Alan Wake–Review

Alan Wake is a psychological action thriller developed by Remedy Entertainment exclusively for the Xbox 360.

Alan Wake starts off with a quote from Stephen King, “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.” This introduction sets a false tone: Alan Wake far from explores the poetry of fear.

No, Alan Wake is not an exercise in fear. It’s an exercise in repetition–enemies that you defeat in the first minutes of the game are enemies that you will be defeating at the end, too. The gameplay does not grace us with any deviation in its simplistic mechanics. It cannot be denied, however, that the concept which blankets the gameplay–using light as weapon–is a unique one. Games which take these sorts of risks are often overlooked, and thankfully Alan Wake did not fall prey to this. What is horrifying, however, is the knowledge that this game’s original concept was that of an open world. The thought that this game could carry the weight of being any longer than its current 8ish hour length….does not compute.

Alan Wake is a washed up writer with an ego, he’s bitter and, well, an ass. You can tell that this guy was probably drunk half the time if not brooding and festering with some unspeakable rage the other half. If Stephen King gets his material by sitting in a dark room, Alan Wake must have gotten his by eating popcorn and letting the most painful and annoying kernel flakes remain stuck in his gums for a couple of weeks. Within minutes, we see this guy exploding in his wife’s face for something pretty minor. Obviously there are some metaphors to be had here, with the enemies who are drowning in shadows which need to be doused in light before they can be harmed.

The entire game revolves around Alan’s attempt to rescue his wife. Its the classic damsel-in-distress trope, peppered with some fog and dark corners. Only we don’t understand Alan’s devotion at all. We just know it’s apparently there because the game keeps throwing the cinematic of Alice falling into the darkness. I’m guessing that cinematic was supposed to come off as meaningful, though the rather boring big baddie depicted coupled with Alice’s badly-rendered, puppet like appearance made me wince every time. While it takes no stretch of the imagination to understand the devotion which love can profess, the game makes no effort to justify why this adventure is worth taking for us, the player. Nonetheless Alan’s apparent motivations and narrowly defined character are a welcome change from the industry’s usual blank-slate zombie characters. Moreover, it cannot be denied that the plot is full to the brim with exciting mysteries and confusing twists. In fact I’d say its these mysteries which keep the game afloat.

Throughout the game, Alan finds pages of a prophetic manuscript which he does not recall writing. The pages all detail events which the player has yet to watch unfold, or extrapolate on the completely meaningless thoughts and feelings of its cardboard cutout supporting cast. This game mechanic is often hailed as amazing, and yet it is completely antithetical to the poetry of fear. Early in the game we find a page which tells us about a chainsaw murderer who will attempt to kill Alan. You read it and all of a sudden you get animated: holy shit, something is excite! And then moment actually happens about 40 minutes later, when we’ve been stupefied by the game’s hemorrhage of the same tried and true lumberjacks and runners which all carry hatchets. Everyone groans at the decision to make Alan’s name “A. Wake,” but I assure you, this is a misnomer: his name should actually be “A. Hatchet.”

And just in case you still didn’t feel properly warned, the chainsaw guy is introduced not only a whole screen away from you, but also with an 8 second cinematic. The tension is outright murdered. Even worse is when you find a page which tells you about major plot points a couple of chapters before they actually occur. These moments might have held legitimate power but Remedy decided to be that one asshole that tells you that Aeris dies when you’re about to play FF7 for the first time. They’re not just the Dumbledore assholes, though, no, they’re the Tranquils from Dragon Age attempting to storytell a psychological thriller. For those of you that don’t understand the reference, I’ll just spell it out for you: the writing in the manuscript is boring. Worse, even, is its pompous air of self-importance. Remedy wanted to create something meaningful here, and yet the story is full of horror/thriller/psychological genre cliches–but its okay, really! Alan recognizes that they’re cliches–he wrote it like that purposefully, for reasons which are spoilery. I think we’re supposed to excuse it for that reason, but I was never fully convinced of it.

Let us partake in a social experiment: I would love to see someone run through the game without reading a single manuscript page. Then, have them play through the game a second time and have them pick up all the pages. Would they believe that the pages added anything to the experience? Would they enjoy the game without the manuscript? Ultimately, the manuscript pages cannot make Alan Wake a better game. The pages operate within the realm of a totally different medium–writing. Writing, like most other media, is an excercise in representation. Video games, however, have the unique ability to explore simulation. A game that has exceptional writing is not successful as a game, because we are appreciating the facets of the game which could just as easily be extrapolated in a different medium.


Knowing this, I am….hesitant when the game opened new chapters with ‘previously, on Alan Wake.’ This is a ploy which is used on Television–how does this add to Alan Wake as a game? It doesn’t. If Alan Wake were a television show, we’d have to give it kudos for its spot-on pacing which empower the ‘previously on Alan Wake’ segments. It’s not a television show, though, and so I personally found that exposition confusing–I know damn well what happened previously on Alan Wake because I just saw that plot point happen. In a game this short, I’m not sure I need a reminder of things which happened just a couple of seconds ago.

This is the part where I try to rage about the game’s end-game without spoiling it for people who haven’t played it. Alan Wake never has a climax. The developers do a great job in maintaining the player’s interest through intrigue and mystery, only they never do anything with it. Up until this point, the game keeps the player coming back for more: we want to know whats going on, and we’re willing to brave the repetitive gameplay to do it. However, the game ends after a pretty lackluster boss fight which took me all of 3 seconds to beat on hard, and just about the worst boss dialog I’ve ever come across in a game. By the end I couldn’t tell if they made a choice to ‘dissolve’ the game instead of ‘resolving’ it. I could not tell if the ending was a reflection of how no, not even the writers know what the heck is going on in this game. The ending isn’t ambiguous. That would mean that there are a multitude of things which might be inferred or implied by the ending. That’s not the case with Alan Wake–the ending happens and the player cannot infer a single mildly-substanciated thing. At that point, anything you might think about what just happened is 100% conjecture.

Nonetheless Alan Wake is probably deserving of at least a rental because it provides the player with a decent thriller–not a solid game–in its short 8 hour lifespan. The player’s interest in figuring out what happens next often allows most players to overlook the game’s many, many flaws. In fact, some players get to the later chapters and deliberately avoid the enemies as a means of advancing the plot faster. Unfortunately, the game has a rather disappointing ending which makes its successes with its thriller aspect negligible.


  1. Fernando Cordeiro

    I don’t see the point of taking out the manuscript – there was a reason all this foreshadowing all included. From I’ve read (still never played the game), it does make the game better.

    Ultimately, I disagree 100% with you when you say that a game that has exceptional writing is not successful as a game, because we are appreciating the facets of the game which could just as easily be extrapolated in a different medium. That doesn’t make (any) sense to me. So what it can be extrapolated? Any movie that tells a story can be easily extrapolated into a book, but that doesn’t mean the movie is any less successful when it delivers a successful story.

  2. Well I finished the game and the manuscript added nothing for me. The writing was dull, it told me how characters that really don’t matter and could have just as easily not been in the game felt, and when it was about you it kept spoiling things way before they made sense to. It wasn’t foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is subtle. They outright spoiled things, which would have been fine if they did it in a well enough fashion, but it often didn’t make sense because it completely removed the tension or surprise when some pretty damn big twists happened. So then somethign emotional is happening on screen and you’re already conditioned to it, or you don’t even care because the plot doesn’t make any sense anyway.

    A game that has exceptional writing means that it has…exceptional writing. That doesn’t make it an exceptional GAME. What games a game a game? Its certainly not the writing. I want me some good writing in my games but I also recognize that that facet of games don’t make it succesful as a game, games with only good writing and not good gameplay are succesful are more general vehicles of entertainment, not neccesarily as games.

    A movie which is succesful will depict something which is not translatable onto book form without losing something in translation. Vice versa with books.

    Anyway when I say ‘writing’ in this specific case its whats on the manuscript. IE, Actual writing. Words. They could be a novella on their own….not like, plot/dialogue writing or something like that. I mean stuff that you find in codecs and such, in this case the manuscript.

    • Fernando Cordeiro

      I don’t have any problem with your opinion regarding the quality of the manuscript. My problem is the logic you are using to dismiss it in all its apparent badness.

      I feel that writing inside a game is more than mere writing. You can’t for instance, rely on written works within movies the same way you do with games. Writing, in this case, is an immersing tool – Metroid Prime’s story, all games with audio logs and the notes left by the doomed scientists of Resident Evil are chief examples.

      This form of writing is a higher level of interaction with your environment. You explore the simulation of the avatar’s exploration and you may or may not find any clue, and whatever you find may or may not be useful – just like any real-life investigation. In a movie, the character is scripted to either find those clues; or not find clues of whose existence the audience is already aware. Whatever the case, you will already know the existence of the clue. In a game, you are usually never sure (assuming you are not using a walk-through).

      This is an aspect completely unique to gaming. Books and movies cannot replicate it because, as you said, they are not a simulating medium! And this unique duality, this ambivalence inherent to any exploration, only has purpose with the clue you are looking for is embedded with meaning – visual, written, vocal, whatever works. Those pieces of information might be optional for your avatar to advance, but their very existence is a testament to the features unique to the game medium.

      It doesn’t make any sense separating that writing, that audio log, whatever the piece of information may be; from the rest of the game. Unless there is a on/off option, it doesn’t make any sense to attribute a value to a certain specific aspect of a game and then another value to the game without said aspect.

      • I’m not belittling writing for being inferior or dismissing it. I’m saying writing–this sort of writing, as in, like what you find in in-game codexes and such–cannot carry a game. And so lets look at Alan Wake specifically…people aren’t playing it for the gameplay. Its bad, but only because its so hyper repetitive. So what do people cite as being the good things about it? The manuscript. It makes no sense. The writing itself is bad, and even if it was good, then you’re not playing the game because its a -GOOD GAME- you’re playing it because it has a good novella in it. As in, the game aspects themselves are really just a means toward this totally aside thing, which I think is wrong. It can only make it a better game if its integrated like in Metroid. Now that I would call succcesful.

        The manuscript doesn’t allow any sort of interaction with your environment in Alan Wake. Its a total aside. Just like codexes and such…sure, I could read the codex in, say, Mass Effect and I realize that people get immersed through the lore but when it comes down to it, the codex doesn’t/isn’t what makes Mass Effect what it is.

  3. Pingback: Friday Post: It’s a Day! It’s Friday! « Nightmare Mode

  4. Fernando Cordeiro

    I disagree. Even if it is the novella – or any other aspect really – that makes you care about the game, then the game is also good. The novella, no matter if it is directly or peripheral to the game’s themes, is an intrinsic part of the game and it doesn’t make any sense to view it separately. Even Braid, a game whose novella was completely detached from everything else, was improved by those eventual walls of words as they gave the Tim’s quest a deeper significance, although not particularly explaining anything..

    If the novella is bad, so is the game as well – and that seems to be the case with Alan Wake.

    This is like people dismissing a game’s story for being stupid or “not the point of the game” and saying that you have to evaluate the game sans plot. But it doesn’t matter if the story is just schlock nonsense or a mere justification for your actions, because it is still an integral part of the game and therefore cannot be dismissed. The evidence: developers bothered to put a story in the first place.

    • Except i said I wouldn’t do that for the story and it wouldn’t make sense to, because the plot always lays out motivations in these sorts of games. Though you can dismiss the story for a good deal of games where its just hogwash anyway: Mario games, for example. You’re not playing because you want to save princess peach…who cares? Its still fun. The fact that they bothered to put a story in there doesn’t matter, and judging from interviews from Galaxy 2, I think Miyamoto would prefer not to put a story in there period. I wonder if one of these days they’ll let him get away with that? It would be a neat experiment.

      The reason I can’t say that the novella makes the game good is because not only is the novella -not good- but that specific writing is excitable to people as a medium onto its own: people say the writing is good and really lets you see into the characters. So, what are they aprpeaciating the novella for? Its novella aspects. Meaning, Alan Wake could be a book and people would not feel as if absolutely anything is lost in translation. That to me says it wasn’t succesful as a -game-. I mean, cmon: if people are validating this game in terms of the novella then it brings books into the comparison: and if we do that, then it starts looking especially terrible. The novella is a trashy airplane read at best.

      Then I look at something like Mass Effect…its becoming a movie, and I’m sure the movie can be succesful, but in a different way because they cannot possibly translate the whole making choices spiel into it: something major about the game would be lost in translation, making me consider that aspect succesful as a game. Whereas Alan Wake could just as easily be something else–a book, perhaps, with the same premise–and nothing would be lost. Nothing.

      • Fernando Cordeiro

        You can’t. Not even for Mario. Rosalina and the whole starship business felt underused and tacked-on. You play the game thinking there is a reason for her to be there and ultimately there isn’t. It’s incredibly disappointing because you keep asking yourself why bother designing her (answer: to tell things the game’s manual already says) and then you get no pay-off. The first Mario Galaxy was a disappointment to me – and that crappy story played some part in it. If Galaxy 2 indeed has no story, it will be an improvement from the impoverishing story of the original one. But the point is: game must be seen as a whole – which includes the story if the game developers bother to include one.

        The novella can be a trashy read, but so what? If people think it is good and buy the game because of it, more power to the game. Point’n’Click adventures are nothing but novellas with a crippled arbitrarily linear gameplay and I still love them: and because games are tools for immersion the feeling you get, as I already told, is intrinsically unique to gaming.

        I doubt Alan Wake would make that transition as seamless. Easier games, like Max Payne and Doom failed. Doom actually made a LITERAL transition by having a long 1st sequence of a gun walking around and that still failed. The fact remains that ALL games will lose something when they become movie the EXACT SAME WAY ALL books lose something when becomes movies or games and vice-versa. These all different mediums and, as I also said before, even detached in-game novellas cannot be translated with 100% fidelity as the immersion aspect will be lost. A good MOVIE script is the conditio sine qua non for a good movie based on a game. The good GAME script of Mass Effect (‘good’ being debatable) is only enough for a game. So yeah, no matter how you cut it, something major will be lost in transaction.

  5. Pingback: Live Action Alan Wake Teaser « Nightmare Mode

  6. Tom

    I couldn’t disagree more… even with the writing/story/mystery stripped, the engine feels great. It could have used a more open ended level design but it feels very solid. Combat feels great, and can be quite gorgeous and chaotic. The only thing I’d change is ammo amounts and add a couple new enemy types.

    Also, saying that the ending tells you nothing, well… that is your OPINION, as the game clearly shows Alice being alive. IE, Alan was successful in his attempt. As for who the doppelganger is, well, that wasn’t the entire “struggle” of the protagonist, instead it is just a hint about future events.