Monday, June 17, 2013

Alan Brake, Do Not Approach

The face says it all.

A few months ago on these files, I made an offhand compliment crediting Remedy’s horror video game ‘Alan Wake’ as a worthwhile alternative to the indie phenomenon Slender; my positive comparison was made prematurely, for at the time of that first review’s publication, I had only dragged myself through the first level of the former game.  This subsequent article is intended to rectify the unmerited praise I issued earlier by analyzing the terrifying experience that is Alan Wake in its full horror, from promising beginning to mind-shattering conclusion.  Indeed, the scariest thing about this Microsoft-exclusive nightmare is not the game itself, but the moment when the player Alan Wakes up and realizes he wasted ten hours of his life on a mere shadow of a horror game that throws clarity to the wind and lacks even a basic conclusion.  This thing is a piece of junk, Jack.

Making sense of Alan Wake’s narrative remains a challenge for me even after I’ve completed the game, but I’ll do my best to summarize the premise.  The game’s protagonist is Alan Wake, an acclaimed thriller writer who takes his wife Alice on vacation to a lakeside cabin in a beautiful northwestern town called Bright Falls, surrounded by mountains and dense forests.  The conflict originates when Wake visits the town restaurant and takes the wrong rental key from a creepy, faceless, obviously ill-intentioned woman who’s hiding away in a dark hallway.  You would expect a man from Wake’s background to know his ‘cabin in the woods’ stories and recognize a wrong-turn villain at sight, but apparently he doesn’t, and so he propels himself and his wife headlong into a poorly written, forest-retreat-gone-wrong slasher film.  When night falls on Cauldron lake and Alice is pulled into the water by an unseen entity, Wake dives after her and regains consciousness on the edge of a cliff with no memory of how he arrived there.  Soon our author finds himself in the center of a horror book he never published called Departure, which the player can read in fragments collected along his journey.  According to this manuscript, the residents of Bright Falls live ordinarily by day but are consumed by Darkness at night, turned into zombie-like shadows intent on terminating Wake and other survivors with all manner of melee-based machinery, including shovels, axes, chainsaws, and bulldozers.  To escape his nightmarish creation, Wake must recover his memory, rescue his wife, and destroy the dark entity at the bottom of the lake, but not before he wanders through zombie-infested forests at midnight to reach some distant landmark that’s ultimately meaningless, meets several pointless characters who either get killed off shortly or contribute nothing to the plot, and binge views the entire 2nd season of Night Falls, a Twilight Zone ripoff that airs on TVs distributed throughout the town.  When some glowing guy in a Scooby Doo diver getup finally enlightens him as to what the heck is going on, the explanation is so incoherent, implausible, and anti-climactic that one wishes the game’s writers had opted for chaos instead of a weak attempt at order.  Even worse, they try to pull an ambiguous Inception ending that fails miserably and services as a pathetic demand for consumers to buy downloadable expansion packs.  Perhaps there’s a reason why Wake never submitted Departure for publication.

While the idea of an author entering his own story and facing the same problems that afflict his characters is undeniably fascinating in concept, Alan Wake proves that not all ideas are good in execution.  Whether judged as a 3rd-person shooter, survival horror, or a video game itself, Wake’s adventures fall flat on all fronts.  As for the first, Alan Wake has some of the sloppiest shooter mechanics I’ve ever witnessed.  The game’s combat revolves around using light sources, primarily your flashlight/lantern with flares and flashbang grenades added in later, to strip the Darkness zombies of their shields and then finishing them off with one of four firearms, two of which are basically the same and one of which is totally lousy.  This means the player must manage not only his ammo but also his battery supply, a task that becomes tedious and frustrating when surrounded by half-a-dozen murderous, axe wielding apparitions.  Complicating matters is the player’s inability to reload the game’s primitive, low-capacity, Feinstein-approved weapons with a single button press as in most shooters; instead, he must hammer on the Y button repeatedly to replenish his firearms for more zombie hunting.  None of that matters, though, as violent retaliation is rarely an expedient course for self-preservation in this “shooter”.  Taking on hordes of zombies all on at once is nigh impossible with such sloppy controls, so Wake must frequently weave away from their blades and flee to cover with an appointed ‘sprint’ button.  This tactic itself poses problems because our gallant Stephen King wannabe (a personal idol he blabbers on about incessantly as if he was practicing subliminal advertising for a gig on ‘The Truman Show’) dodges like a drunkard and conks out at 20 paces, kneeling over in exhaustion and probable embarrassment at his lacking physique.  Alan Wake is a disgrace to video game action heroes who should be immediately conscripted into remedial education under the tutelage of Lara Croft, Master Chief, and Gordon Freeman.  Heck, even Mario could give this guy some advice on masculinity.

His eponymous debut title fails even more dramatically as a horror game, which is probably why Microsoft sold it as a “psychological action thriller”.  There are two indispensable components to a successful horror story: the audience must be at least somewhat invested in the characters, and the narrative must be unpredictable.  Alan Wake wastes no time in violating the first principle and getting players to hate its main characters.  On one level, the game has some of the ugliest character models and motion capture animation in recent history, such that it’s inconceivable why Wake would go to such pains to save a) his wife, and b) his annoying slob of an agent, Barry Wheeler.  Graphics aside, the writers commit an even graver offense by giving us no reason whatsoever to sympathize with anyone, let alone the protagonist.  Alice is a good-for-nothing damsel in distress who’s afraid of the dark, Barry adopts a kind of Jar Jar Binks persona, and Alan never amounts to more than a foul, elitist, arrogant, ‘rich celebrity’ stereotype.  Hence, the player is neither compelled to reach the end of the game nor affected by the nightmares that terrorize its subjects.  Alan Wake also suffers from some of the most formulaic and tiring level design I’ve ever encountered outside of the first Halo game.  70% of the game has the player following some trail at night through a dense and haunted forest smothered in fog, in which bad guys will periodically appear at predictable intersections and jump out on Wake from all angles.  These attacks are accompanied by some growly zombie threat and a swell in the music that’s supposed to make one’s skin curl but really just elicits groans.  Sometimes the developers break up the tedium by sending the player into a claustrophobic building, also populated by bad guys hiding behind various objects, or letting him drive a car, which controls so poorly that it’s more enjoyable to walk to the given level’s arbitrary, far-off point of interest.  By consequence of its static and repetitive gameplay, Alan Wake is more annoying than truly scary.

Most egregious of all its sins is Alan Wake’s refusal to function like a real video game and overreliance on passive storytelling methods.  In the course of “playing” this title, I might have spent more time reading Wake’s crappy novel, watching moronic TV shows/Verizon plugs, and listening to the town’s late-night radio talk show than I did directing the actions of a digital avatar, which is the whole point of interactive fiction.  Other games, preeminently the Myst series, Bioshock, and Halo 3: ODST, have incorporated reading and/or listening into the story without losing the player’s interest, but Alan Wake’s multimedia approach is a colossal bore and doesn’t even make sense.  All the clips that air on the in-game TVs were shot in live-action, which only further cements the dichotomy between real people and the hideous CG characters in the game.  Alan Wake’s clash between the real and the virtual world reminds me of that self-consciously cheesy Spongebob episode in which the costumed gorilla guy pummels Squarepants and his animated friends, prompting a dumbstruck family to change the channel.  Would that this game had that feature.

Having reached the third page in Word on this essay, I feel I’ve devoted too much of my time and energy to expounding the overwhelming reek of this trash.  The most horrifying thing about Alan Wake is the way it sucked so many hours out of my life with the promise it would ease such questions as, “How can there be so many hundreds of zombies in what Wake describes as a ‘small town where everybody knows everybody else’?”  Those answers never came, nor did a real conclusion to Wake’s insipid, mental fantasies.  There are too many legitimate horror games out there, e.g. Bioshock or Dead Space, to excuse psycho-illogical advocacy timekillers like this bunch of stuff.

Final rating: 2/10, or 1.75 to borrow a page from those stupid gaming magazines that grade products in quarters.

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