This little light of mine…
If you ever meet a guy who introduces himself to you as a “writer”, you instantly know a few things about him. First, he’s a pretentious boob. Second, you can pretty safely assume that he’s never actually written a thing in his life. Third, if he has managed to write something, you can bet that it’s awful. And last, if you’re not careful, you may be in for a dull, one-sided conversation all about what he refers to as his “creative process”.
[image1]Alan Wake is one of those guys. He’s a hack writer who pumps out ultra-popular detective yarns so quickly that he’s published six novels in seven years. He’s more Dan Brown than Umberto Eco, more Dean Koontz than Stephen King, and more Nicholas Sparks than Ernest Hemingway. It’s a testament to the tremendous skill of the folks at Remedy Entertainment that they can make such an exceptionally well-written game about a guy who’s such a terrible writer.
In Alan Wake, the eponymous title character is suffering a debilitating case of writer’s block, and so he heads with his wife to a small mountain town in order to overcome his creative impotence. The rest of the game follows Wake through the trials and tribulations of what it means to write under pressure and to completely immerse yourself in your work. Without giving too much away, the events in the town of Bright Falls seem to be playing out the plot of a novel Wake hasn’t yet begun to write.
If you think this sounds like the premise to any of a dozen different Stephen King novels, you are absolutely correct. The game begins with Wake reciting a quote from Stephen King (about, you guessed it, the creative process), and the game is chock-full of scenes and ideas lifted straight from the pages of King’s oeuvre. But if the setting and plot resemble someone else’s work, it’s only because Wake himself is a derivative hack. As the product of his imaginative output, the town of Bright Falls is populated with other people’s ideas.
You’ll encounter elements lifted wholesale from the works not only of Stephen King, but also things taken from the original Twilight Zone series, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, the films of Charlie Kaufman, and even Remedy’s own Max Payne games. Alan Wake—the writer, not the game—walks the thin line between influence and plagiarism, and you’ll see that reflected in the eerily familiar people, places, and events of the story.
[image2]The game is structured like a TV miniseries with multiple episodes each with its own distinct story arc. Borrowing from the recent trend in cable television dramas, a different song will play at the end of each episode, and the following episode will begin with a “previously on Alan Wake” montage. It’s what the most recent Alone in the Dark tried to do, only in Alan Wake it actually works. It lends a nice pacing to the game and gives you a brief respite of quirky daytime drama between nighttime segments of terror and action.
More impressively, the level design itself perfectly parallels the individual episode story arcs. At the beginning of each level, you can see your goal in the distance. You then must meander through nighttime forests, lumber yards, and other haunting emblems of the bucolic Pacific Northwest in order to get to your destination. This design technique gives you a brightly lit visual cue that orients you toward your ultimate destination, lending your actions a greater sense of urgency and heightening your drive to head constantly toward the light.
Even the play mechanics feed into the game’s plot. As you wander the mountains and forests of the area around Bright Falls, you’ll encounter dimly lit ghost-like figures. You can fight them or flee using a combination of firearms and bright lights. The idea is deceptively simple: enemies don’t like light. Shine a light on them to weaken them, then shoot them to return them to the shadows. However, since there are so many ways to put light to use, that simple mechanic proves incredibly versatile.
For most of the game, you carry a flashlight that you can use to stun and burn away the dark aura surrounding a figure. Once you’ve done that, you can then shoot them using a pistol, shotgun, or hunting rifle. You also can find flares, flashbang grenades, and a flaregun. The choice of weaponry is simple, but elegant, and allows for surprisingly varied approaches to combat. It might sound painfully straightforward on paper, but in action it’s anything but.
[image3]What’s more, the light/dark combat mechanic isn’t just a cheap gimmick; it’s a manifestation of the game’s larger thematic interests. The light embodies Wake’s creative inspiration as well as his sense of safety and reassurance. The dark signifies his creative frustration and his deep personal traumas. Along with Bioshock and Assassin’s Creed, Alan Wake is one of the few recent games that ties theme, plot, and play mechanics together so successfully.
Alan Wake also looks gorgeous. The lighting, weather, and particle effects are simply stunning. Sure, there’s a bit more motion blur than is probably necessary and the edges of objects can look fuzzy and pixilated from time to time, but it all fits into the game’s dream-like tone. The sound design is on par with the brilliant sound work in Dead Space, and the score is masterfully moody. Amazingly, the selection of licensed music seems to have been done with the game’s story in mind rather than at the behest of corporate licensing deals.
Pacing is everything in a horror story, and Alan Wake knows exactly when to draw its story to a close without overstaying its welcome. All told, a single playthrough will last you 10-12 hours. The many hidden items and areas give the game compelling replay value, and the head-scratching ending will make multiple playthroughs a necessity for those looking to make complete sense of things.
Unfortunately, in the game’s final two episodes, Alan Wake’s narrative ambitions begin to outpace its less ambitious game design choices. You’ll begin to see the same enemies and environments get recycled from earlier sections of the game, and other than one climactic moment of inspired design brilliance, it will all feel a bit rote by that point. Worse, the final moments of the game’s story veer into grandiose self-indulgence, which is too bad considering how subtle and restrained the game is for most of its run. Regardless, its remarkable narrative and design achievements more than make up for its last-minute flubs.
It’s hard not to read into the story of Alan Wake an echo of the game’s own fraught production history. It’s been in development for far longer than most games and has experienced multiple delays—enough that many feared it would never see the light of day. In telling the story of a frustrated author, Remedy Entertainment has excised its own demons and brought forth a beautiful, eerie, exciting, unique, and intelligent creation from the dark depths of development limbo.