Before I start tearing it apart, I’d like to say that I did really enjoy Alan Wake. It didn’t really do anything wrong. Well, not too wrong. My problems are with the missed opportunities.
There’s a few things that really grate, you know? Things that would have added to the experience so considerably that it’s a wonder that they didn’t do them. Things that you’re given glimpses of when you’re playing the game, enough to make you think ‘What if?’ before they’re cruelly snatched away from you again. Perhaps it’s due to Alan Wake’s confused development, moving from free roaming open world to tightly scripted cinematic ‘experience’.
On the front of the box is written ‘A Psychological Action Thriller’. I’d have gone with ‘A Supernatural Action Horror’, because there’s not a great deal psychological about it, except the half-asked question of ‘is it all in Alan’s mind?’ which is entertained for about five minutes before you are resolutely told ‘no, it really isn’t’. Instead, it’s deeply rooted in the supernatural and mysticism, which really is fine, because that stuff is entertaining, but really, that’s false advertising, and it’s something I’d like to have seen.
Because the writer’s creations becoming real is desperately interesting. It brings to the fore all of these questions about the darker side of the psyche, and the inner conflict of good and evil inside a person, and using light and dark as the most simplistic of metaphors really does work. We could be asking questions about Alan Wake’s own morality and character just as we looked at Max Payne and thought: ‘hey, this guy really isn’t that nice, is he? He’s just a badge and a weak justification away from the guys he’s plugging.’ Instead, we just get the black and white (har har) plot device of ‘save the spouse’. I’d like to see what would happen if he had been single, and all this bad shit had started happening. Would he have turned tail and run from crazy possessed hicks? Would the Darkness have let him?
Themes aside, there’s a lot of confusion with how the game actually works, too. If you look at what the essence of horror and fear is, it pretty match always boils down to the threat of death, and the lack of control over your immediate surroundings. Games like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, hell, even Left 4 Dead, work, because you’re basically constantly on the back foot; you’re the game’s bitch, not the other way around. It’s managing the most immediate of threats, and then getting the hell out of there. Alan Wake doesn’t do this.
No, what Alan Wake does is give you a whopping great torch, enough ammo to keep you going till Winter, and then pushes you into a series of arenas that are linked with bits of expositional story. There are never more than three or four enemies at once, and if there are, you’re given some sort of uber weapon to fend them off with. You’re never running out of ammo, so you can just keep moving away from these melee-only hicks, and the fact that your torch recharges it’s batteries through some kind of perpetual energy machine means that you’re never without defences.
So, it’s a horror game where the only scares come from monster closets, and even those are very few, and very far in between. Maybe they weren’t going for straight horror, and were instead attempting to create an environment of tension and constant unease, which is helped along significantly by the incredible atmosphere, the wind seemingly visible as it washes over pines and moonlight, making any shadow a potential enemy. The problem is the enemies are so pathetic in general that this is never built upon. And no, making some enemies bigger, take longer to kill and have the odd special attack doesn’t make them any more threatening.
I’m struck by a memory of one of the videos I saw of the game before it was released. Coming off a Cable Car, Alan was suddenly surrounded by enemies, at least ten of them. Obviously whoever was demoing the game realised that this was an impossible fight, and so, at the last moment before he was struck down, he popped a flare, holding it aloft like the Olympic Torch. The Taken, as they’re called, recoiled in revulsion at the light, hovering just at the limit of the flare’s reach, ready to pounce the moment it spluttered out. That looked scary. That looked like a properly tense and exciting moment. I played the whole game looking forward to that kind of tension and perpetual fear, and, really, it never came.
The flares turned out to be just a backup weapon for if you were about to get a little swamped, but I don’t recall coming off a single cable car where there was a welcome party. And there was only a single instance where I ran out of ammo and had to flee for my life. That was probably my favourite moment in the game.
What I was waiting for most of all was an escalation. There was a sort of build up towards the end of the game, but it was more superficial than it could’ve been. Instead of increasing numbers of Taken, to the extent where previously you had easily dispatched them, but now it was a desperate fending, in an attempt to just get the hell to some light, we just had bits and pieces of various detritus lobbed at us, far enough away that they were never a threat, but were close enough to make us jump.
I wanted that Flare Moment. I wanted to see a horde of Taken charging at me, and then popping a flare and being able to walk among them, all of them recoiling in disgust and fury. Think Pitch Black. Hell, there was even a reference to that film when your ‘hilarious’ side kick wrapped himself in Christmas Lights. If you’re going to borrow the frivolities, why not borrow the films best ideas? Drive me among these terrors, and make me smell their breath; make me realise just how fucked I am, rather than never really feeling threatened. Build up your antagonist until they seem almost insurmountable, and suddenly the victory will feel all that more satisfying.
As it stands, Alan Wake is perfectly enjoyable. The story is mostly well written, and the mechanic of placing manuscript pages everywhere that detail upcoming events is a clever one; it builds suspense even more than an atmosphere could hope to. Reading ‘And that’s when I heard the chainsaw’ a good twenty minutes before you do doesn’t half make you dread every corner. So sure, I can recommend it. I just wish I loved it.