Monday, June 7, 2010

No Need to Explain

by Daniel Bullard-Bates

Alan Wake is the creator and the protagonist of the world he inhabits. Whether he is living through one of his own stories, dreaming, or insane, his personality informs every element of the narrative. After playing Remedy’s Max Payne games, I expected Wake to be more two-dimensional than he is. He is impatient and quick to anger with his wife but his devotion to her is clear. More interesting is the fact that his writing is riddled with clich├ęs which are then reflected in the world he inhabits. In another context, I might call the Taken (shadowy figures controlled by darkness) poorly written, but Remedy has pulled a little trick to remove themselves from this criticism: They are Wake’s creation, so their cheesy design can only be blamed on him.

If this trick extended to other areas of the narrative it would become tiresome, but the rest of the plot is much more nuanced. Alan Wake leaves large sections of the story unexplained, but the absence feels intentional. Just like in the landscape of the game, there are patches of darkness left unexplored. Instead of distracting from the plot, this enhances it. The story veers between clarity and obfuscation, with large swathes of narrative open to interpretation and reconsideration. It isn’t entirely clear what happened in Alan Wake, and in a game with horror elements this works quite well. The object of fear stays out of the spotlight; some details are left to the audience.

The major problems with Alan Wake come from over explanation. There are a number of simple puzzles in the game, mostly relating to finding and turning on generators, and Alan is ready to explain exactly what the player should do if a moment is taken to linger. This is an interesting world that Remedy has created, so why are they urgently rushing the player through it? I want to look around and enjoy the view. I want to bask in the incredible lighting effects. Alan Wake’s failures are the concessions it has made to design conventions. Without the superfluous coffee thermoses and impatient hint system, there would be little to distract the player from a truly enthralling experience. Even the mini-map is unnecessary. The level design already shows the player where to go using light and darkness as guides.

The lesson to be taken away from the successes and failures of Alan Wake is that trusting the audience is a necessary part of the design process. Alan Wake trusts the player to fill in the blanks in the plot, but not the blanks in the gameplay. If the game sells well enough to spawn a sequel, I hope the creators learn to trust us (and their own design) even more.

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