In the short lifetime of the video game industry, at least in comparison to other media, the humble beginning of Pong has given way to the rich, narrative-driven adventures found in the AAA titles of today. Television, while built around plot and acting, has only recently begun to provide stories that give viewers the proverbial “Golden Age” of first-class acting and strong narratives. Both games and television possess an edge over films, having many more hours to develop their arcs, as well as the convenience of accessibility at home from day one. For those wanting a visual story to invest their time in, the sensible option is to either binge-watch Netflix or jump into an RPG. Literature, whether in the form of a short story; novel; or even oration, provides stories of such varied length and depth that the medium can stand alongside the visual, while also providing the structure of chapters and other divisions of text that form the foundation of episodic narrative. While games have the edge of interactivity over television, the narrative similarities between the two mediums are readily apparent. Episodic structure has become increasingly popular in games, and, in many ways, improved the way their stories are told. Though this structure was used as early as the ‘80s and Telltale has become synonymous with the format thanks to its numerous series, Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake’s innovative use of the style in 2010 has stood out among others. In taking inspiration from Stephen King and Twin Peaks, Remedy’s supernatural thriller delivers the pace and excitement of a television show with gameplay that feels true to the world.
Alan Wake stands out from many other games for several reasons, including the metaludic aspect of playing as a writer. Casting the player in such a role allows the dialogue and narrative to be self-aware and reflective, while still feeling authentic. This authenticity is possible because the eponymous Alan Wake is flawed and relatable. His drinking problem and writer’s block are tangible realities for people to understand. While the story could work on television, the gameplay’s use of light to fight the Darkness possessing the town of Bright Falls is inventive and refreshing enough that passively watching the combat without controlling the action would lessen the experience. Furthermore, the game also includes episodes of a fictional television show called Night Springs, a clear spiritual child of The Twilight Zone, both darkly humorous and able to poke fun at and increase the self-awareness of the game. In many ways, Alan Wake is a game about being a writer as well as an actor on a television show, and Remedy manages the balancing act with a success akin to a well-received first season of a new show.
In comparison, binge-watching Stranger Things, Twin Peaks, or Supernatural also provides many hours of immersion into rich supernatural settings. While watching television is more passive than holding a controller and exploring the scenes as they happen, the twists and turns of a horror story can be engaging in either medium. The digestible format of episodes prevents this immersion from becoming overwhelming, as viewers and gamers can both pause the action to take a break at their convenience. Having the option to pause can ruin the atmosphere being built in a scene, however, and films have an edge in this respect. When in a cinema, the audience does not have the option to pause a film (outside of leaving, though this only grants a reprieve rather than pausing the action), allowing such classic films as Alien to be mesmerizing experiences thanks to the audience being at the mercy of the filmmaker. Nevertheless, while plenty of films earn the price of admission, the impulse still seems to be towards television and games, for both convenience’s sake and the amount of value a streaming subscription or game purchase can have over a single movie ticket. Film studios work hard to create experiences worth leaving the house for, whereas television producers try to hook audiences with a pilot that gets a series greenlit, and game developers put in long hours to craft titles that will draw the player for hours on end.
Remedy succeeds in making the ten-or-so hours of Alan Wake’s story manageable and desirable to experience through use of the episodic structure. Bookending each episode with a recap alongside a song over the end credits before scenes from the next episode truly captures the weekly television format. The studio also strikes the right balance between player progress and natural breaking points, an act which requires a finesse that goes beyond an RPG where players can pause, save, and stop playing whenever they want. Narratively, episodic structure allows for cliffhangers and emphasis on key plot points that may be lost in a strictly unbroken narrative, and gives the player time to think over all that has happened and speculate on what will happen next. While this approach is still different from week-long breaks between TV shows because players can continue at their leisure, a similar structure of small bites rather than the entire meal at once remains in place.
Over six episodes, as well as two extra DLC epilogue episodes and the spinoff American Nightmare, Remedy plays out Alan Wake like a television show, but with player interaction necessary to move forward. No choices exist to change the direction of the story; however, a satisfaction is found in being able to scratch itches through playing that could otherwise only be accomplished by yelling at the TV. Alan Wake received such great praise because the production values were so high and all parties involved were on board to capture the vision of a writer-protagonist in a TV-show structure. Books themselves also offer much more time to develop characters and story, yet the reader’s imagination must paint the scenes. Though the visual mediums can also rely on the viewer’s imagination beyond what can be seen, for instance in found-footage films or horror games such as Amnesia, the written word’s task to turn text into reality in the reader’s mind is part of what separates that medium from the others. In adding literature seamlessly onto the television and game aspects of Alan Wake, Remedy draws on the strengths of long-form narrative split into book chapters and television episodes alike.
While a sequel to Alan Wake has seemingly been put on the backburner as Remedy moves onto another new IP, Quantum Break continues in this vein and pushes the marriage between television and games further. Many TV shows are created and released each season, but only so many make the cut. Cancellations and other hardships can halt shows with great story potential, and not every show can be Breaking Bad or The Wire. On the other hand, many games also come out and are, more or less, a complete package upon release. Their success is measured in sales, and less risk falls to the developers by breaking the game into episodes. The creators can listen to and act on feedback in real-time as they work on the next episode, and the format offers a way to ease the player into a story without a high-priced entry point. IO Interactive’s Hitman took this approach with the latest entry in the series, and though the fanbase seems to have accepted this change overall, the true wisdom of the decision is now in question as Square-Enix has dropped the developer. In order to cut through the noise of the competition, TV shows and games alike must grip audiences to both stand out and give consumers more of what they want. Remedy managed to release Alan Wake as a complete package because the episodic structure was built into the game from the beginning, and the success shows something to be emulated, and something that has been utilized in the years since the 2010 release.
For now, though, Alan Wake remains a psychological thriller worthy of praise due to the influence of television’s narrative structure, and Remedy’s understanding of how to tell a truly captivating story while drawing on both mediums. While the game is no longer available digitally due to rights to the music license expiring on May 15, the impact of Alan Wake on the industry and the contribution the title adds to this discussion are not to be dismissed. With Twin Peaks returning on May 21, and Remedy’s recent announcements, Alan Wake remains as important and relevant as ever.
Next week OnlySP will continue this discussion by looking at last year’s Quantum Break, Remedy’s second foray into blending these mediums, and examining the ways in which the title succeeds and fails in following in Alan Wake’s footsteps.