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Why Alan Wake's DLC is a brilliant download but a dangerous precedent

I started (and completed) Alan Wake’s first piece of DLC last night. It’s pretty brilliant and I had a great time. But in hindsight I’m a bit annoyed. You see The Signal, Remedy’s first add-on to its literary horror shooter, is one of the best slices of Alan Wake to date, expanding upon its gameplay and narrative concepts heavily and in deeply satisfying ways. If you had even a passing liking for Wake, you absolutely should play it.

But in some ways it also sums up everything that’s wrong with DLC right now. And for all that it adds, in hindsight it actually detracts slightly from the core game (which I love). The fact is, narratively and in terms of gameplay progression, it feels like part of the previously-missing climax to a previously-incomplete game. And suddenly I’m beginning to wonder how much better the main game would have been if add-on episodes hadn’t been part of the plan. And again, I’m considering the potential evils of DLC, and would like to know how you feel about it.

Quick warning though. Some spoilers for the main game and DLC ahead, but nothing huge.

First things first - and for as much as I’m about to grumble, this is probably the most important thing you should take from this feature. The Signal is brilliant. Picking up immediately after the original game’s ambiguous ending, it follows Alan through the surreal, constantly shifting existential nightmare world he plunged himself into in exchange for rescuing his wife Alice (probably). Conceptually and in terms of action it’s the best Alan Wake has ever been, particularly because of the frequent blurrings of those narrative and psychological concepts into the action itself.

I’ve covered Alan Wake’s cleverness with interactive storytelling before (click here for a thorough appraisal of its marvellous metaphorical gameplay malarkey), so for now I’ll just say that intellectually and viscerally, the game has never been cleverer or more satisfying than it is in The Signal.

But the problem is, it should have been. Because while The Signal certainly isn’t a cynical, Resi 5-style, pay-to-unlock-stuff-you’ve-already-paid-for-because-it-was-already-on-the-goddamn-disc-you-mug type of scenario, the fact is, it really should have been one of the climactic chapters of the original game. And I’m not being stingy about paying for it here. The extra cost isn’t my real concern. I’m talking about the previous absence of this chapter having had a real affect on the pacing and completeness of the main game. Because I now think it did.

Above: Things get a whole lot weirder and whole lot cooler in The Signal. It's a brilliant progression

For all the love I have for Alan Wake’s clever storytelling, dense atmosphere and accessible but nuanced action, the game has pacing issues. Nothing game-breaking by any means, but it does drag along in the same gear for a little while, failing to really evolve in gameplay terms in the run up to its climax. And while I personally loved the ambiguous non-resolution of the story, the build-up to it felt a little rushed, introducing major new themes and ideas (both gameplay and narrative) which didn’t get enough time to grow before the end. In fact one of them is one of the coolest things in Alan Wake, and tellingly becomes a major element in the DLC.

That section at the end, when the game world and the world of Alan’s imagination start to blur. The bit when objects and concepts appear as written words floating in the air, and must be made real with a burst of torchlight as he manipulates this semi-fictional reality to his own will. Clever, wasn’t it? But didn’t it feel like a classic third-act twist that would become a major part of the game’s climactic chapters? And didn’t it feel a little weird that just as we’d been taught how it worked, and started to imagine the greater possibilities it could hold, the ending kicked in and left them all unexplored? It was like getting the hookshot in Zelda, grappling over one pit, and then seeing the credits roll. Or having the true form of the skittering, detachable Las Plagas introduced in Resident Evil 4 immediately before the final boss.


Above: Enjoy it while you can mate. Gannon's turning up in about three minutes. That cool? 

And would you believe it, The Signal is built entirely around that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant. It’s used to open up the gameplay and storytelling to brand new levels of creativity and imagination not seen anywhere in the original game. But that’s the problem. While it’s incredible fun to play through The Signal’s barrage of off-kilter new ideas and surreally imaginative action set-pieces (no spoilers, but one section featuring shadowy open countryside and a whole lot of words is borderline genius), the wealth of exploration the concept gets makes its brief appearance at the end of the main disc feel less like a clever climax and more like an artificially curtailed build-up to the game’s real final act.

It remains to be seen how the next piece of DLC continues things (The Signal will leave you with even more questions, and I’m perfectly happy with that), but right now I’ll put money down on the two extra chapters collectively making up a real final act, at least in terms of gameplay evolution if not plot resolution. And as excited as I am about that after playing through The Signal, I can’t help but think of how much stronger the original release would have been if it had been paced properly, with a little less padding towards the end, and all of this stuff stuck in as a genuinely satisfying, properly played-out climax. I’m willing to bet that review scores would have been higher overall.

So the question is, is the trend for extending games actually hurting the design of those games itself? Is the expansion of adding content to games really adding value as intended, or just weakening the initial product in order to spread that value out? Personally, I’m more interested in DLC like Alan Wake’s, that genuinely extends the core experience rather than simply adding a few side-quests and deleted scenes. But it’s a dangerous balance to maintain, and one that devs and publishers are going to have to be very careful with, if they don’t want another horse armour situation on their hands.

How do you feel about it?

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28 comments

  • thelegendaryX - November 6, 2013 1:51 p.m.

    I enjoyed both DLCs ('The Writer' is even better than 'The Signal', IMO) and didn't enjoy replaying the original any less because of them. I don't think introducing this concept (of light literally transforming words into objects/people) would've fit with the original game at any place but the ending. It was a glimpse of what's to come, sure. But giving Alan any gameplay time in the dark place before the ending of the original game would've diminished the mystique of it. In retrospect, I'm glad they didn't go all out with the combat in the original game. It makes the dark place all the more unsettling by comparison.
  • hardcore_gamer1990 - August 4, 2010 1:25 p.m.

    DLC should go wait under the floating words: "impossibly heavy anvil" and wait for some lost bugger with a torch to come along...
  • philipshaw - August 4, 2010 10:01 a.m.

    Well if you bought the game new, you get the DLC for free so most people will see the proper climax. But you have a point that it would have made the full game better if they had have left it in the full game
  • Woodsey - August 4, 2010 9:02 a.m.

    Your argument on Alan Wake makes little sense to me. The DLC moved us away from the main game; you don't need to play it to complete the "objective" of the main game. You've done that. The DLC takes us somewhere else - this time it's Alan we're trying to save. Also, the DLC was complete crap. No story - it didn't even provide questions, let alone answers - and near-constant combat. In a minute the game spun the camera around in slow motion THREE TIMES on me.
  • thelegendaryX - November 6, 2013 1:54 p.m.

    The DLCs aren't SUPPOSED to provide questions, let alone answers! WTF. There is a lot of combat in the first DLC, but I never got the feeling it was TOO much. Still kept the environments and methods for survival changing at a good pace. And 'The Writer' most DEFINITELY succeeded at this!
  • ZenPhoenix - August 4, 2010 3:53 a.m.

    I don't have a problem with DLC either. I just don't want the developer to hold off a real, satisfying ending in order to gouge more money from the consumer. If you want to make more from DLC, add new story elements or new play mechanics, but do not leave the main campaign or story without resolution just to conclude it in post-release.
  • Danomeon - August 4, 2010 2:56 a.m.

    Here's my personal opinion on the matter: A game should be complete and be excellent and not lacking anything upon its own at release. I shouldn't feel unfulfilled upon finishing it. A DLC should add a completely new slice of gameplay onto my plate, reinvigorating my interest in the game. The DLC should not be a part of the main game, but an expansion. For example, I thought that Alan wake should have had an unambiguous ending and tie up the plot perfectly (IF the developers did not intend on a sequel.) the DLC should tell a different tale with perhaps the same characters or the same environment, but in very few ways relate to the main tale. My example of a good DLC for Alan wake would be a DLC that tells an envtirely different mystery with the same mechanics of the game. It doesn't reveal more about the story or expand upon what was already finished, but instead tell its own tale, however brief.
  • thelegendaryX - November 6, 2013 1:57 p.m.

    "For example, I thought that Alan wake should have had an unambiguous ending and tie up the plot perfectly (IF the developers did not intend on a sequel.) the DLC should tell a different tale with perhaps the same characters or the same environment, but in very few ways relate to the main tale." I don't see what would be gained by doing this. But since Remedy DID intend to make a sequel, it would seem they made the right decision.
  • Slayer11496 - August 3, 2010 10:51 p.m.

    I love alan wake dlc, but if other games try to imitate this it could mean the holocaust.
  • cart00n - August 3, 2010 10:21 p.m.

    DLC is a slippery slope for sure. On the one hand, it can be a great way to expand the player's experience whilst lining the developer's pockets with more of that wonderful stuff that makes these games possible in the first place (i.e. money!). On the other hand, the opportunities for abuse from the more unscrupulous developer's are pretty large. But that's just how economics work, right? If you're gonna waste time and effort arguing about the pros and cons of DLC, you might as well just start arguing about whether capitalism works or not - it's the same argument. Ultimately, it all comes down to voting with your wallet... In the case of AW, however, I was perfectly satisfied with the ending on the disc. My only issue was that I already knew there was going to be DLC, so I knew the ending wasn't really the end to begin with. Had any of us not known that there was already DLC coming down the pipe, I strongly believe we'd all be musing about the original ending like we all are about the ending of "Inception". Sure, some people hate those kind of things, but that's fine - you can't please everybody. At the same time, I understand the developers' desire to keep these games in the hands of those who buy them new, 'cause mo' money is MO' MONEY! Just be a little more clever about it, is all. A game that came out earlier this year managed to do this beautifully, in my opinion: THQ and Vigil's Darksiders. The game came with a packed-in token code for a mysterious "something" down the road that kept people speculating about what it would be. It didn't turn out to be DLC - it was for a copy of Red Faction: Guerilla in case you're wondering - but it still managed to inspire most of us who played it to hold onto the game for awhile (I've still got mine, but I wouldn't trade it for the world - Darksiders rocks!). By keeping it ambiguous, our excitement for the possibilities just grew. Personally, I love DLC, when it's done right. Any opportunity to continue playing in some world I've grown to love is welcome, as long as it's fair to the consumer. Pricing is often an issue, I'm not the richest fellow around, so I feel a little cheated when I'm expected to pay $10 for an hour's worth of playtime when $60 got me 20+. But that's what reviews are for, right?
  • Cyberninja - August 3, 2010 8:18 p.m.

    if the dlc is free then does it make it reasonable if it was left out the game?
  • BillyBrush - August 3, 2010 8:06 p.m.

    Most big games are planned as...sigh 'trilogies' n shit anyway, so yes in some ways it's a dangerous precedent, but look at Halo 2's ending.
  • VoodooPanda - August 3, 2010 6:40 p.m.

    You have to remember its free if you bought the game new. If anything its their way to prevent or punish people who buy it used or rent it. Long as we get the dlc with the real ending for free if we bought it new then I'm fine with that. They are smart for getting some money from us cheap bastards (yes I bought it used and feel bad about it).
  • HereComesTheHypeTrainCHOOCHOO - August 3, 2010 6 p.m.

    I think this Alan Wake DLC wasn't held back to fleece us for a few more bucks, I think it was held back to entice gamers to hold on to their copy and not sell it to a used game store. Alan Wake is a relatively short game with little replay value and seems like a prime contender for a quick playthrough then sell while you can still get something for it. Too bad Remedy decided to withhold the final couple of chapters from release to curb used game sales at the expense of their original game.
  • oryandymackie - August 3, 2010 5:42 p.m.

    I don't have a problem with DLC post-game, in the sense that a game dev has thought of something new to add on. It's just a way to keep the game alive. What I do have a problem with is DLC being planned beforehand - as a way of milking the money. When I purchase a game I expect to have the full thing on the disc, not having to pay however many thousand MS points in order to get the rest of it.
  • myguyfromthe80s - August 3, 2010 4:22 p.m.

    @jim2wheels - green screen :o I was more a ZX Man myself :) @Garlador - A DLC should NOT be made to fix a broken game, that's known as a patch although I agree with the expand on the good concepts I for one have spent more on DLC's for Pain! than I paid for the original game. A DLC is almost a review in itself. There was a time when you bought a Tiger Woods game off the shelf and you had the full game. Not any more... Now that has nothing to do with new content, that is stuff already coded, developed and tested, ready for release, but why give it for free when you can charge? As much as a consumer gripe it maybe, they gotta survive some how, just recently Playlogic Entertainment have gone (Fairytale Fights) The smaller ones need to cash in too or all that will be left is Activision and EA. *shudders*
  • YuGiOhisbetterthanMagic - August 3, 2010 4:13 p.m.

    okay okay, i hate to be THAT guy, but the picture of the hookshot was from Majoras Mask, and Gannon wasn't in that.
  • Garlador - August 3, 2010 3:59 p.m.

    I think post-game DLC is where studios are allowed to take the feedback they received from the core game and improve or expand upon it. After the reviews and critiques of the main game are in listed, and the studio knows what fans expect and/or want, why wouldn't DLC contain moments better than the main game? Resident Evil 5 was brought up, and while I agree that the pay-to-play on-disc Versus mode was close to the worst thing ever (Street Fighter IV's $15 on-disc costumes is a big contender), they DID release an old-school, fan-requested DLC episode that generally consensus agreed was significantly better than the ENTIRE main RE5 campaign. The "Lost in Nightmares" creepy mansion add-on was what everyone wanted but didn't get from the core game, and it was enough to appease many disillusioned fans. And that's what DLC should be used for, right? To fix the mistakes of the core game, to expand upon its good concepts, and to keep the player invested by improving and bettering what they've already seen before.
  • jim2wheels - August 3, 2010 3:57 p.m.

    @myguyfromthe80s I am indeed. Been gaming since monitor screens were green :) I highly recommend getting the blu ray, poor dubbing still there but man, the visual quality is massively improved. Afraid to say you are right about DLC here to stay, I just think that paying over £10 is just not on for content already on the disc. I bought all of the Fallout DLC packs - that's where the right direction has been taken as they are "downloaded" and genuinely add to the existing game. The COD formula is where the road gets rocky, and I fear the average gamer is not savvy enough to make the right choices so that DLC is created as the original concept intended it to be.
  • Bloodstorm - August 3, 2010 3:48 p.m.

    myguyfromthe80s makes a good point. Id rather pay more up front for the game, though. That or they make the game completely DLC and release it episodically. Both are better option than putting a chunk of money down on it and then realizing it is an incomplete package. Then, if you liked the game, you feel obliged to get the DLC just to try and get some sort of conclusion.

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