Next up, 2010 title Alan Wake. This one was a recommendation from a friend at BarCamp 2012, at a session all about cool video games people had been playing recently (which is great idea for an unconference session and a great way to get suggestions).
We promptly acquired a copy which Terry sat down to play. But he didn’t get very far in before establishing that being recreationally terrified is really not his thing. It’s been sitting on our shelf waiting for me to try it out ever since, so I’m finally giving it a go.
After the dismal script of the previous game, I was looking forward to something a bit more literary. Opening with a Stephen King quote is a strong move and one that very much sets the scene for what’s to come. Alan Wake describes itself as a psychological horror, which is pretty much bang on the money for what you get.
For me games exist on a continuum. There are the plot-lite smash or shooters at one end where the purpose of the game is to enjoy the mechanics of exploring and surviving your environment and entangling with enemies. Then at the other end there are games where the narrative takes centre stage and the primary purpose is to engage interactively with the story as it unfolds. At this far end of the spectrum I would volunteer something like 2013 title Gone Home. Wikepedia informs me that the term ‘walking simulator’ was coined as a derogatory term by those who queried if it was even a game. I prefer the term discoverable fiction, as the point is to gradually build up a complete novella, but in a non-linear fashion.
Alan Wake makes heavy use of this discoverable fiction mechanic, in a very literal way, as our titular protagonist picks up pages of a manuscript to try to piece together what events have befallen him. Further story elements (not exactly backstory like in Bioshock 2, but an enrichment to the environs) are available through radios and TVs should you care to switch them on. Or you can choose to ignore them if, for example, you’re on a 2nd playthrough and don’t need a repeat off all the context.
But I made a decision early on that this would be a one-time only thing; I have a big pile of games to get through this summer. In addition to the manuscript pages (of which I reckon I got about 2/3rds) there is a further collectable mini-game of retrieving the 100 coffee thermoses scattered around. I stumbled across one right at the start where the dreaded message 1/100 popped up. Oh hell no! The prospect of ending the game with fewer than 100 collected, but not wanting to spend the time on a completionist replay fills my brain with icky feelings. Fortunately I died soon after and was therefore able to redo that sequence and ignore the thermos.
Checkpoints come frequently so the frustration born of repeated death is kept to a minimum. There were only a handful of occasions where I came close to rage quitting, compared to the dozens I experienced in my previous game. The combat mechanic of using light as a weapon works very well both in terms of fighting technique and in a more metaphorical sense.
This game really does throw all the horror tropes it can at the player. Stephen King looms large from that opening quote right the way through the game. The Shining and Misery are the two most obvious inspirations, with a heavy dose of The Birds and Twin Peaks in there as well. Duel gets a look too in with some heavy agricultural machinery imbued with murderous intentions. A hard-drinking FBI agent (Agent Nightingale – which just made me laugh as I imagined Dragon Age’s Leliana roaming around Bright Falls) who obviously makes time for reading keeps harassing our protagonist with a constant stream of (white, male) authors names. Although honestly if you’re an unstable writer I’m not sure being called Ernest Hemingway or Brett Easton Ellis is that much of an insult.
It all gets a bit heavy handed, but doesn’t detract from the sense of dread engendered by the game. It’s like when you watch a really well crafted horror movie, the fact that you know how your emotions are being manipulated doesn’t stop it from being effective. But I was pretty happy once I finally got to the end. Apologies now due to Terry for silently judging him for giving up on this one.