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

(Manu)script writer

On the surface of it, Alan Wake's system of seeking out lost manuscript pages in order to reveal additional story points seems generic. Outdated even, after BioShock's influential use of listen-while-you-play audio diaries. But if you thought that and then instantly disregarded the little glowing pages, you were wrong. And you missed out on one of Alan Wake's cleverest narrative techniques.

Above: There are a couple of cracking Max Payne in-jokes here too

You see they work very differently from how might expect. Rather than merely padding out background texture with details on how little Jimmy's corpse ended up torn in half at the top of that tree, they're a powerful engagement technique that makes the player think longer and harder about the story, Alan's place in it, and the in-game action, while simultaneously blending all of that stuff together.

At their most basic, they retell previously-played scenes from a different character's perspective, perhaps recounting their thoughts, feelings and actions just before Alan arrived or after he left. This of course puts the player and Alan's experiences into the much wider, more organic context of a real, evolving world, but the real ace card is the way the pages are delivered.

Above: Keeping the accounts in Alan's voice is important for resonance, and making the player read them instills their impact further

Chronologically, they usually appear out of step with Alan's direct experiences. We might get a page which fills in the gaps of a scene an hour earlier, which immediately turns a forgotten, quick-thrill cutscene into a more significant and long-lasting event, making the player mull over the events and their significance again, and more deeply. The effect? The player is again thinking as Alan would, as he recycles recent horrors in his mind and comes to terms with them while trying to move forward.

Even better, we learn of plot points and set-pieces way in advance of them actually happening. Rather than being an in-game spoiler system, it's a bloody brilliant technique for building emotional and intellectual engagement. Example: Alan has been fighting through a forest full of jabbering woodsmen of death for the whole night. It's been tough, but the worst seems over. He's becoming hopeful, just as the player is getting used to the increased pace of the gameplay. Then he finds a page recounting a surprise attack by a chainsaw wielding manic. That attack hasn't happened yet. In fact we didn't even know there were any chainsaw weilding maniacs in this game. Oh. Shit.

Above: Real horror is about prolonged fear, not quick jump-scares

And thus the feeling of dread is back. The fear of Alan's situation that we'd lost after blowing away a few hundred Taken is suddenly heaped back on, twice as thick as before. It's a seriously clever way of ensuring that we never become blase about the game's story or Alan's plight, as so often happens when our confidence in our gameplay abilities overshadows the drama engineered by a game's narrative scenario. And by the time we finally hear that chainsaw revving in the darkness, we've worked ourselves up so much ('Is that him? Is that him? THAT'S HIM! Oh no, it's a tree') that the confrontation is frantic and terrifying and significant, where in another game it would have simply been another mini-boss fight.

Above: This really resonates on multiple levels towards the end

Throughout most of the game, Alan is lost and confused, and desperately trying to seek out answers and make sense of what's happening to him. By making the player physically seek out the story's most important and gratifying details on these pages, the game again puts us in the same position as him, using a gameplay mechanic to evoke in us the inner workings of our protagonist's mind.

Throw in extra, less literal thematic texture through Bright Falls' TV and radio broadcasts, and you've got one hell of a layered, literary narrative. That friends, is real video game story-telling, using the mechanics of the medium itself as a communicative tool. And it's an approach that's expanded to beautiful effect during the game's climax. Which I'll quickly go through now, in my last point.

A guiding light for game narrative

Okay, ultra-spoilers coming up right now. If you haven't finished Alan Wake, I implore you to bugger off and come back when you have. I'm not prepared to spoil this game for anyone.

Above: Gaming's first metaphorical torch 

Everyone cool? Right, I'll carry on. In the game's climactic moments, Alan briefly travels through a darkness-shrouded netherworld, a realm existing within Cauldron Lake's shadowy abyss and transitional area between Bright Falls and the Dark Presence's dwelling place. This area has already been described in a manuscript page as a place of swirling ideas and abstract concepts, the place that an artist's thoughts and ideas are made real by way of their own creative processes

As Alan follows its path, he comes across words physically written in the air in front of him. These nouns reference common objects in the game, and when we blast them with Alan's torch they become the very things they describe. The word 'bird' becomes a bird. The word 'phone' becomes a ringing payphone. This is a physical manifestation of Alan's literary mind trying to make intellectual sense of the remaining abstract mystery and darkness around him. Again, we're exploring and experiencing Alan's mental and emotional state through direct, hands-on gameplay.

Above: It looks like this metaphor will be built upon in the upcoming DLC. Here's hoping it's expanded as deflty as it's used during the game's climactic scenes

The earlier description evoked this place and situation well, but only now, when directly 'described' through the language of game mechanics, do we really understand it. Even moreso given that while a soundscape of other characters' voice-overs fills in more detail on Bright Falls' past, Alan only makes progress when he answers the calls made directly to him via the phones he himself has uncovered and made real.

Media discourse frequently talks about the language of cinema, the ways in which writing, shot composition and editing are combined to communicate more than the literal. And now, via games like Alan Wake, we're finally seeing game designers developing the language of video games. Game mechanics can be about much more than simply controlling a character. By thinking about their use expressively or as a metaphor, devs can make games as narratively rich as any other medium. It's starting this generation - Braid is another great example - and it's only going to build over the years, spreading further into mainstream games as it goes. The real maturation of games as a medium starts here, and I'm incredibly excited.

What do you think? How deeply were you drawn into Alan Wake? Did you explore all of its secrets, ot just get your head down and blast your way through? And how important is story-telling to you in games, and how do you like it delivered? Give me all your brain's outpourings in the comments section, or via our throbbing social portals on Facebook and Twitter.




  • 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.

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