Alan Wake and the Proper Use of Product Placement

A lot of people are upset over the product placement in Alan Wake and I honestly don’t understand all the anger. I admit that there are a lot of in game ads, though they’re only really noticeable when you’re already aware of them and looking for them, and I don’t think that they’re at all intrusive or blatantly obvious, and surely they don’t single-handedly undermine the argument for games as art. In fact, I think the product-placement in Alan Wake is actually one of the better examples of the practice.

First there are the batteries, and the fact that they’re all Energizers. Granted, the first flashlight that we pick up has “Energizer” splashed across it, but that’s the only time when the brand name is easily visible. The actual battery packs are so small that I never even realized they were branded until I stopped and made a point to look my second time through the game. The only part of the package that initially stood out to me was the yellow color, which isn’t iconic of Energizer and, from a practical point of view, helps the batteries stand out on a shelf full of ammo.

Even if the brand name was more obvious, would that be a bad thing? It seems perfectly acceptable to brand the batteries in a game where they play such an important role. This isn’t a random ad that will change in six months, it’s an ad that’s actually integrated into the game world in a natural way. Energizer batteries exist in real life so why not in Bright Falls?

Second are the billboards, the most ubiquitous form of in game advertisements and another set of ads that I didn’t notice until I started looking for them. The few that I found are all for Verizon, but apparently there’s also an Energizer one somewhere along the road. I’m not about to go searching for it, but its rarity underscores the fact that these ads are not common. We spend most of the game running through dark woods, and when we do get inside a car, the roads aren’t suddenly littered with billboards.

Even still, the ads aren’t unnatural. Verizon and Energizer are popular brands, so why shouldn’t they be advertising along the roads near Bright Falls? Last year, I wrote about the jarring billboard ads in Mercenaries 2: World in Flames, which change over time. While I was playing, I noticed ads for the newest season of South Park, complete with day and time, and for the recently released movie 9. These ads were jarring because they didn’t fit within the game world: A pristine billboard in war torn Venezuela written in perfect English that is advertising an American show makes no sense. This can’t be said of the ads in Alan Wake.

Third is the most unique and controversial use of product placement: The “Boob Tube” achievement. In episode four, when the world is going to hell around you if you turn on one particular TV, then commercials start playing, and you unlock the achievement. This linking of achievements and product placement has riled many, but most of the hate is directed specifically at the Verizon commercial that plays. I find this odd because when I turned on the TV I didn’t see a Verizon commercial, I saw a car commercial that didn’t make any sense. I thought this was weird, and seeing it at the very moment when Wake was questioning his sanity was more then appropriate, it was unnerving. Ironically, I was comforted by the Verizon ad that followed because it was something familiar. But even if you’re bothered by the car commercial, there’s no reason for you to stay and watch it. The achievement unlocks as soon as you turn on the TV, so players have no incentive to stay any longer then that.

But it’s not just the achievement that sparked all the anger, it’s the very fact that there are commercials on the TV, which brings up an interesting dilemma that games face. Turn on your TV right now before you even finish this sentence and tell me what’s on. There’s a good chance that it’s a commercial. Commercials are, for good or for ill, realistic. There’s a demand that games become more realistic, but they’re inherently unreal. All games must choose which aspects of reality to imitate and which to ignore. Do you allow jumping? Climbing? Killing children? Many games take cues from earlier games so that over time a standardized stylized reality has been established: Red objects blow up, shiny objects are good, etc. We’ve become so used to the stylized reality in games that when some new aspect of reality seeps in it’s jarring.

How is it possible to “focus” a flashlight? Why are Night Springs episodes only a few minutes long? Why do Wake’s manuscript pages only contain three paragraphs of writing at most? These things are unrealistic and should break our immersion, but they don’t because we’ve been taught over time to suspend our disbelief in certain ways but not in others. We expect certain things to look real, like lip movement, while taking other unreal things for granted, like assuming there’s always something interesting on TV. But where do we draw the line? There’s no rush hour in Liberty City, but running from cops and hitting a traffic jam would certainly add a new twist to the chase, and I’d love to plan a heist or hit around the predictable flow of traffic. What aspects of reality do we not want in our games?

Someone is bound to answer “ads,” but what if the Nuka-Cola bottles in Fallout 3 were rebranded as Coca-Cola? On the one hand, this would be some very blatant and prevalent product placement. On the other hand, it would fit with the setting and finding a sealed Coke bottle in the rubble of Washington D.C. could stand as a very potent reminder of that lost Americana. Product placement as symbolism. Would such a thing hurt the game or help it?

Getting back to Alan Wake, Stephen Johnson from G4TV, whom I link to in the first paragraph, thinks that the game has the worst product placement in gaming history. I disagree. I don’t think that the ads are intrusive or obvious. They fit the setting and fit within the logic of the game. I say that Alan Wake is an example of product placement done right.