- Directed by: Petri Jarvilehto
- Written by: Sam Lake
- Developed by: Remedy Entertainment
- Platform: Xbox 360
Finnish based Remedy Entertainment must have known they were on to a winner when they embarked on Alan Wake. Boasting itself as more of a TV series than a mere game by its makers, we are lead to believe that this six-part episodic thriller has triggered the revival of the tired horror genre of video games. Let’s see, shall we?
Eponymous Alan Wake is a famous horror author who travels to the picturesque town of Bright Falls with his wife Alice to shift a severe case of writer’s block. But when he suddenly wakes up at the wheel of a crashed car with no idea what transpired and no sign of Alice, the idyllic town starts to turn a darker shade. This foreboding sense of anxiety will translate to gamers in a compelling way as you journey on to find Alice through a roughly ten-hour third person exploration, and restore truth to the broken pieces of Alan’s recollection.
But here comes the first speed bump to this pep rally; the narration. Five minutes in and the game feels like an episode of Jackanory. Alan tells the whole story through his own narration, as if the damn thing is trying to make-believe itself into a book, as well as a TV series, oh and a game. Immediately you’re struck with the impression that this game is trying to be too much all at once. Biting off more than it can chew, the cluttered construction feels over ambitious and flawed.
But as soon as the mention of gameplay is made, this game is untouchable. The genius premise of Alan Wake is the battle between light and darkness. Your enemies are townspeople ‘taken’ (as they are aptly named) by a strange darkness that controls them like vicious marionettes to hunt down anything still living in the light. This bond with the dark makes them seemingly indestructible in the night-time setting, unless you first deplete their immortal barrier with light.
This comes in the form of Alan Wake’s most trusty and unorthodox ally – his flashlight.
Instead of this extra requirement taxing the player’s patience, the beauty of this mechanism is that every button on the control pad is utilized to simplistic perfection. Focusing on the triggers, hold left for your flashlight and tap right to follow through with bullets. Dispatching of enemies is quick and easy in this fashion, and you find yourself coming to grips with it in no time. It would have been nice to progress from these basics quicker, or perhaps see some variation on the methods, but extra challenges do eventually come. Even as your arsenal builds to include explosive light sources such as flare guns and flash bangs, and firearms come by the pair, at no time does this become overwhelming. One quick selection on the D-pad and you can switch between all of your supplies in no time to get yourself out of a tight spot, often striking a flare to ward surrounding enemies backwards into the darkness with one quick stab of the right bumper.
What’s more, the aesthetics of this game are absolutely stunning. From the very first step into the dark, you are constantly awe-inspired by the lighting effects that so cunningly spoil the darkness of the forest trails. Feeling almost like a physical ally, you will often feel your heart lift when you sprint into a pool of lamplight on the ground, knowing it will expel enemies around you. The foreboding threat of what lurks in the shadows is maximized by the open expanse of the free-roaming landscape, and genuinely feels unsettling when the taken can materialize from any dark corner, and poltergeist furniture comes flying at you when you’re not looking.
But it is the power of the storytelling that this game has been promising us was worth the nine year wait from announcement to completion. Let’s just say that gone are the days of Japanese script writers oozing hilarity with Jill sandwiches, and for that we are eternally thankful.
Writer Sam Lake is an exception to the game writing rule when it comes to horror, and it is about time. His obvious knowledge and respect for the genre shows a love of classic horror, and a motif of famous horror penmanship is laced in with the equivocal plot to create a profound experience for those of us who love this genre too. Stephen King is quoted so religiously that it is as if he is a scholarly reference, and for those of you who can read the word Cthulhu and pronounce it correctly, you will get a kick out of the striking similarity the deliberately ambiguous threat of ‘darkness’ has to the mythical monsters of H. P. Lovecraft. What’s more, the unmistakable Lovecraftian method of investigatory storytelling is utilized in this game, from asking the player to hunt down radio transmissions and television broadcasts, to discovering secret light-sensitive scrawls on the walls and lost pages of a manuscript Alan Wake cannot even remember writing himself.
Lake earns the trust of horror fans out there, and I feel he will have brought many back to the table. But I will sell my own organs if any of you can tell me what the hell the poor bloke meant with this storyline. A step too far in the ambiguity stakes, it leaves the gaming experience feeling somewhat cheapened by the deliberate set up for sequels and downloadable content; thank you Microsoft. Oh, and they have just released a paperback book version too. Steady on.
But love or hate it, you cannot deny the charm of this game. The reason it gets such a generous score from me is that it is so easy to immerse yourself in. Part of the point of this thing is to confuse the hell out of you, because you follow it like the last season of Lost purely in the blind hope that your questions will be answered. No doubt, Alan Wake should have been a smoother harmony of the conflicting formats it is trying to morph into all at once, but hell, at least it’s trying something new. The way the game plays with you (special mention going to one truly memorable ploy in the middle of the story) is worthy of its’ psychological stamp and sales figures so far. So forgive the clumsiness of its deliverance, because this game has managed it, it will get you excited about horror gaming again. And for that, we salute you Remedy.