alan wake

Review: “Alan Wake”

Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake made quite a splash on its release in 2010, heralded along with Heavy Rain as big advances in the narrative maturity of the video game form. With the PC version just released this year, and the de rigueur alternate reality game teaser for the sequel already in progress, Left Gamer Review thought this would be a great time to take a look back at the title. Also, um, we just got around to playing it.

Alan Wake is a successful New York City fiction author who’s been suffering from a two years of writer’s block, with predictably negative effects on his view of self and others. With wife Alice, he heads to the small Washington town of Bright Falls for a vacation. Alice, for her part, has a more pro-active plan to help Alan recuperate his literary muse: she’s selected Bright Falls because it’s home to a tony counseling center for artists run by Dr. Emil Hartman, a sort of New Age-y Dr. Phil character who is obviously evil.

When Alice spills the beans on her designs, Alan storms out of their lakeside lodge in a bad huff; while he’s sulking, the lodge goes dark and Alice disappears, apparently into the lake. Alan dives in after her–and wakes up behind the wheel of a crashed car with no memory of the intervening period. He then has to kill tons of zombie ghost hicks with flashlights and guns! In that order!

These peoples try to fade me!

The game’s key combat conceit is the use of light as a weapon. The Taken (ie, the zombie ghost hicks) are naturally equipped with a kind of “force field of darkness” that prevents them from taking physical damage. To defeat them, Alan needs to burn away the darkness with a light source (usually a flashlight) before dispatching them physically (usually with guns). It takes a little getting used to, especially since it means keeping track of two separate “ammo” levels–batteries and bullets–but it’s lots of fun once you’re good at it.

The mechanism forces the player to be thoughtful and deliberate about positioning and “order of operations”–and sometimes the right decision is to make a dash for the nearest streetlight, where Taken can’t enter. (One small annoyance is Alan’s curiously lame sprint stamina. It make sense to limit how far you can hoof it at full speed; but I can run for longer in real life, even when I’m not being chased by phantasmagorical rednecks.) On Normal mode at least, you get enough ammo so that you can handle things, but not so much that you get to be careless.

One pleasant implication of the combat system is that the game generally (but not entirely) avoids the “oh snap here’s an enemy right in front of you all of a sudden!” horror crutch. The horror genre as a rule relies heavily on the three easiest ways to induce non-physical discomfort in humans–startling them, embarrassing them, and grossing them out–so it’s a treat when a work tries to “scare” people on a higher cognitive level. Alan Wake does the latter, albeit in a setting that really is a trope: a small town full of semi-oddballs with “dark secrets” surrounded by creepy woods.

Visually the game looks great, even by 2012 standards. The play of light and shadow is tremendously well-executed; for those of us wizened enough to remember Wolfenstein 3D–yes children, 3D used to be such a big deal that people put it in the title!–or even Doom, it’s amazing to think about the progress that’s been made technically on the problem of light. Environments are nicely realized, although you can’t stray too far off the beaten path: Bright Falls has perhaps the highest density of ravines per square foot of anywhere in the known universe. Graphically the only weakness is human faces, which have a disappointingly boxy look.

Ground Control to Poets of the Fall: Don’t be on the same soundtrack as Bowie

The game is structured into six episodes, each of which takes 2-3 hours to complete. This is a nice format for those of you who are, or aspire to be, among the employed and/or sexually active, since it suggests a natural way of breaking up the game. Remedy also did a great job with the soundtrack on all fronts: voice acting, sound effects, background music, and even a bunch of featured songs from “real” bands. The only sour note–which unfortunately seeps into the mainline plot–is a track written especially for Alan Wake by the Finnish band Poets of the Fall. Written as an epic ballad, it sounds for all the world like Ricky Gervais doing David Brent doing an epic ballad. Throwing it into the mix with Roy Orbison, Nick Cave, and David Bowie doesn’t make it seem any cooler, either.

On the narrative side, Alan Wake is quite good: you feel propelled throughout the whole game, and one rarely has the sensation of doing things just to do things. The story is interesting and–without giving too much away–raises some weird and nifty meta-questions about whether Alan’s story is really Alan’s, or just a part of someone else’s inscrutable design.

Still, it has to be said that the game, although it presents itself as a psychological thriller, leaves its characters surprisingly unexplored. The obvious strains between Alan and Alice are dealt with superficially, even though their relationship forms the psychological pivot of the narrative. The antagonism between Alice and Barry Wheeler–Alan’s agent and intensely loyal friend–is mentioned several times; yet it’s treated as unproblematic that Barry joins Alan on his dangerous quest to save Alice.

Indeed, the game has an irritating pattern of introducing interesting ideas but leaving them undeveloped. For a large fraction of the game, Alan is pursued by an Agent Nightingale, ostensibly of the FBI, who seems to 1) know a lot about what’s going on; and 2) be fanatically determined to destroy Alan. But we never learn how or why. Similarly, it’s revealed later in the plot that some citizens of Bright Falls have knowledge of the supernatural evils surrounding their town, and have even formed some kind of secret society to combat them–yet this twist is dropped almost as soon as it’s presented.

Almost surely Remedy intends to explore this material further in sequels. That’s fine–these days, for better or worse, no one expects anyone to tell a story in just one book, movie, show, or game–everything has to be a franchise. Loose ends are as ubiquitous as product placements (which, oh yeah, Alan Wake also has). Still, Remedy lets the ratio of loose ends to resolutions go too high.

Furthermore, if you’re going to ask people to get on the sequel treadmill, then you have to keep it running. Remedy has released two additional Alan Wake episodes as DLC: “The Signal” and “The Writer.” Both are reasonably-priced and fun, but neither really advances the narrative, excepting perhaps the last few minutes of “The Writer.” The recent Xbox Live Arcade title Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is gaiden and doesn’t move forward the core story.

Contrast this against the Mass Effect franchise: the core titles were released about once every two years, and there was a forest of novels, comics, and mobile games that formed a dense tissue in the narrative space generated but unoccupied by the main games. Now no one should expect (or even want) Alan Wake to reproduce the Mass Effect juggernaut–but one has to wonder whether BioWare hasn’t simply thought through its creation better than Remedy.

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