I started (and completed) Alan Wake’s first piece of DLC last night. It’s pretty brilliant and I had a great time. But in hindsight I’m a bit annoyed. You see The Signal, Remedy’s first add-on to its literary horror shooter, is one of the best slices of Alan Wake to date, expanding upon its gameplay and narrative concepts heavily and in deeply satisfying ways. If you had even a passing liking for Wake, you absolutely should play it.
But in some ways it also sums up everything that’s wrong with DLC right now. And for all that it adds, in hindsight it actually detracts slightly from the core game (which I love). The fact is, narratively and in terms of gameplay progression, it feels like part of the previously-missing climax to a previously-incomplete game. And suddenly I’m beginning to wonder how much better the main game would have been if add-on episodes hadn’t been part of the plan. And again, I’m considering the potential evils of DLC, and would like to know how you feel about it.
Quick warning though. Some spoilers for the main game and DLC ahead, but nothing huge.
First things first - and for as much as I’m about to grumble, this is probably the most important thing you should take from this feature. The Signal is brilliant. Picking up immediately after the original game’s ambiguous ending, it follows Alan through the surreal, constantly shifting existential nightmare world he plunged himself into in exchange for rescuing his wife Alice (probably). Conceptually and in terms of action it’s the best Alan Wake has ever been, particularly because of the frequent blurrings of those narrative and psychological concepts into the action itself.
I’ve covered Alan Wake’s cleverness with interactive storytelling before (click here for a thorough appraisal of its marvellous metaphorical gameplay malarkey), so for now I’ll just say that intellectually and viscerally, the game has never been cleverer or more satisfying than it is in The Signal.
But the problem is, it should have been. Because while The Signal certainly isn’t a cynical, Resi 5-style, pay-to-unlock-stuff-you’ve-already-paid-for-because-it-was-already-on-the-goddamn-disc-you-mug type of scenario, the fact is, it really should have been one of the climactic chapters of the original game. And I’m not being stingy about paying for it here. The extra cost isn’t my real concern. I’m talking about the previous absence of this chapter having had a real affect on the pacing and completeness of the main game. Because I now think it did.
Above: Things get a whole lot weirder and whole lot cooler in The Signal. It's a brilliant progression
For all the love I have for Alan Wake’s clever storytelling, dense atmosphere and accessible but nuanced action, the game has pacing issues. Nothing game-breaking by any means, but it does drag along in the same gear for a little while, failing to really evolve in gameplay terms in the run up to its climax. And while I personally loved the ambiguous non-resolution of the story, the build-up to it felt a little rushed, introducing major new themes and ideas (both gameplay and narrative) which didn’t get enough time to grow before the end. In fact one of them is one of the coolest things in Alan Wake, and tellingly becomes a major element in the DLC.
That section at the end, when the game world and the world of Alan’s imagination start to blur. The bit when objects and concepts appear as written words floating in the air, and must be made real with a burst of torchlight as he manipulates this semi-fictional reality to his own will. Clever, wasn’t it? But didn’t it feel like a classic third-act twist that would become a major part of the game’s climactic chapters? And didn’t it feel a little weird that just as we’d been taught how it worked, and started to imagine the greater possibilities it could hold, the ending kicked in and left them all unexplored? It was like getting the hookshot in Zelda, grappling over one pit, and then seeing the credits roll. Or having the true form of the skittering, detachable Las Plagas introduced in Resident Evil 4 immediately before the final boss.
Above: Enjoy it while you can mate. Gannon's turning up in about three minutes. That cool?
And would you believe it, The Signal is built entirely around that stuff. Don’t get me wrong, it’s brilliant. It’s used to open up the gameplay and storytelling to brand new levels of creativity and imagination not seen anywhere in the original game. But that’s the problem. While it’s incredible fun to play through The Signal’s barrage of off-kilter new ideas and surreally imaginative action set-pieces (no spoilers, but one section featuring shadowy open countryside and a whole lot of words is borderline genius), the wealth of exploration the concept gets makes its brief appearance at the end of the main disc feel less like a clever climax and more like an artificially curtailed build-up to the game’s real final act.
It remains to be seen how the next piece of DLC continues things (The Signal will leave you with even more questions, and I’m perfectly happy with that), but right now I’ll put money down on the two extra chapters collectively making up a real final act, at least in terms of gameplay evolution if not plot resolution. And as excited as I am about that after playing through The Signal, I can’t help but think of how much stronger the original release would have been if it had been paced properly, with a little less padding towards the end, and all of this stuff stuck in as a genuinely satisfying, properly played-out climax. I’m willing to bet that review scores would have been higher overall.
So the question is, is the trend for extending games actually hurting the design of those games itself? Is the expansion of adding content to games really adding value as intended, or just weakening the initial product in order to spread that value out? Personally, I’m more interested in DLC like Alan Wake’s, that genuinely extends the core experience rather than simply adding a few side-quests and deleted scenes. But it’s a dangerous balance to maintain, and one that devs and publishers are going to have to be very careful with, if they don’t want another horse armour situation on their hands.
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