Upon its release in 2010, Alan Wake was already dated. Announced in 2005, the third person action game smashed a late ‘90s/early 2000s story about a writer’s relationship to their work (“You think you’re god? You think you can just make up stuff?” asks the first enemy in the game) into a setting that shared more than just an ecosphere with Twin Peaks. Sometimes a lamp is actually a log.
Its approach to combat was also old-fashioned: developer Remedy’s well-known slow-motion dodges and dives from their Max Payne games are Alan’s preferred means of avoiding damage. That paradigm had shifted several years before, lazily dated to Gears of War and its short walls and convenient corners. By 2010, third-person action heroes stuck to cover and shot; no one dodged bullets anymore.
Of course, we are now farther away from Alan Wake‘s release than it was from Gears of War’s, and the idea that something can become old-fashioned in four years is more illustrative of ideas about progress and novelty than about any of the games involved.
Early on the game was supposed to be open world. There are hints of it in the level designs—surprisingly open spaces at odds with the more or less linear paths you guide Alan along during the game. Many action-adventure and RPG games have an overworld/dungeon split: two types of spaces that may be separated by their physics simulations and limits in which directions you can move.
Navigating the overworld in many RPGs involves an extra level of abstraction from the dungeons: scale can change, rendering modes might be completely different. But what’s important here is how they tend to function narratively. In an overworld, you may have an eventual goal, but everything is in stasis until you arrive at that goal. The world could be about to end, but it will remain that way until you’ve decided you’re ready to trigger the next event (Majora’s Mask is a rule-proving exception). Movement occurs in any direction unless an in-world explanation prevents it. You can always go back to the site of your last shootout, unless the place blew up.
Dungeons are much more constricted. The very definition of “dungeon” indicates that there are spatial limits. And while these might not be literal dungeons, they are usually confined spaces within which you have specific goals to achieve. Some games let you leave and return to dungeons—but just the ability to have a place to leave and return to suggests a separation that doesn’t exist in open world games.
Open world games remove the split between overworlds and dungeons—whether that split is a total shift in rendering, or physics, or just a loading screen as you walk down the stairs, everything occurs in the “same” space. No longer spatially bound, dungeons become missions. Because the spatial restrictions are removed, the narrative or mechanical restrictions become greater. Timers come into play—suddenly, the world is not waiting for you to tell it you’re ready. NPCs get irritated that you’re not staying close to them, or you lose the person you are tailing. Open world missions don’t have the luxury of collision-boxed-in spaces to navigate, and so they create other boundaries.
Part of Alan Wake‘s weirdness comes from the interaction of narrative constraint and open world architecture without the open world wandering. You can see in the level geometry the paths and connections where you’d be free to poke about between guided mission segments, where the code was never actually built. The most obvious example, though, are the coffee thermoses.
Open world games love collectibles. Things to stumble across while poking around during the moments when the world is waiting for you to get to the next trigger. Alan Wake has 100 coffee thermoses for players to find. The problem is that Alan Wake‘s open world navigating was cut, so you can only find those thermoses during the guided narrative segments. But because there’s always a specific goal here, the idea of stopping for five minutes to run around an area looking for a thermos becomes absurd.
Or maybe a little uncanny. The idea that this very banal videogame thing, picking up random objects, is kind of like Dale Cooper enjoying pie and coffee while investigating horrible murders with supernatural components.
It’s a contradiction, pretending you’re in an overworld-type situation where everything will wait for you while the rest of the game is telling you that you’re in a mission and you need to do the next thing ASAP. In what is maybe a most sardonic moment in videogames, you can stop and watch a Verizon Wireless commercial even though any hesitation within the world should kill Alan.
There is an unspecified period of time at the beginning of some fiction where all the parameters are laid out: what the fiction has in common with our own world, character personalities, basics of structure and form, tone. This introduction sets everything up; once its window is closed, what is acceptable in terms of plot and character becomes restricted, as it’s expected to “make sense” from those basic premises. It’s fiction via the rhetoric of logic.
That length of time is different for different people. For some of us, it’s irrelevant: we know that “making sense” is as much about us as it is what we’re making sense of. That’s not to say it’s useless: we learn early in the game that light protects and that Alan’s agent Barry is absurd; later in the game, when Barry wraps himself in Christmas lights, it “makes sense.”
Videogames, being built of code, have an extra layer of sense-making. The game itself has its rules, and they can’t be changed. But Alan Wake is about dreams and fictions, worlds that pretend to reality but that don’t have to conform to any physical constraints. Worlds that may follow their own logic, but no one else’s.
Alan Wake shines in the game’s specials, DLC where the rules that bind it to reality break down. Words float and turn into objects under a beam of light. Things begin to move in new ways, creating new interactions without major investments in new art assets. The game is still the game, but new aspects of it are brought to light. The code hasn’t changed; has the world?
Brian Taylor’s twitter is dead. Wrapped in plastic.