Monday, 9 August 2010

Who is Alan Wake?

Am I Alan Wake?

There's a particular scene in Remedy's Alan Wake (a game which I'm otherwise enjoying very much), which amid a glorious story-driven experience, suddenly kicked my suspension of disbelief to within an inch of its life, leaving me with a load of questions. Not insignificant questions either, questions about the nature of identity in this and other games. Rather than just continuing on this cinematic, narrative ride, in the space of about a minute, I had jumped from 'I must rescue my wife' to 'I'm making this man rescue his wife'. Even at that, I knew I wasn't doing anything really, the whole thing revealed as 'on rails' and the limit of my control being my ability to indefinitely put off an unavoidable event.


In a cut-scene (the cut-scene is key) Rose, the game's familiar nod to Twin Peaks' Shelly Johnson, a local waitress, calls me on my mobile phone. I answer. The game cuts to an 'elsewhere' view of an apparently drugged or heavily manipulated Rose, who tells me to meet her at her trailer in Bright Falls' trailer park. As I hang up my phone in the cut-scene, I'm shown the creepy old supernatural up-to-no-good 'dark presence' lady in funeral attire at Rose's trailer saying "good girl". The cut scene has done its job; I (the player) think "oh! it's a trap".

The game returns me to controlling Alan who's now determined to go and meet Rose. Fine. Except I know that this is a trap. Alan doesn't.

As cinematic as the cut-scene and the reaction in me was (and Alan Wake often feels very cinematic) there's confusion here; I know something the player character doesn't, but I am the player, am I not? I must guide Alan into an obvious trap, while he remains oblivious, and I can't do anything about it. In fact the only way I can avoid it is to stand around forever, refusing to enter Rose's trailer, or just quit playing there and then. So for the first time in this game where I was really enjoying myself, I mumbled to myself, half-annoyed at this inconsistency, at all the paradoxes that I had to just force myself to ignore while playing. 'Forget it, just play it, doesn't matter'. But it does matter. In a game which has been praised for its narrative, its storytelling, its pacing, this seems a glaring error to me, and not one without some consequence.

The problem that exists here is purely caused by player intervention. Columbo episodes always showed you who the killer was, while other detective dramas didn't, but the entertainment was in finding out how Lieutenant Columbo solves the murder, how he finds out who the killer was. The key is that you know the killer's identity, but you're a helpless silent observer, unable to intervene. That simply wouldn't work if you could intervene, if you controlled the detective. If you know who the killer is, isn't it just game over?

This single jarring scenario in a so-far otherwise perfectly enoyable story-based game might seem like a trivial thing, but ultimately, taken to its extreme, this flaw reveals this game as 'just a game'. It's quite literally a series of events that I must guide the player character through to reach what is, to me, an already obvious conclusion.

I still have to finish Alan Wake, and because it's a very good game I'll enjoy doing it, so long as I can convince myself to ignore the elephant standing behind me in my living room, and my living room isn't that big.