Alright, let’s address the elephant in the room right off the bat (and who doesn’t love talking about elephants?). The glaring problem I saw with Alan Wake while playing through it is something that unfortunately pervades most videogames. Simply put, and barring a few exceptions, geeks just aren’t the best people to write objective, nuanced and well-written stories. The on-disc chapters of Alan Wake were the best example of this failing and a classic argument for having a good writer on board at least for oversight, if not to personally script the story. Someone who understands that choosing to be referential and glib does not give you license to batter the consumer over the head with an in-joke every other minute and with characters that make Bollywood films look positively subtle in comparison.
[singlepic id=2328 w=605 float=center]
Twin Peaks may have been absolutely bonkers, but it was the right kind of bonkers; there was always a balance. Granted there were issues with Alan Wake that extended far beyond simple problems of storytelling, but you would find that everything else faded to the background each time Barry or Agent Nightingale came on to provide the obligatory comic relief moment half-way through every level. The literary references from Nightingale in his conversations with Wake were especially grating.
There is, however, a very good reason for me to walk you through the anchor issues I had with the first game. In marked contrast, what this DLC gives you for 560 Microsoft Points is a glimpse into how good Remedy are at the top of their game. The Writer just comes together much better in terms of translating their ideas to playable form than any of the original chapters ever did. The surreal nature of the gameplay also evokes Max Payne much more so than the retail release. This DLC is also surprisingly better at making you actually feel for Wake’s predicament and for Wake as a character. The quality of the screenplay, script and characterisation is ramped up so much that even Wake’s voice actor gives a manic performance that is better than anything on the retail disc.
[singlepic id=2329 w=605 float=center]
The game itself is structured much better as well. There is as much emphasis on environmental traversal and puzzles as there is on combat. There are also instances where the two are combined to very good effect; a balance the original chapters never got right. The fact that the episode takes place in Wake’s subconscious also allowed the level designers to build levels that were inherently flawed in their construct. Environments are as malleable as the darkness itself, with certain parts of levels being completely (and quite literally) turned on their heads. You’ll also revisit twisted representations of a number of locations from the main game, and these double takes on familiar places are different enough that you never feel like you’ve been short-changed by reused level design.
The newly introduced torch mechanic from the previous DLC episode (The Signal) returns, except the ‘shining light onto words to make objects materialise’ gimmick has been extended to combat, platforming and traversal sections as well. The combat sections are especially engaging, and you won’t find many instances where you expect to be jumped on by a gang of delinquent lumberjacks while strolling through a forest. What the major combat instances do instead is use the word-materialisation mechanic to kill enemies using environmental variables that make full use of the Havok physics engine. You can slip through these encounters without firing a single shot directly at the Taken if you are resourceful enough.
[singlepic id=2332 w=605 float=center]
As well designed as Alan Wake’s combat was, it grew increasingly tiresome towards the end of the main game, by which you had slipped into a routine of moving through clusters of baddies ad nauseum. This episode, on the other hand, is paced more thoughtfully, both in terms of combat and story. Not only is Wake convincing as a person trying to deal with his inner demons, but his monologues that appear on television screens at various points, or during interludes between combat and exploration sequences, explaining his state of mind are also more tense and a lot less self-obsessive and pretentious than they used to be. You might actually call him likeable now and someone worth rooting for.
There are also more clues towards the end of the episode that may shed some light (heh) on Wake’s hinted-at breakdown and its effect on Alice. It really is a shame that both The Signal and The Writer weren’t a part of the retail release. After playing this episode in particular, it seems like a no-brainer that having these episodes or even parts of them interspersed between the main chapters would have helped the game in terms of variety, making the lead a lot more likeable, and in giving the story some meaning by letting us play through Wake’s inner dementia.
[singlepic id=2331 w=605 float=center]
It is disappointing that most people will never play The Writer, unless perhaps a Game of the Year Edition of Alan Wake is released. Even then, it would be wishful thinking. What Remedy has achieved with this episode in particular is a fine balance between combat, exploration and pacing. While this episode may only be as long as the ones from the main game, there really is no looking past the quality and thought that went into making it. The only downside is this return to form may have come a bit too late for this series. Fingers crossed that it hasn’t.