Last week, for the first time in awhile, I played a video game. It was Alan Wake. I liked it. Maybe it wasn't as epochal as I might have hoped from a game that was five years in the making and that was pitched, if not necessarily as a killer app, then as a defining console exclusive. That's okay. Not every game has to rewrite the rulebook. Alan Wake is a good, solid shooter, with good, solid controls, and a good story that is more wobbly than solid.
The graphics are terrific, and I mention that not because the game is pretty to look at -- although it is -- but because the high-tech visuals are there in service of the gameplay, not as a substitute for it. In a game about light and dark, it's important for the light and dark to look right. They've never looked better than they do here. Flashlight beams, road flares, and far-off neon signs really do seem to be burning through a living darkness. There's a tactile sense to it all.
And even though the story is hard to follow, maybe that's okay. I suspect it would be less satisfying if I understood it. Still, this is manifestly a narrative game. Alan follows linear paths almost exclusively, with brief diversions to pick up supplies that never take him too far off the road. He picks up his cell phone without player input in order to hold long conversations. Many of the most interesting things Alan does happen only in cutscene form. The game is split into six episodes, none of which takes longer than about an hour and a half, and even if you immediately start playing the next episode, you get a "previously on Alan Wake" recap that's straight from television. Yes, it's clear that Remedy's primary aim here was to tell a story.
Yet the developer apparently didn't have enough faith in the power of their labyrinthine plot to compel players to repeat playthroughs. Instead, they populated their brief game with 100 barely hidden collectible coffee thermoses.
Look, I'm not against hidden items. Alan Wake's world is also dotted with portable radios, which you can turn on and listen to a local radio show. This serves a couple of purposes: one, the host is a minor character in the game's plot, and listening to his program sheds a little light on the spooky happenings in Bright Falls. Second -- and maybe this is just a personal thing -- late-night radio is really, really creepy, and it suits the game's atmosphere perfectly.
But these thermoses... yeesh. I don't know if they serve any purpose beyond the inevitable achievement for finding all 100. Maybe there's a status boost or something. Sure doesn't seem like it, though. They seem to be there only as an incentive to explore, which would be fine if they added anything to the game, but the reason to look for thermoses is just to look for thermoses. That's a nicely rounded circle that Remedy has drawn, but it's kind of like a perimeter fence.
Furthermore, having things like collectible thermoses can undercut the forward motion of the plot. At one point, Alan was charging into a cabin while somebody -- Barry, maybe -- was calling for help upstairs. Bam! goes the front door. Alan storms in, flashlight beam and pistol at the ready. Barry is screaming his head off. And instead of running upstairs, Alan notices a thermos, and takes a detour to pick it up. Then, for the hell of it, he rummages around the entire first floor of the house, looking for Energizer® batteries (hopefully the longer-lasting lithium variety!).
Eventually, the sound sample of Barry's cries for help stops playing, but there's no reason for Alan to stop looking for ammo before going upstairs. Barry's not going anywhere. These are the value systems video games are still working with. Even the "serious" ones.