Saturday, December 30, 2023

Here's your Remedy...

Let's start this post with a little disclaimer. I don't play a lot of video games anymore. I've just found that (a) I don't have enough time, and (b) I'm rather terrible at them. I do still love video games, and I was obsessed enough with some games to actually 100% them - LA Noire, I'm looking at you. Fond memories of trying to sit in every type of car in the game to get that last achievement. 

My problem is, I often get too involved in the story and empathise too much with the little character on the screen I'm controlling. I could just about handle Halo and its sequels, and the lead characters in games like GTA4 and 5 were not pleasant. The tension was there, but if they came to a horrible end it wasn't too traumatic. 

The most recent game I played and completed was Life is Strange - a perfect game of moral choices, hard decisions, and brilliant storytelling, but already that was edging too close to my empathising. I really felt for Max, and that's the genius of the game. Those decisions were hard, VERY hard, and any stealth parts had my palms sweating because I cared about the characters.

And that's the problem, especially when it comes to horror games. I can watch a horror film no problem, but when I'm actually controlling the protagonist in such dire and terrifying situations it often results in me throwing the controller to the ground with a resounding chorus of 'Nope!'

And that brings me to Alan Wake. Man, I loved Alan Wake. I saw the previews before the first game came out and I was immediately hooked. I mean, I'd played the first two Max Payne games and completed them, so when it came to Alan Wake I bought the collector's edition even if the Deerfest T-shirt was too small for me. I bought the guide with the cool artbook. I immersed myself in that game. It was everything that I loved - Stephen King, Twin Peaks, weirdness. Yes!

However, I never finished it. I got to a point, got stuck, and I just couldn't get past it. I'm just rubbish at games. Didn't stop me loving the game though. I watched gameplay videos and saw how it finished, and marvelled at it. 

And then Control happened. Again, amazing concept, super-weird, almost like they read my mind. I mean, secretive government agency looking at weird happenings? It was punching those X-Files buttons hard, and when you go into those early rooms at the FBC and there are people just hanging in mid-air, suspended by unseen forces, that's just an amazing visual.


Why am I writing about all of this? Well, after many, many years, Remedy released Alan Wake 2. Unfortunately for me, it's only on what I'd call 'next gen consoles' (though they've been around long enough for everyone else to call them 'current generation'. Yeah, I'm still on an XBox One...).

I watched the trailers, got really excited, and while I've been unable to actually play it (and, let's face it, it's bloody scary and I'd be rubbish at it - throwing my controller down with a 'Nope!' at the first 'dead' screen or jumpscare) I've been avidly following the design, creation and actual play of the game. Once again, I've just been marvelling at the execution of the game. Remedy have a clear and definite vision (I'm not sure if this is just Sam Lake, or a team decision) but it's absolutely phenomenal and stunning. 

Again, tapping into all of the things I love in narrative fiction and games - FBI agents investigating weirdness in small towns, dreamlike realities that can be distorted and changed, strange cults, paranormal forces... it's everything I'd want from media, whether this is video games, tabletop gaming, or TV/movies.

Here's what really stood out to me as being particularly amazing:

1) Saga's Case Board

Half of Alan Wake 2 is following Alan Wake's attempts to escape the Dark Place, but the other half follows FBI Special Agent Saga Anderson as she investigates a ritual murder that may tie into similar cases that happened thirteen years ago. Yes, Bright Falls is ticking the Twin Peaks boxes for me, but the actual gameplay mechanic of Saga going into her 'mind place' to theorise about the cases is absolutely genius. There, acting like Sherlock's 'mind palace', you can look at clues, and (like Frank Black in Millennium) really put yourself into the minds of the suspects or witnesses and discover additional theories by questioning these imagined versions of the people you encounter.

And then there's the case board, where you take the clues, and revelations from your theories, and put them on a massive wall chart, pinned and connected with red string. As you discover clues, you add them to the wall, working out how things are connected. This is put to chilling effect towards the end of the game where Saga is trapped in her own mind place, the clues forming her own self-doubt and the player has to uncover evidence that Saga is capable and strong enough to escape.

2) Dream Logic

The Dark Place in which Alan Wake finds himself trapped is a weird version of New York, his apartment building, a nearby movie theatre, the TV studios of the mysterious Mr. Door, and the streets in between, but these bleed through into Saga's reality as she explores Bright Falls and the Cauldron Lake area in places called Overlaps. 

There are some amazingly creepy scenes of walking around the same corridors over and over again (a trick that those familiar with Max Payne will recognise) following a dream logic – trapped in a loop (or is it a spiral?) where things change ever so slightly each time you loop. I wonder if Max Payne's nightmarish return to his home inspired the legendary experience that was PT – the teaser for the unmade 'Silent Hills'?

But there's an even more fluid element of dream logic in the Dark Place, as Alan can rewrite the scenario and experience a location in a very different way, depending upon whether he's seeing the location as part of a cult-investigation story, a murder case, or something else. Alan's version of the case board is a writer's plot board, and he can change the story, drastically changing his surroundings with the strange echoes of typewriter keys being struck. Brilliant.

A few of the playthroughs I've watched I've seen a bit of confusion about changing the environment with the plot board as well as using the light switch. Must admit, I got a little lost in places following what they needed to do, but that may just be me. But hey, that's a kinda realistic depiction of dream logic. 

3) Herald of Darkness

I couldn't write about Alan Wake 2 without mentioning that level. Let's start this with another disclaimer – I'm not a fan of musicals. In my head, Buffy was perfect, and nothing can come close, but there's a chapter in Alan Wake 2 where Alan is trapped in Mr Door's chat show and it turns into the most bizarre musical number – all, while you're running around the studio and scenes from the video above play on gigantic screens, and the shadowy entities are attacking, reliving some events of the first game. 

Heck, it's glorious. I loved the soundtrack to both games, and a real highlight of both (besides the excellent inclusion of tracks by Poe) is the in-game fictional band, Old Gods of Asgard. In reality, Poets of the Fall, their music has appeared in other Remedy games (I'm looking at you Control), but the music is great, and bloody infectious. I've had Herald of Darkness going around my head for weeks, so much so that my lovely wife bought me the Old Gods of Asgard album (Rebirth) for Christmas. The Poet and the Muse from Alan Wake 1 is brilliant, and I heartily recommend checking out their music. 

This culminated in the recent Game Awards where the band played live, complete with the actors from the game (and voice talent) joining in. The last moments when Remedy director and writer Sam Lake is on stage, as his character Alex Casey, dancing the same routines as in the game, the look on his face is of someone who is loving every moment of it, and it's a level of job enjoyment and achievement that, let's face it, we all strive and hope for. 


Part of me could go on about the seamless integration between live-action and video game, the perfectly crafted story, the realistic moment when Alan is pursued by the dark entity and is running through corridors looking over his shoulder shouting 'f*** off!', or the genius move of adding more connections to Control and developing the story by playing it through again – after all, it's not a loop, it is a spiral. But that would make this post incredibly long. It's already strange that I've become this enamoured and slightly obsessed with a game I haven't even played. 

However, it is somewhat inspiring to see the game exist – sure it's a sequel, but in a world where I watch the big game presentations of what's coming out and just sit there saying 'shooter', 'shooter', over and over again, to see something with such a narrative, and a focus on investigation, it's refreshing and inspiring.

And this inspiration is something I'm hoping to look at in the new year, on how video games can inspire tabletop game design.

In the meantime, stay safe, stay creative, and stay in the light.

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