I played through the first episode of Alan Wake this evening and found it to be a very tightly designed experience, which is at least somewhat a good thing. It’s a polished-feeling 3rd person shooter but with a torch, essentially. The plot is a little creaky, but it has a pleasing relationship to the genre of a-bit-cheesy-but-trying-hard horror movies. The character models could afford to move their lips instead of their whole jaws when they talk.
As with a lot of games, I’ve taken the most pleasure in the more banal stuff surrounding the game when you’re “not playing” but are rather navigating the world without danger, but perhaps a little implied danger. It’s really a pretty game, and walking around in a local diner or exploring a house in the dark sans zombie-things is quite nicely executed and satisfyingly creepy.
The problem arises with the gameplay, which is that you walk along a more or less linear path and eventually bad people come out of the woodwork and try killing you so you kill them first. Which you do by shining a torch at them for a while, which is cute but starts feeling weirdly silly, and then shoot them in the face (or wherever). And down they go. And you do that some more and some more with a couple of spatial puzzles.
Which is to say the Alan Wake is, in its heartest of hearts, just like every other game that wants you shooting things and shooting them good.
And I declare myself over this particular school of games, and I declare myself concerned that there’s not quite enough to choose from outside this genre if you’re wanting to play games that situate you in an interesting world you can inhabit as a “person” (like Alan here, or FemShep, or whomever). It’s understandable, of course, that shooting things is a tried-and-true form of interaction during games. And it’s also true that shooting people has a high affective value while simultaneously being at least somewhat easy to implement in code and graphics.
On the other hand, shooting people is now so utterly commonplace that there’s no shock or awe in taking digital life, the shock and awe is when, for brief periods, you don’t have to. This is why the banal sequences in Alan Wake, or Deadly Premonition or any other shooter with the odd respite, are so wonderful and minty fresh. The problem is that the interactivity hasn’t quite caught up with those non-shooting periods of play. Other than the deep satisfaction of interesting spatial navigation (e.g. Fallout 3), the interactivity can be pretty poor outside of shooting shit.
All of which raises the question of what other forms of interaction (as in, other than shooting and traversing space) are doable in the context of games these days? While “talking” as an interaction has not fared well in gameplay to date, I find it extraordinarily hard to believe that “running and shooting” are the only two viable options. I don’t have a suggestion here, since I’m sleepy now, but I feel that we should have our best people on this one.
That means you.