Chris' Survival Horror Quest Long Walk Short Pier
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Do you want me to explore or not?
Posted by: Chris on 2010-09-13 17:42:48
I'm most of the way through Alan Wake now (at least, I think I am--it's not supposed to be very long) and so far I'm enjoying it. It's very different than the Japanese horror games that make up the bulk of this site, and it's a very nice change of pace. I'll write more about Alan Wake when I finish it, but for now I want to talk about one specific problem that the game has. This isn't by any means specific to Alan Wake, but since that's what I'm playing right now, I'm going to use it as the basis for this post.

Alan Wake, like many other games, rewards the player for exploring areas off the beaten path. Specifically, if you look around a bit, you can find items and certain collectables (coffee thermoses, presumably to keep the protagonist "A. Wake", and manuscript pages, which add texture and context to the game's events, and often give you hints about upcoming encounters). The coffee thermoses are not really valuable--they probably lead to some achievements or something, but have no other in-game use. The manuscript pages, on the other hand, are totally key to the experience. It's the manuscript that fills in the story, keeps the player interested, and prevents the game from devolving into one gun battle in a dark forest after another. This kind of game hangs its game play on its story and context (another "interestingness" example), and regardless of the quality of the story, the detail provided by the manuscripts equates to a much more interesting game. Those manuscript pages are high value, and I find myself going out of my way to find them.

But therein lies the problem. Wake is constantly in a hurry. He never has any time, and the events occurring around him are always just a few inches away from taking his life. It's a little hard to believe that he'd stop in an old barn and ransack the place for five minutes to try to find a mysterious glowing page or coffee thermos. And yet, to collect these items, that's exactly what you have to do: rather than playing the character, you have to treat the game like a system, try to second-guess the level designers, and always avoid the main path to the next checkpoint. Wake will say, "I had to get there as quickly as possible," and the game will present you with a straight shot to "there," but instead of just running down that strip like we would expect this character to do, Wake (per your command) spends his time running around the edges of the area, trying to jump over boxes and stuff, and generally acting drunk. Eventually he makes it there, but not until every square foot of the navigable space is covered.

Manuscript pages are intended to deepen the story context and give meaning to the game play sections, but instead they cheapen the experience; though their content is interesting, the work you need to do to find them is so out of character that it destroys a lot of the work the pages themselves are trying to do. Wake doesn't just get in the car and drive to the destination, he stops every 10 feet to get out and look around for no reason. The game ceases to be about Wake's search for his missing wife, or the darkness that seems to plague him at every turn, and starts turning into a min-max problem where we need to figure out where the most likely hiding spots for extra items are and then traverse there.

And in Alan Wake's case, this is particularly detrimental because the game suggests that Wake's actions are pre-determined, and that his will is not free. So now we're supposed to believe that some guiding force wanted him to run around in circles like a maniac? It doesn't fit.

This is a common problem in this kind of game, but I think that in Wake's case, the game play and story, though inter-dependent on each other, are also in conflict. That kind of sucks, because the game play is pretty good and I like the story too. Both are now slightly reduced in quality because they don't mesh as well as they should.


Visitor Comments:
Acting drunk in games...
Posted by: Danielle (68.108.140.39) on 2010-09-13 20:06:47
...Sometimes that's half the fun, but definitely not something you want to be doing in Survival-Horror. It just breaks the immersion too much!

I'm really excited to hear what you have to say on the new game Amnesia: The Dark Descent( http://www.amnesiagame.com/ ). Looking at the trailers and reading about the development, I see touches of Silent Hill here and there, but it also has a really different texture to it.
I agree (but from another perspective?)
Posted by: Robert Jonsson (195.252.34.177) on 2010-09-14 01:45:41
Well, I really liked the game Alan Wake, but not as much as I hoped for. The thing you mention (Alan often says "I must get there as soon as possible"), drags down the game. the exploring and calm part of the game are about 5-10% at the most, the other 90-95% is about running from the games protagnoists.

The problem I have is the balance is completely off. I don't get scared, I get stressed. Personally I want the balance between two parts to be closer to each other. Then I would possible care for the fate of all the people who dies.

That's the main problem I've had with the game. It tangents on your concern, but not quite I think. However, I think we both hope that it will be fixed until a second game because the game itself isn't bad.

Thanks for an interesting article, as usual!
I felt the same during my playthrough.
Posted by: TragicHeroX (213.255.227.20) on 2010-09-14 07:09:07
To me, it felt as though the documents you could find, as well as the coffee thermoses were a sort of "tacked on" feature toward the end of development to artificially lengthen the game and add "replay value". But when all was said and done, all it did for me was break immersion and pacing. It became a chore to search these things out, because I WANTED more of the plot, but certainly not this way.

Overall I think it detracted from the experience a bit.
Posted by: Jacobi (188.169.82.236) on 2010-09-14 08:31:52
I do wonder how the DLC episodes gonna handle this issue. Which reminds me, Chris, are you going to review the DLCs apart from the main game? Apperently they're supposed to offer quite a lot of new experience.
Posted by: Ultimatecarl (161.6.65.91) on 2010-09-16 12:06:39
Definitely agree with your points. Also wondering what you think about the game's horror factor? Personally I was a smidgen disappointed because not even once did the game make me feel so much as uneasy. It's a straight action game that happens to be really dark and with a mystery for a plot. Granted the gameplay was fun and I enjoyed the story, but a horror game it isn't.
Posted by: TragicHeroX (208.79.15.146) on 2010-09-18 07:41:31
I'll second that as well, in that I enjoyed the story but it certainly was not a very scary game. The horror elements just weren't there for me.
Posted by: Kaeles (71.197.213.192) on 2010-09-19 10:28:39
You should come speak at PAX next year, Chris. I'd be willing to bet you could get sponsorship from one of the developers to come rant about the elements of horror design for a couple hours. :)
Anyone Can Insult - Not Everyone Can Offer Constructive Criticism
Posted by: Bob (69.176.75.158) on 2010-09-20 03:50:58
It would be interesting to see what Chris would have to say if he did speak at the PAX. But it isnt just about ranting and raving...

Really, any jerkoff with two brain cells can pick any game apart while they are on their Yellow Brick Quest for a Joke about the game they just played. It takes real talent to look at the gameplay or the type of mechanics a game used and conclude that it would be more effective to do something alternatively instead, point out reasons, and explain why said improvement is better. This happens quite a bit in the development stage of any game, where the dev's decide whether or not it would be appropriate for a concept idea to be implemented, or, even if it would make a great addition to the game, just isn't in the budget. Not every developer has Valve's resources. The original Castlevania series on the 8 bit NES didn't exactly have real time shadows, because, at the time, it obviously wasn't worth it.

Chris is dead on with the style of gameplay causing a massive break in immersion, but I think he was just off center of bulls eye that the immersion factor is really what draws in Survival Horror fans. And a lot of it has to do with the pacing of the gameplay. Silent Hill, for example, could have very easily broken their immersion factor depending completely on the fact of where you get your equipment. For example, if the only way to acquire weapons, health drinks, and ammo was to expect them to be dropped by the enemies when defeated, like an RPG, people would have stopped to think to themselves "Why the hell is a mutated dog running around with an unopened 5 Hour Energy in his spleen?" or "Why would a guy with no arms that spits acid on you need to carry around ammuntition?". Fortunately, in a few of the Silent Hill series, they didn't do that.

I think that very well could be what killed Dead Space for me. The idea of a linear game, where every level starts and ends with "Get on and off the Bus" or their transit system, where also, at the beginning and the end of the level, you go shopping. They got a lot of things right in Dead Space, but what could have been done differently, was to allow free exploration of the ship, unlocking key sections as the story progresses, and not putting a shop every point you get off the bus. You want to upgrade so your suit can hold more air? Go to the Engineering section of the ship, and free roam or quick travel via the "Bus" to get there. You want a new power gun? Head over to the Armory.

The pacing is Key to the immersion factor, and I think Alan Wake could have been greatly improved had the parts where he was expected to rush through had absolutely no collectible items, or were so blaitantly in the players face that they would need to have been playing with their eyes closed to miss it. When it comes to an area that a player is expectd to take their time to explore, yeah, litter the whole area with those collectibles. But don't put them in conflict with the achivements either. One of the achievements that I recall was to finish one stage in less than half an hour, and that area was huge, and it felt like you could take your time, which totally conflicts with the reward of just getting through that area of the game as quickly as possible.

I just think that the issues that Chris mentioned about losing the immersion factor could have been left in, but corrected with better pacing and placement of the manuscript pages. Of course, what do I know, I am just one of those jerkoffs who will pick apart every aspect of a game just for the sake of being a jerkoff...
Posted by: faDeD (86.160.161.212) on 2010-09-20 07:09:45
Could you imagine how short the game would be without taking breaks to look for hidden items? I think hats the main reason they put them in.
Posted by: Shane - GameScares.com (109.152.22.199) on 2010-09-22 17:29:41
Quote: "coffee thermoses, presumably to keep the protagonist "A. Wake".

While that could be construed as true, the thermoses were more of a direct homage to one of the main influences of the game, namely 'Twin Peaks'.

Remember Agent Cooper always loved that "damn fine cup of coffee"!

This is one of the rare games I actually replayed to find all the collectibles, just because it was another excuse to play it again, normally I just don't give a damn.
Posted by: Dr_Yomismo (188.86.106.44) on 2010-09-22 18:46:30
I felt the same way. I think that I spent more time searching hidden pages than advancing through the roads and paths.

Another thing about I can complain is the lack of variety, in enemies terms. At least they should use different weapons (guns), but no, even hunters or policemen attack you with axes.
Posted by: bingo zero (75.21.94.241) on 2010-09-26 21:03:56
That is a problem in a lot of games. They just seem to lose their priorities. "Am I trying to rush to save my wife or mill around and unravel this mystery?" A lot of times it does feel like a tacked on game lengthening strategy or just added because other games have it.

I think it has to do with the environments. In Resident Evil exploration feels natural because you're trapped and need to cautiously examine the mansion. But in Dead Space you progress through the ship with very little reason to backtrack. No sense in thoroughly exploring everything when you'll shortly be in another area with (probably) better stuff.

The level design shouldn't be linear if exploration is a considerable part of the game; the levels should feel like a tangled mess that you have to sort out.
Simple Solution
Posted by: GrungePunk (68.110.67.226) on 2010-09-28 08:55:29
There is a simple solution for those of you who are concerned with breaking away from the immersion to find the collectibles... Don't! :P

(You may think I'm joking but I'm actually quite serious. It really was that simple for me.)

I personally played the game just getting there as fast as possible myself (mainly because I just couldn't wait to see what was going to happen next) and I grabbed the obvious pages laid right out on the main path along the way. Surprisingly a lot of the pages are obvious ones. By the time you finish the game you will have quite a few of them but you'll still be missing probably around 20-30 percent of the pages. But also when you beat the game you will unlock the hardest difficulty if memory serves correctly. I suggest you replay it on that difficulty and find the pages on that run through since some of the pages only show up under that difficulty anyways. If you spend all your time running around looking for the pages on a lesser difficulty you're just gonna have to do it all over again for the few that just weren't there which would be a pain in the ass. I beat the game once on Normal and then once on Nightmare or whatever the hardest difficulty is called. I beat it twice in the first week it was out so it's been awhile and the little details elude me now since I've been playing so many other games.

Also for those of you who say this game isn't scary I would have to disagree. On the hardest difficulty setting it can get pretty scary at times. Like when you're in the dark woods. Especially at the part where you just crashed the car and don't have a weapon. Making a mad dash for the generator and trying to start it up as you hear the baddies getting closer and closer but you can't see them because they're still off screen and the camera is focused on you and the generator. It was so nerve racking I kept screwing up on the generator mini-game because I was freaking out and trying to start it up as fast as I could. Sometimes the scariest foes are the ones you can hear and know are there but you can't see.

The enemies are also generally just more threatening on Nightmare or whatever it's called so I suggest playing that for a scare. Trying to find the pages on that difficulty is nerve racking too because in some areas the longer you take exploring for pages the more enemies you'll have to face as they will just keep spawning while the forest is all windy and foggy like it gets when you're about to get mobbed. Plus the harder difficulty gives you less ammo and turns the enemies into flashlight and bullet sponges. This is where limited resources starts to play a role in the scare factor. But on normal I would agree with what most of you are saying. It's not scary.

Also another thought on the immersion thing. You say Alan wants to get from point A to point B as fast as he can which is true. You also say he wouldn't stop to look for the pages in his situation. I disagree with that entirely. It makes sense for him to take the time to find the manuscript pages because he has no recollection of writing them and he believes they hold the answer to finding out what's going on around him. Yes, saving his wife is important but really he's just chasing lead after lead not really knowing where it's actually gonna take him in the end. How's he suppose to save her if he doesn't even really understand what he's saving her from? He thinks he needs those pages to make any sense of all the craziness going on around him. If they weren't important to him then he wouldn't have gone to you know who's house to pickup up the pages. (Trying to avoid possible plot spoilers as best I can by leaving out the name).

Anyways, that's just my $0.02 on the whole thing. You all have valid points though. I guess it really just depends on how you look at it. In my opinion you can't analyze a game like some of you are trying to do and remain immersed at the same time. You're looking for what's good in the game AND what's bad. If you're looking for what's bad you're going to find what's bad. But if you're just playing it and and not putting too much thought into what's wrong with it or how it could have been better you more than likely would end up enjoying the experience more and you'd be less likely to notice when something doesn't quite fit in.

Don't get me wrong though, I love your analytical take on all these survival horror games. By all means, continue to sacrifice the overall quality of your gameplay experience for our benefit. It's much appreciated. :)

P.S. You have an awesome site here. I just discovered it yesterday evening while looking for a good new survival horror game to play and spent the whole night going through the site reading different things here and there. I think I'm going to go with playing Amnesia though because the trailer for it looked insanely creepy cause you're so helpless and all you can do is hide from the evil things that are trying to kill you. I look forward to hearing your take on it. I played the demo yesterday and one beef I have with the game so far is that you can pick up a broom and stick it in a furnace while there's a fire going and it just WILL NOT catch fire. Not very realistic... I wanted to make a torch. I can't believe the developers didn't anticipate that for people that run out of lantern oil and need light. :/
I hate it when they do that.
Posted by: Costa Rica Adventures Dude (76.217.2.1) on 2010-10-03 00:06:14
I don't play as many games as many of you reading this site do but I have to agree... it bugs the heck out of me when the game doesn't make sense or something doesn't fit even when everything else is right on.