Alan Wake is a game which Remedy Studios has basically made by taking Stephen King’s Duma Key and throwing in a few other twists and turns.
This game is horror done right. Speaking personally, Duma Key is one of my favorite novels. If you love either the game or the book, you should try the other. If you simply like King or horror, you will love this game. This is basically Stephen King – The Game, as the famous writer Alan Wake goes on vacation to Bright Falls, trying to overcome his writers’ block.
Instead, he’s forced into writing a new manuscript, which comes to life under the magic of the otherworldly Dark Presence. You spend the game under constant threat of attack from the Presence and its zombie-like minions, The Taken.
In true King style, the protagonist starts the story with a short-lived bout of amnesia – obtained by whacking his head in a car crash while searching for his lost wife. As Alan moves into the light – a street lamp in this case – a mysterious being appears floating in the sky above you, dressed as a deep sea diver. Your new friend from beyond drops pages of a manuscript that Alan doesn’t recall writing, but which have his name on them. The pages then come to life in the world around you. They’re visions of the future, but don’t drop in the right order: your entire manuscript has been scattered through the small town, probably somewhere in Maine. Stephen King’s books are almost always set in Maine…
This delivery serves to really rack up the tension in a beautifully crafted way, because when you read the following page, you know that it is exactly what is going to happen to you at some point in the game. It could be in an hour. It could be around the next corner. This game understands that you can only fear what you do not know.
“The night had been one desperate situation after another. I was exhausted and my body felt as though it had been chewed up and spat out.
The flashlight was heavy in my hand, and each pull of the trigger sent a painful shock up my arm. But I was finally out of the woods and things were looking up.
That’s when I heard the chainsaw.”
In this case, you only have to wait a nerve-wracking 20 minutes. But just when you think you’re safe, that’s when you hear the chainsaw. A lot of horror games these days exist purely for the jump-scare. Dead Space is one of my favorite games of recent years but it isn’t scary in the slightest – your enemies are bathed in light and you know what you’re up against [Editor’s note- Oh, I beg to differ. I went through more than one pair of underwear playing the first game]. In Alan Wake, enemies in are shrouded in darkness and entirely bulletproof until you burn away their armor with your trusty flashlight. Batteries and ammunition are both scarce enough that if you don’t play conservatively, you’ll find yourself breathing just as hard as Alan does, sprinting back into the warm safety of the streetlight which serves as both a checkpoint and place where your health can finally regenerate.
Alan Wake is a great example of the survival horror genre. At no point do you ever feel overpowered; you always feel vulnerable. Stay still for too long and more enemies will spawn, lending the proceedings a sense of frantic urgency. Your most powerful weapon is a flare gun, which can easily dispatch several Taken at once. Ammo for this uber-weapon is scarce and if you try to hoard it, you’ll find that Wake doesn’t have bottomless pockets. Alan is a middle-aged man. He’s fairly accurate with a gun but can’t sprint for very far; if you think you can just sprint from checkpoint to checkpoint, you’re in for a shock.
The fact that this is inspired by Stephen King’s entire career almost ensures that the story is incredibly well-written. There are a few contrivances that you will expect from what is essentially a piece of Stephen King fanfic. On the whole though, I’d easily say that the game is one of the most compelling I have played to date.
As you play you interact with other characters who have held the same powers as Wake. You’ll meet a pair of elderly brothers – treated as the town kooks – who the locals claim have had their brains addled by Rock ‘n’ Roll. They were once in a rock band known as the Old Gods of Asgard, whose music came to life the same way as Wake’s writing does. You can empathize with them; knowing what they have lived through and knowing that the townsfolk have no idea about what is really happening, you care for them and you treat each encounter with them as a learning experience. When their songs come on the radio (as performed by the real band The Poets of the Fall) you pay attention because you know it will have a very real effect on your future, despite the song being 20 or so years old in the game. This creepy way of incorporating the soundtrack is a brilliant idea and it is perfectly executed in Alan Wake.
After finishing the game, I went for a walk through a darkened grave-scattered forest at the top of a mountain in rural Japan. I put on the Old Gods of Asgard, and started listening to the song The Poet and The Muse. I started thinking about The Taken and my flashlight sputtered and died. I have never been so scared in my life. I knew The Taken were fictitious, and that the rustling in the bushes was probably just some local wildlife; but the game had worked its way underneath my skin.
As I write this review listening to the song once more, my arms have goose bumps and I’m looking over my shoulder. That’s how creepy Alan Wake is.
It’s also beautiful and atmospheric. The soundtrack suits the game perfectly, and the chapter-based story-telling lends itself to this incredibly well. At the end of each chapter you’re greeted with a song summing up the game so far. While you listen to the Old Gods of Asgard warning you of what’s to come, you sit and absorb what just happened and mentally prepare for the next episode. This could have been improved by removing the recap at the beginning of each chapter. Considering you can’t save and quit between chapters, the recap is redundant. I did, however, find it to be the perfect moment to make yourself another cup of coffee; so I guess all’s not lost. Coffee, incidentally, is the second most abundant collectable in the game, so I guess it’s fitting.
Despite all this, Alan Wake is by no means perfect. My first play-through of this game was on Hard difficulty. I found every collectible (of which there are hundreds) and still managed to finish without a struggle. I then moved on to the newly unlocked Nightmare Mode with the thrill of a challenge ahead of me. Sadly I died less often on Nightmare than I did on Hard, despite there being fewer batteries for your torch and far less ammunition for your weapons. The new manuscript pages that appear on Nightmare Mode add a lot to the game and its story, but I really hoped for much more of a challenge. Perhaps knowing what had happened last time sapped some of the tension, but Nightmare Mode could have lived up to its name with a few tweaks: some new enemy patrols, or differences to the AI of your opponents. Instead, it feels more like a sly attempt to force a second play-through by hiding Nightmare-specific manuscript pages than an actual step up in difficulty.
Most of the things about this game which I could complain about are just little things. For example, Alan narrates the game as you play. This makes sense considering this game is a story of struggle, as written by Alan himself. However, every time you see a hatchet in a circuit breaker, and Alan tells you that the circuit breaker is destroyed, you just roll your eyes. This happens just often enough that it’s getting annoying by the end of the game. The vehicle sections feel pretty clumsy, and the facial animations are incredibly off-putting. Granted development for this game started in 2001, but for a game released in 2010 you would really hope for better.
On the whole, Alan Wake is an incredibly good game, with just enough flaws that the game is never wholly perfect. It’s atmospheric, but never terrifying. It has a great story, but some find the narration grating on the nerves. Either way, I would recommend it to anyone with a love of either horror or proper storytelling, and is one of my favorite games to date.