Alan Wake and the Manuscript Pages of Decent Health

The holiday season is finally half-way over! Hurray! Now, there’s just New Years to enjoy and it’s back to classes. Or rather, there’s a few days to myself and then classes. I figured, in the interest of stretching my academic muscles, I’d write on something a little more scholarly. So, while you’re fetching your pipe and slippers (I already have mine), I’ll start in on Alan Wake.

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Alan Wake is the eponymous hero of his very own 3rd-person, run-flashlight-gun psychological-thriller (read: horror) series from Remedy Entertainment. Alan’s the most physically fit writer I’ve ever seen in my life, and he has a straighter shot than most trained police officers. The entire story is dripping in symbolism, a bit more obviously than most, and I could spend a lot of time picking the story apart. Of course, that might seem a bit redundant because the game sort of does that for you… about three times. The environments are well put together and the characters, while occasionally frightening to look at, and a bit thick, are interesting and engaging. I honestly think the best part about this game is the narration. It lulls you right in. Which is great, because this is horror, so immersion is ever so important. Alan Wake both succeeds and fails at this.

It’s not so much the game-play, or the story, as the format. Like, if you were to pick up a book and the glossary was on the first page, and the index was near the middle, but the table of contents was on page nineteen. See? That’s bad formatting. Alan Wake does something similar to this, but it’s not the in medias res I’m talking about, it’s the “Episode” endings and beginnings. Every time you beat a section of the game, it’s immediately book-ended and cordoned off by a “Chapter End” and a “Last Time on Alan Wake!” like it was a television serial or a book. It totally interrupts the flow of the game, and sort of takes you out of the experience. It’s thematic, but redundant and gimmicky. It makes you feel more like you’re watching something than playing something. Large portions of the game take place in cut-scene and the ones that don’t are often inconsequential. It’s a lot of travelling through eery forests, abandoned mines and haunted logging mills. Great, atmospheric locations, but it’s all travel-time. The fun is in the combat and the puzzle solving. It’s awesome. I’ve played it through twice, but that’s not the reason we’re here. We’re here because it does something really interesting. It juxtaposes literary text directly with game-play text.

This last little while, I’ve been looking at some of the key differences between the various mediums we use to entertain, and communicate ideas. I wanted to just write “Games and books are different!” and knock off, but that would hardly say anything. Instead, I’m going to focus on two pieces of Alan Wake that really illustrate the point. The first is the Manuscript Pages and the second is the enemy design.

The manuscript pages are pages that Alan wrote, before he got amnesia, that a dark power is using to create reality. You collect them throughout the levels and they tell you what’s going to happen next in brief snippets. It’s a concept I’ve grappled with a bit. On the one hand, they’re a perfectly framed narrative device for any sort of exposition. Many games ruin their environments by dotting them with little exposition drones that exist solely to tell you about things and warn you about monsters (to build them up). Alan Wake, on the other hand, has scattered manuscript pages that can describe any event. Not only that, but you’ll get out of the story what you put into it. If you want to know more, then you can search for the pages. If you just want to get through the game, then you can enjoy that, too. It would be kind of a Silent Hill 2 approach to story-telling, BUT, Alan Wake also conveys much of the story in cut-scenes. You just have to deal with the redundancies, but there are a LOT of redundancies.

There’s a point to redundancy, sometimes, when you’re creating immersion. For instance, sometimes you’ll complete an event, and, later on, you’ll come across a radio and the announcer will be talking about, among other things, something you were just involved in. This is excellent for improving immersion. In many ways, Alan Wake does a great job of creating a living world. However, sometimes, you’ll find a manuscript page and it’ll tell you about an event, then you’ll play through the event, then it’ll be narrated, then you’ll hear about it later. By then, you’re absolutely sick of hearing about it. Still, you can’t help but feel that there was some thought put into events. It’s like they’re bringing the game’s writing down to the bare bones for us to see. You play the events you read, so you can see the direct differences between literary text and game-play text, and how those differences change our experience.

Creating immersion is one thing, but the manuscript pages will occasionally give away plot-points later on. Not only that, but by getting a page that describes much later events, you’re made well aware that Alan is going to be fine through most of his ordeal. It’s like… what’s the opposite of the Sword of Damocles? The Manuscript Pages of Decent Health. Part of the visceral terror of a horror game is the threat of death. The knowledge that the character, and the part of you that was committed to exploring a world through this character, may die is part of the game. It’s a message that’s incongruous with the events on the screen and you can feel it as you play. It frames it a little too perfectly as a game-play construct. It’s a weird instance of the mechanic fitting the role too well.

Still, there are excellent uses for it, as well. They’re used to build tension. You know how when you’re watching a movie, or reading a book, and you know… you just know… that there’s going to be something frightening behind a door, and, if you’re really into it, you’re sitting there, blanket-to-chin, cringing as the character’s hand reaches for the door? Well, the great thing about games is that it makes you open that door. Instead of watching, you are directly involved in the process. It’s your decision. You walk down the hallway. You slowly pull the door open. You get your face torn off and worn at the next fashionable, extra-dimensional, invite-only wedding reception. When designing with that in mind, there’s a tension between telling you too little, and too much. Too little and there’s no reason to be afraid. Too much and you’re not frightened, because you’re preparing for it. Your fertile mind will always be better at getting you ready to be scared than any video game. You see why I was a bit hard on the manuscript pages for letting you know you’d live? Certainly, but there are more frightening things than death (like preparing for death).

For instance, having to face frightening circumstances can be terrifying, even if your life isn’t being directly threatened (see all horror media ever). The manuscript pages do a good job of letting you peek at the horrors that lay in your path. Just a peek. It’s enough to get you wondering, and plays the same role as the exposition bots I mentioned earlier (think dying soldier on a battlement that warns you about a dragon). However, there are some points where it just messes things up. SPOILERS!!! The rest of this is going to be a spoiler-tsunami, so if you haven’t played it (I recommend you do), and you don’t want it ruined, then turn away now, ye wary adventurer. SPOILERS!!!

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Okay, let’s start with the girl that drugs your coffee. You can find a page that lets you know that one of the characters is going to be influenced by the darkness. That’s fine, but then your character goes and trusts her completely, even though she’s wearing a big sign that says, “I Am Possessed.” My problem with it is that the manuscript pages are woven so completely into the game, but don’t have any effect on it. What’s the point of writing a manuscript to help you combat the darkness if you’re not going to use it to do so? Maybe he was just following it to ensure its occurrence. Of course, you only get this page in Nightmare Mode, after you’ve beaten the game once, but I don’t think it should have been included, in its present location, at all, if it was going to clash so much with the narrative. If you’ve got the page, then it makes sense for him to accept it as inevitable, assuming that we’re committing to that view-point. However, if you don’t have the page, then his behaviour seems a bit ridiculous. Furthermore, if you don’t believe that he believes that all the events have to occur the way they’re written, then it’s all even more absurd. Even the fact that it raises those types of questions makes it a poor choice of placement, because you’re busy thinking about his ridiculous reasons instead of being immersed in the game. It feels a bit like they painted themselves into a corner. They had to keep the manuscript within that chapter, according to the pattern they’d developed, but they didn’t want it to spoil too much of the plot. I think making it solely available in a second play-through was a good compromise, but it was still a compromise and you can see the stitches from the fix. There are many other mechanic-narrative interactions, as well, but we’ve been on about this for a while. The manuscript pages are a really interesting mechanic, and you can tell they put a lot of thought into how and what they presented, but the margin for error is tiny.

Speaking of errors, this is a cozy place to segue over to enemy designs. Video games often employ fodder enemies to give you something to combat and fear in the depths of the dark woods (when there are dark woods), and Alan Wake is no different. However, the tone and thought of the piece borrow heavily from the literary world, especially Stephen King. Nowhere does this show more than in the enemy designs. A shadowy, unseeable figure wrapped in darkness pursuing you through the woods is a frightening thought, but it loses something when you have to be able to see it and kill it on a regular basis. Moving animated objects that fling themselves at you (we’re talking truck-sized objects) are terrifying, unless they hover in the air before taking individuals passes at you, can be destroyed by a flashlight, and are easy to dodge. These are game-play designs that makes them good enemies to fight, but would be better suited to a literary world where they can be themselves. Part of what makes these enemies scary is their unpredictable alien nature. In a literary world, they can be unpredictable, while still retaining their form. Game-play, by necessity, makes these enemies predictable. The same can be said for the loggers and the quick-shadows. That brings us to the ending…

The ending was disappointing as all hell. A tornado of darkness that threatens to tear the world apart is one thing to read about, but it’s another thing to see in-game. It’s not difficult. It’s not threatening. You shoot some flares into it and weep. It’s kind of a let-down after all the build-up. However, it’s the kind of thing that’s difficult to translate into the visual, interact-able world of game-play. Horrible, unknowable evils can easily become over-exposed, like zombies and vampires. Used correctly, those things can be terrifying, but not in the way Alan Wake uses its monsters. One or two of those loggers, surrounded in darkness, chasing you through a labyrinthine warehouse, while you figure out a way to kill them without a flashlight, would be frightening, tense even. Clocktower 3 did something similar to this in most of its levels, and it succeeded at providing a horrifying experience, despite its atmosphere.

There are certain elements to any medium that make it useful for creating tension and terror. Literary texts require you to engage with and animate the experience for yourself. It allows for paradoxical, half-made concepts, and missing information within an experienced event. Game-play texts require concrete interactions, and aren’t rooted in the understandings produced by the individual, but allow the player to explore and directly engage the experience within the boundaries crafted by the game designers. The two do not always meet half-way on some things. Literary jump-scares are few and far between. Literary horror is more about winding you up and letting you scare yourself, while providing you a template from which to draw. Game-play horror has difficulty with simple terror, and insubstantiality, but it can still wind you up with a totally-crafted atmosphere. More than that, it can follow through, as well. Having you make decisions, or try to figure things out, while keeping you on edge and threatening terror around every corner you choose is a strength that game-play can pull from. Hell, Resident Evil made a franchise off jump-scares and atmosphere. The doors. The Resident Evil doors are genius, too. I’ll get to that another day.

So, what’s the take-away from all this? Just because you’re creating a video game, doesn’t mean you need throw-away monsters. Literary villains must be interpreted and used properly in a game-play setting to adjust for the differences in mediums. When providing information in a horror game, you must be absolutely aware of what you tell your player when, and how this knowledge will affect your player’s experience of the game. Pacing is important. Play Alan Wake.  Image

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One Response to “Alan Wake and the Manuscript Pages of Decent Health”

  1. Great writing and a great post. I loved Alan Wake when playing it through.

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