In a recent interview, legendary game designer Warren Spector was quoted as saying video games are in their golden age: “There are so many ways to reach an audience now, and so many platforms…There’s something for everyone.” This is a claim that could not be truer in light of Remedy’s latest game. Alan Wake is a psychological thriller that puts traditional third-person shooter mechanics on the back burner in favor of rich atmosphere and well-drawn storytelling.
The game revolves around the title character, Alan Wake: a famous thriller writer who has left with his wife, Alice, on vacation to the small town of Bright Falls. Due to some intense writer’s block, Alan hasn’t written a novel in years and the couple hopes that their trip will help get his creative juices flowing again. But shortly after their arrival to the fictional north-western-esque hamlet, Alice goes missing and Alan wakes (Ha! Get it? “wakes”) up in a car crash a week later with no memory of anything that has happened since his wife went missing. The adventure really begins as Wake is treading through the forest for help, when he is accosted by possessed townspeople ominously called the Taken.
Alan Wake relies heavily on plot, and it does not disappoint. Each stage is referred to as an “episode” preceded by a “previously on” cinematic to catch you up on what just happened in the game, as well as to give you the feeling that you’re watching a Twin Peaks-styled television mini-series. This accomplishes the game’s main objective of being an episodic story rather than a normal shooter. It is the story that really sucks you into this game. The atmosphere around the sleepy, isolated town of Bright Falls with its mountainous, forested landscape really boosts the “Oh, crap!” sensation you used to feel from such games as the Resident Evil series. I mean, let’s be honest, most Disney Channel shows are scarier than RE5 was. The player also has the ability to reveal more of the plot (and occasional hints of what’s coming next) by finding pages of manuscript that Wake wrote during the week he has forgotten. Along the way, Alan is joined by his publicist and best friend Barry Wheeler who provides some comic relief to lighten the mood, as well as being a sidekick for some of the later episodes. While at best, Barry is pun on himself, the mediocre humor does help break up the tenser scenes in the game—which is great for gamers on anxiety meds.
While the plot is what really sells this game, it can also be a drawback for the more hardcore gamers out there. Alan Wake sacrifices a lot of progressive shooter mechanics to be what could be looked at as merely a playable horror movie. The weapons get better, the Taken get bigger and tougher, but the main game mechanic is still ‘point and shoot’. The only original aspect of the combat system is the unique way you defeat the enemies: as the Taken are surrounded and protected by darkness you have to hit them with light before they become vulnerable to your firearms. This is done mostly with your flashlight, but eventually you pick up flares which ward off the darkness if things get too hairy, and a flare gun that—in the context of this game—works much like a grenade launcher. So when you’re not running, jumping, melee-ing, and machine gunning the baddies, there’s enough artillery to keep things interesting as you uncover the disappearance of Alice. Just remember that Alan isn’t the Master Chief or Marcus Fenix—he’s a writer with a side arm. Stephen King and Dean Koontz are probably off in a corner somewhere weeping and wishing they were as badass.
Another possible argument of the nay-sayers lies in the game’s heavy use of plot. (Did I mention that is game is heavy on plot? Well, it is.) At times, you will be playing through some of the more cinematic parts of the game (like talking to a forest ranger and then going to his office to pick up a piece of paper to bring back to him) which for some, might seem to drag on and slow down the pace of the game. Once again: Plot. Heavy.
Alan Wake may not appeal to everyone, it is the price of living in this proverbial “golden age” of gaming. I believe that there will definitely be a strong (or at least a cult) following for this survival horror title. I already count myself as part of that crowd. If you’re into dark environments, good story-telling, appropriately challenging game play, and a partner in crime who looks great in set of multi-color Christmas lights (hey, whatever works in the dark, right?) then you’ll be a big fan of this digital page-turner.
- Collin Lucke