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Alan Wake vs. Alone in the Dark: The Case for “B-Games”

Alan Wake and Alone in the Dark are two games that are surprisingly similar. Both are western-developed survival horror games of the current console generation. Both feature a ghastly, unknowable evil represented primarily by darkness, and both feature core game mechanics built around using light to purify evil creatures.

Really, they could've called Alan Wake "Alone in the Dark" and vice versa without really losing anything from either game. The big difference? One of these games is good and the other is, well, I'll be charitable and say "disappointing."

I know, Billy. I expected more from Edward Carnby too.

But even if Alone in the Dark didn’t live up to the expectations of the surprisingly large number of people who bought it, I am here to argue that it is a valuable game. Hell, I’m even going to argue that games like Alone in the Dark or even Mirror’s Edge have a valuable role to play in the games industry. Perhaps one that’s even more important than flagship triple-A titles like Call of Duty or God of War. 

I first encountered the idea of B-games (think like a B-movie) in Phil Kollar's review of Two Worlds II for GameInformer where he suggested that silly, poorly made games have a place in the industry alongside big budget titles. Comparing these two very similar titles shows not only that B-games have a place in the industry, they are vitally important to it.

How They Are Different

Alan Wake, if you hadn’t guessed, is the triple-A title of the two. It spent eight years in development, and the finished product features a tight, suspenseful story littered with literary references, highly polished gameplay, and stunning graphics. It received many awards and has sold very well.

At its core, Alan Wake is a third-person shooter with a twist: all of your enemies are possessed by an evil force that you must first expel with light before you can harm them with bullets. Your primary method of doing so is with a flashlight, but you’re given some fun light-based weaponry throughout the game to use in tight spots.

Now, the gameplay mechanics of Alan Wake are polished to a blinding sheen, but it takes very few chances. The third-person shooting mechanic is about as basic as they come, and wandering through the woods always takes place on suspiciously linear paths that seem to always have little side paths that dead-end in caches of batteries, ammo, and health right before enemy encounters. It is formulaic to the point of breaking immersion, but you’ll never be hurting for supplies.

For your reference, this
game is "just bad.'"

While Alan Wake may present its gameplay by the numbers, the combat is well-balanced–Alan feels competent but still like he’s in constant danger–and the story will keep you playing late into the night just to see what happens next.

Alone in the Dark is, well, not as good. But it’s not bad in a movie-tie-in game kind of way where it’s just bad. No, Alone in the Dark was loaded up with all sorts of great ideas and potential and failed to really make good on any of it.

Good ideas or not, the graphics are mediocre and glitchy, the controls are loose and unresponsive, the third-person camera is a joke, and the enemies fail to ever create any sense of danger or suspense.

Maybe most telling is that a game called “Alone in the Dark” pairs you with a token female sidekick and constantly bathes you in fire.

Not alone and not so dark.

Here's some concept art of the game's opening level…

 
In fact, Alan Wake, ironically, features much, much more solitude and darkness, but I digress.
 
Alone in the Dark attempts to do a lot of unique and interesting things, but fails at almost all of them to varying degrees. It can never decide if it’s a suspenseful survival horror game or a blockbuster end-of-days thriller. The game combines first-person and third-person gameplay in a way that admittedly works for it, but is by no means seamless.
 
Swinging a flaming chair in third person, then shooting in first person, then tossing a Molotov cocktail in third person again is cumbersome and infuriating. Fortunately, all of the enemies move so slowly that you’ll have plenty of time to reach into your inventory and find some way to light them on fire. So, while this combat system is innovative, and the fire mechanics are—all joking aside—amazing, the sum total is kind of crap.
 

Eden Games also tried to create a free-roaming experience where you must drive around Central Park lighting “roots of evil” on fire in a series of unique instances. Driving, however, is even more broken than the on-foot mechanics.

The cars handle horribly and the slightest bump can literally send you flying into the sky. Also, Central Park was clearly not designed for being driven in. I cannot emphasize this enough. Unless you’re willing to waste your time following the few inconveniently placed roads, you’re stuck barreling through narrow walking paths surrounded by trees, lampposts, benches, and darkness. Combined with the awful car physics, what could have been an interesting way to spend time between story missions becomes an awful grind.

That being said, I whole-heartedly recommend playing Alone in the Dark.

Why? While it may not succeed in any of the above-listed gameplay elements (and many others), at the very least it is unique. Sure, I’ve done Prince-of-Persia style platforming before, but never in an elevator shaft that is crumbling around me while I’m simultaneously trying to rescue some people trapped in a fire and escape the unknowable evil that is tearing the building apart around us.

More on this later.

How They’re Not Really So Different After All

Even more shocking than my recommendation to play Alone in the Dark might be the fact that the two games are much more alike than they are different. The first obvious similarity is that both games are presented in an episodic fashion, with stages and levels instead broken into “scenes” and “episodes”.

Both stop gameplay when you complete an episode, and begin it anew with a “Previously on…” segment. Both games let you skip around “episodes”, which is an admirable way to try to capture a more television-like feel and cater to casual gamers, but in both games it ends up just feeling like the level select is unlocked when you start the game.

The similarities go beyond the level select system, though. Both games feature bad car physics.

It's okay, Alan. You're probably better off on foot anyway.

In both games our protagonist is being chased by a vague evil force largely represented by darkness. This makes combat in both games an effort to purify your evil enemies rather than use straight-up violence. In Alan Wake any light will do, and Alone in the Dark kicks it old school with the purifying power of fire. The basic idea is still the same, though–you can’t defeat an enemy until you’ve rid him of evil.

Impregnated by a Satanic cult.
Had the Devil's baby.
You know, that Rosemary.

Last, but not least, both games borrow very heavily from the western horror canon. Alan Wake desperately wishes he were Stephen King, and Alone in the Dark’s Edward Carnby has a major crush on Rosemary.

As a result both games create survival horror experiences with a different flavor than the classic Japanese-developed titles like Resident Evil, Silent Hill, or Dino Crisis.

Why B-Games Are Good

The real argument for the value of B-games doesn’t come from where these games are similar, but from where they are different.

Saying that B-games are valuable because they have some of the trappings of their triple-A brethren is like saying a turd burger should be delicious because it’s on a bun. The real key to the value of B-games is simple–when the pressure is off making the graphics glisten and the controls work developers can focus on innovation and fun.

True, bad controls and glitches get in the way of fun, but remember that elevator shaft sequence I mentioned earlier? Collision detection issues mean that I had to restart the challenge a few times, but playing through the scenario never felt less than epic. And maybe Alan Wake’s combat mechanic worked better, but a flashlight can’t match the visceral thrill of engulfing your foes in flames.

Despite being buggy and sometimes even broken, Alone in the Dark and other B-games are a class apart from games that are just bad because there is still as much fun to be had with them as there is with a triple-A title, if not more. On top of that, even though Alone in the Dark is at least six months of development and a new writing team away from being triple-A, it gives you a more unique gaming experience than almost any triple-A game.

The fire mechanics are realistic and fun. The Central Park bits show how a game can incorporate free-roaming aspects into a linear story-driven path without sacrificing freedom or plot pacing. Blinking your eyes is a core gameplay mechanic that was actually well-realized. The set pieces are truly epic.

This game managed to combine fire that feels like real fire, Prince-of-Persia platforming, first-person shooting, third-person melee combat, driving, environmental puzzles, HUD-less health marked by persistent damage on your character, fire, a real-time inventory in your jacket, the best car hot wiring mechanic I have ever seen, the ability to combine items, and did I mention fire?

Fire, Edward. Edward, Fire.
You two will get along just great.

Even though Alone in the Dark didn’t do it all perfectly, the fact that it all fits together and still feels like one coherent game is a true accomplishment. Spiderman: Shattered Dimensions couldn’t even manage to make four different competent brawlers in one game, and any one of Alone in the Dark’s laundry list of features could be the selling point of “the next big thing” by itself. If you can think of any triple-A games that push the boundaries on as many gameplay mechanics at once please leave a comment, because I cannot.

And that is really what it all boils down to. Alan Wake is the better game, no doubt about that. But even if Alone in the Dark is bad, it is still fun, and it still pushes gaming forward on every front it tackled.

There is a place for games that polish, and there is a place for games that push forward. Naturally, it’s best when a game can do both, but I for one will openly embrace any game that manages to do something new, or even just be fun, despite its technical shortcomings. Even if the term “B-games” never catches on, I hope you can, too.


Jason Parris is an Associate Editor at Pixel Perfect. You can find them online at www.pixelperfectmag.com or on Twitter @ThePixelPerfect. Check them our for the latest is video game news, previews, reviews and much more!


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