(Sort-Of) Reviews: Alan Wake, Red Dead Redemption, Heavy Rain

In the past two months, I’ve played through three very story intensive games, two of which I now count among some of the best of the year.  These are Heavy Rain, Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption.  The first two are more or less triumphs, the former a meandering, unfocused, beautiful game, and the latter a taut thriller with the trappings of Twin Peaks and Stephen King’s most solipsistic works.

Red Dead Redemption, on the other hand, is an excellent but flawed game.  Its story winds and strays the focused journey that it should be.  Neither are its characters as engrossing or memorable as those found in Grand Theft Auto IV or any of its episodes.  Arguably, the world is more of a character here, but I find it an unfocused mess that’s a bore to travel through and tiresome to explore.  Still, the brutal violence, coupled with the classic imagery and excellent development of the main character place Redemption as a game firmly following GTA4’s lead.

Because it does follow in GTA4’s wake, the flaws of Redemption are put in sharp relief.  The grimy, claustrophobic canyons of steel and concrete that made up Liberty City have given way to a sprawling landscape, with barren deserts and snow-topped mountains.  And somehow, none of that manages to be quite so compelling as Rockstar’s previous outing, or even competing games in the open-world genre, such as Assassin’s Creed II and The Saboteur.  While neither of those games are necessarily as well put together as Red Dead Redemption ultimately is, they find themselves more compelling, more enjoyable and far more memorable than the vast majority of Redemption actually is.

Compare this to Alan Wake, the long-awaited game from Max Payne-developer Remedy.  Plot holes aside, Alan Wake is propulsive, a game that presses you forward from the strangeness of its plot and the tautness of its gunplay.  It’s stylish, a hard game to hate and easy to love.  It’s visceral and compelling, and like the best television has to offer, it keeps you with it through to the end.  This is despite the numerous plot holes, despite the game design quirks, and despite the fact that the game plays like a slightly updated version of the nearly decade-old Max Payne.

But Alan Wake is also a different genre than Remedy’s previous work, or the game that I’m most directly comparing it to, Red Dead Redemption.  It finds its influences in psychological horror, but relies on jump-scares to keep the player moving.  Yet the game is never truly scary.  Slightly unsettling?  Absolutely.  Hordes of enemies descending from the tree-covered hills is entirely unsettling, but in a game with the stated goals of Alan Wake, it seems that it would work more in the game’s favor if those jump scares were traded in for something more deeply disturbing.  And the end of the game does disturb, but it doesn’t linger, the thoughts of what just happened festering and making the reader feel alone and chilled.  Stephen King is Alan Wake’s greatest influence, yet the story has none of the effect that the most classic King novels do.  King examines the strangeness of a person through the lens of monster driven horror; he shows the way group-think works and he shows the way that we react in terrible situations.  Most of all, what he shows is understandable, if not necessarily believable.  We, as readers, are able to suspend our disbelief for Mr. King, until he gets too wacky, or begins to rely too much on his common element of deus ex machina.  King writes himself into corners that he can’t get out of; the author Alan Wake literally writes himself into a corner he can’t get out of, and then finds himself needing to write himself out of it.  The problem with this is that it feels like some of those interconnecting webs – the chapters that King would use even though they would feel slightly indulgent – are missing, and so Alan Wake’s story feels less than it should.  Those vital chapters – the ones that it seems Remedy has left on the cutting-room floor – are what give King’s novels their flair, and for a game that is so directly inspired by King-styled fiction and film, it seems strange that a game such as this would be missing something that seems so important.

Which is not to say that Alan Wake isn’t disturbing in parts, or that it doesn’t achieve its goal of developing character.  The game just focuses on a town like King’s Castle Rock or Lynch’s Twin Peaks – both towns with large casts of characters who recur throughout their respective fictions – and then more or less ignores the lesser characters.  Granted, the game is about Wake himself, not about the town.  Yet the town becomes so much of a character throughout the middle of the game, and then shows us the townsfolk towards the end, in a sort of melancholic “you did it” cinematic, that it seems out of place without knowing these people better, most of whom – barring the obvious main characters and the radio DJ – are barely present for the majority of the game.

Is it even fair to compare Red Dead Redemption to Alan Wake?  Probably not.  One appealed to my tastes far more than the other.  I barely want to think about Rockstar’s latest at this point; I found it phenomenally disappointing.  Most of that disappointment stems not from character, but from the way they handled the middle of the game.  Mexico is one of the most atrocious areas I’ve ever played through, simply because it feels like the developers lost focus.  I found myself pushing myself forward, because I wanted to get to the end.  I just spent a good deal of money on the game; I didn’t want that to go to waste.  And while the final act of Marston’s tale finally seemed to regain some focus, and recover some of that lost footing, the game never felt quite the same.  It had sagged.  Marston’s eventual fate, and the terribly annoying, half-hour long section that followed it, didn’t do much better, though I will say that the ending of Red Dead Redemption – not the one where the credits roll, but before that – was one of the most emotionally powerful things I have ever witnessed in a video game.  That the game that came before it wasn’t consistent is the tragedy, more than anything else.

And then I played Heavy Rain.  Developed by Quantic Dream – the guys who made one of my favorite games of the last generation, Indigo Prophecy (or Fahrenheit for the folks in Europe) – Heavy Rain is the story of the Origami Killer.  Or so Quantic Dream would have you believe.  To me, it’s really the story of Ethan – a father who has lost everything – and the lengths he will go to so he can reclaim it.  Sequences here are brutal and resonate deeply, yet the uneven voice work and – again – plot holes work against the story and against the brilliance of the game.

Heavy Rain does nothing new.  It does nothing we haven’t seen a thousand times before, albeit with graphics that impress far less.  It does nothing that Shenmue didn’t do, or a thousand adventure games before it.  And still, it’s a game that kept me playing, compulsively kept me playing, until the early hours of the morning.  I want to go through it again, but I know the experience will be different.  There won’t be that first shock, or the impressiveness of seeing the fight in the junkyard.  By playing Heavy Rain, I’ve effectively ruined it for myself.  A game like that isn’t going to be the same the second time around, or the third.  The most impact it will ever make is on that first playthrough.  After that, the wrinkles, the creases, the holes begin to show.  And as with anything, it becomes slowly less impressive.

The characters don’t find as much development as they need.  Some have commented on the sexualizing of the main female protagonist, Madison.  How in the first scene you see her in her underwear, and then in an optional shower sequence that focuses on her nude body, like the audience is a leering group of teenage boys.  The story focuses on Ethan; Madison is thrown to the wayside, as are the other two characters, until the final hours of the game.  And that’s really unfortunate, because those characters – the glimpses of their outlines that we see from the distance that we experience them – are really quite impressive.  Madison is smart and cunning.  Norman is an addict and a loser.  Shelby is broken and proud.  These are relatable characters because they’re archetypes, but they aren’t explored, and ultimately, Heavy Rain doesn’t reach the potential it should.

Still, it remains one of the five best games that I’ve played thus far in the year.  Like the other two that I spoke about above, it will stay with me in various ways for quite some time.

These are all flawed games.  They aren’t perfect.  But they represent different attempts at fusing narrative with gaming, and because of that, all of them are successes.  Not because they were all successful, but because they tried something different.

The industry needs more of that.  We, as gamers, should expect more of that.

  1. No trackbacks yet.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: