Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Game Translation: Alan Wake

Alan Wake is a psychological horror game where the titular character goes to Bright Falls for a holiday to try and help him break through his writer's block. While there, his wife drowns under mysterious circumstances and the entire cabin disappears. Alan Wake must follow a trail of clues leading through the dangerous nights and the safe(r) days, in order to find and reunite with his wife while other interests try to piece together a book he doesn't even remember writing.

This is a game where horrors lurk in shadows and where the darkness can literally try to kill you. Alan must seek out light sources to hide within, find ways to switch lights on (often after power outages), and use his flashlight to stun and slow down the shadow possessed before shooting them dead. During battles with the enemy, it's vital to position yourself so that you have enough time to slow them down and shoot them and then run off to allow your flashlight to re-charge before the next enemy strikes.

The main difficulty with any darkness-based enemy in pen-and-paper games is that the flashlight is often either too powerful or not enough. Unless they have some sort of super-powerful flashlight, there's no reason why there'd be a re-charge period and without one of those it's harder to make it a tactical consideration. One trick would be to simply use multiple enemies and have the stunning effect wear off quickly when the character switches to a new target, but this can become clunky when you have four players. Requiring one player to work the flashlight while the others focus fire (by giving them astonishing healing rates unless struck multiple times in the same turn) could work to renew a tactical element in the game.

The other trick is to allow flashlights to stun them relatively easily, but make the creatures themselves hard to spot. They are born of shadows (or possessed by them), after all, so playing hide-and-seek should come naturally to them. If the possessed make for good contortionists, have them cling to ceilings or reach out through holes in fences. Make them fast and choose their moments carefully. This is also important because, in truth, horror in roleplaying games is dampened when the enemy takes too many casualties as it emboldens the players and encourages them to run and gun more.

Bearing in mind that a set of fresh batteries can last twenty four hours, it can be tricky to deprive characters of their protection from the light. An easy way out of this is to make it that the shadow creatures seem to absorb the light, which causes more strain on the flashlight, as reality tries to compensate by drawing on more battery power. Either that, or just try to break the flashlight itself, with a telekinetically lifted book case or, perhaps in later stages, a car.

Off Road Driving's Never Been So Much Fun

There's a real sense of a thriller television series in the episodic format used in this game which provides a greater sense of structure and narrative than is normally found in videogames. This also helps the tension by providing a real sense of pacing. The episodes each start in the daylight and work their way into the night, allowing for numerous quiet points to ratchet up the tension through contrast. In most games, you only have a single descent into darkness with the odd restful moment within that nasty world. The Alan Wake multiple day format allows for frequent comparisons to the normal world and gives the whole thing a bit more impact.

The main problem you're likely to face if you try to implement this system in a pen-and-paper is that by allowing the adventure to continue over multiple days and nights, your players will be tempted to do the smart thing and stay inside at night. Even during the day, they're unlikely to go into dark buildings or basements, at least not without punching holes in the walls or driving a car in through the front door. They're also likely to do as Barry did and dress themselves up in lights like a Christmas tree or come up with even more outlandish attempts to stave off the enemy. While these are all realistic and immersive reactions to this kind of situation, it can lead to the players stubbornly digging their heels in and refusing to deal with the plot. If this happens, then the game will either grind to a halt or move in fits and starts as you drag them along by the teeth.

The real trick here is during character creation. Convince them to create characters so motivated to find the solution NOW that they're never willing to wait until dawn. They'll follow the clues they have now as soon as they find them. Of course, depending on your players, they may or may not be able to put aside their pragmatism. Especially when characters start dying. In which case you can always make it more of an apocalyptic survival game where everything decays around them until they either die or act.

Or just have them play vampires. Then they can't avoid going out at night.

The other age-old question is how to discourage the players from trying to mash through the enemy rather than treat them with fearful respect. My suggestion would be to make them hard to hit unless light is used against them. Give them ACs so high the best fighter in the party can only hit them if they roll an 18 or above. Throw in a Miss Chance of 20%, or even 50%. Or in the World of Darkness, give them bonuses to Defense (+3 is enough in most cases) on top of their own defense (allow it to function against firearms, too). Make it possible, but too difficult to hope for. If you simply give them more hit points so they can take a beating, then players will be tempted to GIVE them a beating and win through a battle of attrition. If they simply don't get touched by a beating, players will look for another method.

The episodic structure in Alan Wake also includes cliffhangers and a central theme, or mini-plot, that Alan Wake must get through before the next episode begins. These are relatively easy to implement in a roleplaying game. Simply come up with some greater question or tension-inducing aspect to end on most sessions and structure the next session around that. Of course, since it takes a lot longer to play through a segment of a roleplaying game than it does through a videogame it might be worthwhile to focus around a couple essential scenes grouped around a similar theme rather than try to work in an entire plot line that may or may not be followed.

A campaign based around Alan Wake, or including elements of it, would certainly appeal to Tacticians who will quickly figure out the most intelligent way to handle the threat. Sprinkle a few clues around to some greater mystery and involve some oddball NPCs with their own goals and motivations and you'll keep Investigators happy. Explorers probably will enjoy taking a look at the different situations and seeing how odd the occult side of this world can get. Action Heroes are likely to get bored and frustrated as are Communicators who will want to bunker down and see how the various NPCs react to these claustrophobic events.

If you'd like to take a look at the trailer to learn more about it, you can check it out here. If you'd like to read the sort of tropes that Dead Island used, you can find them here.

For the next Game Translation, you have a choice of these: Left for Dead, Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth, Fahrenheit, The Sims 3, Half Life 2, Prototype, Skyrim, Deus Ex, L.A. Noire, The Last Express, Realms of the Haunting, and pretty much any survival horror or horror game. If no one picks anything by next week, it'll be Deus Ex. If you want to see the list of games I've done thus far, you can find the Game Translation series starter over here.


  1. So this is a really interesting idea, and I might steal it for Pathfinder at some point. I had a couple of thoughts back for you.

    If torch life is a worry, an isolated setting does give you some options (a city not so much). The only torches are powerful heavy-duty camping ones that pack enough punch to actually get around semi-easily in the wilds by night, but really drain the batteries. Or they're very old, inefficient models that aren't entirely reliable either (occasional repairs needed), maybe you need to jury-rig them to take the batteries you have got.

    Also, use non-brand batteries. The owner of the cabin was a cheapskate, or the one local shop only had knockoff "bargain" own-brand imports that only last an hour or two in a torch. I dunno if you've ever run across those, but I've had some off market stalls a couple of times, and they really can be that bad!

    You could also emphasise paraffin lamps or some other non-electric fuel source, which is easier in premodern settings, though magic complicates it again.

    In terms of the enemies, one thought is you could have fluid, nebulous creatures that coalesce into something more solid and punchable when exposed to light. Like jellyfish bunching up or something. In the dark, you might spot them, but all your attacks really do is slow them down or stun them, they're too spread out to really hurt.

    The other thing is that if the shades are given free reign during the night, they make plans. Move foliage or cloth around to create shade to lurk in. Lay traps. Maybe set fire to the building the party are hiding in (though they probably don't like fire), or flood it. Maybe they howl horribly and keep the party awake, or give them nightmares, so they're exhausted and vulnerable next day. Maybe they have magical or psychic abilities that can affect the party even inside, so long as the shades know where to look for them.

    Regardless of all that, more shades might gather nearby with every wasted night. That way, the best bet is to keep moving as much as possible, to try and get through before the shades realise they're there and can swarm them.

    Dressing themselves up in light will help against the shades, but who or what might it attract? And it shows up perfectly where they are and what they're doing for the shades or anyone else to monitor. So it becomes a toss-up.

    1. Wow, you have some truly awesome ideas here, especially concerning the batteries. I will doubtless use all of your advice in my shadows campaign which is heavily Alan Wake inspired.