Playing It Straight

June last year I was being steadily ushered towards the grand finale of poor Alan Wake’s nightmarish experiences. The game itself had been perfectly composed. Rarely did I wonder where I was supposed to go next or what I was supposed to do when I got there; in each map I went to the very few places The Taken didn’t actually want to take me and I did something they’d really rather I hadn’t.

Similarly, I never cursed the game for insufficient resources whilst I hammered The Taken for taking me. If I ever found myself low on ammo, I knew it was my fault for being trigger-happy during the last ambush. Chainsaws have that effect on me. Health and ammo conservation was a game mechanism used to challenge me, and I couldn’t fault Alan Wake for that.

The Taken are always up my frikkin ass

But I think this kind of textbook game design has its drawbacks. When set an objective and a map-marker, I’ve historically always turned in the opposite direction in order to explore. But in 3D adventure games, with progression often comes a road block preventing you from retracing your steps. So well-timed exploration becomes crucial for those seeking a 100% achievement score or a highly intimate game experience. But whenever I tried to really digress from the game path in Alan Wake, I met a wall. The path really was ‘It’.

Alan Wake is an example of a game that delivers what it promises but no more, and I’m not sure that we should settle for that in this day and age (yeah I said it – I’m allowed to, I’m almost 30). Aside from the more open game worlds we have now, like those of the Grand Theft Auto series, there are many 3D adventure games that behave in this linear fashion but are intelligent enough to make you feel as though they aren’t so linear.

The first four Silent Hill games are constructed using generally linear maps, but they proffer small choices regarding how to negotiate them. The developers throw in small events to make the game world seem bigger, such as having the protagonist climb from one building to another. And backtracking obstructions are fewer – revisiting earlier maps is sometimes even necessary.

Forbidden Siren 1 and 2 work similarly. If you were to make a Google map of Alan Wake’s game world and trace a pen along it from beginning to end, not only would you be called an outrageous geek but you would more or less draw a single line. In Forbidden Siren’s and Silent Hill’s maps, however, you would draw branching points covering larger areas. A Google street map would also show you more constructions to explore and when navigating these maps, buildings would make them seem more expansive than they really are by obscuring borders and distances.

Google street view – Bright Falls

I’ve been meaning to write about Alan Wake for some time because it’s a technically good game. But I guess my question is this; if a game is technically good does that make it actually good? Alan Wake would score highly if marked by modern game design instructors; it’s perfectly paced, has a balanced difficulty curve and a steady flow. But the experience leaves me wanting, perhaps not in spite of this but because of this.






7 responses to “Playing It Straight”

  1. paul avatar

    Very interesting. I had huge hopes for Alan Wake but was massively let down when playing through it.
    As well as the fact it was frighteningly banal and about a tenth as clever as it thought it was, one of the problems was that perfect pacing/route you carved through Bright Falls.
    While in some games this is ideal, in ‘horror’ games it isn’t. One of the best things about Silent Hill 1/2/3 (Apart from the fact they are perfect) is the combination of enigma and the feeling of being lost. SH2 at the end even had crazy warped/repetitive environments designed solely to make you feel, nowhere.
    Alan Wake was competent but played like an airport novel that was uninspired in every single way.

  2. Emily avatar

    That is an interesting point. I suppose it’s one reviewers try and sum up with summary boxes and scores for different aspects of the game, but I do believe games are art, and it is impossible to ‘numerise’ (I’m sure there’s a real word for what I’m trying to say) how all the aspects come together.
    I noticed Lego and God of War games have a rule for treasure being just behind where you started the level – it’s rewarding but it’s not something you intelligently think out when you’re collecting the 10th hidden item from behind the start of the area. There are much more interesting ways to hide things.

    I really loved the level design in the original Killzone. Four characters worked together and in most levels offered variations on the level route depending on the character you chose. So Luger could climb wires, crawl through vents and such, and Hahka could walk through Helghast security measures. It was so very simple, but offered a new perspective on every level, and lots of replayability.

    It feels cheap being boxed in, but half the reason is so the art and design isn’t spread too thinly – you’re always going where the developer wants, and experiencing everything in the order they want you to, so they don’t end up constructing something elaborate and hidden in case the player doesn’t get to see it. Which makes a game like Alan Wake have perfectly logical design, but presumably the experience is cheapened when you feel as though you’re boxed in. (I say presumably, I’ve not played Alan Wake, only watched it and shat myself)

  3. Branstar avatar

    Not for everyone clearly; personally I really enjoyed Alan Wake and wasn’t looking for much more from it. That said I did want more at the end of the game, so I’ll be picking up the DLC at some point.
    I don’t have all that much game-playing time, so not having a wide expanse to explore worked fine for me.

  4. paul avatar

    Emily: I too very much believe in Games as Art, because they are (can be) and as such I am a big fan of authorial control, as Jaffe said to me he wanted to take the player on a journey of his creation. Far from being limiting this allows the creator control. In fact, one thing I miss nowadays is fixed cameras.
    If you watched the ‘Bright Falls’ videos on XBL when it was released they showed really fantastically unique and interesting camera angles, works of art framed and composed to deliver a feeling/mood/atmosphere. I personally felt AW suffered a distinct lack of identity/character because the scenes weren’t framed. This is where cut scenes need to really hammer home the style/mood of a game which was another shortcoming in AW because they failed to do so.

    I dont think having a linear path is a bad thing is thrillers/horror games, however its then the creator’s job to convey the mood of being lost, without creating boundless environments. I am being overly harsh with AW I know and thats mostly because of the potential it hinted at for years prior to its release. And those woods stopped being very quickly. There is nothing scary about familiar and predictable game play, in games like SH you need to think “Where the hell is this game taking me, where the hell am I?” imo

  5. Mark P avatar

    I have to say I find absolute linearity in level design to be a bit boring but at the same time I generally feel the same way about open worlds. For me there really needs to be a good balance, and one that generally favours one or or other. Games like Duke Nukem were rather linear, but there were loads of secrets to be found (and I mean LOADS), levels could often feel quite open as a result and it was great fun on it’s own just looking for them all – no two were alike. But then there are games like Red Dead Redempton that I felt it could have been jam packed with secrets or references to western films beyond creatively titled achievements but that didn’t seem to be the case at all – I felt no compulsion to explore as a result unlike, say, Fallout 3 or New Vegas. Perhaps I just wasn’t looking hard enough (or haven’t watched enough Westerns)?

    Also, I think the most astounding part here is that Celeste still uses Internet Explorer! For shame.

  6. Celeste avatar

    Ok, I was gonna wait a little while longer before responding, but that Internet Explorer comment just tipped the bloody barrel. In my defence I have Google Chrome (and Firefox) but accidentally set IE as my default the other day and just went with it. I feel terribly embarrassed about the whole affair, I’d feel less embarrassed coming out of the toilets with my skirt tucked into my knickers.

    I agree with a lot of the points Paul makes. I was going to make my blog longer and thereby include other 3D adventure games such as Tomb Raider and Metal Gear Solid but ended up focussing on survival horror games. It’s true that the camera is really important and that fixed camera shots used well can elicit certain emotions in players. SH2 did this wonderfully. I do think, however, that this issue relates generally to third-person action games rather than just to survival horror.

    Emily we both know that games can be art but that a developer’s resources are finite. As Paul says I think the talent comes in making things appear as though they are something they are not – making a map seem larger, more complex, or more threatening – something that Team Silent, a team inarguably comprised of authentic artists, does very well.

    “…so they don’t end up constructing something elaborate and hidden in case the player doesn’t get to see it.” It was a sad, sad day for the games industry when developing elaborate, hidden features, areas etc fell into decline. One can’t realistically call games ‘art’ and then treat them like mere software.

  7. Jas avatar

    Unsurprisingly I’ve not played the game but I feel compelled to make a case for the defence, and cos’ I’m feeling a little feisty this morning (must be spring)

    In industrial design there is something known as the 95th percentile. Essentiall…y it says you can’t cater for everyone but 95% of people should be the aim. Congratulations you are the gamer equivalent of a person with size 14 feet ( I did have my suspicions) or who is freakishly tall. To cater for these people would be detrimental to the other 95% and thus make your design/product weaker.

    By your own admission the game is technically good and does what it sets out to do very well but you are criticising it for not doing the things it wasn’t supposed to do (trust a woman to complain about this tsk ;P ) If there were extra places to explore it would simply cost more money to make and if it doesn’t add to the games primary objective why do it? The margins are so tight for developers now competing with new releases and back catalogue and preowned that it would be suicide. Sure they could have added stuff they didn’t need but they the game wouldn’t recoup the studio closes and people are out of work (are you happy now? Eh? are you?) Perhaps the sequel will have these elements as it can build economically what is already there.

    To add more non crucial content would conservatively take another month to two months of dev time for 5-10 people i.e. expensive. Or the games general quality bar would have been lowered a touch to fit it all in schedule. All for what? 10% of gamers? Who like having a wander about.

    Throughout recent console cycles, quality, experience and expectation have gone through the rough, the only mainstay has been the price point. The amount of work has exponentially risen hence why games are shorter as something has to give. So unless gamers are ready to cough up 60-70 notes for a game, gamers are getting a good deal.

Leave a Reply