I’m most of the way through Alan Wake now (at least, I think I am–it’s not supposed to be very long) and so far I’m enjoying it. It’s very different than the Japanese horror games that make up the bulk of this site, and it’s a very nice change of pace. I’ll write more about Alan Wake when I finish it, but for now I want to talk about one specific problem that the game has. This isn’t by any means specific to Alan Wake, but since that’s what I’m playing right now, I’m going to use it as the basis for this post.
Alan Wake, like many other games, rewards the player for exploring areas off the beaten path. Specifically, if you look around a bit, you can find items and certain collectables (coffee thermoses, presumably to keep the protagonist “A. Wake”, and manuscript pages, which add texture and context to the game’s events, and often give you hints about upcoming encounters). The coffee thermoses are not really valuable–they probably lead to some achievements or something, but have no other in-game use. The manuscript pages, on the other hand, are totally key to the experience. It’s the manuscript that fills in the story, keeps the player interested, and prevents the game from devolving into one gun battle in a dark forest after another. This kind of game hangs its game play on its story and context (another “interestingness” example), and regardless of the quality of the story, the detail provided by the manuscripts equates to a much more interesting game. Those manuscript pages are high value, and I find myself going out of my way to find them.
But therein lies the problem. Wake is constantly in a hurry. He never has any time, and the events occurring around him are always just a few inches away from taking his life. It’s a little hard to believe that he’d stop in an old barn and ransack the place for five minutes to try to find a mysterious glowing page or coffee thermos. And yet, to collect these items, that’s exactly what you have to do: rather than playing the character, you have to treat the game like a system, try to second-guess the level designers, and always avoid the main path to the next checkpoint. Wake will say, “I had to get there as quickly as possible,” and the game will present you with a straight shot to “there,” but instead of just running down that strip like we would expect this character to do, Wake (per your command) spends his time running around the edges of the area, trying to jump over boxes and stuff, and generally acting drunk. Eventually he makes it there, but not until every square foot of the navigable space is covered.
Manuscript pages are intended to deepen the story context and give meaning to the game play sections, but instead they cheapen the experience; though their content is interesting, the work you need to do to find them is so out of character that it destroys a lot of the work the pages themselves are trying to do. Wake doesn’t just get in the car and drive to the destination, he stops every 10 feet to get out and look around for no reason. The game ceases to be about Wake’s search for his missing wife, or the darkness that seems to plague him at every turn, and starts turning into a min-max problem where we need to figure out where the most likely hiding spots for extra items are and then traverse there.
And in Alan Wake’s case, this is particularly detrimental because the game suggests that Wake’s actions are pre-determined, and that his will is not free. So now we’re supposed to believe that some guiding force wanted him to run around in circles like a maniac? It doesn’t fit.
This is a common problem in this kind of game, but I think that in Wake’s case, the game play and story, though inter-dependent on each other, are also in conflict. That kind of sucks, because the game play is pretty good and I like the story too. Both are now slightly reduced in quality because they don’t mesh as well as they should.