Rescue your wife from the clutches of an ancient evil.
PC Release: February 16, 2012
By Ian Coppock
Alan Wake is by no means a perfect game, but it’s proof that creative writers do have a place in game design. The chief creator and designer of this game was a novelist, and his is a story that should cause other designers out there to take note. This game relies on more than the conventions of game design. It has elements of novel and book writing in its makeup that make it stand out from other games.
Also, it’s a horror game. HOORAY!!!
Alan Wake‘s titular character is a worn-out novelist seeking time away from the world. He and his wife Alice leave their cushy New York life behind for a vacation in Bright Falls, a rustic little town squared away in the Pacific Northwest.
Alan has strange nightmares about his stories coming to life, and is also suffering stress from two years of writer’s block. He wants nothing to do with writing or his clamoring fans.
After a pleasant enough start in the pretty little town, the Wakes arrive to their resort cabin. Alan returns home just in time to witness Alice being dragged away by a strange creature, and gives chase only to black out. He wakes up one week later in a crashed car, with no memory of the past seven days.
After fleeing the wreckage, Alan begins the game-long quest of finding his wife and striking back against the creatures who took her. He starts encountering the Taken, a group of malevolent spirits, who attempt to hinder his progress.
Alan can only fight back by using his flashlight to burn away the darkness surrounding the creatures, then shoot them. Curious that a supernatural being would be vulnerable to gunfire, but… eh.
Alan also has to work with and against a group of human characters, including the town’s sympathetic but law-abiding sheriff, and his agent Barry, who is assuredly the most annoying character in all of gamedom. Comic relief characters are great when their role in the story is restricted, but with this game, the developers laid it on a little too thick. Barry’s always there with the perfect joke, the stereotypical big-city bumbling and the bad puns.
Alan Wake is an episodic game, which is an underrated form of game storytelling. Each of the game’s six episodes encloses a plot arc of its very own within the greater story. Consequently, the game doesn’t get snagged on singular, overly large plot twists and themes. Alan still has to find his wife, but each chapter presents unique environments, characters and challenges for him to overcome in pursuit of this goal. Each one had its own feel, which made the game larger and longer.
With varied gameplay and situations in each chapter, Alan Wake’s story kept me on my toes and never got boring for me.
Though the story isn’t boring, the gameplay can get tiring. Alan Wake‘s combat is formulaic and repetitive. The Taken only vary in their size and strength, but otherwise require the EXACT same attack strategies. They’ll throw axes and scythes at you from a distance, and try to hit you with easy-to-dodge swings up close. All Alan has to do is shine a light at them and then shoot. Poof. Easy.
This game is most frustrating when it comes to horror, in which it shoots itself in both feet. Unlike Dead Space, the game has some pacing, but this is rendered pointless by the collectible manuscript pages that Alan can find. If you read the pages, they’ll tell you when and where the monsters will strike, erasing the tension and atmosphere instantly.
“So, don’t read the pages, you whiner!” I can hear you say. Fine. I ignored them so that I wouldn’t know when the monsters would get me. Problem solved? No. When the Taken are out to get you, the camera will go into slow-motion and show you from whence the monsters are striking, so you’ll know exactly how to prepare yourself.
It’s a good thing Alan Wake has an interesting story, because in lieu of a gripping tale, these unbelievable design flaws would make for a very mediocre game indeed. You call yourself a horror game, Alan Wake? How can I get scared if I know exactly where the enemy is? That defeats the whole psychology behind fear!
This game may gave you the occasional chill, but since you’ll always know where the monsters are coming from, it’s not scary. The only time I got scared in this game was one point where the game bugged out and didn‘t do the OH ENEMIES ARE COMING screen. (slow clap). Alan Wake also presents beautiful environments but is really impatient with you if you like to explore. Even looking around for two extra minutes will prompt Alan to say a passive-aggressive line to get your ass in gear (“I REALLY should make that coffee NOW”).
But, like I say, the game’s story has the thrilling excitement that the horror and gameplay miss completely. Each character is deeply developed and has his or her own motivations, personality quirks and agendas within the larger story. The pacing is great for storytelling but the sabotage of the horror element muddles it up from time to time. The writing is pretty good but it can come off as a bit pretentious, especially Alan’s musings about how similar his story is to that of a Stephen King novel.
Alan Wake’s environments are causing me to consider my own vacation in the Pacific Northwest. By day, the environments in and around Bright Falls are beautiful. Forests hum with life, people go about their daily routines in the town, and the landscape is studded with picturesque cabins and campsites. By night, these same environments are unsettling, with the addition of fog, thick darkness and shadows moving between the trees. This striking dichotomy held my interest throughout the game.
Compounding the level design and voice acting is some excellent sound design, which adds to the atmosphere what the gameplay unintentionally detracts. The guys and gals over at Remedy should hire themselves out to design the soundtracks for haunted corn mazes, because the sounds they picked for spooky pine forests are outstanding.
Additionally, the musical score is a combination of original tracks and various songs picked to fit the theme of each episode, mostly country and alt rock songs whose names I can’t care to look up but I know fit the tone of said episode. In any case, the artwork’s variance between inviting and spooky pairs well with the story, if, again, not the gameplay.
The Steam version of Alan Wake has a few goodies tucked into the options menu. Among an artbook and some developer commentary, I found two DLC missions called “The Specials” that I remember seeing on the Xbox LIVE marketplace back when I owned a console. Both are set up as an epilogue to the main game, but feature little more than Alan running around in copy/pasted environments from the main game. Sure, they’ve been rearranged and put into a spooky black void, but they add almost nothing substantive to the narrative.
Overall, Alan Wake is not a hardcore horror game, but it’s a moody little story that I enjoyed. The gameplay is rote and the writing can be a bit stale, but the game pays homage to some great works of psychological horror. The episodic format keeps the game well-paced by spacing out plot twists and adding new dilemmas for Alan at a steady rate. It’s a smoothness uncommon in video games and one that I recommend you see for yourself.
You can buy Alan Wake here.
Thank you for reading! My next review will be posted in a few days. You can follow Art as Games on Twitter @IanLayneCoppock, or friend me at username Art as Games on Steam. Feel free to leave a comment or email me at email@example.com with a game that you’d like to see reviewed, though bear in mind that I only review PC games.