Stephen King once wrote, â€˜Nightmares exist outside of logic, and thereâ€™s little fun to be had in explanations; theyâ€™re antithetical to the poetry of fearâ€™. Finnish studio Remedy have taken this to heart; there are certainly a lot of illogical nightmares in their episodic survival horror, Alan Wake. Their title sits deeply in that genre, make no mistake - paying great homage to horror in pop culture of the last twenty years â€“ and while itâ€™s certainly an accomplished tribute, Alan Wakeâ€™s ambitious plot often overwhelms its gameplay.
Our titular bestselling author canâ€™t seem to catch a break - he and his perfectly pretty wife were intending to vacation in Idyllic American Smalltownâ„¢ Bright Falls, but what they received instead was a vacation in hell. Wakeâ€™s words begin to jump off the page, Alice goes missing, and Wake must ward off waves of literal Darkness in order to find her. The hook is the manipulation of light and dark: light = good, dark = bad. There is irony behind the name Bright Falls.
The town is lovingly crafted, its quirky inhabitants written delightfully; each one a recognizable archetype from cult shows like Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure. Remedy have nailed the weird essence of small-town Americana: the waitresses wear pink, the jukebox plays Harry Nilsson, and there is a sense of anticipation for an annual â€˜Deerfestâ€™ celebration. Remedy have created their world with meticulous detail and a wealth of clever cultural referencing.
It is in the forests, dams and old farms surrounding the town, however, where most of the action plays out. Once imagined by Remedy as open-world (circa E3 2005), Wakeâ€™s environments are now mostly linear. Sure, thereâ€™s the option for occasional exploration, but your path is clearly defined. When it comes to the scares, this choreography absolutely works. By relinquishing the control to wander wherever you like, you are at the mercy of Remedyâ€™s inspired grasp of foreboding.
The mythology behind killing your enemies is nonsense, but well implemented in practice: shine the light on those possessed by the Darkness, â€˜The Takenâ€™, and theyâ€™ll be weakened enough to evaporate with a bullet. However, bullets are scarce and the torch chews through batteries. More often then not youâ€™ll find yourself madly scrambling through darkened forest to the next light source, fiends snapping at your heels.
Wake himself is no Nathan Drake, his clumsy turns and limited athletic ability in keeping with his sedentary profession. Even the ability to slo-mo dodge your enemies feels fairly ineffectual â€“ the move must be perfectly timed, difficult when youâ€™re terrified out of your wits. It is only much later in the game, once shotguns and bigger flashlights become frequently available, that you gain any sense of confidence in Wakeâ€™s vulnerable skin.
But this harshness is refreshing. The Taken are a relentless threat, faster, stronger and bigger than Wake; their epileptic jerks and layered vocal performances straight out of Sam Raimiâ€™s The Evil Dead. Wake canâ€™t really hide, and nor would you want him to. Like every good survival horror, the anticipation is worse than the confrontation. The Takenâ€™s disembodied ramblings from the deep dark are almost too much to bear, better to stand up and yell â€˜come and get me!â€™
While the minute-to-minute gameplay holds up, the actual missions that drive the story forward in Alan Wake donâ€™t. Structured around getting from point A to point B, they are frequently repetitive and arduous; you will spend ridiculous amounts of time turning on generators. Menial tasks are not uncommon for a genre primarily concerned with scaring the player, but during the monster-free daylight hours, the game suffers further â€“ collecting keys from offices and finding your sunglasses evoke the worst parts of Heavy Rain. These daylight sequences are indeed puzzling; as you are hurried along from cut-scene to cut-scene with little action in between, there is a sense that you, the player, have been forgotten.
When the game triggers scripted events in game, too, youâ€™re hard pressed to feel vital in the action. Frequently you are plunged into a situation where you have five seconds to find a solution before imminent death; you must quickly escape a cabin before a bulldozer destroys it, for example. These events feel like laborious trial and error for the sake of a cinematic moment.
This is part of a broader problem in Alan Wake â€“ it is so concerned with delivering a thrilling story that it sometimes forgets itâ€™s a videogame. Itâ€™s wonderful to see such emphasis on narrative, but not at the expense of fun. Things that might look at home in a film or a novel donâ€™t always work in a game; a possessed bookshelf that flies at your head sounds thrilling, but the actual practice of fighting a piece of furniture is less than enjoyable. It is telling that Alan Wake is peppered with references to classic horror films, yet no classic horror games, of which is could have drawn more appropriate inspiration.
And what of that plot? Drawn out in six episodes, itâ€™s certainly perplexing. As it twists and turns it grows so entrenched in tangled mythology that it reaches the point whereâ€¦ well, anything could happen. The rules of the world seem to be made up on the spot, without grounding us in it first, much like a child telling a story to another. Perhaps if we understood these rules, each revelation would come as a genuine surprise. Instead, itâ€™s difficult not to expect the beginning of each new episode to be â€˜and then Alan Wake woke upâ€¦â€™
Yet this does not distract from a challenging and genuinely frightening experience. You will definitely have questions after finishing the game, having spent much of the time trying to keep up with its steamrolling story. However, more importantly, you will feel exalted to have come out of that forest alive. As a survival horror, Alan Wake succeeds admirably, and comes highly recommended. But as a self-proclaimed â€˜psychological action thrillerâ€™, it falls short of its ambition. Letâ€™s hope the sequel â€“ and there should be one - embraces its own medium, instead of fighting so adamantly against it.