WORDS BY: Francesca Reyes
You can approach this axe-wielding, boogeyman-dodging thriller in two ways: as a literate, sophisticated mystery told in the form of a videogame, or as a frantic, pulse-pounding actioner about rationing ammo and light sources. The two paths sometimes cross with great effect, but in a game that’s all about balance — light and dark, choice and fate, literal and figurative — for one of them to succeed, the other has to stumble a bit.
First, meet Alan Wake. A wildly successful fiction writer with a penchant for dipping into darker territory like crime novels, Alan’s also madly in love with his wife, Alice — even if he’s sometimes too big of a crank to show it with any consistency. With Alan facing a bout of writer’s block, the couple toodle off to the scenic smalltown-ville of Bright Falls to take a break; and maybe in the meantime, the author can get his money-making, novel-penning mojo back as well. Bonus.
Naturally, their best-laid plans go crazy-wrong. Alice vanishes under what can only be described as very mysterious circumstances, and Alan blacks out, only to wake up in a wrecked car several days later. What happened? Where’s Alice? And why the hell are black-cloaked lumberjacks trying to decapitate you in Bright Falls’ forest at night? Oh, and could someone please explain why pages of a manuscript you don’t remember writing are scattered across town…and even worse, why the events covered therein are coming true?
If it all seems strangely familiar, we can see why. Pop-culture-y, psycho-thriller flicks like Flatliners and Jacob’s Ladder have explored plot-twisty, “Is it all a dream?” terrain like this before, so it’s to developer Remedy’s credit that their immensely talented writers do the exact opposite of phoning it in. Alan Wake goes deep into surprisingly literary territory, pulling from a dizzying grab bag of influences: David Lynch’s cinematic dream-logic, Mark Z. Danielewski’s meta-meta House of Leaves, the brain-teasing TV series Twilight Zone, and even…wait for it…a little Faust? Wake lovingly wears its references on its sleeve, but it ends up delivering a slam-bang stunner of a tale that’s compelling yet deliciously original. It’s also a clever and exacting mystery that’s as much about the craft of writing as it is about…well, whatever you want to read into it.
In Alan Wake’s dreamworld, there are no red herrings. Nothing’s left to chance — only interpretation. From every poster in town to the very specific licensed songs that cap each in-game “episode” to the choice of words in Alan’s voice-over narrations, Remedy leaves you very deliberate, very purposeful clues for unraveling the question at the heart of Alan’s dark, sometimes comical (yes, it’s really funny in parts!) fairy tale.
But games aren’t books or movies. They’re not static; they’re packed full of movement, interaction, and player involvement. And Alan Wake delivers a heavy helping of breathless, sweaty-palmed thrills that leave you fumbling to reload flare guns and flashlight batteries between mad dashes from faulty light source to light source. Using light to banish darkness-tainted enemies, called Taken, works two ways: Daylight and any area bathed in light keep them at bay, and so does your trusty flashlight, whose blazing beam you’ll need to focus on Taken to “burn” the darkness off of them. Until you do this, they’re invulnerable. The same applies to pretty much any of the inanimate objects that become possessed by darkness (Wake calls it the Dark Presence): you’ll have to hold back lunging barrels and airborne cars with only a flashlight.
The constant, white-knuckle juggling act between weakening some enemies and finishing others off makes for moments of pure panic. The minute you hear menacing whispers circling around you in the shadows of Bright Falls’ forest or some abandoned farmhouse, it’s smart to start eyeing your ammo and battery stash. You need both to survive, and you can’t always count on those islands of light coming from some random streetlamp or dilapidated shack to stay illuminated. You can duck and dodge the Taken all you like — in nifty slow-motion if you time it right — but they attack in droves, so where there’s one, more are probably lurking just outside the periphery of your limited vision.
In one area, you’re sent scrambling to follow a floodlight from a police helicopter along a darkened path. Trying to keep up with the light while fending off Taken? Hairy. It’s during these moments that Alan Wake’s light/dark gimmick really hums. But it’s a feat that waxes and wanes over the course of the game. The house-of-horrors atmosphere remains effective from start to finish, but the variety of these thrills plateaus after a while. Your nemeses never really change much apart from size, speed, and number — a fact that isn’t helped by how linear the game plays out. If you sometimes feel like you’re thrashing through Taken just to connect the dots between plot points, you aren’t alone.
Ultimately, how much you enjoy Alan Wake’s rollercoaster ride depends on how invested you become in its sophisticated yarn. And it’s one hell of a story, capped off by a quiet, breathtaking denouement that makes good on the opening lines of Alan’s initial descent. Everything in between is just a trail of breadcrumbs leading you back to what you slowly realize you already knew. Accomplishing this narrative sleight of hand is rare in videogames, and Remedy’s success at it is a testament to what imaginative storytellers can do with the medium.
+ Sophisticated narrative pairs well with cinematic gameplay.
+ White-knuckle atmosphere; polished combat controls.
- Gameplay variety peaks after a while; pretty linear.
? Wait, wait, waitâ€¦who the hell is Clay Steward?