When Alan Wake was released in 2010, it received the same praise as many popular narrative games: the gameplay is solid, and the story’s good to boot. While neither of these claims can be dismissed, they shouldn’t be discussed as if they’re two separate things. Several readers might already know where this is going: Alan Wake exhibits ludonarrative dissonance. The term refers to a game where the ludology (gameplay) and narrative are at odds rather than harmonious. The narrative of a video game actually includes the gameplay, though, so that only partially explains what’s wrong. Still, this concept gives us an entry point for discussing the larger, unifying issue: Alan Wake‘s biggest problem is that it’s a video game.
So, where does the dissonance come from? The plot’s a good place to start, because it provides the basis for the narrative (i.e. how the plot is delivered). Alan Wake centers on a Stephen King-esque author with writer’s block. He goes on vacation with his wife, Alice, to Bright Falls, but she goes missing. Alan wakes up a week later forgetting everything that’s happened since her disappearance, and learns that shadow monsters are hunting him. He also learns that Cauldron Lake—where Alice went missing—is a prison for an entity called the Dark Presence, which has the power to turn fiction into reality using a conduit like Alan.
Now, if Alan Wake were a film, a discussion of narrative would include how the editing, shot composition, score, etc. deliver the plot. But because Alan Wake is a game, the focus changes. First, there’s how the game uses in-game storytelling (Half-Life 2 delivers almost all of its story this way) and/or cutscenes (Metal Gear Solid 2 famously contains 5.5 hours of cutscenes, about 40% of the average play-through). With these elements alone, Alan Wake reveals some issues. Almost none of the actual plot or story is delivered in-game, but rather through cut-scenes. This means that the most interactive part of the game, where the player wanders around and kills shadow-people, is also the part where the player experiences the least of the story. The effects are two-fold:
- Alan Wake cares most about its story (a claim I will justify shortly), which is the part the player cares about the least because it doesn’t involve them.
- The gameplay becomes a sequence of connections between cutscenes, rather than an essential part of the narrative.
That first effect is the most immediately damning, because Alan Wake cares a lot about not just its story, but stories and storytelling. Every aspect of the plot contributes to this: Alan goes to Bright Falls because he has writer’s block. His wife goes missing because the Dark Presence wants to use Alan’s abilities as a writer to channel its ability to alter reality. In essence, the plot is kicked off because Alan can no longer turn reality into fiction, and the conflict is kicked off because the Presence cannot turn fiction into reality. The central struggle is between two entities that cannot exhibit their creative faculties. Thus, the act of storytelling is at the fore in Alan Wake, which makes the game’s complete disregard for the function of storytelling (i.e. constructing a narrative) all the more damning.
The second effect ties into the first and returns to the title of this article: Alan Wake‘s biggest problem is that it’s a video game. By this, I of course don’t mean that a good story or narrative can’t be told using video games. I mean the opposite: great stories and narratives can be told using video games, but Alan Wake does not utilize the medium to do so. Because the gameplay is not an essential part of the narrative, it undercuts what the writer and developers—Sam Lake and Remedy Entertainment, respectively—try to accomplish. However, this disconnect does not necessarily cause dissonance. If the game’s problems were just this false dichotomy between gameplay and story, then the title of this article would be unfair. However, Lake and Remedy actually contradict the aims of the narrative with the gameplay, creating the dissonance and therefore emphasizing how the medium detracts from the narrative.
As many critics have noted, Alan Wake‘s gameplay “on its own” is solid. It’s a basic third-person shooter with an added mechanic: the player destroys the enemy’s shield by shining their flashlight on the shadow creatues. The new layer to the combat differentiates Alan Wake from other third-person horror/shooting games, and the developers nail the “game feel.” From the shield-burning flashlight to the kickback of the revolver, Remedy ensures that the experience feels authentic in terms of combat. And at first glance, the mechanic is actually smart at the ludonarrative level. Because the game defines Alan as an employer of light and the Presence as an employer of darkness, making the flashlight as essential as the gun gives the player a reason to embrace light and fear darkness. However, the way that Remedy employs the gameplay causes a major issue, because almost every encounter with enemies follows the same three-step pattern:
- The camera changes perspective to show three bad guys.
- The player shines their flashlight on the enemies until the bad guys’ shields go down.
- The player shoots the enemies.
The ludological issues go even further, though. Because the gameplay feels like a sequence of connections between cutscenes, and those cutscenes are in a prescribed order, Alan Wake has a forced linear structure. The gameplay itself emphasizes this: while the player can go wandering around the woods, there is a “correct path” noted both by a clear walkway and a head-up display with a marker explaining exactly where to go with the objective listed next to it. First of all, having such clarity about the objective and certainty about where to go makes the setting less ambiguous, and thus less frightening. The player knows where they’re supposed to go, what they need to do, and how easy it will be to do it (after all, they’re just gonna have to fight some enemies by shining a light on and then shooting ’em). While a game shouldn’t hide what the player needs to do, it’s self-defeating to act like the setting and plot are a developing mystery while setting the player on a clear, straight line.
Further, Alan Wake creates increasingly contrived situations that force Alan back into the woods alone at night, making the perils even more familiar rather than frightening. This probably would not have been an issue if Lake and Remedy were not making a game, because making new settings takes substantially more work in games. Incidentally, Alan Wake was initially conceived of as an open world-style experience, which would have fit better. But ultimately, these issues can be tied back to Alan Wake‘s medium and the improper utilization thereof. They stem from the focus of the game’s story being distinct from the heart of the medium, interactivity, which means the narrative is negatively impacted by these faults in the gameplay.
Perhaps the king of gameplay issues, though, is the addition of “collectibles.” There are coffee thermoses (which are inconsequential to the story or setting) scattered throughout the game world, as well as some radios and televisions that add depth to the in-game universe. These collectibles force the player to interact with the game in a way that contradicts its linearity. When the game says with urgency that the player needs to rescue Rusty—who is screaming in a cabin that is maybe twenty seconds away—the player shouldn’t be pushed to go look for a coffee thermos in fear that they will trigger a cutscene that moves them to a new part of the game. The radios and televisions are even worse; they subtly flesh out the game’s universe, but to watch or listen to them, the player is forced to stand in one location with nothing to do (unless they want to pause and watch later, which has the same problem). Again, the story (and atmosphere) are delivered in a way that force the player not to play the game, which means they have to avoid interaction to experience the narrative of an interactive medium. This contradicts the immediacy of the objectives and Alan’s quest.
Those collectibles are an issue on their own because the game simultaneously rewards the player for finding the various objects (with achievements and world-building) and pushes them to stop their encouraged progress. Worse than all of those collectibles, though, are the manuscript pages, because they’re integral to the plot. SPOILERS The manuscript pages are from a book that Alan wrote during the week he can’t remember. The Dark Presence made him write a story that will allow it to escape, because it can turn the fiction Alan writes into reality. Thus, the pages reveal not only what has happened, but also what will happen. Some of the pages are in the clearest path from point A to point B, but many are scattered. As a result, the player is once again pushed to explore and not explore. END SPOILERS
Again, these issues are due to the medium Lake and Remedy chose for Alan Wake, although I want to re-emphasize that they are not inherent to it. If Alan Wake were a TV show—which, going on the copious Twin Peaks and Twilight Zone references and episodic structure, it kind of wants to be—none of these things would be issues. I don’t know that it would have been good, but these problems wouldn’t exist, or at least would take different forms. But there are more issues that stem from the medium than all of this ludonarrative dissonance business. If Alan Wake wants to be a story-driven game where the plot is delivered through realistic, pre-rendered animation, then a video game (especially one developed for consoles) is probably the worst option. If Remedy were animating for television or film, they could have animated using equipment that is as advanced as they could afford. But, because they made it for the Xbox 360, they were limited to that technology, and oh man does it show. Yahtzee best describes the problem in his Zero Punctuation review:
Alan Wakes up … to find a hideous, grinning mannequin creature leering over him. Oh wait, that’s his wife. There’s something very fucked up about the human faces in this game. She looks like she’s been using Botox to treat her chronic face tumors. And I’ve seen better lip-synching in episodes of Captain Scarlet.
In short, the animated cutscenes are distracting. The player is dragged out of the story because the characters are at the rock bottom of the uncanny valley. I don’t think it’s just an issue of elapsed time and changes in technology, either, because Yahtzee’s review came out within a month of the game. Beyond the animation, though, the primacy of cutscenes for delivering the plot also means that the script has to be bite-sized and fragmented. Continuous development is out the window. The writing in the actual gameplay appears to have been relegated to an intern, as Alan just states in an internal monologue what the player already knows or will find out in two seconds. One great example is when Alan’s phone rings while he’s chasing his wife’s kidnapper; he says in a monologue, “It was my wife’s kidnapper,” which is clear from context. But if the player lacks that sense of mental continuity, then they’ll find it was redundant anyway, because he answers the phone demanding to know where his wife is. For a game that’s about the art of writing, it seems to have little regard for it outside of cutscenes. And honestly, the writing in cutscenes is almost exclusively plot-driven and doesn’t do much to flesh out the characters anyway.
This article has focused on the narrative faults of Alan Wake, because they’re the biggest issue. Everything about how the story is told and consumed doesn’t work, which makes it not just a poorly delivered narrative, but also a poorly designed game, regardless of the strength of supposed “individual parts.” While I see a lot of people argue that Alan Wake‘s story is good, at least “on paper,” the narrative issues negate even some elusive notion of a story separate from its delivery. Regardless of how interesting the basic idea might have been, the game emphasizes its shallowness. Alan Wake is a story about light versus darkness with almost no nuance, and the gameplay emphasizes this dichotomy by making the player heal using light and then shoot darkness in the face.
This shallowness is especially obnoxious because the game invokes a lot of metafictional ideas without utilizing them. Whereas metafiction is usually used to blur the boundary between fiction and reality, Alan Wake uses it to emphasize binaries between light and dark, between fiction and reality. Alan is the protagonist and hero because he uses and represents the light. The Dark Presence is the villain because it uses and represents the dark. Consider what these characters represent at a deeper level, though. The Presence wants to turn its fictions into reality, a process that Alan must enact in order to save his wife and return to the status quo. He wants to be a writer who just makes stories, whereas the Presence wants to change reality with stories. Alan will do this if he has to, but only to re-attain normalcy. It’s also worth noting that the villain of the follow-up, American Nightmare, is a doppelganger of Alan that is created by the Presence from the stories told about Alan in Bright Falls.
What all of this adds up to is a belief that fiction affecting reality is a tool of evil, but can be employed to defeat that evil in the aim of re-attaining normalcy, which is where a story is just a story. That’s why the Dark Presence needs to be returned to its cage in the first place. All of the conflict is centered on keeping fiction where it belongs, which is at odds with the value of literature and, to a lesser extent, metafiction in general. The flaws that stem from Alan Wake‘s medium emphasize that the story favors binaries and distinctions, in direct contrast to something more complex like Twin Peaks, the show it so clearly wishes to emulate.
Alan Wake is respected by critics and fans alike, and it’s hard to disagree with the individual points made in its favor. The gameplay is pretty fun. The story gives the player some ideas to chew on, although the aftertaste is bland. Ultimately, though, it’s just an okay entry into the world of games, a world that is slowly asking more questions about the potential of the medium. There’s too much stiffness, too many antiquities, too much self-importance in a game that has the inklings of an interesting idea and aesthetic, but overall finds itself dedicated to half-assessed ideas and previous media rather than critical engagement with its characters, story, or themes.