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Alan Wake Review

September 23, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Tom Dann

“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

Alan Wake is Remedy’s ode to Stephen King, and just about every twisty-turny pulp horror novel ever written. There are references to other literary giants, such as Lovecraft, as well as mystery TV shows such as Lost and The Twilight Zone. Alan Wake is a love letter to each and every writer who has produced a scary, supernatural horror story. It homages and utilises the cliches and genre conventions we expect. By creating something so rooted in supernatural-mystery literature and television, Remedy have created something new and unique, a flawed masterpiece.

The game casts the player as Alan Wake, a famous author suffering from writer’s block, having killed off the protagonist of his most famous series some years earlier. Alan and his wife, Alice, are having marital troubles (thanks to Alan’s frustration at his inability to create), prompting their trip to Bright Falls to escape and, hopefully, rekindle their relationship. Things take a turn for the worse when Alice introduces Alan to his new typewriter. Alan is furious, believing that Alice is forcing him to write, he storms off. All of a sudden the lights go out. Alice, scared of the dark, screams out for Alan, who can’t reach her in time. Somehow, she falls into the lake they’re staying on. Alan dives in to save her, and blacks out. When he comes to, he’s miles away, in a crashed car. Further investigation reveals Alan has lost seven days, and is being stalked by possessed people and objects. So the mystery begins.

Alan Wake is primarily a story-driven game, layering an incredibly rich narrative over the atmospheric gameplay. It’s rare to find such a thematically complex story in a game, but it further highlights Alan Wake’s literary influences. The narrative is progressed in several ways. Standard cutscenes keep the plot moving in traditional fashion, and provide a little action. Additionally, you’ll find pages of a manuscript for Alan’s next book, that he doesn’t remember writing. These pages provide greater insight into previous, or even upcoming, events, in a way that the game can’t otherwise by offering a window into other characters’ viewpoints and motivations. There is also a narration in the first person by Alan himself. This is normally nothing more than a description of the area or a suggestion for your next move, though it provides a great atmosphere as well as bringing Alan to life a little more.

Alan’s occupation as a writer is clearly an important aspect of the game, not only because it provides one of the central hooks (finding the manuscript pages), but because the entire game is itself a meditation on creativity in all its forms. Dr. Hartman runs a psychiatric home in the town, which specialises in treating artists who are struggling to create. Hartman is a producer, and represents the business side of commercial art. He seeks to restore artists to the top of their game, in order to get a cut of their profits. There is an amusing exchange with an inmate named Emerson, a hyperactive videogame designer, where Hartman refers to videogames as “trash,” but concedes there is “some small creative effort” involved, perhaps a sly comment about critics who are yet to take videogames seriously. Maybe if they played Alan Wake they’d find it easier.

Like all good paranormal horror stories, Alan Wake is rife with metaphor. Demons and the supernatural are, in the best horror, externalisations of internal issues. Stephen King has mastered this: take, for example, Carrie, the bullied girl who converts her lifetime of abuse into the power of telekinesis. In Alan Wake, “The Darkness” can be seen as a manifestation of the creative part of the human psyche. The Darkness is the idea in an artists head that needs to be externalised, here made powerful and dangerous. The Darkness’ only weakness is the light, and this is where Alan Wake separates itself from other action games. Players must carefully use their torchlight to rid enemies of their supernatural shield before physical attacks can harm them. It’s a simple mechanic, which adds an extra level of thought to the chaos, as well as providing an excuse for some incredible lighting effects. Alan Wake is otherwise a very standard third-person action game, requiring the player to deal with only a small variety of situations. Luckily, the pervading atmosphere aids playability, and the narrative leaves the player with plenty to think about.

The light vs dark dichotomy can also be applied simply to Alan’s mind. We are given hints throughout the game that he may simply be schizophrenic. He believes Alice has been kidnapped (there is a ransom, the price being the manuscript Alan doesn’t remember writing.) What if she left him? Or worse, died? Alan’s mind could be making everything up to avoid dealing with a worse truth. After all, he certainly has enough imagination.

The game opens with a quote from Stephen King, suggesting that explantions and logic are what spoil horror stories. Unfortunately, Alan Wake does not entirely practice what it preaches. While many plot strands remain unexplained, the final chapter sees too much of what has unfolded explained fully, and has Alan gun his way to the end. This is a shame, as the game works so hard to be something different, only to succumb to typcal action conventions in the final hour. There is little fear to be found in being outnumbered by foes you have the firepower and knowledge to deal with. Luckily, the very end of the game is something entirely more abstract, providing more questions than answers. The resolution will be difficult to swallow for literalists.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

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