Many games are justifiably criticized for having a “thrown-in” story. You’ve played these before – games where the story is so full of holes, or presented so poorly that it seemed like an afterthought. These games start with the play mechanics and once a fun experience is wrought, a story is shoehorned in to add context. These can still be good games, yet the converse is rarely held highly by gamers and reviewers.
Some very successful games are like this – putting the gameplay cart before the story horse. Do you think that Rockstar started with the idea of the plight of an eastern European immigrant learning to adapt with a foreign culture? Or did they start with mechanics: a living city, carjacking, police chases, helicopter rides, etc. and add the story later? It isn’t pejorative to say a game’s development starts with mechanics – it is simply a different development strategy.
In Alan Wake the story is front and center – so much that the game’s “episodes” add punctuation points to gameplay setting up “cliffhangers” at key story points. This is interesting. Cliffhangers make sense in television. The story in television dramas has to fit in a predefined time block and it cannot be guaranteed that the viewer will return for the next episode. So they leave with a question that must be answered in the hopes that the viewer will come back. Games like Alan Wake don’t have that limitation. The consumer has already bought the disc. There is no predefined episode length. They can play right through.
But the cliffhangers serve an important psychological goal – or at least they did in my case. Despite it being a device used specifically to draw player attention, it is where I stopped playing. Was this a mental cue that I picked up from years of watching television? Perhaps. But these episode breaks served as a cue to portion out the experience evenly. Many reviews that complain about the “sameness” of the gameplay may have rushed through and ignored these natural stopping points. Throughout the day after playing it, I’d wonder about the cliffhangers and come back with a renewed interest and drive to continue.
Back to the issue of story preceding gameplay. The gameplay is repetitive. But this serves the story in the same way the repetitive gameplay serves the story in Half-Life 2. Alan has a particular problem he is facing and for him to swap genres or wildly increase the breadth of mechanics in order to increase the breadth of gameplay (as happens in GTA, RPGs, etc.) would be putting gameplay before story.
You play as the plumber Mario and your goal is to save the beautiful Princess from the evil Koopa menace. Only Alan Wake isn’t as sacchrine. Mario is a New York writer. The Princess is your nyctophobic prize. The Taken are just as ill-defined as the Koopa Troopas. But it is a maturation on the same beats.
Some have complained that the game doesn’t follow the same horror tropes and is thus less scary. But these tropes apply in different ways to games that are story then gameplay versus games (like Resident Evil) that are heavily gameplay then story.
Additionally, the game is self-described as “thriller” not “horror”. Horror is meant to scare, first and foremost where thriller is meant to cause anxiety. So the string cues that let the player know that Taken are coming actually help the cause. They aren’t meant to be scary surprises – they are meant to make the player say “Oh shit, what now?” Alan Wake succeeds in spades.
Many words have been spent comparing Alan Wake to Heavy Rain and the comparisons are apt. Both are story-first, gameplay second. Both are console-exclusives that spent a considerable time in gestation in European development studios. While I enjoyed both a great deal, I believe that Alan Wake provides a better game experience.
When you play a game you make mental models to explain a number of highly strange things. For instance, let’s say I am playing Team Fortress 2. I need to explain that making a certain movement with my finger will cause my character to shoot a grenade. I need to explain what my target is by seeing it on screen and making a judgment that it is a “bad guy”. I need to explain that my “avatar” needs to move to the “control point” to win. I need to explain that a movement with my thumb translates to movement of my avatar. I need to explain that these things together will help me achieve my goal, which is standing on the control point.
The point I am trying to illustrate is that we have a lot of abstraction in something that we consider very familiar. Heavy Rain changes those abstractions. In order to open up a drawer, I have to make an odd swirly motion with my thumb. Why am I opening it? Uh, well, I’m not sure, but there is an icon on the screen telling me so. Where Heavy Rain fumbles is that the abstractions aren’t congruent with what we’ve expected. That is fine in of itself – every innovative game has, by definition, messed with our models of how things work. But when your entire presentation scraps the conventions, you have a lot of explaining to do – not literally, of course – but to the models we create internally. I have no problem moving a stick to walk my character to a car in Grand Theft Auto IV, pressing Triangle to carjack and then pressing R2 to accelerate away. It melds with our models and isn’t that strange. To do the same thing in Heavy Rain requires moving your character in a unique way, interacting with the door handle in a unique way, and driving automatically without input from the player. Our models are all frazzled!
Alan Wake, however, sprinkles its innovations amongst things that confirm our mental models. To say “it controls like an action game” is to say that it conforms to our models of the mechanics and dynamics of an action game. But does it really play as an action game? Not really. I’ll leave it to the reader to list all of the ways action games are vastly different than Alan Wake.
Let me thwart the straw man response that would assume that I am saying that breaking mental models is bad. Indeed, it is the only thing that provides us any growth. But look back at Alone in the Dark (the old one) for example. Games before that generally looked at player characters from the side or from above or from a subjective viewpoint. This game changed the mental model by making the camera a third-person observer. But we can answer the question ‘why’. The designers did this because it could create generally creepy moments. The payoff for breaking this model was a new presentation of emotion (fear) that helped further the game’s themes. There are numerous examples of changes that are just for the sake of change that do not further the games themes and these are less compelling and thus harder sells.
So here are two games that choose to eschew the common gameplay-then-story development process. Both are essentially “on rails”. Both are excellent games. But one breaks down nearly all of the common mental models for players. The other keeps you on edge by mixing the comfortable with the new. The new here is integrated with a way that dovetails with the game’s themes. Neither is essentially “right”, but I think this explanation is, for me, why one was more enjoyable than the other. I’m interested in hearing others’ opinions.