Remedy’s high-concept horror drama, Alan Wake, spooked
its way onto the Xbox 360 back in 2010, after a protracted 5-year development cycle that included false starts, scrapped ideas and even a shift from sandbox gameplay to linear exploration. It turns out that Remedy was wise to refine their first big project after Max Payne; Alan Wake was a rich, multi-layered experience that tested the boundaries of narrative in games and served up a hair-raising horror-action experience to boot. After even more will-they-won’t-they back and forth, Remedy announced Alan Wake for PC, cancelled it, and then re-announced it late last year. So now that Alan has typed his way onto the PC, is his journey still just as chilling?
Fans of the 360 game, and PC players so far left in the cold, you can breathe easy. Alan’s paranormal trek has been translated more or less intact, and while that is mostly good there are one or two downsides. But let’s not get into the negatives straight away—if you’re new to the game you probably want a primer.
Simply put, Alan Wake plays like a Stephen King novel turned into a TV miniseries turned into a videogame. This is intentional by Remedy and this narrative complexity is one of the game’s strengths. With such a massive volume of written work and so many movie and TV adaptations, I’m surprised Stephen King hasn’t been either adapted or imitated into a game before now. Well Mr. King now joins the ranks of H.P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allen Poe by having his core themes represented very strongly and elegantly in an interactive experience.
The game starts with international thriller best-seller Alan Wake and his wife Alice taking a vacation to the quiet, misty little northwestern town of Bright Falls. Alan is here to recharge his batteries (pun intended) but any Stephen King fan knows that secluded small towns and creeping, nebulous evil go together like LAN parties and caffeine. Alan and Alice barely get settled into their remote island cabin before Alice disappears and Alan Wakes up in a car crash a week later with no memory of the past seven days.
Remedy has woven a very complex story into Alan Wake and that’s really half of the reason to play this game. The main story, told in episodes like a TV series, is about Alan piecing together what’s happened in his missing week while the ever-present darkness corrupts the townspeople and relentlessly pursues him. However during that missing week, Alan apparently wrote a pre-cognitive novel about the very events that are happening to him, because as you play you keep finding manuscript pages that he wrote and that describe everything that subsequently happens to him. These are a lot of fun to hunt out and collect because they explain the rather fragmented story and make you feel just as desperate and paranoid as Alan—groping in the dark for answers, desperate that the next chapter page will reveal the truth he needs.
The third narrative thread is common to most video games—TVs and radios that comment on the overarching world. In Alan Wake, however, it really does pay to keep an eye (and ear) on these things because it also adds some extra flavor to the world too—there’s a night owl DJ taking calls from people in the city (one of the only ideas I really liked in Prey) and a fictional Twilight Zone style TV show that riffs on popular horror and sci-fi genre ephemera.
All three of these threads come together to construct a big, sweeping horror story worthy of Stephen King’s influence. It’s rare that you play a game for its story and even rarer for a horror game to have a complex, ambiguous one where you aren’t just waiting for the next guy who isn’t the player character to get devoured/impaled/torn to shreds. It’s the same difference between the innumerable Jason sequels and real psychological horror films like Silence of the Lambs, Black Swan or The Shining, and it’s incredibly refreshing to see that distinction finally show up in horror videogames.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Dead Space and Resident Evil as much as the next gamer, but I’ve never been legitimately frightened by any of those games because all the “horror” is right in your face all the time. The last time a game really scared me was Aliens vs. Predator way back in 1999, because it made you jump at the things that go bump in the dark, teasing you with what might be there, which is always scarier than what you know is there. Alan Wake knows this too, and its subtlety is reflected in its elegant, restrained and evocative gameplay.
Blood and gore are so downplayed in Alan Wake as to be next to nonexistent. There are no chainsaw wielding psychopaths or bloodthirsty monsters—just the creeping darkness, and the unsettling things it does to the citizens of Bright Falls. People go missing in the woods and nobody sees this as unusual; later, when you’re lost in the woods, these missing people come after you, shrouded in oily shadows and out to gut you with whatever bladed implement they have handy. They’re nigh-indestructible with the darkness covering them and light is their only weakness—but light is in precious short supply.
Alan is a writer, not a warrior, but he has his trusty flashlight and an assortment of small arms to beat back the Taken, as the infected townspeople are called. First you must aim Alan’s light at an enemy and boost its output to burn away the darkness, and then finish off the Taken with a few shots from your pistol or shotgun. It might sound repetitive but with multiple Taken emerging from the shadows and your flashlight dwindling, it can get pretty hectic as you juggle reloading your tiny snub-nose and popping fresh batteries into your light, all while running away from and dodging attacks. Later on you can get better lights and weapons, including flares to give you breathing room and flash bang grenades to clear an area, but ammo is usually scarce and you must balance exploration with your limited reserves.
The light-dark theme is everything during the action sequences. Light sources recharge your health much faster, and straying too far into the shadows, while sometimes revealing much-needed supplies, will often get you surrounded by Taken. Checkpoints are typically located beneath generator-powered streetlamps you must rev up, or in abandoned trailers and shacks that mercifully still have the lights on. The linear nature of these sequences is actually an advantage—just like in real life being lost in the woods is freaking scary, and there’s a palpable sense of relief when you cut through the shadows to find the familiar path again.
Any horror game can squirt gallons of blood in your face, pushing dripping brains and severed viscera at the screen. It takes a real kind of artistic restraint to build horror out of the unknown, the ambiguous; but jumping at shadows in the foggy forest, or getting a chill down your spine from an ominous sound in the distance—these are ultimately the things memorable nightmares are made of. Remedy has taken the very primal fear of the dark, something most people insist they got over when they were little kids, and reminded gamers everywhere what they were afraid of in the first place.
The problems start when the game involuntarily pulls you out of this deliciously creepy atmosphere. You’ll run into things that are creepy or off in the wrong ways—namely forced voice acting and awkward character animation. While the story and exploration sequences do a lot to build the strong narrative, they’re marred by issues that could’ve been fixed for the PC version.
To be blunt, Bright Falls and its townspeople don’t look nearly as good—or scary—during the daytime. Considering that it took 5 years to develop, Alan Wake was already a bit behind the times when it launched in 2010, at least in terms of graphical quality, and now in 2012 it’s looking pretty rough around the edges. While Remedy has obviously gone to a lot of trouble to recreate a convincing sleepy locale, many of the environmental textures are blurry or look out of place—exactly the way most 360 games from about ’07 or ’08 look. This makes the daylight sequences feel just a bit off, and the only way I can describe it is that it looks like a very professionally done mod of some other game.
Alan Wake also suffers from some rather heavy-handed product placement, which is exacerbated by the game being slightly dated. Apparently Energizer is the only brand of battery sold in Bright Falls, which I can kind of ignore, but when Alan was quoting the “can you hear me now” Verizon guy I started to get brief flashbacks of Duke Nukem Forever. Alan Wake doesn’t throw jarringly out of place TV show posters in your face the way some of the Splinter Cell games did but the product placement did get a little distracting.
The character models really haven’t aged well and this is one aspect I wish they’d updated for the PC version. Alan’s wife Alice in particular looks like she’s been hitting the Botox hardcore, and Alan himself, rather than looking unnerved or terrified, just seems to get this slack-jawed, open-mouthed expression whenever something bothers or frightens him. The rest of the Bright Falls townspeople are a little more convincing, but only because you don’t see them as much.
It also doesn’t help that a lot of the voice acting is forced or over-acted. Alan’s publisher friend Barry hadn’t been in Bright Falls for five minutes before I wanted to shoot his hyperactive ass, mostly because he stated the obvious over and over again in a fakey, whiny Brooklyn accent. It’s cool that Alan narrates every manuscript page you pick up, but instead of modulating his tone from scene to scene to fit the mood, Alan reads all of the pages as if he’s got you by the shoulders and is staring intently right at you. It would’ve been better if he started out sounding confused and slowly got more panicked as he realized he was reading his own immediate future.
Thankfully the rest of the audio visual experience comes together beautifully. The night sequences are fantastically spooky and the lighting effects, from the painfully narrow, flickery beam of Alan’s flashlight to the soft comforting glow of a streetlamp, are all masterfully done. The monstrous, distorted speech of the Taken, the howling wind and the shrill music all combine to work a slow knife of terror under your spine, punctuating just how alone and existentially screwed our writer protagonist is. A horror game lives and dies on its ability to create a convincingly frightening situation, and Alan Wake absolutely nails the most important aspects: the paranormal, the uncanny, and the unknown.
PC gamers get a few advantages here and one small disadvantage. For starters all the DLC is included right out the gate, giving you “The Signal” and “The Writer” chapters wrapped right into the main game. These extra chapters tie up a number of loose ends and make the original game’s ending a little less abrupt and confusing. Second, Alan Wake’s graphics, dated as they are, look as good as they’re going to get with the advantages of PC resolutions, multi-core processors and modern video cards, which also gives you 3D options if you have the hardware.
While Remedy has done a bang up job translating the game’s controls to a mouse and keyboard, there is one minor control quibble. The lack of analog triggers means that you can’t aim the flashlight without boosting it and draining battery power. The PC version fully supports the 360 controller if you prefer the original controls, but I personally prefer mouse aiming to dual analog, so it’s a minor tradeoff and one I didn’t really notice after only an hour or two.
Everything else in the PC version is essentially the same. Alan Wake is one of the best converted, least buggy PC ports I have played in a long, long time. At $30 on Steam it’s an experience no self-respecting horror fan should pass up. The quirky characters and stark daylight sequences might temporarily pull you out of the terror, but the memories of wandering around in the woods, hounded by eldritch shadows, will haunt your nightmares for months to come.