You know when hearing a special song or eating a certain food unleashes a torrent of nostalgia? I was not at all prepared for the tidal wave of memories that this game hit me with. Alan Wake is a “psychological action thriller,” it says so on the box, but this game means more to me than scares and gunplay. Released May of 2010 by Remedy Entertainment, the third person shooter, Alan Wake had a surprisingly profound impact on yours truly. At the ripe age of 14, I was infatuated with games. I mostly played games that I could just put on and get absorbed in the gameplay itself. I loved hack and slash games, with their low emphasis on story and focus on action. Alan Wake drastically changed this. I realized games could not only entertain with gameplay, but also intrigue with story and characters. Alan Wake, the titular character, is a writer and the game itself follows a story he has written. So, true to form, a video game about a writer inspired me to write. Now, at age 20, I found the game on sale on Steam, so I decided to pick it up to see if it still resonates with me. Please join me as I dive into the ocean (not a lake) that is Alan Wake.
The game is broken up into six episodes, and each plays out as their own story arc, with an introduction, rising action, a climax, and of course a cliffhanger. With this episodic format, the action becomes more broken up, and the player begins to feel more like an audience, watching this story unfold. The episodes “run” for just over an hour and a half apiece, making Alan Wake a nine hour experience at minimum. This is not accounting for the two episodes of DLC, or any detours for collectables and secrets.
Alan Wake spent about five years in production, and this shows in many aspects of the game, both for better and worse. In order to maintain funding, there is actually a sizable amount of product placement throughout the game. Alan picks up Energizer Lithium Ion batteries to fuel his Darkness fighting flashlight, and his phone is powered by Verizon. The game is aware of this, and even pokes fun of it at times. At one point a character delivers the classic Verizon tagline “Can you hear me now?” The product placement is abundant, but seldom seems forced. These additions seem more to detail the world of Alan Wake instead of breaking immersion. The best thing to come out of the long production period of the game is the care taken throughout to ensure the best experience for the player.
At the beginning of the game, Alan and his wife, Alice, are headed to the idyllic small town of Bright Falls, Washington for a vacation. In a dark turn of events, Alice is taken and Alan blacks out to find himself behind the wheel of his crashed car in the middle of the woods. The goal of the game is clear: save Alice. This is easier said than done, though, because the forces of Darkness (yes, capital D) are out to stop Alan. These impediments manifest themselves as humans and objects that have these almost inky black outlines, possessed by the Darkness. Alan’s main weapon is light itself. Throughout the game this comes in the form of your trusty flashlight, flares, and flashbangs. This is the main gameplay gimmick that is used throughout the game. The Darkness empowered people cannot be hurt by physical means until the Darkness is seared from them by light.
Story progression is achieved through both the actions the player takes, as Alan, and through finding pages to a manuscript for Alan’s book, Departure, a title he remembers wanting to use for his next work, but not one he recalls writing. These pages depict some event that has happened to others in Bright Falls, or an event that is going to happen to Alan soon. Because of this, the player, and Alan, generally know what they’re up against before they confront it. This does not mean that the game is predictable, though. There are enough twists to make M Night proud.
The entirety of Alan Wake is written as an author’s love letter to the horror mystery genre, and it works fantastically. Though the manuscript pages detail the next events, the game still finds ways to surprise the player. Taking dark turns, having Alan nearly fail numerous times, and the overall setting to the game make it clear that the writers knew exactly how they wanted the game to pan out. To top it off, Alan Wake writes as though he was a writer of our time, referencing authors we would know. One scene in the game even shot for shot parallels the “Here’s Johnny” scene from The Shining.
The gameplay itself is straightforward: point your flashlight at the bad guy, point your gun at the bad guy, pull the trigger a few times, rinse and repeat. For the possessed objects, you don’t even have to shoot them, just use light to destroy them. The controls are smooth and function well. It plays best with a controller, because of how aiming and focusing your flashlight beam works. Nearly immediately, it is clear that Alan is not in shape. There is a run button, but that brings Alan’s speed up to a light jog for a few moments before he stumbles, out of breath. The gameplay is honestly nothing terribly special, but is purely there to compliment the story.
Atmosphere is where Alan Wake shines. The game seamlessly swaps between the rustic charm of daytime Bright Falls to the dark, hostile nighttime forests and caves of the mining town. The stages for the first half of the game have Alan traversing through heavily forested areas to reach his next goal. After that, it is a breath of fresh air to be able to explore the town of Bright Falls itself. The main color scheme of Alan Wake is blacks and greens, which makes sense seeing as Alan is traveling through woods and fighting the Darkness. This is offset by secret messages scrawled on walls, rocks, and cabins throughout the game in this luminescent neon orange that is revealed by Alan’s flashlight. These messages serve as markers as to where secret caches of supplies are, as it becomes apparent Alan is not alone in fighting the Darkness. The messages also give bits of cryptic advice, “TRUST NO ONE IN THE DARKNESS” or “THE DARKNESS WEARS HER FACE.” In time, these ravings make sense, but seeing these near the start of the game confuses and intrigues.
Alan Wake is ultimately a story about the power of the written word and how one must be careful about how it is used. This rings true though the design principles, right down to the game’s core. The gameplay is not as I remembered, and does get stale at points. Thankfully, this is not the focus of Alan Wake. The gameplay exists purely to illustrate the story of this writer, and that is exactly what the game feels like, a story being told to the player by a writer. The main attraction is the labor of love that is the puzzle that perfectly aligns itself in the final act of the game, when everything just clicks, and the seemingly convoluted plot is illuminated. Alan Wake is a game that changed my perspective early on in my gaming career, so I realize it does not hold the same sentimental value for everyone. Regardless, I would recommend the game for anyone who is interested in a narrative centered thrill ride that you won’t want to get off of.