Even though it's been a few months since I finished up Alan Wake, I've still been trying to understand why I didn't particularly love the game. After all, I'm an avowed survival horror nut, and I always prefer story-driven, atmospheric games. This is why I'm always going to prefer Bioshock over something like Call of Duty, even if I still enjoy both types of game. In retrospect, I do think Alan Wake did story and atmosphere quite well, but every time I've thought about playing it again (maybe to get the elusive S-rank) I just can't bring myself to go another run. In fact, the more I've thought about Alan wake in recent weeks, the more I've come to the conclusion that I didn't like it at all. Even at precisely zero dollars, I have no interest in the DLC. Why? I can point to only one reason: collectibles.
While many games have not offered good collectible systems, in my opinion, Alan Wake comprises THE textbook example of how an overabundance of in-game collectibles can ruin the total experience. Allow me to explain: although I'm not nearly as bad as some, I tend to be a completionist with games. Yet I feel that playing through Alan Wake while trying to get everything utterly ruined the experience. So in retrospect, I have to wonder that why a game that seemed to pander to the completionists out there, made being one such a burden. And while I know that collectibles are optional, some gamers , like myself, can't ignore all the shiny objects out there and still have fun. I know I'm not alone there.
Having brainstormed a bit, here's where I think Alan Wake went wrong in its collectibles.
- 1) Too many things to collect: It's not unusual for a game to have a couple types of collectibles. Bioshock, for example, has its audio logs and Power to the People upgrade stations. But Alan Wake took this number and went for a sprint. Going from the top of my head: there were Manuscript pages, (100) coffee thermoses, radio broadcasts, tv programs, stacks of cups to knock over, secret ammo stashes, and local artifacts to examine. Judging from the DLC (which adds three new collectibles), I think the folks at remedy went with quantity at all costs. And while the game lets you know that it's counting the thermoses, it remains silent on the other stats, unless you routinely examine the stats screens. It was about halfway through the game before I realized that the cup stacks counted for something. With achievements tied to each of these, this gets a little ridiculous. I performed a lot of thorough searching during my playthrough, and only found all the radios.
- 2) Poor tracking and notification: as I mentioned, the game does let you know how far along you are with the thermoses. You can also see which manuscript pages - which were the one good collectible in the game - you've collected, which you needed, and which were only available on the hardest difficulty. Yet apart from the pages, there's no way to determine which items you've gotten, or which episodes they may be in. This means that if you want to get the achievement for say, collecting all 100 thermoses. You had better grab a FAQ and go through it step by step from a new playthrough. This is not a good design decision. Alan Wake is certainly not the only game to do this (in fact, tracking systems are rare), but it's more evident in a game with so many items to grab.
- 3) Punishing the Player for Looking: If you want to find all the collectibles in a game like Alan Wake, then you need to traipse over ever inch of terrain. While Wake is mostly linear, you can move quite a bit to the right and left in the environment. In some cases, thermoses end up way off the beaten path. There's nothing wrong with this, but in Alan Wake, the more you ramble around, the more enemy mobs that spawn to go after you. This makes the searching a bigger chore than it might be otherwise. After awhile, I just got tired of moving 10 more yards to have to fight three more guys that I'd have skipped if I stayed on the well-lit path.
- 4) Poor Incentives for Gathering: Alan Wake's manuscript pages were the only items that really added anything significant to the game, in that case, by elaborating on the story. To be fair, the TV and radio broadcasts were interesting, but there were no weapons, powerups, or bonuses that made finding everything seem terribly worthwhile. Even the benefit of finding weapon stashes was obliterated by the fact that Wake gets stripped of all gear at the end of every episode. For most games, in contrast, finding everything can net the player some nice perks. For example, in Darksiders, finding all ten abyssal armor fragments earns the player the game's best suit. While Alan Wake didn't exactly need some "super author" armor or anything like that, some kind of significant unlockable could go a long way. Hell, even Deadly Premonition had bonuses for its many gathered items.
Thinking about Alan Wake, here's how I think collectibles should be done:
- 1) Make some kind of tracking system - If you are going to build a game where collectibles form a big part, then make maps, guides, or area-specific counters that allow a player to track their progress. Batman: Arkham Asylum did this well by using Riddler maps, and even Fable II allowed the player to see how many statues were left in each area. The bottom line is that the player shouldn't have to keep word documents and spreadsheets handy. If the developers love their collectibles, they should want the player to as well. Poorly placed collectibles don't represent a challenge, they represent annoyance.
- 2) Make collectibles unlock something - even if they're tied to achievements, there should be some kind of in-game incentive to go object hunting. Bonuses can be in-game powerups, rare or interesting loot, or even bonus footage.
- 3) Collectibles should be interesting - Alan Wake runs at about 50% here. The manuscript pages, tv programs, and radio broadcasts added something interesting. The rest of the items, not so much. Collectibles should be fun to collect, not just some bad plot contrivance (ex: Assassin's Creed) or worse, nothing at all (GTAIV's pigeons).
- 4) Collectibles should stack for all playthroughs - Once you nab a collectible, an autosave should ensure you never have to grab it again, ever. Period. A good example of this is the Call of Duty Series, where intel and other pickups get immediately counted and removed from the single player experience.
These are some of the things that can make collecting a bunch of in-game trinkets seem like a worthwhile diversion. I know some are going to just ignore what I'm writing here and say "your opinion is invalid, because collectibles in Alan Wake are optional." But I know I'm not alone in saying that it's not fun to ignore collectibles, and its not fun to search for them if doing so mars the experience. Its really a shame, at least to me.