Originally Published 18 August 2010
Last week, I completed two playthroughs of Alan Wake. Alan Wake is a third person horror game developed by Remedy Entertainment–most commonly known for making the first two Max Payne games.
Alan Wake is centered around the titular author. Famous for his series of Alex Casey (quite obviously a name-swapped version of Max Payne) novels, he is now in a slump after finishing the last book in the previous series and hasn’t put a word on a page in over a year at the beginning of the story. He has come to the small town of Bright Springs on a vacation. His wife hopes that the trip will help him overcome his writer’s block, but when she reveals her wish, Wake stomps out of their rental cabin in a huff. Moments later, his wife screams out, and once he returns to the cabin, he finds a broken railing overlooking the lake the cabin is situated on and dives in after where she has presumably gone.
The next scene shown to the players is of Wake in his car, crashed over a small cliff with his wife nowhere to be found. He is far from town and attempts to make his way to a nearby gas station. As he does, he finds pages of a manuscript that he doesn’t remember writing, but that bear his name and the title he was planning on using for his next book. Soon thereafter, he begins to find shadowy humans who attack him on sight and can only be hurt by burning off a layer of “darkness” covering them and then firing at the exposed body underneith. Once at the gas station, he discovers that he is missing a week of time in his memories and begins a desperate struggle to discover what happened in the missing week and what has happened to his wife.
The gameplay of Alan Wake is mostly of the form “get from point A to point B without dying”. On the lowest difficulty level, this is generally a question of simply controlling crowds with the flashlight and then gunning down the enemies once their darkness shields have been broken. On the higher two difficulties, the game actually achieves its horror setting. On these difficulties, enemies have more darkness to shield them and take far more ammunition to kill. As such, the game becomes more about conserving equipment and trying to avoid, dodge, or distract the evils in the night.
Two kinds of enemies make up the bulk of the threat to Wake: the Taken and the Poltergeists. The Taken are human-shaped bodies which are protected by darkness and which usually pursue Wake with melee weapons. They can be slowed by shining a flashlight on them until their shield of darkness burns off and then shooting them with normal firearms. Poltergeists, on the other hand, are objects which have been controlled by whatever evil is pursuing Wake. They are thrown about in their entirety and can only be destroyed by shining the light at them until they are burned away. Despite having a fundamentally limited set of obstacles, the game manages to keep things fresh by putting Wake against them in various interesting ways. For instance, the game at one point introduces flashbangs. Rather than having them as an addition to an already outfitted character, players are instead given them as the only weapon to defend themselves in the night. This forces the player to become acquainted with their use, conservation, and strategy.
I ultimately found the plot of Alan Wake to be very compelling. What I think sets it apart from other contemporary horror games is that, despite being in a disturbing situation, the main character actually has allies who take him seriously and also experience the madness going on about them. Here, I’d compare to Deadly Premonition where although there is madness all around, the protagonist seems to be the only one who experiences it. I found that giving Wake allies who also had to deal with the craziness gave it a grounding that helped keep things cohesive.
It is somewhat uncommon for me to play through a game twice, so that may be evidence of my feelings about the game. On balance, I think it is one of the better games that I’ve played in a while and certainly one of the finest in the horror genre. Without using the cheap scares and startles that some horror games insist on using, Alan Wake managed to convey an environment that was hostile, frightening, and still somehow just a bit too close to possible.
Alan Wake: 1!
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