When it comes to videogames, a reliable maxim is that the longer the descriptor, the greater the cause for concern. All too often, titles that blend together elements and borrow from other genres become curdled. So when writer Sam Lake describes his game as a “psychological thriller with elements of horror,” we’re inclined to lean back sceptically.
Survival-horror is an established gaming genre with a pedigree that includes some of the most successful titles of the last decade – from Resident Evil and Silent Hill to the more recent Dead Space – a term that most gamers are very comfortable with.
Alan Wake certainly shares essential mechanics with the survival horror genre. Players are cast into a pitch black environment with only a torch and a small firearm, and are surrounded by supernatural hatchet-wielding maniacs who are possessed of preternatural speed, and who’ll make kindling of Wake in seconds.
We might also peel back the weighty thematic curtain and describe Alan Wake as a third-person shooter – but that would lose sight of what the game achieves, where it stakes its claim.
Alan Wake is another square peg in the 2010 catalogue that highlights what an exciting era videogames are finally entering into. As a medium, games are beginning to carve out their own corner as a unique form of entertainment. They’re able to take a theme and imbue it into the experience both subjectively and objectively. And then unlike any other medium, they engage the player by making them invest in the experience personally – not as a mere spectator but as the protagonist.
The darkness in Alan Wake is more than just a frightening sensory limitation; it’s the manifestation of game’s premise: paranoia. Light is Alan Wake’s primary weapon, both his real and metaphorical respite. It's a game that is largely without shocks and gore, instead drumming up uncertainty and adrenaline, deftly teasing out our anxiety to its last possible extremity before playing its hand.
Set in America’s Pacific north-west, Alan Wake an episodic thriller that describes the events of the titular character, a novelist suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. To help him overcome this hurdle, his wife arranges a long vacation in the idyllic lakeside town of Bright Falls and brings with her a typewriter.
Wake is a fallible character. He’s trapped between his own ego as a famous author and his late inability to pen a sentence. This makes him aloof with his fans and causes him lash out at those close to him – particularly his wife, Alice.
After Alice reveals that she has brought a typewriter with her for her husband to use, an angered and frustrated Wake seeks solitude in the darkness of the woods. When he returns to the remote cabin he finds his wife being swallowed up by a dark presence in a power outage.
Wake flees Cauldron Lake to regain consciousness a week later at the wheel of a wrecked car. As he sets out through the imposing woods at night for help, he finds the scattered pages of a manuscript written by his own hand, and discovers that his progress is to be impeded by crazed locals wrapped in shadows.
The portrayal of Wake as a flawed character is a daring move on developer Remedy’s behalf – you’ll not immediately sympathise with the tetchy leading man. But Wake is not belligerent. He is aware of his own defects and this depth gives the game much of its strength. His own imperfections ultimately mean you’ll invest more in his plight.
Moreover, Wake’s imperfections, his frustrations and personal expectations, are what give rise to his own paranoia. Wake’s experiences in the dark have a dreamlike (or nightmarish) quality, and like the player, he is disoriented – increasingly unsure where the divide between fantasy and reality lies. Doubt gnaws him.
The experience is strongly influenced by authors and directors such as Stephen King, David Lynch and Alfred Hitchcock.
The influence of film comes through in the game’s camera work. Often the camera will unpin itself from its default over-the-shoulder view to impart important information, such as the imminent attack of a possessed foe from behind. When Wake moves to dodge an axe, the camera locks, and he ducks beyond the borders of the frame.
Such gimmicky techniques in games usually become very old, very fast. Often they do little more disorient the player and frustrate their ability to control the character, but Alan Wake seamlessly resumes its default position without impeding progress.
To dispatch his paranormal attackers in the dark, Wake must first “burn” the shadow from them using a source of light – occasionally flares and spotlights, but generally a handheld torch – before firing on them. This multitask approach to combat, the occasional scarcity ammunition and the typical scarcity of light, often means that flight to a distant lit cabin can be preferable to attempting to fight.
That decision is also compounded by the enemy AI. Should Wake focus his torch on one of his assailants, the others will edge back into the shadows to attempt a different approach. If Wake drops a flare, his attackers will retreat to resume their assault when it meekly sputters its last.
All of the above is tied together by remarkable presentation. The game’s sense of scale is extraordinary and lovingly detailed. Not a single asset in any of the expansive episodic settings feels misplaced. At night, the mist, the shadows and the trees bleed together to create a game world that is equally beautiful and unsettling.
There are, inevitably, some unfortunate loose threads in Wake’s otherwise highly-tailored tweed jacket. The game includes a couple of detrimental ‘one against the hordes’ staged pieces that suspend thematic belief and carelessly cast aside hours of anxious gameplay.
The facial animations, particularly mouths, leave something to be desired in a game so character-driven.
Additionally, the game includes some comic relief in the form of Wake’s literary agent, Barry. If anything, Barry is occasionally too comic and provides too much reprieve from the game’s drumming suspense. The irony here is that Barry's humorous dialogue is perhaps written too well, and so, not written well enough. It turns him into a caricature, a cardboard cut out surrounded by characters of substance.
They’re minor gripes. Alan Wake is a genuine achievement for Remedy. It's a gripping experience that, while five years in the distilling, has finally proved worth the wait.