Alan Wake. An excellent game with a poorly handled ending. 9/10

Mar 22, 2012

Alan Wake is one of those games that I was really looking forward to, for several years. Finland’s Remedy Entertainment who produced the game has deep roots in demoscene that I have great affection for, and the two Max Payne series games were excellent. (And are available on PC Steam. You should go ahead and play them if you haven’t.)

It was an Xbox exclusive for a long time. I was meaning to to borrow an Xbox from someone just so I could play it (I don’t have any consoles). But I was lazy and I never did. So lo and behold, this February Remedy announces that Alan Wake is coming to Steam on PC. Kaboom. I was happy, I could now just use my iMac’s Bootcamp partition to play it with Windows.

(Aside, this 27" iMac from late 2010 is a great game machine. Wake played at full frame rate and resolution without any performance problems.)

Here’s the trailer for the PC version.

The developers say it’s a “psychological action thriller” and the game lives up to that categorization. It is similar to Crysis 2 because both of them are cinematic movie-like experiences, even though from very different genres. Alan Wake has the feel of a great thriller movie and great gameplay and pacing.

It is also a cinematic experience structure- and narrative-wise. The game consists of six episodes like a TV series, and the structure and narrative is constructed well. It develops an intriguing storyline with multiple layers messing around with each other. One thing that I thought of while playing is the movie “Inception” where you have a similar “dream within a dream” structure—except that in this game, the layers are more intertwined and the whole feel is much more dark and sinister.

So, it takes the player through plot twists and turns, keeps pumping up the adrenaline, builds a great complex story where the multiple threads finally come together, all pointing to a great finale ending…

… which never comes. And this is my biggest problem with the game. The story is not wrapped up properly and is left hanging in some weird state. The two additional special episodes do nothing to clear this up either. You know what this is called? Prematurely milking the franchise. It feels cheap and wrong. The story was built well, and deserved to be ended well. Happily or unhappily, doesn’t matter, but at least wrapped up somehow.

Compare this to both Max Payne games, and especially MP2 with its “film noir love story” moniker. There was also some story development there, though not as deep as in Alan Wake, but it was properly wrapped up in the end. I found it especially smart in MP2 that you could get two endings: the dark one one with regular and another, happy one with higher difficulty. They could easily have done the same in Alan Wake and I would definitely have played through the game twice just for that. Now, I’m not sure if I will. Sure, I can find more “book pages” (an important supporting element of the game) in higher difficulty but I’m not sure if it’s worth it for me.

I’m only calling this out because the game positions itself as a movie-quality creative work and thus deserves appropriate scrutiny and to be held to a higher bar than regular PC games. Even with the incomplete ending, the whole package is still far more interesting than many other games I’ve played, and the ending is the only reason why I’m taking one point away from the top rating.

Still, most of the game is not about the ending, and it is highly playable. One great design aspect is good music and sound design by a Finnish band Poets of the Fall where one member is a legendary demoscene-era Amiga MOD composer Markus “Captain” Kaarlonen. Here’s my favorite song from the game that kinda sorta tells about some storyline aspects, but not really, so there’s no spoilers here. I just found it to be a beautiful track that very well captures the mood, style and ambience of the game.

When the credits rolled, I found it cool that there’s a reference to Estonian Ringtail Studios that I didn’t know existed. There’s some game presence in Estonia with casual and mobile games and of course Playtech and gambling. But to my knowledge, not that much with “big”/“serious”/“deep” games like Max Payne, Crysis and the like. Good to see some studios setting up shop and starting to move Estonian creative industry in that direction. I hope that a day comes when we have a full game studio that makes and publishes the full product.