Game: Alan Wake

Genre: Action/Third-Person Shooter

Developer: Remedy Entertainment

Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios

Platform: Xbox 360, PC

Score: Best game on Xbox 360.

“Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” –Stephen King

So begins Alan Wake; a game as inspired by the King of Horror as I.  Standing in the shadows of giants of the genre, it can be difficult to find your own voice.  The great success of Alan Wake is that not only does it find that voice, but it uses it to beckon us into the night.  Despite a couple gameplay problems, a narrative evolves that would make any horror aficionado proud.  Alan Wake is not just a great game but a great story told in a great way.

As the beginning narration expands on the wisdom of King, the camera pans over a foggy Washington townscape. Atmosphere is a good place for any thriller to begin.  The first mistake many such games make is to jar us with immediate violence or shock value. Horror games seem to have a bad case of attention deficit disorder when it comes to introductions. Taking the time to build unease is what separates Alan Wake and Silent Hill 2 from Resident Evil 5 and Dead Space 2.

After appropriately taking its time to settle in, the video game proper begins. We’re given control of Wake, in typical horror fashion, inside a nightmare. Specifically, a tutorial cleverly disguised as exposition.  You run from a monster or two, learn to shoot a gun, and master light as a weapon. A chase scene ends things nicely. Later you’re introduced to a few more characters that may or may not be important to the story.  [SPOILER].  The game builds further atmosphere, adds to the plot, and gives you the chance to explore a couple areas before things get real.

At first I thought I’d quickly sweep over the plot of Alan Wake as a typical horror story – I had even mostly typed out a short synopsis: A Cthulhian presence is imprisoned in a lake and tries to escape by warping reality. Sure, it’s average, but that doesn’t matter because it’s told so well that etc, etc. But, after playing the game for one hour, I took back my almost written words; the plot is great and told well.  Alan Wake is a famous author vacationing with his wife in the fictional town of Bright Falls.  Now, The Darkness has a bit of a fetish for starving artists, so when this self-absorbed creative rolls into town with a bad case of writer’s block, it perks right up.

Subtly at first, but gaining momentum, The Darkness eventually snakes across the town like a tornado, possessing people and animating objects. On top of this, Wake may have taken a flight over the cuckoo’s nest. He wakes up from a car crash missing a week of his memory and holding a few pages from a manuscript he can’t remember writing. It describes events as they are unfolding – and finding the missing pages, his abducted wife, and the source of The Darkness becomes his quest.

I’ve played through Alan Wake more times than any other game in this generation and I’m still finding layers.  Something as simple as Wake’s quip over a little carving in a tree provides poignant details only realized after the first playthrough. The amount of detail put into the town of Bright Falls makes it a real place with real people. They invent their own Twilight Zone-esque TV show to collect episodes of (along with thermoses filled with coffee).  Even the names: each proper noun used is often a pun, reference, joke, or allusion.  I love tidbits like this, and was particularly pleased with all the different author names Agent Nightingale manages to call Wake. I won’t give spoilers (and they are many) but I will give a tip:

Take your time playing this story – it takes its time in the telling.

Alan Wake comfortably shifts between thriller, action, horror, and rock concert.  Populating these landscapes is a cast of more than just one note archetypal rehashes (with one exception).  For instance the protagonist himself is actually three distinct characters.  The strongest character and true protagonist is Wake as he’s played by the gamer.  Flaws make for a more interesting character and this Wake has plenty.  He makes the bad decisions he needs to make in a horror movie, but is motivated realistically.  His temper and social interactions give the impression that Wake is not a great human being; he is an author after all.  One of my favorite qualities of Wake is his insomnia.  I like how it’s hinted at; another example of Alan Wake choosing subtly over heavy handed narrative.  There’s also Wake the Narrator and Wake the Crazy (Named Mr. Scratch in the DLC), each with their own role and personality.

Great care was shown in choosing Matthew Charles Porretta (that’s right, Will Scarlet from Robin Hood: Men in Tights) as the voice of Wake.  With three versions of Wake, you hear his voice a lot, so it being enjoyable is important.  Porretta delivers each line skillfully – from conversational dialogue to reading manuscript pages in the menu.  In fact, that great care was shown in the development of every character.  Yes, even Barry Wheeler, the exception I mentioned earlier – a mostly one dimensional annoyance who revels in it so much that you can’t help but find him endearing.  Eventually.  C’mon, who better to have your back in a thriller than My Cousin Vinny?

Environments are rendered beautifully from the opening cutscene to the fog that chokes the town.  The game likes to trick you by making the movement of branches rather human like.  This makes for great moments of suspense when you’re rushing through the forest trying to decide if it’s a tree or a darkness possessed axe murderer.  Alan Wake remains attentive to each detail necessary for a thrilling experience.  Planned encounters are built up to and strategically placed, while the open exploration moments have a degree of randomness to avoid predictability.

Oh, I guess Alan Wake is a video game. So I should review the gameplay. It’s good.

You shine light at dark monsters and then shoot them or whatever. There’s some other stuff. You move around with the left analog stick. The camera isn’t moronic. Some people have taken issue with the jump feature or some other nonsensical, forced complaints. If this prohibits you from enjoying an interactive Stephen King novel, you should consider reading Twilight for its intelligently written prose, or listening to modern pop music for its deep lyrics.

Alan Wake is a game with flaws, sure, but it is an amazing adventure.  It’s more than just an homage, it’s bona fide hero-worship – sitting right there next to you on the couch, paying respects to the Shining reference or laughing about the Hitchcock Birds. More than just a collection of horror tropes, name-dropping, and classic references, Alan Wake is its own beast. It is a personal story about the journey an author takes during the process and the relationship between fiction and reality.  It’s about the power of nightmares and dreamscapes.

This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360.