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.
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.