Posted on Wednesday, September 25th, 2013 at 9:00 AM by Joseph Butler-Hartley
Although technically a self-proclaimed ‘Psychological Action Thriller’, I am including Alan Wake in my Horror Show feature because I don’t care about technicalities, and neither do poltergeists and abstract monstrosities .
After taking five years to develop it, Remedy finally released ‘Alan Wake’ in 2010. The game follows the eponymous protagonist and troubled writer Alan and his ill-fated vacation to Bright Falls following severe writer’s block. Shortly into his stay, his wife disappears and he begins to find pages from a manuscript apparently written by him which describes what he has done and what he is about to do in his search for his missing wife. It is a gloriously unique concept, and is well-executed in such a story-driven game.
However, the story is a mixed bag. On one hand, the six-part episodic structure allows the game to revel in plot-twists and cliff hangers, and the story manages to be intriguing enough that you’ll want to carry on just to find out what’s going to happen, which is something not many games can claim. On the other hand, while the game excels in pacing and narrative structure, it lacks characters with any sort of depth. Alan is bland and fairly unresponsive to what happens around him; Barry, his agent, is now on my official list of the worst video game characters of all time due to his aspirations of being funny when he actually comes across as a complete tosser; Alice, Alan’s wife, has really odd facial animation that makes her look as if she’s been made of plasticine. Apart from that, there’s the clichéd stock characters of the obsessive fan-girl; the alcoholic FBI agent; the suspicious doctor etc. Without decent characters to carry it the story often feels flat. Although a typically emotional situation, I literally did not care whether or not Alan was reunited with his wife. I continued to play to see what was going to happen, but I certainly wasn’t emotionally invested.
The combat is probably best described as average. Alan fights with a gun in one hand and a flashlight in the other. The enemies are called ‘taken’ or ‘ghosts’ if you’re from earth, and to kill them, Alan has to point his flashlight at them until they become vulnerable, at which point he has to gun then down. If crowded by many enemies, the combat helps make the game feel panicky and desperate and can make Alan seem weak and out of his depth as he spins like a Catherine wheel, trying to splash light on all his enemies before getting a hand axe to the chops. However, the game saps away any sort of panic by giving the player flares and flash-grenades, which I never ran out of, meaning that if a bit of a crowd starts to gather, all Alan has to do is pull a flare and it’s all hunky dory. Although, the fact that all Alan has to do is look in an enemy’s direction to damage it, the game is a tad on the easy side, which doesn’t bode well for its clout as a horror game.
The game is at its best during the non-combat sections used entirely to drive the story, such as the section in the mental asylum where Alan’s sanity is reasonably questioned. It adds to the pacing when there’s nothing to fight for twenty minutes, because when poltergeists start throwing chairs at you, it actually has an effect. However, I felt as if the game lacked a certain sophistication that games like Deadly Premonition exude. Without wishing to spoil, the question of whether Alan is insane is resolved in about ten minutes, and then the story continues as if it were never in doubt. The Darkness 2 managed to keep the insanity plate spinning through-out, to the point where I’m still unsure as to whether or not Jackie boy was off his rocker. The feature in which Alan finds pages from the manuscript which depict his and other character’s actions is certainly sophisticated, and it’s interesting to be able to climb into other character’s heads through Alan’s words and attempt to understand their motivations, but it also kills the tension when you’re heading to a garage and you find a page saying ‘When I got into the garage, I saw Steve. He was possessed and he came for me with a crowbar’. Thank you Alan, I was getting a little bit frightened for a second there.
Now for the part we’ve all been waiting for. Is Alan Wake scary? On the whole, probably not. It certainly has its moments, such as when the environments around Alan become possessed and household items start flying towards him with the intent on braining him, and when the taken actually speak and say things like ‘you must never ever walk on the grass’ in tortured, demented voices. Those bits were effective, but once you’ve grown accustomed to the enemies and gotten into a routine with the combat, the game loses its effectiveness as a horror game.
The phrase of the day is ‘a mixed bag’, so I’m going to use it again. The ending of the game is a mixed bag. On one hand, the final mission is awful. The game prides itself for its strong narrative focus, and the chapters blend story progressing non-combat sections with frantic fights, but for the last chapter the developers said ‘sod the story, let’s just have him drive very slowly up a long road, and let’s make sure he has to get out every couple of seconds to fight another hoard of taken’. It was not climactic, it was dull. The last boss was the worst moment in the entire game. Again, without meaning to spoil, it involves standing five foot away from an enemy that can’t really harm you and firing at it four or five times. That’s it. On the other hand, the ending cut scene was absolutely enthralling. Just when I thought the game had gone stale, and just when I thought the game was going to wrap up with a clichéd reunion, it ends on such uncertain and thought-provoking terms that you’ll be pondering what happened long after you put the disc away. I still have the last words spoken in the game etched into my mind.
I wasn’t blown away by Alan Wake, and I was certainly glad when I’d finished it, but it does manage to be scary on occasion, and it devotes itself so much to its strong narrative that I have to recommend it. Games are such a brilliant vessel for fantastic stories, but many developers fail to realise this potential and instead insist on telling the old ‘man saves woman’ story over and over again. With Alan Wake, Remedy told an exciting story that ended perfectly. Even if you can fault the gameplay and the characters, you can’t fault that.
P.S. this game has fantastic music. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds? David Bowie? Perfect.