Tuesday, 31 August 2010

A Wake Up Call

At GainBoy, we pride ourselves on taking our time. When I started this thing, it was one of the key things I aimed for. I have read too many shitty reviews and haphazard play-throughs to know that rushing only gives you so much perspective on a game. So we take our time. We let things stew, gather our thoughts, and try and do justice to games we think deserve talking about.

I completed Alan Wake a week ago, and it's now I feel I can give some thoughts on what is a landmark in Computer Games.

Landmark is a strong term. It really is. And I don't use it lightly. But this game is. Not because of gameplay, but because of narrative, and maturity.

First of all, the game's strength lies in it's maturity. It's not trying to be too clever, but at the same time it isn't treating you like a 14 year-old boy with a penchant for boobs and pizza. The storyline is cheesey, yet still creepy, and with enough references that make me all kinds of smug in my old TV knowledge. It's Twin Peaks, it's Eerie Indiana. It's the Twilight Zone. This helps the game cement itself in the real world, and by having these cultural touchstones permeating through the game, it means that although the game's plot is at times ridiculous, it's still somehow believable.

I think my point is proved best when trying to explain the game to my girlfriend. Usually, when trying to describe the plot of a game to her, 2 things happen. The first is she usually tuts, and the second is I realise how proposterous the actual storyline of most games are. Have you ever actually tried to explain something like Gears of War? It's cringeworthy. But when I told her about Alan Wake, it was easy. It made sense, it sounded credible and it actually sounded good. By taking a step away from traditional game material, and crossing into the realm of other mediums, they've managed to make something that plays well, and feels like a genuine step forward in gaming.

The final and most important thing I noticed whilst playing was it's core strength, and the current theme running through the best games being released: Narrative. It's narrative which differentiates the good games from the truly special, and althought not perfect, Alan Wake really, really tries. Throughout playing the game, I couldn't help comparing it to Bioshock. If I offered this perspective without any explanation, it would seem that I was chatting about the dark atmosphere and scary elements. Whilst this is true, it's not what I'm talking about here.

It's narrative. Just like Bioshock, the story doesn't feel like a vehicle for some fancy gameplay mechanic, some new type of weapon or some toy to play with. I recently played The Singularity, which felt like the flimsiest story, all wrapped around a new idea for a weapon the games developers liked. No, with Alan Wake, the gameplay is central to the story, and drives the game to a satisfying and eerie conclusion.

The story is genuinely good, and the narrative running through the game is well thought out, clever and tense. After the first hour of gameplay, I was unconvinced, as I felt some of the cutscenes were a bit shaky, and the concept wasn't grabbing me. But I spoke to a friend about it, and he responded with, 'I've got a friend who is constantly returning games if they experience even one bit of framerate drop or dodgy shadowing. What an idiot. It's the reason I stopped talking to him.' Too true. Unclench, play the game, and witness a game that's pushing the medium forward.

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