Do you remember the drugged scene in Max Payne? You know the one where Max tried to navigate his way through a black empty void with only thin trails of blood to lead him forward? Together with baby screams and the voice of Max's wife in the background, it was one of the most disturbing moments I've ever experienced in a game.
Back then, Remedy made an action game. A really good one, where surrealist passages like the blood level were added bonuses. We thought Alan Wake would be the opposite, an adventure filled with messed up moments like those but with a side dish of great action. It didn't really turn out that way.
It starts out really promising. Horror writer Alan Wake re-tells a nightmare he has had, that I get to play. I'm on a lonely road. A shadowy figure appears and yells at me in a devilish voice. You've missed your deadline! Your writing is pretentious nonsense! "A game for me", I think just before the first swing of an axe comes. I barely manage to get out of the way and start running towards the lighthouse in the distance, my goal ever since I started to dream. Light is good, that's all I can be sure of. I close the door behind me and wake up. At least I think I did.
And with that Alan Wake's main story starts to roll, the one we've known the basics of since the game was announced back in 2005. Mr Wake hasn't written a single line in two years, so he and his wife decide to go on vacation in the small town of Bright Falls, where a rented cabin and the idyllic wild should cure the writer's block. Soon, Alan's beloved is abducted and Alan himself starts to have trouble separating reality from fantasy. Is his fate in his own hands or in someone else's? Can he write himself out of this mess? And why is he attacked by possessed wheelbarrows?
The hunt for Alan's wife takes us through dark and foggy woods, where shadow creatures lurk behind every tree. Alan does have both a gun and a boomstick available, but the most important part of his arsenal is light, light and more light. Flashlights of various intensity make the enemies vulnerable after a few seconds and emergency flares and spotlights are incredibly effective. In other words you need to keep track of both batteries and ammunition and the fights often become hectic.
Shooting in Alan Wake is in general a pretty easily controlled affair and combining light with lead is a cool idea. The shadow creatures you fight are sadly not very scary, at least not after an hour or so when you've gotten used to the rather limited amount of enemies the game offers. If you don't count the annoying flying enemies and the evil spots on the ground (you heard me) it's mostly lumberjacks, lumberjacks, lumberjacks - maybe the worst nightmare of a poor sapling, but not for me. And if the devs have chosen the action path - where are the bosses? Or the power-ups? Even the many scary sound effects and music fail to deliver in the end.
Semi-bland enemies and fights in other words, and the main atmosphere instead lies in the surroundings: the fog, the treeline and the constant insecurity if what is going on is real or just a part of Alan's dreams. Even what at first seems like neutral ground can turn a bit disturbing, as when I'm at a diner in Bright Falls and asked to go down a dark corridor to meet the guy that's going to rent me a cabin. A worried old lady points at me with a warning finger. "Lynch-esque", I think it's called and I'm really, really sad that Alan Wake doesn't include more moments like that.
Light and darkness are the basic mechanics in Alan Wake and they are, just like the rest of the environments, beautifully rendered by Remedy's graphics department. The light from the emergency flares throws incredible shadows, car lights become two lonely pillars on dark roads and when Alan, his publisher and a Bright Falls-police officer run around in the woods with a flashlight each the effect is nothing except breathtaking. Bright Falls look amazing during daytime as well, and sometimes I wish that Alan Wake didn't have quite so many levels set during the night. The animations look great too and Remedy's feel for "bullet time" and camera work is impressive.
For a while Alan Wake was supposed to feature an open world, but those plans were scrapped at some point along the way. The level design is mostly linear, but you are encouraged to take small side-tracks to find ammunition, pages from Alan's novel or...100 thermoses. With the help of the map there's no risk you'll get lost, but it's hard not to feel exposed when you're walking alone through the darkness, with hissing noises surrounding you and bear traps ready to give you some unwanted pedicure.
Alan Wake's narrative imitates both novels and television series. Most important is Alan's own voice that narrates everything that happens to him. He does have a tendency to point out the most obvious things ("I had to find the key, I had to open the door"), but voice actor Matthew Porretta does deserve a lot of credit and his voice does a lot towards creating a bond between player and Alan who visually is rather generically designed. Alan finds pages from his own novel, pages you can read for insight into what is going on (and what is about to happen), but these are a bit too vague to be very engaging - just like the rest of the story.
The first words you'll hear in Alan Wake are "Stephen King", and it's hard to miss where the inspiration comes from without making the game lack an identity of its own. Alan mentions The Shining when he's chased by a man wielding an axe, the influences from Lost are there and of course the coffee in Bright Falls is as good as that in Twin Peaks. Both obvious references and smaller homages like these will reward the player who pays attention.
There's a lot of action in Alan Wake, of the ok-but-not-amazing kind, and this is one of Alan Wake's two large problems. There are just too many salvos of bullets fired during all the walks through the woods, which gets in the way of what could have been a really scary adventure. Alan Wake could have used more introspective mindfucks, more surrealism and more puzzles or exploring. It's the wrong kind of Lynch-esque atmosphere. A sequence towards the end, where Remedy plays around with Alan's perspective (in more than one way), is brilliant and I wish there had been more of those.
The second problem is the story. A game about an author that's written a novel automatically sets the bar pretty high for itself, and I can't really say that Alan Wake's story is more interesting than any other action game of this kind (and yes, I've read all the novel pages I've found in the game). Add an almost insultingly anticlimatic ending and you end up with a rather bland final product. I won't give away more about the ending except that the fact that Remedy doesn't either. It's like it's made for the coming downloadable episodes, and I have a hard time to swallow it. It's one thing to be inspired by television narratives, another one to embrace them fully.
The seven I'm giving it is a strong one, though. Alan Wake is far from a bad game, but it's certainly a disappointment for me. It's not the playable version of Twin Peaks we were hoping for, but still an atmospheric action game with great graphics. Remedy should get some extra cred for daring to contribute to a nice trend for the gaming medium, where storytelling and atmosphere count as much as explosions, technology and multiplayer modes. It's a good sign. A waking up, if you want.