I'll show you the life of the mind.
I'm not entirely sure what some of my favorite movies and video games are trying to tell me about choosing professional writing as a career, but the news certainly doesn't seem very encouraging. Jack Torrance tries to do the responsible thing and take a productivity-friendly winter job... and ends up going all Borden-tastic on his co-workers and family; Sutter Cane wants to add another summer best-seller to his oeuvre, and instead ends up tearing big, Lovecraft-shaped holes in reality; Harry Mason gets run through the Silent Hill ringer not once but twice; Mike Enslin has the world-record Worst One-Night Hotel Stay of All Time; Barton Fink can't bang out a simple wrestling-flick script without all Hell-ywood breaking loose around him; and pretty soon we'll have Alan Wake, a formerly best-selling horror author who gets living nightmares from books he can't even remember writing.
[image1]We've seen Remedy Entertainment's action/horror game-in-progress for so long, at so many game shows, conferences, and special demos, that for a while there, it was starting to look like Alan Wake might be edging out toward the Duke Nukem Forever abyss... but it appears we finally have a hard release date in 2010. Plans for a Windows version got put on indefinite hold last year, pending a final decision by Microsoft Games, but the console version is “done” and undergoing polishing, according to Remedy.
For the uninitiated, Alan Wake is a third-person action/horror title, touted as a “pyschological action thriller”, and clearly influenced by works such as Twin Peaks, the novels of Stephen King, and a number of motion pictures: We've seen some introductory cinematics and in-game elements that tip a heavy hat to Stanley Kubrick's The Shining, as well as a central plot device that evokes In the Mouth of Madness. The game concerns the titular modern-day horror author Alan Wake (modeled after Finnish actor/writer Ilkka Villi), and the vacation to scenic, small-town Bright Falls he takes with his wife. The trip is intended to jump-start the writing Wake hasn't been able to do in two years, but it quickly degenerates into a nightmare for all involved. Literally.
In short order, Wake's wife goes missing, as do the pages of a new book our protagonist cannot recall writing. As if the wife thing weren't bad enough, it seems that the made-up, horrific events in said pages start actually coming true all over town, right before Wake's horrified eyes. For unknown reasons, Wake's imaginings bring a terrible dark Force that makes supernatural shit-magnets out of formerly-idyllic Bright Falls in general... and Alan Wake in particular.
[image2]Alan Wake is a third-person, follow-cam affair, and the gameplay focuses heavily on the importance and interplay of darkness and sources of light, such as flashlights, flares, streetlights, and lamps powered by generators, and in at least one driving segment, even automobile headlights. Whatever evil power Alan has a-Wake-ned (har har har), it takes the everyday, mundane physical elements of Bright Falls and surrounding environs—including people—and turns them into threats that terrorize Wake at every turn.
It's bad enough when a dark, lurking Force starts turning packs of small-town, axe-carrying locals against you... but when it starts indiscriminately felling large trees and hurling tractors and cop cars at you, it's time to start stocking up on Energizers in a serious way. Alan Wake appears heavy on flashlight-equipped gunplay, and light sources are essential to defeating Wake's otherwise-invulnerable enemies; said light-sources seem to strip the supernatural “armor of darkness” from foes in a particulated stream, at which point they become vulnerable and can be blown away by conventional means as the NRA intended.
Alan Wake, in the vein of Alone In the Dark: Inferno before it, is meant to play out in a TV-style “episodic” format (in fact, it's intended to be merely the first “season” of a larger, overaching story in sequel games). The game also features a daytime/nighttime cycle, artificially manipulated at key points to crank up the suspense factor. During normal “daylight hours”, players can explore the town and interact with NPCs in relative safety... but when darkness falls, all bets are off and the flashlight comes on.
[image3]We've also seen areas with generator-powered lamps that can be activated by the player, effectively creating illuminated islands of safety in the comprehensive sea of surrounding darkness: Cue bad-dream picture of the player having to frantically ripcord-start said generators with button-presses, as the Bad Things shamble ever closer to him from the surrounding shadows. And at least one vehicular segment where a car's headlights would strip Darkness-infected locals of their supernatural protection... before the car runs them down the old-fashioned, waking-world way. A flare-gun also seems to do amazingly effective things when fired point-blank at a Dark shambler.
Alan Wake is slated to launch in May 2010 for the Xbox 360. The fate of any Windows version is still up in the air at this point. The light-as-a-weapon thing has come, and face-planted, before (Alone in the Dark The New Nightmare, anyone?), but Alan Wake at least looks like it handles the mechanic as well as it's been done so far. We'll shed some Revolutionary light of our own on the mystery when Alan Wake ships later this year (by which time this reviewer hopes to have found a career-choice a little less apparently prone to supernatural shitstorms than professional writing).