We have reached the point in this console generation’s life cycle where developers are no longer satisfied with telling the story of hard, strong men doing brave, bold things. Instead, we’ve reached the point where story is king, and just liberally splashing crimson about the screen no longer carries the game. Alan Wake has finally been released, after spending a great deal of time in development or as just a tech demo. Telling the story of a mere writer in a horrific state of desperation, Remedy Entertainment has offered up a story for the ages. The question that still needs to be answered, though, is “Is it a good game?”Â
An in-depth discussion of Alan Wake would contain more spoilers than I like to pass around. To that end, let me sum things up. Successful horror writer Alan and his lovely wife/assistant Alice have hit a rocky time in their careers and their personal lives. To try to help things out, Alice books a getaway to the secluded town of Bright Falls. The town is not much more than a hunting and logging town, with not much going for it beyond the upcoming Deer Fest. The goal is to find a quiet getaway in the lovely, idyllic village, rent a cabin on a lake, and relax. Alan has been struggling for a few years now with no new book ideas, and both his agent and his wife are hoping that coming to this town will unlock the creative juices. Alan isn’t thrilled with this, and after he’s had a typewriter thrust at him he storms out of the cabin. Seconds later, screams rend the night and his wife disappears. Alan recovers from unconsciousness at the wheel of a wrecked car, and the nightmare truly begins. As he stumbles for help, he begins to find pages of a manuscript that he can’t remember writing, but show the future events with terrifying accuracy. Shadowy monsters lurch out of the wilds to take swings at him with axes, machetes, and other pointed objects. Alan Wake very quickly drills into the player’s mind that something is very, very wrong, either with Alan or with the world around him. Light means safety, and darkness means fear. The rest of the story is a twisting, powerful, confusing, and often terrifying story that must be experienced firsthand to truly appreciate.
The story is told in a series of episodes, and at the start of each you are presented with a “Last time on Alan Wake“Â recap. It is a nice technique to get re-introduced to the story if you play chapter by chapter, and it really pushes home the miniseries aspect of the game. This is a game that lives in service to the story. If you have been looking for a psychological thriller, this is it. I’ve rarely encountered a game that drives the idea of “interactive novel”Â as much as this one. Alan’s experiences are twisted in time and space. Is the character you control the real character? Are you an author writing what is happening? Is it all a nightmare? Have you gone insane, and are these experiences the fevered dreams of a madman in a padded cell? You have to play it to find the truth, and even then it is ambiguous. Ultimately, there isn’t much to do past the inherent story mode. That hurts Alan Wake a little, but the lack of extra modes is not enough to dim my enjoyment of one of the best stories in video games in recent memory.
If you play Alan Wake with a big enough screen, you may be tempted to walk through your television. The wilderness, weather effects, and lighting are that good. There are rain and snow storms in later levels that will make you feel like you should shut the windows in real life. The wind effects, especially when they are moving trees and shrubs around in the woods, are awesome. Buildings and vehicles are not quite as picture perfect, but they are easily up there with the best around. Character models are solid as well, but there are a lot of uncanny valley moments. Wake and the citizens of Bright Falls all look great moving and standing, but when they start talking there is some disconnect in animation and expression. There is some blur if you spin around too quickly while highlighted in a light source, but you’ll only notice that if you are looking for it.
What about the lighting engine? I remember when Resident Evil 5 was coming out, Capcom mentioned how much they wanted to use light in the game. They said you would be running around in a sun-drenched village, duck into a hut for cover, and be blinded for a few seconds as your eyes adjusted. That use of light never really appeared in Resident Evil 5. However, light, darkness, and shadow play a huge part in Alan Wake, and are done very well. Much of the lighting at night comes from either your flashlight or the moon. Both of them light realistically, and the shadows are perfect, down to fingers. Alan Wake might look good in pictures, but it is breathtaking in motion. Many of the cutscenes are astounding to watch, and often they look ready for the movies.
Ask any horror movie fan, and they will tell you that while the visuals of a movie are important, the thing that will truly terrify is the sounds. A good foley artist will make or break a horror movie. If what you wanted to be a blood-curdling scream comes out as a groan-inducing yelp, you’ve lost your audience. Remedy Entertainment knew that with Alan Wake, and the sound design is some of the best I’ve ever heard.
There is not a permanently ambient soundtrack. Much of the game’s mood is set by the long walks in the dark woods in utter silence, except for the rustling of trees and the wind in the branches. The silence is wonderfully ominous, and every step makes you wonder where the next threat is going to pop out from. There is some music in spots, but it rarely rises above a few very subtle background notes. Other noises that you might hear while camping in real life are twisted and enhanced, making you wonder what type of world you’re in. The voice acting is top notch across the board, but it is a bit quiet unless you have a great surround sound setup. You will generally want the sound loud anyway, both to hear all the audio cues and to jump when needed. The screams, especially by Alan’s wife Alice, are unflinchingly authentic. If you don’t find yourself feeling a bit of empathy for her during the game, you don’t have a heart. The only really down thing I have to say about the sound is that you tend to play faster than some of the conversations play out. Alan Wake is a game that is slower and more deliberately paced than many others, and there is a tendency to want to run over and grab the item or reach the location after you’ve heard about it, not after the NPC is done talking.
4. Control and Gameplay:
Players used to a typical third person, over the shoulder experience should feel right at home here. Most of the gameplay in Alan Wake is typical move and shoot, with some very light platforming/puzzle solving and a couple of surprisingly tolerable driving segments. What makes the game different is how you will fighting the enemies. Almost all of the opponents you face are darkness-corrupted loggers, hunters, or farmers. The darkness shields them, and it must be burned away with light before your weapons can hurt them. The weapons are about what you would expect to find in a small town, and nothing over-powering. Revolvers, shotguns, and rifles are your typical tools, with flares and flash-grenades as your expendable items. Alan is a writer, not a warrior, so you don’t have a great amount of combat moves. You do have the ability to focus your flashlight beam to a higher degree of intensity, but that’s about it. I’m actually pretty happy about that, because if you were playing a writer who was bounding from cover to cover and ripping people in two, it would completely break the mood. Alan isn’t a gunslinger, he’s a desperate man.
Moving Alan and interacting with the environment is handled well enough, but the jumping areas fail. Hitting A will cause Alan to throw his hands up in the air and jump about a foot off the ground. It is a clumsy mechanic, and doesn’t ever really mesh with the rest of the game. The controls are smart enough to move Alan over most small ledges and jumps automatically. I really wish the jump had been replaced with a melee shove. Again, Alan isn’t strong, but some type of defensive push would have helped more than the little jump. There are also a handful of light quicktime events, but those are typically done in desperation and don’t hurt the flow of the game.
If you like reading books after you already know the ending, then you will have all the reason you want to keep playing Alan Wake after the credits roll. That is the blessing and curse of the game. There is no real reason to play through more than once aside from neat collectibles and the ambiance the game creates. While there is some DLC planned for later this summer, there isn’t much here past the six great chapters of the story. The game is a bit on the short side, and some of the chapters are over before you know it.
If you’ve ever been watching a horror movie and said to yourself “Why doesn’t this idiot just run faster?”Â then you’ll have that question answered. See, humans are typically out of shape, and can only move so fast for so long, especially over broken terrain and hiking paths. This is where much of the challenge comes in, from being outpaced and outnumbered by shadowy monsters. Alan Wake passes out ammo and flashlight batteries at a fairly high rate on the lower difficulty levels, and you soon notice that if you are going to be in a flight mode instead of a fight mode then you aren’t given anything. Still, the game steadily ramps up the challenge, and adds more and more things to fight, dodge, and shoot. There are not a lot of deathtraps, and Alan is relatively tough if he isn’t strong. There are parts where you will have railroad equipment thrown at you by the disembodied forces of darkness, and Alan can shrug off a lot of punishment. Still, despite a refilling health bar, I always felt threatened in combat and you have to work to stay safe.
Balance: Very Good
Every scary story ever created can be summed up in one sentence: “there is an other, and they want to harm you.” Everything else is just set design. The other can come from without or within. The other can be a serial killer or a marauding alien culture, but the story remains the same. Alan Wake doesn’t change that plot, and throws dozens of references to past horror stories at the player, but the experience feels fresh and smart. A host of little touches, like radio conversations that show the town edging towards madness, really help pull you in. Television shows also abound, showing Alan in a different world talking about what is going on. Alternately, a TV might have episodes of Night Springs, an accurate and entertaining take on old Twilight Zone episodes. Alan Wake takes bits and pieces of popular horror and meshes them into a wonderful game world.
Originality: Very Good
We need a term that means “page turner” for video games. Mass Effect 2 had the same kind of frenzied drive for the story that Alan Wake has. You will want to know what happens next. Strangely, the combat can get in the way. There are a few sections of Alan Wake that feel padded out with combat when some type of quick transition would have been more enjoyable, or at least faster paced. The combat certainly isn’t bad, and the climbing and exploration certainly made sense, but there were times when I really wanted to know what was going on more than I wanted to shoot the darkness. It is a testament to the strength of the story when despite some repetitive moments you stay hooked to the game.
9. Appeal Factor:
I don’t like modern horror movies that embrace gore over fear. Gore is the easiest thing to do, but adding actual tension requires the audience to care about what happens. Hollywood has abandoned tension and mood and instead has elected to embrace torture porn and on-screen vivisection. I was pleasantly surprised by how little gore Alan Wake employs to tell its story. There is about the same level of blood as a made-for-TV movie. There are a few artful splatters, but nothing that could be considered over the top. Alan Wake does a lot more with drowning, falling, and mystery. Remedy has given us a game that is frightening because it is eerie and menacing, not overly alien. The fear comes from taking time to build an actual story with believable, relevant characters. It is refreshing, and aside from some rough language, the game is suitable for a pretty wide audience. I think that is a good thing. Alan Wake is one of those rare games that has almost universal appeal. It can’t be typecast as the typical horror or shooter game for guys. Everyone can enjoy being scared.
Appeal Factor: Great
Part of the fun to be found while exploring Bright Falls is the constant reference to other horror writers. Remedy has so many nods to the work of Stephen King that they probably owe him royalties. Other writers are called out by name as a drunk FBI agent chases and taunts Wake. The story mode feels like a miniseries, complete with excellent music at the end of chapters. Artists like Poe and Nick Cave put their twisted signature at the end of each nightmare. At another point you meet a patient at a clinic who used to work on videogames. He is being treated because of a disagreement over the value of games as art. In a game as artistic as this, it is a wonderful moment of surreal strangeness. The world that Remedy has offered up to explore will stay with you long after you put the controller down.
Control and Gameplay: Great
Balance: Very Good
Originality: Very Good
Appeal Factor: Great
FINAL SCORE: GREAT GAME
Short Attention Span Summary:
Alan Wake is an amazingly beautiful, haunting game. This is a great addition to the survival horror genre without giving way to the tactical zombie shooting trend that so many other horror games are following recently. The audio is nearly flawless, and the graphics are constantly impressive. Control isn’t anything new but it is mostly solid, with the exception of a bit of unnecessary platforming and jumping. The entire game is a constant, well-crafted homage to great horror writers from H.P. Lovecraft to Stephen King, and drops hints and references throughout. The game is a little on the short side and the combat can become repetitive, and there isn’t much of a reason to play back through again once you have experienced the story the first time. Those are the only real disappointments to be found though. If you are a fan of survival horror, of classic scary stories, of all the tales of murder and madness in a small town that television and literature offer up, you owe it to yourself to turn up the sound, turn off the lights, and spend a few sleepless nights with Alan Wake.