Cheap Thrills – Alan Wake

3 May

The following is a paper I did for an English class. We were supposed to write a review, so…I did. This is what I came up with:

“But nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” – Stephen King

Alan Wake, a psychological thriller developed by Remedy Entertainment for the Xbox 360, opens with the above quote by Stephen King, and the titular character narrating what seems to be the central theme of the game. According to Wake, the “Why?” is never as important as the emotions one goes through during a horrifying experience. There’s nothing wrong with that sentiment. In fact, I mostly agree with it. But Alan Wake forgoes the “Why?” almost entirely, in favor of nonsensical exposition and repetitive, tired shooting mechanics that would be more at home in Max Payne 3 than something rooted in psychological horror.

Alan Wake is a writer. After a string of best-sellers, he feels burnt out and ready for some rejuvenation, so he and his wife, Alice, retreat to the small town of Bright Falls. It’s a typical, if extraordinarily beautiful, mid-western American town, replete with trailer park communities and neighbors all on a first name basis. Bright Falls would normally make for the perfect getaway destination, but when Wake and his wife arrive, they quickly find something more sinister and violent lurking about the otherwise peaceful surroundings. His wife soon ends up missing, and the only clues to her whereabouts come in the form of torn manuscript pages from a story he doesn’t remember writing, but is obviously penned by him. As the game progresses, it’s made evident that whatever is written on the torn pages actually comes to pass. Armed with this knowledge, Wake tries desperately to find and save his wife from whatever is holding her captive.

Alan Wake’s premise was one of the things that caught my attention early on when the game was first announced. I figured the mountainous and woodsy terrain would make an excellent backdrop for psychologically-themed horror. Playing the first chapter of the game, which takes place inside one of Wake’s nightmares, communicates a world full of unique and scary situations. The very first enemy encounter is simply a man with an axe, but it’s not the weapon he wields that makes him terrifying. While blindly swinging the axe back-and-forth, the man assaults Wake’s fragile psyche by calling him a fraud and a horrible writer. The threat of physical harm may be obvious, but barrages of mental abuse, especially within the context of a nightmare, carry much more weight than wood and steel ever could.

Unfortunately, such a promising concept is all but abandoned shortly after the end of the first chapter. Gone are the venomous projections of Wake’s personal demons, and in their place are slews of non sequiturs about working at lumber mills and pumping gas. Part of who these people used to be is still inside them, but they are now owned by whatever entity is plaguing Bright Falls. That may sound intriguing, but by replacing the focus on Wake’s internal strife with random, nonsensical shouts about small town living, all the tension and fear is instantly siphoned away. Coupled with uniformly featureless faces and pitch-black appearances, the enemies in Alan Wake directly mirror the game’s inability to differentiate itself from countless other horror-themed experiences.

And at no time is that exemplified more than during a point about mid-way through the game, when Wake finds himself a guest in a local psychologist’s mental institution called “The Lodge.” Wake opens his eyes to the doctor peering down at him, telling him that he’s been a patient of his for some time. Wake’s wife died a long time ago, and he couldn’t handle the stress and grief, or so the well-meaning doctor informs him. This section of the game could have contained its most probing character study, but instead devolves into the predictability and repetition that plagues the entire work. Instead of Wake questioning his own sanity, cooped up in a loony bin with all the other fine patrons of the establishment, he never second-guesses himself. Within ten minutes, the doctor’s ruse crumbles against Wake’s underwhelming scrutiny. Once he decides to expose reality for what it is, all it takes is a trip to the main office, where records clearly exonerate him of his “fragile” mental state. Of course, after this information is obtained, enemies begin appearing, and Wake has to shoot his way to freedom. It’s also worth mentioning that once he makes it to the outside grounds, Wake must navigate through a Shining-esque hedge maze in order to escape. No, he doesn’t freeze to death while screaming “Danny!”, but that would have at least been unexpected.

The more contiguous narrative problem goes back to Wake’s declaration that “Why?” is not a necessary component of effective horror. In the case of Alan Wake, its believability hinges on that question being answered. And to a degree, it is. Throughout the course of the game, the moment-to-moment narrative is explained well enough, but the bigger, game-spanning question of “Why?” is almost never even addressed. If the whole game takes place after Wake writes a story, then why are characters and situations he’s yet to encounter present in an unrelated nightmare before he even goes on vacation? Why is only his manuscript capable of changing reality? Why can demons that appear out of nowhere be killed with guns when light is supposed to be their weakness? Why does the evil entity even need Wake when it seems capable enough of destruction on its own? Why can’t Wake just write the happiest ending imaginable at any point during the game? All those questions are perfectly reasonable to ask, but they’re sidestepped in favor of vague premonitions or visions that don’t make much sense, even after the game is over.

Perhaps even more disappointing than the story are the mechanics. This might sound like a snarky question, but it’s an honest one: What the hell has Remedy been doing for 7 years? Their last game, Max Payne 2, released at the tail end of 2003, and they’ve been silent since. I could brush that aside if there was a reason to, but the core game play doesn’t feel like it’s changed much since their previous efforts almost a decade ago. Wake aims a flashlight at enemies, shoots them until they’re dead, and then does it again when necessary. That’s it. There’s really no finesse to speak of, and nothing interesting, evolutionary or innovative has been added to the static formula of most third-person shooters. What that boils down to is the unfortunate fact that I could have played this game 7 years ago and been fine with it. But at this point in the lifespan of the medium, to only require such a rudimentary and rote skill set speaks volumes as to the mindset of the people responsible for implementing it. Enemies never change, and neither do the tactics for dispatching them. If there are too many to handle, just pop a flashbang or use a flare gun to thin the crowd. Always aim for the head, and reload often. Those tips shouldn’t be applicable in the slightest in a self-proclaimed psychological thriller. After all, shooting everything that moves seems pretty physically thrilling to me. In any case, Alan Wake’s game play is a textbook case of wash-rinse-repeat, only in the blandest way possible.

One of the most egregious examples of Alan Wake’s stale mechanics again takes place at “The Lodge.” Once Wake finds the evidence of his still-reigning sanity, he has to get out of the asylum as fast as possible. But first, he must do battle with inanimate objects come to life – a notable Stephen King trope – in order to get outside to safety. Floating couches and barrels might be scary in a movie or book, but when “defeating” them entails the exact same shooting mechanics employed against human enemies, I have to wonder why the game even bothered to include them.

After having valiantly and courageously struck down a possessed Art Deco ball sculpture, Wake heads outside, where the aforementioned hedge maze awaits him. What kind of surprises could be hiding in the bushes? If you guessed “shadow people,” you might have a job opportunity as a Remedy scriptwriter in your near future. Just like every other encounter in the game, Wake is tasked with putting bullets into people while running forward (technically in a zigzag pattern). But what stands out the most in a long line of miscalculations is the decision to turn the psychologist from the beginning of the chapter into just another faceless goon. A potential story-defining character is reduced to acting out enemy behavior whose redundancy knows no bounds. There is a clearing at the end of the hedge maze, and in the middle of it stands the good doctor, patiently waiting around for Wake to show up. Once he does, the doctor reverts back to the supposedly antagonistic cries about work-related situations that have already grown tiresome. Such is the cure-all in a game more able to deal with the illusion of fear, rather than the reality of it.

There are some great environmental effects, such as the trees and wind looking as if they’re being perpetually rewound in a VCR, and gigantic trees crackling and buckling for seemingly no reason, only to fall directly in your path with a deadening thud. But those effects are wasted when the whole game consists of the same few tricks repeated ad nauseum. If having explanatory power is antithetical to the poetry of fear, then predictability should be a cardinal sin of writing horror. Even when certain plot points are explained at the end, the only thing that I came away with was the fact that an even bigger mystery just supplanted a smaller one. Ambiguous endings have their place, and when done well, they can turn befuddlement into a praise-worthy event. Without giving anything away, Alan Wake basically ends with “…and you thought THAT was weird!” As a matter of fact, I did, and I also realized that there have been dozens, if not hundreds, of similar experiences in different media that far outweigh this game’s blind repetition and reluctance to explain anything of importance. If the devil’s in the details, Alan Wake is as angelic as it gets.

Boo yah, end of paper, with the addition of an “A” scrawled in the margins, plus lots of praise for my brand of hating. MUAHAHAHA.


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