Alan Wake: The Signal
For all its contrivances, or perhaps because of the multitude of them, Alan Wake suffered from something of an information overload. The narrative was told via cut scenes, pseudo-cut scenes, in-game dialogue, in-game visual events, text messages, narration by the protagonist, manuscript pages, radio broadcasts, TV shows, phone calls and hidden writing on walls; a bizarre pick’n’mix by any standard. Remedy may have envisioned the mystery gradually but organically unravelling, but all we were left with was a garbled mess of good ideas half baked.
An absurdly long gestation period was quite clearly chiefly to blame, but the developer’s evident brilliance always lay bubbling frustratingly close to the surface. That they themselves lost sight of whether what they were doing actually made sense in the slightest a long time ago is similarly obvious, but it speaks volumes to their talent that the end product, despite its maddeningly erratic pacing and inconsistent storytelling, formed a compelling and polished whole.
The Signal is the first of two Xbox Live episodes that follow on from that game’s baffling conclusion designed to, presumably, milk some more money out of us by dangling the promise of answers on a stick and revoking them just in time to set up the inevitable sequel. Most DLC is cynical at best and infuriating at worst, satisfying as they do an idiotic hankering for what Microsoft would call “additional gameplay content”. Read: a couple of out of context, tacked on scraps from the cutting floor. New items or weapons are slightly pricey and entirely useless, further maps or modes are often released suspiciously close to the physical boxed product and additional levels or quests can be overpriced and of poor quality.
In this case, however, the format seems to have found its home calling. Alan Wake was already split into episodes, but this ostensibly cool idea was executed badly. Start and end points were utterly arbitrary, and short but packed chunks of exposition would awkwardly divide up overlong let’s-shoot-a-bad-guy-in-a-forest bits. The TV show idea only disrupted what was already a pretty poorly paced game, but at times perhaps managed to mask its shortcomings. Stealing aspects of older media is something video games do with frightening regularity, and Alan Wake seemed to have found yet another dead end. The Signal, though, at least improves on the formula.
We’ve seen the ending, and Alan (or someone) is at the bottom of the lake (or something) writing and talking to himself (somehow) in terms as clunky as his prose (for some reason). Thomas Zane, another writer who hangs around the dark place in a diving suit – as you do – gives our protagonist a quick call. Follow the signal, we are told, and we duly oblige. Here’s where things get interesting and, for our money, much better. The world around Alan is constantly shifting, and parts of Bright Falls vanish, reappear and stitch themselves together almost at random.
Note the “almost”. The central narrative conceit of this episode, though, is not one to be spoiled. It’s not particularly exciting in the grand scheme of things, but it’s in function and not form that it is successful. What it means is that this chapter can be closed little over ninety minutes after it has been opened, which in turn means the insistent repetition of the game proper is not given room. The pacing is tighter, cut scenes are less frequent and lengthy and the proliferation of tools used to tell the preceding events is curtailed.
In fact, it’s abundantly evident that The Signal was made after the game’s protracted development period had reached its end. Not only are Remedy’s storytelling tools inevitably sharper, they’re wielded far more potently. Narrative and moment to moment play are finally harmonised to an extent, largely thanks to the realisation that the proverbial shit must be rather more tactfully thrown to leave any lasting impression upon the wall. Alan Wake suffered because its many great ideas were engaged in a perpetual battle for space, but here the approach is more relaxed and, in a sense, confident. The supernatural is put to infinitely more imaginative use, and, after the fact it may be, the touted “psychological” aspect finds itself able to deliver.
Combine this added variety and tighter focus with already solid gunplay and the awesome light-seeking mechanic and what we’re left with is a relatively minor expansion that, unlike Alan Wake before it, is able to claim to be at the very least the sum of its rather intriguing parts. The full game is at its most engaging at very specific moments, which are scattered in a mire of inconsistency and monotony. What The Signal does best, then, is reproduce the best of these with a greater rhythm and fidelity over less than half of the length of the original six acts. Paradoxically, Alan is freed from the shackles of his initial trials into something less ambitious and more restrained which, ultimately, ends up doing it all with a fresh zest and confidence, unencumbered by a troubled seven year cycle. At worst, it demonstrates that all of that hard work might eventually pay off, and the Wake formula has life in it yet. The franchise’s future looks – ahem – brighter, but we’d be best advised to withhold assent until the second extra episode, The Writer, is released later this year.