The act of creation is one fraught with difficulty: there are a practical infinity of considerations that must be made. We must consider whether what we create will offend others; whether what we create is worthy of wider consumption, or even of having our own names put upon it; whether our ideas are coherent. Of course, there is also a finder consideration of whether we can think of anything to create at all: Alan Wake, protagonist of the eponymous game, finds himself in this position, seeking to take a break away from his hectic schedule as a writer in order to regain his creative faculties. As much as Sam Lake’s work on the first two Max Paynes demonstrated an ability to play with the video game medium in a clever and incisive way, but a writer producing a game about a writer whose work has such a deep series of effects on the world cannot help but smack of a certain narcissism. With that said, however, Alan Wake is an excellent narrative, brilliantly told, possessing that rare quality in video game storytelling of asking far more questions at its end than it answers.
The storytelling in this game is simply phenomenal: wonderfully-paced and packed with a series of twists, none of which seem to ridiculous to be true in the world that has been illustrated to the player through gameplay and cutscene alike, the game produces enough mild scares and general intrigue to hook even the most cynical of gamers with the tendrils of its plot. To say much more about the narrative itself would be to do a disservice to anyone who has yet to work their way through this exploration of love and creation: it has to be experienced first-hand and without too much in the way of spoilers to be fully appreciated, with a great deal of reading around the plot to follow upon completion. Lake’s by-now trademark tendency to wax lyrical about games within his games is also seen here, with a couple of references to Max Payne that crop up in the manuscript pages scattered around the levels: it is these pages that will best serve the player’s understanding of the plot of the game, with details about the activities of various bit-players in the story being fleshed out here. This is a wonderful touch that particularly serves and rewards those invested in the story rather than those drawn to the game for its, to my mind, misplaced action credentials. Further game-world artefacts serve to increase the player’s knowledge of the world, particularly the yellow-paint signs that are scattered over the game-world and are visible only when the player’s torch is shone over them: much in the way of the scrawlings on the walls in Portal, these provide messages about the world and hints as to the location of key areas.
The way in which the game plays is also instrumental in the general feel of immersion in the narrative: given that Alan is so desperately working to recover his lost wife, as well as dealing with the terrors that face him in the town of Bright Falls, it seems only fitting that various actions in the game respond well to mirrored urgency on the part of the player. The prime example of this lies in the reloading mechanic of the game. The player can just press X to reload, and Alan will reload his currently equipped weapon. A wiser choice in times of combat, however, would be to repeatedly tap X in order to speed up Alan’s reloading. Rewarding the player for acting more urgently in times of urgency can only help to increase immersion and, in this case, the associated empathy with a protagonist under a great deal of stress. More generally, the game plays extremely smoothly: for a career writer, Alan is surprisingly spritely and able to dodge enemy attacks in a nicely cinematic matter with a tap of LB and a direction on the left analog stick, adding to the combat ensemble of flares and flashbangs used with RB, weapons fired with RT and the flashlight given more power through the use of LT. The requirement to remove the “Darkness” from enemies using the torch or other light sources before destroying them with more conventional weaponry is a good gameplay mechanic that leads to further tension being produced in the game.
The game’s presentation is novel and further evidences Lake’s and Remedy’s obsession with the world of film and television: the game is presented in a series of six “episodes”, with the end of each having a credits sequence of sorts, each featuring a different music track to accompany the Alan Wake logo and the start of the next featuring a “Previously on Alan Wake” sequence that serves as a handy reminder of the previous events of the story and highlights details that may previously have been seen as superfluous.
In spite of all that can be said in favour of the game, there are some flaws. The game has pretences of being a survival horror title, but items and ammunition are far too plentiful in the normal difficulty mode for it to be effective as that type of game. Increased difficulty moves the game towards this sort of feeling, but the “nightmare” mode, which would be the most rewarding for this style of play, requires the completion of the game before it is available. By this point, the player will have too much knowledge of the game for either the “survival” or “horror” aspects to be realised, with item locations known and the game unable to surprise in a horrific manner. The game’s objective indicator also makes the survival aspect less realisable: the arrow always directs to a light-source; somewhere where the player will be safe. With that in mind, it seems difficult to present a real challenge to survival if the player always knows where they will be safe.
Alan Wake is by far one of the best conceived, thought-out and realised video game stories that I have experienced in a long time. It shouldn’t be taken as a survival horror game, more as a narrative with gameplay: a bulkier Heavy Rain. The action elements of the game play nicely, but the highlight of the game is by far its characters, its setting and its story.