American media has made popular small towns with deep, dark secrets. Such small towns are responsible for playing host to some memorable “The X-Files” episodes as well as the now-legendary “Twin Peaks” television show. This fascination with small towns is much more prevalent in books though, with big-time writers such as Stephen King weaving remarkable stories of evil with such backdrops.
Remedy Entertainment, the studio, took inspiration from both television shows and mainstream literature to create an experience that is simply unforgettable. The end result is Alan Wake, an excellent thriller that manages to combine an engaging story with compelling gameplay. It does not revolutionize the genre – it doesn’t even try to – but the experience will stay with you once it’s over.
Alan Wake follows the titular character, a world-famous author, who has a nasty case of writer’s block. Wake and his wife head to the idyllic town of Bright Falls on a vacation, which, as you might have guessed by now, goes horribly wrong. He ends waking up a week later with no memory of what had happened the week before; on top of that, his wife is missing.
There are two major themes at play in Alan Wake. Drawing from its literary roots, the first one is reality versus illusion. From the beginning of the game you are confused as to whether the whole experience is real or just a terrible nightmare. The latter parts of the game tackles this head-on as players realize that reality is not what it seems.
The second theme is that of the classic “light versus dark” battle that is so popular in mainstream literature. This takes on a literal form – darkness itself is the antagonist and it is slowly taking over the town of Bright Falls. You, as Wake, have to defeat it with light; guns are a distant secondary weapon.
Combat in the game consists of casting light on the enemies and burning away the darkness. This is the reason why the torch is your best friend in the game, with guns playing the ancillary role of taking out the monsters once the darkness is gone. That is all the combat there is in the game, and it may sound very repetitive, but in the expert hands of a storyteller, even repetition becomes exciting, and Remedy handles it deftly.
Fighting is always tense in the game due to a number of reasons, the first of which is the fact that you are very vulnerable to attacks when you are focusing your light on a particular enemy. You always have to watch your back and your ammo since it is so scarce. Atmosphere is the second reason: clever use of lighting, fog and sounds creates an oppressive atmosphere that will have you running towards any source of light you can find.
Several sections of the game take place during daytime when the darkness cannot attack. These parts allow you to explore the town and interact with the town’s citizens, albeit on a smaller scale. This raises the important point of linearity – Alan Wake is shamelessly linear, forging a straight path from point A to B. Of course, there is the scope of exploring, but you won’t find much to see. In fact, the only exploring you could do is the surrounding areas of the fixed path to search for collectibles. Despite everything, the path Remedy has set for you is glorious and is full of tense moments that have to be experienced. These paths also lead to some great set pieces and action that rivals that of major action movies or television shows, with one memorable set piece being an exciting concert in the middle of a farm.
Constant references are made to works which have clearly played a role in the development of the story. In fact, the character of FBI Agent Nightingale seems to be there just to provide references to influential authors such as Stephen King, H. P. Lovecraft and Ernest Hemingway. References to “Twin Peaks” and “Twilight Zone” are there in the form of “Night Springs”, a satiric take on the two shows, which can be viewed in-game on television screens. Interestingly, the writer of the game – Sam Lake – appears in the game in a rather tongue-in-cheek moment.
Drawing on its relationship to television shows, Alan Wake is presented in an episodic manner, with six episodes making the game. This is executed masterfully as the pacing of the story works best in this format, and it keeps the player going as each episode ends with a cliffhanger. At the beginning of each episode there is a “Previously on Alan Wake…” segment that brings the player up to speed on the story in a concise manner. Each episode is bookended with a brilliant end song that has been carefully chosen to fit the theme of the episode.
The story is delivered through a combination of cut-scenes, dialog and manuscripts scattered throughout the game world. These manuscript pages actually make sense within the context of the game and give insight into the characters and events that have happened or will happen in later episodes. It was a pleasure going through the manuscripts; if you play through the hardest difficulty mode you’ll be sure to find one page that will bend your mind.
As I said before, the characters in the game are eccentric and memorable, to say the least. All of the characters make sense and speak realistically, with the star of the show being Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent and publicist. While he is the most obvious comic relief – what with his constant quips and one-liners – humor in the game is subtle and fits well within its context.
Alan Wake is a sight to behold. Environments are rendered in detail and the vistas are breathtaking, especially during the day. At night, the game becomes dark, creepy, and the environment is full of foreboding shadows and sounds of things that go bump in the night. This creates a sense of claustrophobia even though you are out in the woods. Use of light and shadows is excellent, considering the fact that both of them play very major roles. Animation is top-notch, although voice acting and lip syncing is horrible, to say the least.
Having said all that, I would wholeheartedly recommend not simply playing, but experiencing Alan Wake. Turn off the lights, crank up the sound, pop the disc in, lay back comfortably on your couch and enjoy the show.