Alan Wake was a great video game. Excellent, really. But I’m especially interest in its relation to television – specifically, if the similarities are just thematic, or if there’s something more to it.
Alan Wake features several traits of a TV show – obvious and not so obvious. The most clear is the way the game is presented, in an episodic format. This format can be used plainly (see: Alone in the Dark, possibly the worst game ever made) or more successfully. Alan Wake is of the latter persuasion. Every episode begins with a “previously on” segment, as a serialized TV show would, but also features a short introduction (something which is actually becoming rarer on TV now… hm). Episodes flow, with a clear climax in each and every one. Most, if not all episodes end with a cliffhanger.
However, story is sometimes presented differently in Alan Wake. The use of manuscript pages, written by Wake, to tell the story (offering exposition or preempting events) is a unique device that wouldn’t work on a TV show, but is highly successful in the game. Imagine if every episode a TV show you watched paused every, say, five minutes to have a character read a page of a story – it would be bland. But in a game, the break from the action is less jarring, and thus more successful. The manuscript pages could be used poorly, but many are played excellently – one of my favorites involves a chainsaw, and one of the aforementioned cliffhangers (at the end of episode four) is revealed by a manuscript page, meaning the actual “shock” part doesn’t even happen in the episode.
In my personal opinion, most narration is a shallow way of offering exposition or moving a plot line along. Not all uses are bad (How I Met Your Mother, for example), but I can’t help but think of the horrible movie version of the previously mentioned Alone in the Dark. Luckily, Alan Wake puts narration to good use. With some exceptions, the narration in the game, often playing while the player is in control, functions like the manuscript pages rather than as a bland way to tell the player what to do. As a storytelling device, it functions as it would in movie or TV show – a directed view on the plot or the “happenings,” if you will, and the direction keeps the narrative focused on the titular writer.
Music is another important component in television, especially these days. A lot of dramas end their episodes with some sort of catchy tune, and Alan Wake (as a psychological action thriller/drama) does the same. The songs are well picked and work, but it’s disappointing that instead of playing over end of episode cutscenes, they all play over the “Alan Wake, end of episode” screen, creating an artificial pause. Starting the songs a bit early would really help, but may be limited by technology. In a comment at Kotaku, a member of Remedy (the game’s developer) made this comment about the game’s final song over the ending scenes rather than over the credits:
“And we were originally going to have “Space Oddity” start playing over the final scenes, but there was a technical issue — namely, the credits are not a part of the same video file as the ending cinematic, and syncing the soundtracks would have been a humongous pain in the ass. Just one of those things that’s a complete non-issue in a movie and becomes a real challenge in video games…”
I can’t help but again point out the cinematic quality of the game. When a dodge is used particularly well or a weapon fired at the perfect time, the game shifts the camera angle, slows down the game, and offers the player a view of their move without interrupting the flow of the game. It’s excellent and rewarding.
As for the future, I think there are some important improvements to be made. Particularly weak is the camera during dialogue. In a Half-Life 2 sort of way, the player can walk away from conversations and take as much or as little from them as possible. I feel like this would, instead, be a chance to frame the story. A closer focus on the characters, or some shift in camera could be used to improve the cinematic feel of the game. I often realized I was killing characters I had met, but this never felt emphasized – the only real way to tell was the voice and the extra bullets necessary. Some camera sweeps or well-timed zooms when the enemy appears, coupled with some pans or maybe just a tightened camera during dialogue would really, in my opinion, add a lot to the narrative and help bridge the gap between television and gaming.