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Why Alan Wake has the best video game story-telling in years

If you've been reading GamesRadar for a while, you'll know that story and narrative are amongst my biggest video game passions. It sort of comes with the territory, being a big reader and an ex-film student, and I think that the interactive story-telling of games is potentially one of the most exciting areas around for that sort of stuff right now.

It's hard to do well though. In fact most games make a total pig's ear of it. Mainly it's due to the thinking that once a plot is written, the job is done. But that's not the case in games. With so much potential for telling stories in new ways, you have to really think about how you're going to present that plot if you're going to move the medium forward. In Alan Wake, Remedy have clearly thought very carefully about that, and as a result they've come up with a stunner. Read on and I'll tell you why. Though be warned. Mega-spoilers ahead.


An old problem solved

For all of the massive story-telling possibilities in games, one problem with the medium keeps turning up to smash things apart like a big literary bull in china shop full of delicate characterisation plates. It takes careful thought to keep a player attached to their character.

Above: However long you follow them around, you never really get attached

In books or films, it's easier. Watching or reading is a passive experience. You get to know the characters as people separate from yourself, and empathise with them from the outside. In a game, you are the main character, and anything that divorces you from your connection with them makes your investment in the story fall apart straight away.

You share the journey not only with them, but as them. You're bonded as a combined whole with your character, which is a powerful way to experience a story. But as soon as your character reacts to a situation in a way that you wouldn't, or that you feel is incongruous with the personality you've imbued them with yourself, the wheels come straight off with no hope of repair.

Above: This is not a screenshot. It's a mirror. Though it helps that I have a beard

Valve have always got around this problem admirably by using silent, first-person protagonists. With no dialogue or externally-viewed cutscenes - or externally-viewed anything for that matter - there's nothing to break the sense that you are that character and that character is you. In third-person games though, it's a lot harder. And this is where Alan Wake comes in.

As a third-person game with a fully-scripted character, the one-to-one immersion of Half-Life obviously wasn't going to work. And with a personal story as Alan's to tell, there's no way it could have been an option. So Remedy have come up with a whole bunch of new techniques to keep you engaged. And they're brilliant.


Inside the writer's head

The problem with the traditional level-cutscene-level structure of games is that you're alternately deprived of and then overloaded with character information. You spend an hour or so unconciously imbuing your character with a personality during the period you're in total control of them, and then suddenly you have no control and a prescribed, separate personality takes over, undoing all of your 'work'. It's incredibly jarring.

Above: Contemplative empathy works better without three-hour cutscenes

Alan Wake get around this not by leaving everything to the player, but by making Alan a complete person throughout every stage of the game. Where most characters are content with a couple of repeated one-liners throughout gameplay sections, Alan's frequent in-game monologues keep you continually topped up on what he's thinking, and more importantly how he's feeling about the things that are happening to him.

While this doesn't make you feel that you are Alan - I'm still not convinced this is at all possible in third-person games - the fact that he reacts to a lot of the big, in-gameplay events that you do, and then ponders the game's spiraling mysteries during quieter periods, mirrors the pattern and pacing of the player's thought processes during the game incredibly well. Thus, Alan is as empathetic and symbiotic as a third-person partner can be, not because you try to relate to him but because he tries to relate to you. But that's just the start.

Over the page: The really clever stuff

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Microsoft

45 comments

  • gilgamesh310 - December 15, 2010 10:33 p.m.

    Damn, I hate leaving comments so long after the article was originally posted. No one will read it now.
  • gilgamesh310 - December 15, 2010 10:24 p.m.

    I completely agree with you Dave. The game drew me in with it's story in a way that few other games ever have. It's one of my favourite games of 2010 because of it. Everything about the storytelling techniques were so elegantly crafted. It really is the way games should tell their stories, not through animated dictation. Some people complained about the way Alan would narrate what goes on so often but I think it was an excellent device to allow us to associate us with him. I thought the gameplay was a little weak, it especially got fairly repetitive towards the end but that was easily forgiven because of it's exemplary storytelling. With that being said I don't think the story itself was all that great but it could improve with sequels. What I would love to see is a game with storytelling as advanced as Alan Wake with a story as good as Silent Hill 2. That would give people that don't play games a real taste of what gaming can truly achieve.
  • Ganonpork - July 24, 2010 1:09 p.m.

    ... MGS 4 had good story.
  • crumbdunky - June 25, 2010 10:18 a.m.

    Well, well. Sure, AW TRIED to do things differently but, David, any article about storytelling techniques is always bound by the QUALITY OF THE WRITING, no? Now, as the writing was clunky(at best) or even a slave to cliche(at worst)any attempt by Remedy to change things up was negated ENTIRELY. Also, I recall you(correct my idiocy if I'm wrong, natch)hammering the writing in HR-which I felt unfair at the time. HR had a much, much harder job for the writers with so many possible changes to the script keeping realistic focus for them AND the actors was nigh on impossible-esp with no one to copy or draw from. AW was NOT a complex or different game AT ALL. It was linear and totally suited to easy writing and good storytelling. Now, I enjoyed AW for what it was-a throwaway few hours of sub pulp(deliberately, I felt) phsycho, detective, horror writing nonsense fluff. The constant slavery to King was a bit jarring, the end of chapter resumes annoying while the manuscript pages often failed in their stated(by yourself) mission because people didn't necessarily get their importance or read them at the right time(or even on the first playthrough which is the ONLY time they can ever work. Anyhow, I don't want to dwell too long on this as my main issue with AW WAS the writing and I don't see how you wish to separate that from the storytelling devices which rely on it wholesale. Maybe I'm harder on the game because i'm still angry at how MS/Remedy treated PVC gamers who'd waited for nothing for five years, mind. On another note-did anyone else find the character animations for Alan himself a bit pants? I'd hoped they would fix it but even in the final game he runs like he's got a stick up his bum! A decent game but not one I felt had any great weight to it nor one that inspired me in terms of storytelling.
  • thelegendaryX - April 9, 2014 8:12 p.m.

    I don't agree. I have noticed "problems" (more like shortcomings) with the writing in Alan Wake. Can't think of any ERRORS. But I wouldn't call it bad writing. And even if it were, I don't agree that the narrative relies on good writing; it is its own machine. Gamers especially, we can very easily take the narrative no matter the quality of the writing. I think the reason the author of this article was praising Remedy's efforts at keeping the player connected to Alan (which are many) is that he thinks - and I agree - that the effects of these efforts far outweigh any damage done by the allegedly bad writing.
  • D0CCON - June 24, 2010 11:09 p.m.

    I find myself more attached to third person characters in games. It's sort of hard to be attached to yourself, a la Half Life (although Alex is still great). Personally, I've never been more attached to a game character than I have been to my Commander Shepard.
  • SmilingCat - June 24, 2010 10:29 p.m.

    I liked the amount of detail put into Alan Wake you just don't find in single player games that often now. The details that you found on your own instead of having the game force them through was nice. Think you summed up what made the game enjoyable for me even though the story and gameplay weren't the greatest. Wished I could have finished it since it was in development for so long and DLC to let you eventually finish it was a big let down.
  • d0x - June 24, 2010 5:17 p.m.

    I cant read this article cause im only 3/4 of the way finished with Alan Wake but this really is a game everyone needs to own. The gameplay is tight and the pacing is perfect. The atmosphere is incredible, the sound design top notch and the story telling is second to none. I hope they keep going with the series because it was well worth the wait.
  • GhostMatter - June 24, 2010 3 p.m.

    CORRECTION: Doom 3 did the "listen-while-you-play audio diaries" long before Bioshock.
  • Zanthis - June 24, 2010 1:26 p.m.

    I loved Alan Wake, so far it's my favorite game of the year, not because of it's 'spectacular' gameplay. Yes I will admit on game standards Mass Effect 2 and a few others were better games. Yet I enjoyed Alan Wake so much more. I understand it's problems. Yes the quality level of the actual words on the page was not that great, but writing isn't all about that. What Alan Wake did is what so much writing doesn't do, it was captiviating. Alan Wake crafted a brilliant story complete with convincing dialog. Yes some of the other elements were lacking, but when it comes down to it the plot and character interactions are all that matter in writing, everything else is secondary and only adds to the experience. @awkm: Just to touch on your point, Alan Wake is a best selling author, it is never said he is a good one. Have you read the Twilight books? I have and they are utter crap yet they sell millions of copies. Good writing is not a prerequisete for being a best selling author. You make a good argument on the other fronts, but when it comes down to it, sometimes I don't want a game to make me do things just to convery a feeling. Sometimes I want to absorb a narative in the normal fasion while having the interactivity of a game. That's where Alan Wake succeeds, it does drive the medium forward, albeit in a more conventional fasion. Also, because I feel that I need to: Alan Wake is the BEST GAME EVER!! If you disagree SHUT UP! You're WRONG!!! heh
  • Seabread - June 24, 2010 12:54 p.m.

    AWKM, I read the pretentious CriticalSmack page about Alan Wake where the self-contained 'Admin' keeps his pages free from postings by refusing to let anyone sign up and ridicule his empty and foundationless comments. These arguments aren't backed up by fact either. It's going back to the ol' Cornflake arguement above. While I see your minute reasoning with SotC, I don't know HeavyRain (ta for the spoilers) and quite frankly couldn't care less whether cutting off a virtual finger works first, second or miller time. It's a game and performing a gesture or strenulously holding onto R1 (it hurt? really?) doesn't relate to a real world action. CriticalSmackHead had a pop as the visuals in AW. They're about on par with HR from the vids I've seen (no one likes pointy boobs or butts - I prefer Mrs Garrisons tits! URgh) Judging by your comment "the screen shot of the manuscript" implies that you haven't played AW, correct me if I'm wrong. Perhaps you should, listen to the monologue, read the manuscript and then comment on what grade the writing is. it may not be the best but it's far from the worst. Game designer eh? keep reaching for those stars kid. there aint many to go around and your unfounded hatred of the Wake doesn't bode too well for your success.
  • philipshaw - June 24, 2010 12:19 p.m.

    The story is defo the best thing about this game but the gameplay is really reptitive
  • thelegendaryX - April 9, 2014 8:18 p.m.

    I've never understood the whole "repetitive" criticism. I mean, in most shooters you're... just shooting, almost endlessly. Just walk (sometimes jog) forward and shoot whatever moves. I guess because some of the enemies LOOK different and every now and then you have to shoot different parts of them, that makes them less "repetitive". Alan Wake adds a flashlight mechanic, a flare mechanic, dodging (not all shooters have this) and of course the wildly unique atmosphere. Not always knowing when to fight or flee, etc. Might not be enough for some people, but Alan Wake didn't FEEL as repetitive to me as most shooters, even if it was technically more repetitive.
  • GR_DavidHoughton - June 24, 2010 8:48 a.m.

    Guys, just to clarify (though as a couple of you have referenced), this article isn't about the game's writing. It's about its story-telling mechanics and the way it uses the video game medium to express its story through non-traditional, non-cinematic means. Regardless of what you think about any aspect of the writing or the gameplay, Alan Wake's conveyance of story is very cleverly designed.
  • phoenix_wings - June 24, 2010 1:20 a.m.

    While I enjoy the game (now, for some reason) I have to disagree. The reason a lot of people like the story is because it takes the best out of everything that we've seen before that we love. Even the basic premise is something that's been done before (a writer suddenly finds himself trapped in a world of his own creation). Many of Stephen King's works have been (ahem) credited as being inspiration, but AW takes some creative suggestion from The Twilight Zone, Poltergeist, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, even Silent Hill 2 (missing wife, should be dead...creepy lake...seriously, Lake Toluca is fucked up!) The story is ultimately cliche and the writers go through this painstaking task of making the player like a complete asshole. He hates his fans, he's a dick to his wife who's only trying to help him, yet...apparently he loves her with a fierce passion? Hmm). Almost all of the female characters (even some of the dudes) are not only Mary Sue type characters, they can't do anything without Alan to the point where you wonder how they've made it this far in life. Anyone who has any particular beef against Wake has had their character written ultimately poorly (you never truly discover why Nightingale wants to find/kill Wake, you just know that he's a drunken asshole, and everyone hates him). That's a really cheap way to make your lead stand out amongst the crowd. After 10 years, you'd think that they would have fleshed out some of their characters a little more, it would have made for a much better story. And if that makes me a writing snob, so be it. A gigantic part of the problem is that half of the story is told through other means. It makes the Collectors Edition almost a must-buy, or you miss out on half of the story. The booklet contains information on the background of Bright Falls, Nightingale's investigation, but also a bunch of fluff that really isn't necessary (pieces of AW's writings = fluff), but the majority of the stuff that's in there should have been included into the game. I enjoyed the rest of the game, it had a creepy atmosphere, moving soundtrack and pretty fun game play. But you didn't talk about the rest of the game...just about the story...
  • thelegendaryX - April 9, 2014 8:41 p.m.

    Actually, what I liked about the story was the whole moral of balancing the scales, the light vs. dark, the lore surrounding the lake (that it wasn't just a "creepy lake"), the whole thing with Tom and Barbara. I honestly can't say I cared about all the stuff you're saying is THE reason so many people like the story. Sure, I wanted to save Alice, but I mainly wanted to know what the heck happened to her in the first place! These aren't familiar elements to me. I'm sure you can find some of them somewhere, but I don't equate borrowing elements with leaning on the original creators of those elements to make a good story. And if all that isn't enough to convince you, consider the ending. It is a blast of originality, so much so that most of us have no idea how to take it. Who knows? Could've been their premature answer to the question "Can't you do anything we haven't seen before and can't figure out at first glance?" Also, I'm glad they didn't put much emphasis on the other characters' ("fleshing them out"). I think the player is meant to feel alone and desperate in all of this, and it helps to have characters who are just there and you cannot possibly bond with them. "A gigantic part of the problem is that half of the story is told through other means. It makes the Collectors Edition almost a must-buy, or you miss out on half of the story. The booklet contains information on the background of Bright Falls, Nightingale's investigation, but also a bunch of fluff that really isn't necessary (pieces of AW's writings = fluff), but the majority of the stuff that's in there should have been included into the game." Considering that it could all be largely irrelevant to the larger plot, I'll reserve judgment on that for now.
  • Zeipher - June 23, 2010 11:45 p.m.

    lol@Eaxis. That wasn't very clever, dude. I award you no internets. I mostly agree with everything awkm said, especially with his criticism of Bioshock (damn, its good to hear someone who is not afraid to criticize that series). And does Wake get attacked by flying books in that clip? If so, that's really stupid.
  • cart00n - June 23, 2010 11:32 p.m.

    AW was a thoroughly enthralling experience for me alpha to omega. Loved its story, loved its setting, loved the characters, loved the way it was paced, loved the graphics, the soundtrack... Yeah, I really liked it, a LOT. That said, there were quite a few little quibbles I can't argue with: While Alan is a great character, he's a very pedestrian writer. He's got a great imagination, and can tell a tale, but his "voice" is pretty flat. Unfortunately, this is exacerbated by the main voice actor's monotone delivery. This, however, takes nothing away from the fact that the story and characters aren't fascinating, and the Dark is a pretty wonderful antagonist once you get your brain around it. And I'm willing to forgive the prose, considering that the words are written by someone to whom English is a secondary language. And while the graphics were some of the best I've seen in-game, the character models were pretty frightening to look at. They looked like mannequins brought painfully to life and forced against their will to act like humans. And I'm not talking about the Taken, either. That's a thing RDR most definitely has above AW. That said, I can't wait for the sequel.
  • ThePrivateDick - June 23, 2010 10:40 p.m.

    I know I am in the minority about it, but Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic II is one of the finest examples of story writing I've ever seen. Despite the fact that the game was rushed to completion, it gives everything this deliciously satisfying ambiguity to the events of the world.
  • newgames128 - June 23, 2010 10:19 p.m.

    @ awkm: I really hope they do an ICO/SotC HD remake now because those games sound very appealing, especially SotC. Shame I've never played them.

Showing 1-20 of 45 comments

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