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Made for TV

by Yusuf Laher / 04.06.2010

“The best game EVER,” that’s what they said. Shit, I saw an EPK feature about a year ago that assured me, “Alan Wake is the only game you need to worry about in 2010!” But if you can look passed all the hype, you’ll see the misconception that gaming is a pastime for nerdy teens. Games like Alan Wake are tailor made for aging geeks, in their mid-to-late 30s.

There’s an episode of Family Guy where Brian runs over a middle-aged man crossing a path in the woods. Panicked, he jumps out and runs over to the body. “Oh my God, are you Stephen King?” he asks. “No, I’m Dean Koontz” the man replies. “Oh,” says Brian, unimpressed. He gets back in the car, powers up and reverses over Koontz’s mangled body as he exits the screen. Well… I’m sorry to say, Alan Wake is more Dean Koontz than Stephen King.

The story follows bestselling writer Alan Wake and his wife Alice, who decide that a remote cabin holiday is exactly what their troubled relationship (and Alan’s two year case of writer’s block) needs – that old chestnut. Then Alice disappears and Alan’s forced to sleepwalk, daydream and semi-conscious-state stroll his way around Bright Falls, trying to rescue her. Or is she dead already?

The irritating thing is how contrived it all feels – the story’s about as subtle as Serena Williams. Alan gets called a “bestselling writer” so many times, you start to think everyone’s just humouring him. “Yes Alan, of course you’re a bestselling writer, now put down those scissors and write us a ‘bestselling’ story…”

Two dimensional badass cop character Agent Nightingale takes things a step further, jokingly calling Alan “Hemmingway,” “Dan Brown,” “Lovecraft,” “Spillane” and even “James Joyce” (WTF?) – we get it, the dude’s a writer. And Alan Wake references everything from The Shining, The Evil Dead and Hitchcock’s The Birds to Twin Peaks, Lost and Max Payne (also developed by Remedy Entertainment). But ultimately, the story feels more like Koontz’s Hideaway (or anything King wrote this century): made for TV!

When you’re done with the sweeping cinematic cut-scenes and J.J Abrams, “Previously on Alan Wake” title sequences, Alan Wake is a pretty straightforward psychological thriller/survival horror – like classic Silent Hill, Alone in the Dark and Resident Evil games. But unlike those early releases, Alan Wake’s just not creepy and disturbing enough. It feels more like Uncharted 2.5 (with zombies).

The graphics alternate from okay to dodgy and amazing. The environments are much better than the actual characters and the game’s scenic, Twin Peaks, The Shining style swoop shots really steal the show. Alan Wake’s biggest technical accomplishment is its manipulation of light and atmospheric, 3D effects: flares, mist, wind, explosions, water… I’ve never squinted at a light shone from a video game before – how the hell did they do that? The idea of light versus dark is pretty central to the story as well, as Alan battles wave after wave of Taken hillbillies with his trusty torch, flares and flashbang grenades.

But for a psychological thriller, there aren’t as many cerebral thrills as you might expect. Most of the time, playing late at night, I was grateful kitchen doors didn’t burst open – but you couldn’t help notice the wasted opportunities. I was expecting the “ultimate psychological thriller,” not a made-for-TV, soft-around-the-edges Anne Heche flick full of loose ends and bad acting. The film, I mean game seems more concerned with the possibility of a trilogy than anything else.

The puzzles are all pretty simple as well. “This door is locked, find the key,” says the narrator. Then, before you even know which way is up, you’re tripping over the key and unlocking the door in your sleep. Or is he A. Wake? Well… it’s not quite God of War 3, is it?

Still, the fact that Microsoft’s spending most of their 2010 budget on a 16+ psychological thriller shows you where gaming’s going at the moment: sex and violence! And according to US trade group the Entertainment Software Association, the “average gamer” is 35, the average “game buyer” is 39 and “63% of parents believe games are a positive part of their children’s lives.” So next time someone tells you to grow up and get a Blackberry, hit them with some wisdom (and then a cricket bat).

In the end, Alan Wake’s a pretty good survival horror game. But I wasn’t expecting pretty good, I was expecting fan-fucking-tastic – Remedy has been developing the game since 2001. I was also expecting genuine psychological terror. I wanted Alan Wake to scare the shit out of me! Maybe I’m just dead inside, but it didn’t. Not like Dead Space and the original Resident Evil, Silent Hill and Alone in the Dark games. Now those are “psychological” thrillers. Here, you’ve always got enough ammo, there’s always a “Safe Haven” and thanks to Alan’s nifty sidestepping, the Taken are about as terrifying as an episode of Gummi Bears. The lighting and in-game visual effects are nuts but there’s no emotional connection. Also, how the hell are you supposed to take an army of possessed barrels and combine harvesters seriously?

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