“Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations…” So begins the dialogue of ‘Alan Wake’s’ opening sequence. This is a psychological survival horror game that wears its inspiration on its elbow-patched sleeve and isn’t afraid to acknowledge it from the beginning. What the game sets out to do is immerse the player in a level and style of storytelling that is usually reserved for television and movies- and ends up succeeding marvelously.
Alan Wake is a writer…a best-selling writer but not a recently productive one. A couple years of writer’s block, an assault charge, and grief from his fans have all added up to a man at his wit’s end. So in the spirit of “getting away from it all”, Alan and his wife Alice travel from New York to the Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls, Washington for a little bit of the ole’ rest and relaxation. Amidst all of the tranquil scenery, something evil is brewing and of course… (wait for it, wait for it)…Alan’s wife goes missing! (I know, I know-shocker.) After realizing an entire week is missing from his memory, he slowly begins to stumble across pages from a manuscript he doesn’t remember writing. A dark presence is taking over Bright Falls and its townspeople and Alan is thrust into a novel that is coming to life all around him.
Alan’s search for his wife unfolds like a TV mini-series. The game consists of six episodes (each of which play out to about two hours in length a piece) and end with a “what-the-hell” cliffhanger style conclusion complete with licensed songs. (Recording artists in the game range from Poe to David Bowie to Poets of the Fall.) The following episode then picks up with a “Previouslly on Alan Wake…” recap of the events so far. This presentation (although not new to video games) is fantastic and goes a long way in meshing the two worlds of television and video game entertainment together. Think of it as ‘Lost’ meets ‘Silent Hill’ meets ‘The Dark Half’- a perfect fit.
The game play of ‘Alan Wake’ revolves around the opposing forces of light and dark. During the daylight hours, Alan and the town are safe from peril. When nightfall begins, all hell breaks loose. To dispatch the town’s people possessed by the dark presence, you must first rid the attacker of their shadowy possession. This is accomplished by shining light on their inky forms through a variety of resources such as flashlights, bigger flashlights, flood lights, flares, etc. Once the darkness has been exorcised, Alan is free to blast away with pistols and shotguns. This “combo attack” approach does require double the resources- ammo for your guns and batteries for your flashlight. In addition to crazed locals, the darkness can also possess inanimate objects and turn them into weapons. Farm machinery, barrels, birds, cars- they are all out to get Alan as well.
Alan may be the protagonist of this here game, but Bright Falls is definitely the star. Ripped from an episode of Twin Peaks, the town is brimming with quirky townsfolk who are an odd bunch to say the least. Not only do these locals provide life to the town, they also play a very pivotal role in developing and progressing the story. A few of these townspeople you may already be familiar with if you followed the web episodes at www.brightfalls.com that I told you about before. Others may be new acquaintances such as the elderly Anderson brothers who were in the 70’s heavy metal band, The Old Gods of Asgard (who believe they are the descendants of Scandinavian viking gods…andhave a soft spot for Harry Nilsson’s “Coconut.”) Alan’s agent, Barry, provides the comedic relief (but he’s no Charlie “Papa Smurf” Runkle to be sure…btw-I love you if you got that reference.)
Alan’s search for Alice spills from the town into the hills and forests surrounding Bright Falls. Trees sway in the wind. The underbrush moves back and forth. Your flashlight casts shadows on your surroundings in real time Never before has such perfect real-world lighting been applied in a game- and it is the key ingredient to the game’s unnerving atmosphere.. Tension builds from seeing shadows and wondering if what you saw was an axe-wielding mad-man or just your eyes playing tricks on you again (this is a T-rated game that will scare the shit out of you- proving that an M-rating is not necessary for a horror game to succeed.) The manuscript pages you find along the way drive the story and add a lot of re-playability to the game as well (some are only available in Nightmare mode, the game’s hardest difficulty setting.) Each page is read aloud by Alan and will sometimes add glimpses into the story you may not other wise know. What is read from the page acts to foreshadow what is about to happen, giving a nice sense of deja vu once you are experiencing a scene you read about ten minutes earlier. TV sets also serve as another fantastic reason to go exploring. Scattered throughout the game are TVs that when turned on, play an episode of the show ‘Night Springs.’ These live action black-and-white episodes play out like 3-5 minute versions of ‘The Twilight Zone’ and feature fantastic writing that will have you laughing and scratching your head all at the same time.
The story of ‘Alan Wake’ is defienetly left open to interpretation and leaves you guessing. Some sequences do not spell everything out for the player but in doing so makes you think (rather than being the result of sloppy, plot-hole storytelling…yes, I’m looking at you ‘Heavy Rain.’) At the end of it all, ‘Alan Wake’ is a fantastic game with a fantastic story. I want to gush about some of the finer plot details but saying to much will ruin some of the reveals and twists and turns that the game has in store. It is a ride that you must experience for yourself from beginning to end. Further DLC is planned for ‘Alan Wake’ with the first episode hitting the XBOX Live marketplace on July 28th. Remedy, the same game studio behind the Max Payne series, has created an XBOX 360 exclusive that no fan of video game horror should be without.
‘Alan Wake’ is available exclusively for the XBOX 360 video game system- MSRP $59.99 regular edition $79.99 Limited Edition (see the Limited Edition video review below!)