Analysis: Why Alan Wake
Is Too Well-Made To Work
[Could Remedy actually have harmed Alan Wake's fear factor by... developing it too correctly? Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander looks at why it's not that scary, and where design best practices fail the horror genre.]
What truly scares us? Uncertainty, desperation, feeling lost in the darkness, a sense of lurking threat, or a sudden moment of immediate danger. And these are elements that can't feel deliberate or engineered -- they should be organic, personal and spontaneous.
It's because of all of this that Remedy's Alan Wake isn't all that scary. Sure, it has its moments -- the fluid, shadowy enemy bodies are completely creeptastic, and when one suddenly hits Alan with a projectile, making his vision go red, it can be arresting.
Alan Wake is a game whose overall sum is actually harmed by how well-made are its parts. It sounds counterintuitive, but bear with me.
Game design is continually evolving to better couple depth with accessibility, to better communicate with players, and to avoid frustrating them. One primary way of achieving these ends is to use clear communication -- auditory, environmental, verbal and user interface cues, for example.
Alan Wake employs these tactics brilliantly. The work's over-arching light-and-dark language and the eerily luminous paint cues that lure the player smartly in the right direction are effective and immediately comprehensible.
In fact, perhaps they're too comprehensible. Thanks to the creative execution of the concept that "when you're in the light you're safe, and when you're in the dark, you're not" -- plus the subtle, cinematic application of environmental sound and atmospheric music -- players always know when they're liable to be attacked and when they're not. Element of surprise, gone.
And those gilded paint signatures hidden elegantly in the dark, visible only when they reflect light? Brilliant as player guides... that often lead to hidden caches of extra supplies. This means that when resources are low, the player can have at least some confidence that they'll soon uncover more. Cross off the element of threat, too.
Aside from the goal of making games accessible and deep at the same time, game designers are continually challenged to find creative ways not just to communicate clearly with players, but to do so without without being literal. This means teaching through evolving gameplay rather than forcing a tutorial, for example, or providing information with environmental cues rather than on-screen text.
But in the "thriller" genre in particular (what we'd call "survival horror" in the heyday of Silent Hill and Resident Evil), if the environment is communication-friendly, the fear factor is gone. Fear and tension is derived from one's inability to understand the environment around them. A player that never gets lost, tricked or frustrated won't be scared.
Alan Wake's story doesn't help it much either. Its tone and conventions should be fairly familiar to anyone who's ever read the back of a Dean Koontz paperback in the grocery store line. Those paperbacks, of course, have sold jillions, so it makes sense that a game developer wanting to build a broad-audience product would take cues from it. Nonetheless, familiarity's not frightening either, and neither is predictability -- plus, the faint gloss of pulp breaks investment.
Alan Wake does show just how many lessons have been learned since the clumsier, more frustrating survival horror days. But while no one wants to go back to bad combat, punishing difficulty and hours wasted on unclear objectives, those games were somehow much more frightening.
Remedy did everything right here, but the result is illustrative: games haven't gotten horror quite down yet, and maybe it's because the "best" way to make a broadly-appealing video game doesn't necessarily apply to the genre.