Thursday, June 3, 2010

In The Shadows, Watching, Waiting

By Kirk Hamilton

Every year or so, two very similar movies will be released at around the same time. Deep Impact and Armageddeon, Antz and A Bug's Life, The Illusionist and The Prestige, The Thin Red Line and Saving Private Ryan... the list goes on.

The same thing happens with games to a point, but the similarities usually don't go too far beyond the genre and maybe the setting. But I can't have been the only one to notice the weird similarities between Alan Wake and Splinter Cell: Conviction, outwardly-dissimilar though the games may be.

It starts with the small stuff:
  • Both games are Xbox 360 Exclusives
  • Both games were unveiled to great pomp and circumstance several years ago only to vanish from sight completely
  • Both games were commonly held to be vaporware
  • Both were initially concieved as sandbox games
  • Both games had their sandbox elements stripped in a redesign yet their finished versions still show signs of open-world level design
  • Both games are played via third-person and star white male protagonists with short hair and a medium build
  • Both games feature great environmental art and jank facial animations
    In addition, both titles hinge their gameplay on creative use of light and dark. In fact, the games' light/dark mechanics are almost perfect inverses of one another.  In Conviction, Sam must remain in the dark to be safe, so the whole game is spent looking ahead for shrouds of shadow.  In Alan Wake, the exact opposite is true - Alan must remain in the light if he wants to remain safe, so the whole game is spent looking ahead for columns of light.

    Both games' plots surround a man on a mission, out to save a damsel in destress (Alan's wife, Sam's daughter). Both damsels are poorly developed characters who spend the bulk of the game off-screen. Both games are at their strongest when they're in shadow and fall apart a little bit by the light of day. Both games feature segments in which the protagonist is referred to incessantly by his last name. (In Alan Wake, as the kidnapper escorts Alan through the woods he continuously, gratingly calls him "Wake."  In Conviction, well, I think we all know by now.)

    Perhaps most interestingly of all, both games feature incredibly similar flashback sequences in their early goings. The protagonist's wife/daughter, not yet in distress, is in her bedroom. For a tutorial-related reason, the lights are doused. She then tells the protagonist that she is afraid of the dark, and he comforts her by explaining the game's central mechanics to her. Sam explains to his daughter how darkness isn't always scary, since once your eyes adjust you can use it to sneak up on people. Alan explains to his wife that as long as she has a flashlight, she'll always be safe from the dark.

    Amiright? When taken individually, those similarties could be the result of a random happenstance, but when I view them all together, I start to wonder... maybe some folks at Remedy are friends with a couple guys at Ubi Montreal? Maybe the teams bonded a little bit after their publishers both demanded that they totally overhaul their games?

    Or perhaps... something more sinister is going on?