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Video games get real and grow up

'Alan Wake' and 'Heavy Rain'  plumb the dark depths of our real lives to deliver stories that are thrilling, chilling and utterly absorbing.
Image: Alan Wake
Forget playing space marines and super beings. In "Alan Wake," the new game from Microsoft and Remedy Entertainment, gamers play a writer, a husband and man with some serious career problems.Microsoft/Remedy Entertainment

I haven’t been this emotionally invested in the video games I’m playing since, well, maybe forever.

That is, I’ve spent the last week playing two games that have left me gripping my controller so tightly I thought my fingers might permanently seize into hooks. While playing, I found myself shouting out loud not to mention fighting back tears. And when I’ve finally unclenched my fingers and put the controller down at night, these games have skittered about in my dreams.

The thing is, I can’t get “Alan Wake” and “Heavy Rain” out of my head.

Even if you don't consider yourself a gamer, if you love a good thriller — and more importantly if you love good story telling — then these two video games are something you absolutely shouldn't miss.

In February, Sony launched "Heavy Rain" for the PS3 — a game that puts players into the shoes of a struggling father and on the trail of a serial killer who’s killing children. And next week Microsoft will launch "Alan Wake" — a thriller about a novelist with a bad case of writer's block, a missing wife and some seriously nasty career problems to contend with.

These two games have said goodbye to the tired alien invasions and over-the-top fantasy stories so often found in video games. Instead, they peer into the dark reaches of the very real human heart to deliver stories that are thrilling, chilling and utterly absorbing.

Meanwhile, these two games are doing much to advance the way video games tell stories — taking their narrative cues from film, television and even novels to weave storytelling and gameplay together in ways that have never been seen before.

More than anything, “Heavy Rain” and “Alan Wake” are proof that video games truly are growing up.

Playing the everyman
As gamers, we’re used to playing super-powered space marines, fantastical elves and warriors with fantastical powers and perhaps a wacky plumber or two. And who doesn’t enjoy the feeling of being someone we could never otherwise be? But at the same time, as compelling and entertaining as games can be, they often fail to move us on the kind of visceral and emotional level that great movies and television do.

Image: Alan Wake

The thing is, games are often so removed from our real lives that it can be difficult to feel anything more than amused by them — not that there’s anything wrong with being amused.

But that’s what makes “Alan Wake” and “Heavy Rain” such startling gaming experiences — they are not only deeply entertaining, they jab a finger right down into your emotional core.

As far as thrillers go, “Alan Wake” is a game more in the tone of a Stephen King novel or the “Twin Peaks” TV series while “Heavy Rain” has the flavor of films like “Se7en” and “Silence of the Lambs.” But both games grind away at the inner reaches of the player’s psyche for the same reason — the people and the places that populate them feel real.

These games present us with locales that seem like the places we’ve visited and the places we live — a small town, a big city, each depicted with a keen eye for detail. More importantly, they offer up characters that feel like people we might bump into right here on planet Earth. A father. A husband. A wife. A child. (Not a single space marine in sight.)

“What’s very important for me as a writer is to create a character and create a setup for a story that’s more human and more realistic than what you tend to see in action games,” says Sam Lake, the lead writer at Remedy Entertainment who created the story for “Alan Wake.” “From the beginning I wanted the main character not to be an action hero. I wanted him to be an everyman. I wanted him to have problems that every one of us is familiar with one way or another.”

And so at the beginning of “Alan Wake,” you see a man going on vacation with his wife to a small town in Washington State. In the midst of this, you see him struggling to get his career and get his relationship back on track. You see him doing what you’ve probably done at one point or another — struggle with himself.

Meanwhile, in “Heavy Rain,” you begin the game by playing through the mundanities of an average person’s life — you brush your teeth in the morning, you help your wife unload the groceries, you play with your children.

Image: Heavy Rain

“There are supernatural elements in ‘Alan Wake,’” Lake is quick to point out. “But the more fantastical the supernatural elements grow along the way, the harder we worked to keep that real world present. It was very important not to lose that.”

Indeed, because these characters and their problems seem so familiar and so real, when things start to go awry — when they start to get unreal as they do when playing video games — you still care about the characters. And you really really care about what’s going to happen next.

When Alan Wake’s loving wife is torn away from him, you’re desperate to help him get her back from the dark thing that has taken her. And when Ethan Mars — the father in “Heavy Rain” — loses his son, you’re left gripping your controller, gut clenched, eyes glued to the screen as you do everything you can to help save the boy.

Rated M for Mature
No, “Alan Wake” and “Heavy Rain” aren’t light gaming fare.  In fact, "Heavy Rain" is rated M for mature players only and "Alan Wake" is rated T for teens and older. But while many video games are slapped with M and T ratings for their blood, gore and , neither of these games have a whole lot of either.

Sure, they are at times violent and they do deal with dark deeds and their dark aftermath. In “Alan Wake” the writer protagonist must fend off an onslaught of evil forces, and in “Heavy Rain” each of the four main characters is trying to figure out who’s drowning young boys and leaving their corpses strewn about the city.

But more than anything, these games feel like some of the most mature games launched in recent history because they're games about grown-ups with grown-up problems — career problems, relationship problems, family problems, life and death problems.

“I think the timing is right to create more mature stories when it comes to video games,” Lake says. He points out that game developers are growing up. And players are growing up too. According to the Entertainment Software Association, the average gamer is 35 years old.

Lake says that while creating “Alan Wake” he tried to write a story that mattered to him. So perhaps it’s no wonder that the protagonist is a writer approaching middle age and dealing with all the things those middle years can bring.

“I just turned 40,” Lake points out. “And ‘Alan Wake’ is the kind of a story I would love to see in a game — it’s something I would definitely like to play and experience.”

Once upon a time in a video game
Of course, players don’t need to be middle-aged writers to enjoy “Alan Wake” and they don’t need to be fathers to enjoy “Heavy Rain.” As Lake points out, all humans, regardless of age, can enjoy a well-told story.

However, he also points out that video games and story don’t always make for an easy fit.

“You can make a good game without any kind of a story and you can make a good story and you don’t need it to be a game,” he says. “Combining these two elements together is a lot of hard work, it takes time and you need to do constant iterations with the plot and the gameplay elements to really make them work together.”

Making the “Alan Wake” gameplay work with the “Alan Wake” story certainly took the folks at Remedy plenty of time. “Alan Wake” was five years in the making. But it also took them longer than usual to complete the game because they took a chance and tried something unique.

That is, they created a game with a story that unfolds like a television show — in episodes.

Lake says that while games have often tried to imitate the movie pacing of telling a story, he realized that video games take place over a much longer time period — more like a TV season. And so they got the idea to put the game on one disc but split it up into episodes, each episode with its own highs and lows — an ongoing emotional rollercoaster well suited to the thriller story pacing they were trying to create.

Meanwhile, “Heavy Rain” shook up the gaming world by doing something new — it pulled out many of the standard gameplay elements and instead focused on letting players sink into a story and simply try to guide it as it unfolds. You still press controller buttons and sometimes steer your characters around, but the best way to describe “Heavy Rain” is to say that it feels like you’re nudging a movie along — nudging a movie that has a branching narrative and many different endings. How you nudge this story, affects how it will play out and how it will end.

Ultimately, “Alan Wake” and “Heavy Rain” are the kind of games that should open people’s eyes to the possibilities video games hold. They certainly prove that games can be not only entertaining experiences, but emotionally powerful ones as well.

And Lake believes it’s the combination of gameplay and storytelling that is the key.  “I feel that if you want to bring something new to games and if you want to reach a wider audience, good, deep stories are the way to go.”

You can find Winda Benedetti spinning a yarn right here on Twitter.