Remedy Entertainment last graced the gaming world with its Max Payne duo, the latter of which was described as “a film noir love story.” Following in that tradition of games inspired by other media comes Alan Wake, a game that wants you to believe that it is really an interactive TV series. Where Max Payne had storyboards in the style of a graphic novel separating its chapters, Alan Wake has clearly defined TV-inspired episodes, which even feature recap videos of previous episodes at the start of each one. A penchant for borrowing devices from other forms of entertainment and a tendency to name games after their main character (a surprisingly rare convention these days) are not the only things Remedy have brought from their previous series, however. Alan Wake also features a similar sense of horrifying events spiralling out of the hero’s control, and a fantastic sense of mood and atmosphere.
Indeed, if there is any one word that best describes Alan Wake‘s appeal, it is “atmosphere”. Since the last Remedy game was released in 2003, I have to wonder if they have been waiting for the atmosphere to accrue naturally – but if they have, it worked. The game is chock-full of creepy night-time forests, a small town filled with people that there is just something a little off about and oppressive sounds, themes and weather effects. The story starts out peacefully enough, with the titular character and his wife arriving at the sleepy town of Bright Falls and, after a brief and vaguely worrying stop in town, they come to the picturesque cabin on an island at the centre of a lake that they have rented for their vacation. As you can gather from the video below, things go downhill fairly quickly from that point onwards. Alan rapidly finds himself spending much longer than he had planned on night time hikes through decidedly unsettling woodland areas, pursued by shadowy assailants known as the Taken.
The story of Alan Wake is a little up and down at times, but the entire experience is peppered with moments of hilarity, terror and downright hallucinogenic foreboding. In between, the gloomy tension rarely lets up, and that’s definitely a good thing. Arriving at a cutscene or safe location (however temporary) brings a tangible sense of relief, and the difference in the player’s attitude towards the game in the daytime and nighttime scenes will be noticeable. This is all by way of saying that the developers at Remedy are masters of the menacing overtones that keep you and Alan in suspense for most of the game. When the ephemeral dark force that hounds Alan throughout the episodes causes the entire environment to dim and the predatory black wind whips through the trees around him, you will feel the stress and you will love it… though perhaps only in retrospect.
While the plot of Alan Wake contains all the twists, turns and red herrings one would expect from a psychological horror thriller, there are some seemingly unintentional misdirections as well. If you watch the trailer below, and compare it to the earlier video above, you may already notice that there appear to have been some changes in the direction of the game even at that late stage. The game contains this feeling as well; there are numerous times you come across a television showing scenes of Alan that could not possibly have happened, or a page from the manuscript of the book that he hasn’t even written yet, and you get a sense of the story inexorably drawing you into its complex web. Yet despite these fantastic clues and foretellings, there are often cutscenes that appear to be following some sort of earlier theme, much as the earlier trailer does. Most of the time it isn’t too jarring, but given the strength of the story overall, it can seem incongruous when it does arise.
The fundamental level paths of Alan Wake involve travelling along a relatively linear route, with opportunities for limited exploration to find the brilliantly designed additional materials in the form of short TV clips, radio broadcasts and manuscript pages, through a series of ominous locales while being periodically attacked by vicious possessed locals. There are a few set pieces in each episode, often relating to the woodland areas that surround the town, such as lumber mills and a visitor’s centre. In each instance the darkness that is pursuing Wake makes its presence known, sometimes directly and forcefully such as the in the situation in which it tears half of a building away, and sometimes in the form of particularly unique Taken characters. The latter can often provoke more than the simple shock factor of a sudden enemy encounter, as I found myself feeling genuinely sorry for at least one of the Taken whose former human personality I had discovered. There is also a memorable confrontation in the early game with a Taken who gibbers madly about the “incontestable health benefits” of Nordic walking, which froze me briefly somewhere between piteous horror and manic amusement.
The gameplay mechanics are mostly variants upon one well-polished theme – first you light your enemies up, then you gun them down. All of the Taken are initially protected by the darkness that possesses them, and Alan has to strip away that darkness with the power of light before he can harm them. This is often achieved by temporarily supercharging the beam of his flashlight while aiming it at an enemy in order to cause them to flare briefly, signalling that they are now vulnerable. They can then be shot and killed by one of the traditional firearms that Wake comes across in the world. There is an element of resource management here; supercharging the light for too long will drain the batteries, which must then be replaced like ammunition, and of course there is literal ammunition for the weapons. While certain powerful tools such as the flare gun are often on the verge of running out of ammo, on the normal difficulty level it is rare for the player to truly have to ration very much. The need for supplies manifests more often as a simple reinforcement of the relief felt when you reach the next brightly-lit checkpoint that the Taken cannot enter, which is generally accompanied by at least a few batteries and bullets.
The presentation is almost uniformly excellent, with a very solid graphics engine displaying particular care with lighting effects, as one would imagine. The atmospheric and weather effects are also top notch, and they all combine to create a very convincing, and disconcerting, environment for Wake to be harried across. The music fits the game perfectly, and the songs that accompany the end titles of each episode are often good enough that you may want to sit and listen to the entirety before moving on. Equally, the voice acting never even approaches immersion-breaking, and the only times the quality dips at all are those instances in which you stand near townsfolk for so long that you enter the truly extraneous levels of the script. Even so, the writing is many times entertaining enough that it’s worth standing around to listen anyway. Beyond these obvious facets of the presentation, small touches and details abound in the world, from posters to abandoned vehicles, that all contribute to the sense that this could be a real small town nestled in a forested mountain range. That there appear to be real lives just below the surface of events only makes what is happening to the place more horrifying.
As a game about a writer, you would expect the writing to be good, and it is, apart from a few slightly stereotypical characters. Likewise, both the audio and visuals make the town of Bright Falls and its surroundings a genuinely striking experience, although it’s often a profoundly troubling experience. The combat and gameplay mechanics, while not the stars of the show, are definitely up to scratch, and provide a decent dose of excitement when you are narrowly avoiding the frenzied attacks of one possessed lumberjack in order to strip the darkness from another before putting two rounds into him. The set pieces are well-scripted and sometimes genuinely surprising, and the episodic, TV-like format is charming and cleverly implemented. While it is not a perfect game by any means – the routine of explore, fight, set piece, explore, fight, cutscene can become repetitive and occasionally it can seem like you have no idea where you’re really going, other than into yet another patch of suspiciously dark forest - Alan Wake has a strong idea of what it is, and follows through on that vision well. In an era in which video games should be stepping up to equal the other entertainment media in originality and maturity, a new intellectual property which focuses on engagement with the character, the twisted concept and the manner in which the story is told is definitely to be lauded. In the end, if you are looking for a tense and gripping horror thrill, or a warped and complex psychological escapade, or even just a competent action game in a well-realised setting, I can thoroughly recommend Alan Wake.
- A believable and interesting world to inhabit, even if it is in the worst of circumstances
- The story is interesting and well-supported by many different pieces of extra material
- Atmosphere is the name of this game – few horror entries have managed to set a scene as consistently tense and troubling as this
- Main gameplay can become repetitive, if focussed on more than the circumstances that put you there
- Weird disconnect between the current and possible past directions of the game in certain cutscenes
- Some episodes feature a little too much “down time” between story moments that explain why you’re trudging through this creepy forest