Gaming preview: Alan Wake
In Alan Wake, players assume the role of a down-and-out author who travels to a small mountain town on vacation. Almost immediately, things take a turn for the worse, with monsters lurking in the woods, a missing spouse, and a mysterious "dark presence" taking over the Twin-Peaks-like town of Bright Falls.
Alan Wake is heavily pitched as being a "psychological thriller." Do the story and gameplay work together, or does it all just get lost in the darkness?
Alan Wake has been on our radar for years. It's been so long that at times it seemed the game was destined to fall into purgatory, never to be fully realized--but thankfully, all that has changed. Aside from an occasionally wonky camera, Alan Wake delivers on almost every level. The game is able to provide a compelling narrative; believable, fleshed-out characters; and legitimate moments of terror through its unique take on using the elements of light and dark.
It's refreshing to see a game attempt to innovate in ways few have tried before. Alan Wake concentrates as much on story as it does gameplay. This delicate balance forces you to invest in both evenly, which helped us connect various events and plot points in the game. The story isn't without its occasional confusing spots, but overall, the core exposition in Alan Wake is one of the best we've seen in games. It's one of the first psychologically thrilling stories we've really seen work well using a video game as a vessel to convey it. More of the story is told through manuscript pages scattered throughout the world, which unravel more of Wake's tale.
In homage to American dramatic television series, Alan Wake is set up like a season of episodes, each with its own unique cliffhanger. The "last time on Alan Wake" wrap-up that precedes each episode feels eerily familiar, like we are catching up on what happened last week. These not only give the game some narrative credibility, they actually work well to help explain the story. A lot happens in each episode, so we were happy to see something that refreshed our memory when it was time to jump back in.
Unique story delivery notwithstanding, sure, Alan Wake has its cliches. You'll be loading up on ammo and batteries at each checkpoint and your health will regenerate over time (even more quickly when under a spotlight). Mostly everything else is a fresh take on combat; your flashlight acts as the main weapon in your arsenal, removing the darkness from the creatures that plague you. Once you've eliminated the darkness, those enemies become vulnerable to conventional weapons like shotguns and rifles.
Alan Wake is also a gorgeous-looking game with impressive detail and creepy atmospheric sound. While you spend a good chunk of time wandering through the woods, the blown-out pockets of light and ominous moans from the darkness keep things moving right along.
The team at Remedy has proved that a horror story doesn't need an M rating to be scary. Alan Wake does just fine on its own without the blood and guts found in other games of the same genre. You'll find yourself compelled to continue trudging through the town of Bright Falls to see what happens next and ultimately how the game ends. To be clear, Alan Wake does have a definitive ending, but we've been told that there's plenty of DLC to look forward to.
Often, it strikes me how much a good game resembles a good theme park ride. Linear set pieces and triggered moments can feel like key turns in a Disney attraction or haunted house. If you subscribe to that analogy, Alan Wake is about as good as they come for haunted-house games. While I'm not sure I'd play it a second time, its moment-by-moment thrills are worth the money.
In a lot of a ways, Alan Wake feels like Microsoft's analogue to Heavy Rain: atmospheric thriller-horror, deep characters, movie-style presentation. Heavy Rain was more of an interactive film, however, while Alan Wake is a far more conventional run-jump-kill-the-bad-guys sort of third-person experience.
The fragmented story and nearly satirical genre characters round out a nice Twin Peaks-meets-Stephen King adventure. Daytime town exploration gives way to linear meanderings through endless nighttime forests that comprise most of the game's action. The lighting and atmospherics are fantastic, but eventually the game becomes a repetitive series of "kill the bad guys" checkpoints, throttling a lot of the innovation and novelty. The use of light as a weapon is clever, but it can get tiring after the 50th murder by flaregun.
If Alan Wake had a few fewer midnight lumberyards and a little more free-form daytime town exploration, we'd call this a home run. As it is, it's better than most games are at storytelling, and the entertaining pacing reminds me a lot of the underrated Ghostbusters game from last year. I didn't feel as compelled to finish as I did with the tighter Heavy Rain, but there's more game in Alan Wake, and a greater challenge. It's good gaming popcorn, and a wise summer release. Microsoft could use more of Alan Wake (and it will, with a series of wallet-emptying DLC episodes planned).
The "psychological thriller" Alan Wake raises interesting questions about the relationship between storytelling and interactive gaming. Games certainly self-categorize themselves into genres, and sometimes echo the stylistic sensibilities of other forms of media (for example, the horror movie or the detective story)--but, can a video game truly adhere to a literary style?
The question is a particularly apt one for Alan Wake. The protagonist is himself a writer of pulp fiction, and the game's plot and action both revolve to varying degrees around the act of writing.
At first, the camp-style narrative put us off a bit. The heavy-handed allusions to the pop culture worlds created by David Lynch ("Twin Peaks") and John Carpenter ("In the Mouth of Madness"), combined with a B-movie-like insistence on improbable coincidences, all felt a bit overly pulpish.
But, upon further reflection, the construction started to make more sense. Alan Wake is himself a writer of popular horror fiction, hence the world his writing brings to life is itself a distillation of the basic tenants of pulp drama--the perfectly timed crossing of different characters' paths, the improbably motivated villain, the Doubting Thomas sidekicks, the ultimate deus ex machina.
Almost to prove the point, the game is filled with literary references. Steven King and H.P. Lovecraft are naturally highlighted, along with more obscure figures such as August Derleth, and there's even a jokey throwaway line about "Da Vinci Code" author Dan Brown.
That this level of thought went into constructing the game's themes is impressive. Unfortunately, the interactive bones the game hangs these ideas on is less forward-thinking. The actual gameplay may be the least interesting part of Alan Wake--it's not much different than the 15-year-old Resident Evil scare-and-shoot model, and even the scattered pages of Wake's lost novel are treated as random collectible widgets.
That said, the game moves at a crisp pace (like a good airport bookstore paperback), and kept us hooked long enough to actually play all the way through to the (inevitably murky) conclusion.
For more on Alan Wake, be sure to check out last week's preGAME for a live in-studio demo of the game!