Tuesday, 23 April 2013

This Is Not A Gun

[Warning: the following contains spoilers for the game Alan Wake (2010) and its DLC, The Signal. It's kind of a follow-up to this post about Max Payne.]

Following Max Payne, developer Remedy and writer Sam Lake again explored how the structure of a videogame can psychologically define its world with their horror-thriller Alan Wake. The story of the game is that Wake, a writer suffering from long-term writer's block, takes a break with his wife to a place called Bright Falls, which just so happens to be the kind of remote, idyllic place known to feature in the genre he writes——the psychological thriller. This sets the tone for a reflexive, self-referential narrative very much in the same vein as its predecessor, as Alan's own fiction, relating to the events of his unwritten novel, starts to come to life around him, trapping him in place as the protagonist battling the forces of his own imagination.

This nightmare is conceptually treated in terms of light versus dark. On a gameplay level, as a third-person shooter, this is quite literal———a strange force known as the Dark Presence manifests as shadowy beings in the form of possessed humans, Hitchcock-like ravens, giant poltergeisty objects and malevolent blobs, and you basically fight darkness with light, using your flashlight and other light sources to defeat the enemies.

The Dark Presence turns out to be an external force that has targeted other writers besides Alan, but the struggle nevertheless takes on a psychological aspect for Alan as much as a physical one, and the Dark Presence itself can probably be taken as metaphorically as we like. While there is a literal battle with darkness taking place on both a story and a gameplay level, the game as we experience it is also representative of Alan's state of mind.

Alan shining a light into a dark, misty woodland

It's the same deal as in Max Payne. Where in that game the structure of gameplay, how the game itself defines our experience, exaggerated and simplified the world to reflect the singular, unhinged and gratuitous nature of Max's vengefulness, in Alan Wake the gameplay reduces and emphasises certain aspects of the world as if through Alan's psychological lens. Our experience is defined as a constant struggle against oppressive, relentless forces of darkness; the humanity of Alan's enemies is reduced in the same way as Max's, if not more so and more pointedly, as they come to fulfil a psychological function. Alan Wake is, in fact, more explicitly about this process of a world subject to the psychology of its protagonist, as Wake's own imagination is turned against him.

It's a game constantly drawing attention to its own genre and structure. Where Max Payne only glanced at these things—in its second nightmare sequence, it brought attention to both the comic strip and the videogame and pointed out how both, in their own different ways, define Max's psychological hell—Alan Wake attempts a deeper, more elaborate exploration of how genre and medium can be used to psychologically define our experience. And like Max Payne, it's also at times quite explicit about how its mechanics are supposed to work in a poetic way; for example, when Alex Zane, another writer fallen victim to the Dark Presence, speaks to Alan in the section called The Signal:

You will need weapons. [Zane passes Alan a flashlight.] It's not the light itself, but what it represents. You will need it. [Zane passes Alan a revolver.] This is not a gun. It is a tool and a logical process of elimination.

The Signal is one of two special 'episodes' following on from the main story that, unlike the rest of the game, actually take place entirely within Alan's mind as a dream, making the gun and the flashlight literally figurative. It's also notably a dream where Alan is quite literally fighting his irrational self, as if that psychological angle needed driving home. But as far as the game's narrative goes, these representations, the meanings behind these objects, hold true for the player even when Alan's not dreaming and the objects are supposedly real.

Zane's flashlight supernaturally suspended in a beam of illumination

Or at least they kind of do———but this is where Alan Wake doesn't quite succeed. The mechanics of the game and the intended narrative don't quite perfectly align.

In Max Payne, the essence of the game was in the gameplay——gunning down goon after goon, your actions steeped in stylish melodrama. The story was conveyed in part through comic-strip cutscenes, but these were peripheral. You maybe needed them to fill in gaps in the story, but you didn't need them to grasp the fundamental narrative———the heart of the game was in the game itself, even when this moved away from gunplay to navigating psychologically distorted environments, as in the dream sequences. The cutscenes were complementary, even extraneous, and not where the experience gravitated.

The problem with Alan Wake is that the gameplay doesn't feel central to the experience, or at least it feels shunted by other priorities. The interactive third-person shooter parts are heavily cushioned by cinematics, something that usually signals the limitations of the game itself for conveying what the writers want to be conveyed; or else by sequences where you're locked into a small pen of movement listening to somebody talk, left to mill about them in a way that probably constitutes nonsensical behaviour.

In such a story-laden game, with this reliance on cinematics to tell it, the gameplay parts are left feeling somewhat flat and deficient. With the cinematics exploring the most significant and progressive parts of the story, it shows up the limited gameyness of the game itself, a mechanical repetitiveness that goes beyond any sense of dark oppression. Whatever Zane might say, you don't particularly feel like you're getting closer to the truth with every enemy you gun down———you just feel like you're playing a shooter embedded in an interesting story, playing through waves of Dark Presence simply to get from one cutscene to the next.

Alan inside a local cafe

This isn't universally true——the game has plenty of great moments, environmental storytelling beats, and interesting gameplay scenarios——but a sense of repetitious, narratively vapid shooting is frequent, the action constantly being pulled away from a game that can't carry the weight of what the creators want to explore.

The heavy scriptedness leads to a kind of funnelled feel to the gameplay, too, where you have to bumble your way along the predetermined path, blocked by conveniently placed furniture or rattling at locked doors until you find the one that leads you on. Max Payne was identical in this respect, but it feels somehow more pronounced here, maybe because Bright Falls is more compelling and has the illusion of being more open. On a story level this kind of works because you're re-enacting Alan's manuscript and this is how it was written, but more often than not this feels like an lazy excuse rather than a considered reason for the design.

Just like being rooted in place while characters talk at you, it makes the set-up feel noticeably artificial——the player-controlled parts grinding up against the needs of linear story advancement, as if your control is something that constantly needs to be shut down. It adds to the sense that the design of the game isn't quite up to the job of containing the essential narrative——it has to bludgeon you into that narrative rather than it being instilled in the natural action of the player as defined by the core mechanics of the game. The system in place is subject to contrivance———or copious cinematic padding———because the system itself doesn't quite fit the purpose.

Max Payne was a much simpler game and offered much less in the way of substance. I don't know if I'd want Alan Wake to lose some of that substance for the sake of being more perfect. But Max Payne worked so well because the gameplay defined the whole narrative experience in a really effective way, with everything else——the overarching story, the comics, the art direction——stacking up neatly in relation to that. The component parts of Alan Wake feel less coherent.

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At 25 April 2013 at 05:28 , Anonymous amelia chesley said...


I'm sure if I ever played any of these games you analyze so thoroughly I would get it on a way better level.

at any rate, the Magritte (not Matisse, as I'm always saying wrongly) reference of the title still amuses me very much.