Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Alan Wake - 4 of 4 - Old Friends and Loose Ends

We left off the last post with Alan in the Well-Lit Room, in possession of the Clicker, and a passel of existential questions. Those will come at the end since the game is left rather open to interpretation.

The second piece (did I forget to mention that?) dictates the conditions for Alan returning to Zane's Cabin. He has to go back to Cauldron Lake with the clicker, and jump.

Alan leaves his cohorts, Sheriff Breaker, Barry the Agent and Cynthia Weaver in the Well-Lit Room. He clicks the Clicker on which turns the world to day time. I mentioned earlier that the vehicle bits could have been transitioned some other way, and I'm a little torn over this one. You drive through the day through what is otherwise idyllic scenery. At one point, you have to get out of the car and pass through a tunnel, and at this point everything goes to hell. You have to fight your way back to Cauldron Lake. And let me tell you, this is at once the best and worst part of the game. If you didn't enjoy the last hours of play, you won't like this. Frankly, it's feels stretched out, so I'll summarize. One of the manuscript pages mentioned that the Dark Presence is incapable, because it is bound by the manuscript, of actually doing anything to Alan. It can't properly affect him. But it can manipulate things and people around him. Sort of like poking something out of a high place with a stick. And now it has taken this to the limit. The Dark Presence has manifested a swirling mass of... stuff. Everything that's ever wound up in Cauldron Lake, Boats, busses, planes, trains and ruttin' automobiles it tries to hit you with, in addition to the efforts of the Taken. But Alan makes it to Cauldron Lake, and rips apart this Tornado.

I remember reading Shamus' review of Fear when I picked up the game a while back. I never finished the game, but what he mentioned about the ending is similar here.
In a normal game, like say... Masterchiefmas #Eleventy Billion, you'd walk into the room armed to the teeth and do battle with the Dark Presence, now represented by some sort of terrible evil shapeshifting thing. You'd kill it with fire and everything would be happy. But that's not how this works. Remember, we're trying to get to the typewriter with the last page of the manuscript. We have to write The Ending.

You jump off of the edge of the lake into the water with an exclamation of "Hell". Alan then has to use his flashlight to illuminate the various glowing words, a-la Scribblenauts, to create a path to the Cabin and then the Cabin itself.

Upon entering, he thrusts the Clicker into the hole in the Dark Presence's chest, made by Zane years before. And then he sits down to write the ending. And this is what gets me. They make a few assumptions about how a horror game, or a novel has to go. The ending feels more like a B-Movie to me. There's no satisfaction, and I'll deal with that in a second.

Alan writes Alice to safety. She drags her self out of the water and onto the ruined bridge to the island, but Alan is nowhere to be found. As the camera pans over the town, we can see that Everything Is Right With The World, until we pan down towards the Diner. Remember Cynthia Weaver, the old lady who was keeping the Macguffin? She was referred to as "The Lady of the Light". Remember Rose? Diner Waitress, knocked us out with some drugged tea. We see Rose holding a lamp in a way reminiscent of our good friend Cynthia. And then we return to Alan, still in the Cabin beneath the lake. And the last thing we're given by the game is the words
"It's not a lake. It's an ocean" in the sort of doubled voice that we've come to associate with Taken and the Dark Presence.

So, what are the problems here?
For one, we have no reason to care that Alice is safe. I personally never connected with her. The character was shallow and annoying. It was the goal of the game to retrieve her from the ancient evil, but I found myself liking Alan and the other characters, you know the ones who were on the screen for more than a few minutes, a great deal more. A note to the developers at Remedy: If you want us to do save the girl, give us a reason to like her. Make the player connect with the victim, at least for a bit.

We have no closure as to the fate of the three people we left in the Well-Lit Room. I didn't mention Barry during my review, so let me do so now. Barry is your sidekick, Alan's agent. And he's an excellent character. He's also comic relief. Sheriff Breaker was sympathetic to your cause as well, and Cynthia Weaver probably deserves a helping of "Well Done Thou Good And Faithful Servant". To leave out the people you left behind at the end of the game like this, for the sake of... what? Sequel potential?

And that's my third gripe. They expect to make another game. I remember playing the Sands of Time trilogy and in my opinion (as well as others') one of the best parts of those games was the fact that if you didn't want to play the next instalment, you didn't feel like you were losing the ending. Because you weren't. Maybe it's just me, but it's not impossible to give the player a sense that this story is done with, but there might be others, without saying "hey! There's going to be another game".

And last. Alan. We've dragged this little meat-puppet through hell, and now he's possessed by an ancient evil. Bad form, Remedy, bad form. You mean to tell us that we go through all that bullshit (and don't get me wrong, there is bullshit) and it's not even a Pyhrric victory? We lose when we finish the game? And according to all sources, this is the ending. The only ending. The hero becomes the villain. Like the bad sequel to a good movie.

I mentioned that they seem to like Stephen King and I'll go ahead with this. I've read quite a bit of his stuff. By no means all of it because the man appears to be quite the prolific writer but never have I run into something like this, where its an everyone loses sort of situation. Not once. There's always some sort of victory, Pyhrric or not. It might be as simple as escape, and it never has to be a clear win, since this is horror after all. But how many movies do the same thing? Horror doesn't have to be about vanquishing the evil. In fact, it shouldn't. But evil does not have to win either. You go through a movie or a novel or a game, scarred and worried for characters and it makes their victories, however small, seem that much sweeter. Taking that away leaves a sour taste in my mouth and quite a bit of contempt for the developers.

The lead up to the ending includes a speech about "balance" by Alan. And the scales are anything but balanced. Consider. Zane destroyed himself to seal evil in a can. Wake woke it up. Wake has to put things right. He rips the form that Zane gave the Dark Presence a new one, despite the ominous "strike me down..." line. So where does it say that it needs to take a new form right away? Why does it have to be Wake? Did the Dark Presence have a shape before Zane gave it one?

Could we not take the Silent Hill approach? And by this I mean the approach that the earlier games took. As long as the backdrop and the story remain consistent, you can write a sequel.

So, let's rack them problems up shall we?

Hey! We're not done yet! or Don't worry, we're making another game syndrome.
No closure.
Poor ending.

The journey wasn't bad. The ending makes the rest of it look and feel like a waste of time.

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