in-game, and lead writer Sam Lake cited King as “definitely a source of inspiration”) should raise a red flag.

There are several major problems with the story of Alan Wake. In no particular order:

The main characters fail to draw you in. I don’t think I need to point out that character is important to storytelling. Without strong, engaging characters, why should you care about what happens? Do you really want to inhabit a protagonist who is not at least interesting, if not outright likeable? IMHO, the answer to both questions is firmly in the negative. Alan Wake (the character) is a moody, beligerant Prima donna with none of the wit or charm of Nathan Fillion’s similar character on Castle. I found myself never really liking Alan Wake, never really rooting for him. And when I saw his fate at the close of the game, I didn’t really care. I almost found it fitting.

Alan Wake’s wife, Alice was as deep as one of Alan’s cardboard cutouts that show up throughout the game. We’re barely introduced to her before she’s abducted. Through flashbacks we’re told that she loves Alan, that she cares for him. Through narration Alan repeatedly informs us how much he loves her, how important she is to him, and how much he needs to rescue her.

I had more invested in rescuing the princess in the original Super Mario Bros. game. And you know how much time was devoted to developing her character.

The plot doesn’t make any damn sense. Remember what I said a few ‘graphs ago about story in video games transitioning you from one set piece to the next? The story of Alan Wake does this in a fashion that is at times contrived and nonsensical (and sometimes both). The “big bad” of the game is the Dark Presence, which is some kind of malevolent, sentient darkness, or something. It’s never really explained. But it needs artists, relies on artists for its survival. So it’s kind of like Ari Gold from Entourage.

The gimmick that Alan Wake relies on, the rule that the game absolutely has to follow, is that the Dark Presence and (by extension) its pseudo-zombie hoardes The Taken can only act in darkness. That creates an obvious dilemma: for the game to advance and deliver the promised thrills and action, Alan Wake HAS to go into dark environments (e.g. outside at night), but if this character has ANY sense whatsoever, he’d avoid this at all costs. There has to be some compelling reason for Alan to risk his life, but given the failing of character development in the game, his reason of rescuing Alice hardly qualifies.

The first time Alan is thrust into a dark, spooky forest at night is certainly interesting. But once the realization hits that Alan is safe in the light, he should be carrying out as much of the search for his wife during the day as possible. But that would hardly be a game worth playing. So the developers have to find ways to put Alan back in dark environments. Far too often, they rely on increasingly sloppy ways of putting Alan in a forest at night. I presume this is because they spent so much time working on those forests, they damn-well were going to get their money’s worth of use out of them.

First, a middle-of-the-day visit to a possible lead (who turns out to be one of the Taken) results in Alan getting drugged, only to wake up hours later (well after dark). Later, after Alan is led to believe a man has kidnapped his wife and goes to an abandoned coal mine outside of town for a meeting at noon, and we see in a cut scene that Alan waits for the kidnapper for 6-7 hours at least, alone in an abandoned coal mine out in the wilderness. Then, once it’s good and dark out, the kidnapper calls and changes the meeting place to a location that will require Alan to trek across another dark, gloomy forest. Still later Alan has to travel to another location on the other side of another (but really the same) forest, only this time it’s mid-day. Once Alan enters a dark highway tunnel the Dark Presence zaps him with some scary images and suddenly it’s dark outside.

How did the Dark Presence do this? Does it have that much control over the day/night cycle? Did it put Alan in some kind of fugue state and just wait for the sun to set? In the former case, if it had that kind of power, why the hell didn’t it take advantage of it before? In the latter, why the fuck didn’t it kill him when it had the chance?

In the end the story of Alan Wake can’t stand on its own. If it can’t do that, how did the developers expect it to support a video game?

Author: Big Ross, CC2K Staff Writer

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