Sitting across from Mr. Wake, with the full puzzle coming into focus and the final pieces placed, the gravity from our seventeen hour journey together keeps me to my chair, like I've been punched and punched and punched and punched and I cannot move. I breathe and instead of oxygen I imbibe the molecules of a twisted mystery. I speak and instead of words I utter what others could only describe as ravings that touch no reality. Consumed, swarmed, leashed. It won't let me move. It. It.
But I have won; heavy and weighted as I am, I have still won. The black screen, both an unknown void and comfortable signal flare communicates the end. It is over.
Or is it ...
Sorry, the above prose isn't very good and maybe only barely reminiscent of something Remedy's author/protag would write. But Alan Wake has the uncanny power to permeate my brain. And if you play it, your brain might be permeated, too, in some pretty cerebral ways.
Alan Wake is a very novel game (pun absolutely intended!) in that there is hardly anything like it out there. The closest comparisons would be Silent Hill 1 and 2 minus the grotesque horror, then add a dash of perfect location like BioShock's Rapture. Admittedly, not everything makes perfect sense, but nightmarish situations rarely do, and the nightmare we experience in this game keeps you wanting to find out what will happen next, even if it might be terrifying to see what's around the corner.
I'm so relieved that Alan Wake is a great game after being in development for 5 more years after being announced. Developer Remedy took their time, knowing that they had to release a quality product, and it shows. Plus, if you ever want to get a feel for the Washington state landscape before actually going there, play Alan Wake and you'll be set. It's been a few years since a game has established an almost tangible milieu, an environment that seems like it isn't simply inspired by something but is an actual digital representation of a real locale, townsfolk attitude and all. If you're planning on traveling to America's great Northwest, you might actually find Bright Falls, Washington in the latest state brochure.
Only if you go, bring a flare gun. Trust me.
Actually, you probably shouldn't go to Bright Falls if it existed. Anyone with an iota of artistic talent is in a pickle, and the nightlife is a hilarious one-word oxymoron. Thankfully it's just a game, and man, what a game.
Remedy has billed their latest work as a psychological action thriller. Each word in that description is dead-on. Alan Wake messes with emotions and reality. Alan Wake has you constantly defending your life. Alan Wake surrounds you with suspense and tension, plot twists and cliffhangers. Overall, Alan Wake is an experience you won't, and shouldn't, forget.
When you're releasing a game that centers around an author, everyone's eyes are on your story. Remedy obviously knew this, making the story engaging and very much like a page-turner (and in a brilliant sleight of hand, the act of writing a story is a part of the story!).
Famed thriller writer Alan Wake is taking some time off across the country with his wife, Alice, by going to quaint, out-of-the-way Bright Falls. Alan has met with some public outcry due to some of his actions, plus he's experiencing some writer's block, so getting away with the woman he loves seems like the best chance to slow things down and take a break. Bright Falls is ideal: a town in the middle of nowhere, low population and opportunities to blend into the woods and relax.
But being a celebrity is hard to cover up. Everybody on the planet knows who Alan Wake is, from the middle-aged radio DJ he meets on a ferry, to the young waitress at the local diner (who just happens to be his "biggest fan"). Thankfully, instead of meeting with those pushy, photo-rabid Paparazzi, the townsfolk Alan encounters understand his need for space, offering invitations for interviews or chatting it up only if he's interested.
10 minutes and a creepy meeting with a creepy old woman later, Alan and Alice make it to their cabin serenely nestled in the middle of "a special place" called Cauldron Lake. But apparently a lake with a name that makes one think of witches, toil and trouble isn't as romantic as it sounds. Not long after the Wakes decide to settle in, some kind of hell breaks loose. Alice somehow falls into the lake and Alan loses a week of time, waking up not after diving into the dark waters to rescue his wife, but in his car ... that has wrecked ... in the middle of the woods. Now, Alan has to figure out what has happened to him since coming to Bright Falls, but more so, what has happened to his wife.
You control Alan in his trek through the woods of Washington, trying to find the pieces of a puzzle scattered throughout park trails, mills, farms and the local clinic. As if aided by some otherworldly presence, Alan discovers pages from a manuscript that he has written but, of course, doesn't remember writing. Some of these pages explain the past while others forecast the future; and with Alan being a famous thriller writer, the future is sometimes scary.
Through cutscenes and internal monologues, manuscript pages and your agent Barry's comic rants (one of the shining elements of the game), the twisted tale of Mr. Wake constantly appeals to human reactions to things out of our control. Instead of a super-soldier saving the world, we play as a vulnerable, errant person trying to protect his life and love the only ways he knows how. In the totally fake woods around the totally fake town, there is a sense of reality in Alan Wake, from the grandeur of human behavior right down to being dependent on a flare. We aren't given the freedom of moral choices like a Bethesda or Rockstar game, but the experience crafted by Remedy is as good as any suspense novel, a story that sucks you in and has you feel the same fear as the protagonist because you quite literally do.
As I said earlier, nightmares don't always make sense after we wake from them, and that can be said about Alan Wake, both for the good and the bad. From a story standpoint, Alan Wake makes sense in the end, though to wrap your brain around that ever elusive "Why" might take some stretching. To understand every detail takes some digging, and really is better served for the online forum debates. I have my own beliefs about what happens in Bright Falls, and I believe there is deliberate room for interpretation. Take for example the very first line of the game, a quote from Stephen King:
... nightmares exist outside of logic, and there's little fun to be had in explanations - they are antithetical to the poetry of fear. In a horror story, the victim keeps asking 'Why?' but there can be no explanation, and there shouldn't be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it's what we'll remember in the end.
Need I say more?
Alan Wake has won the Best Storytelling of the Year award already in my heart for 2010. Remedy took the whole art form of writing seriously when they made their lead character an author and Alan Wake is a successful final draft of an engaging suspense thriller. It's dark. It's atmospheric. It's thematic. It's well developed. It's scary. It's unexpected. It's fun. And it's fun to play, too.
To sum up, Alan Wake's mechanics are brilliantly simplistic and deceptive in a good way. Coinciding with the thematic elements of light and dark, light is your guardian angel, coming in the forms of flashlights, spotlights, flares, and lampposts, among a few others. Darkness is just frightful, and if you have a fear of it, well, this game ain't for you. You will almost always have a flashlight handy, and you need it because light will 1.) help you see (duh), 2.) illuminate secret messages and weapon caches, and most importantly, 3.) take down enemy shields before you can take them down at all.
Enemies, called the Taken, range from possessed heavy machinery to possessed townsfolk. You see, there's this Dark Presence that can take control of anything, living or inanimate, and make it want to kill you. It swirls around your enemy like inky, ethereal Kevlar until light is focused on it long enough to make it disappear. Once these dark shields are gone, you're free to fire away with whatever you have at your disposal (Two weapons in particular are so powerful that they eliminate enemy shields and the foe itself; best to save those for when you really need 'em).
Lampposts serve as places called Safe Havens and their names are completely true; they are 100% safe even if a Taken or a flock of killer birds is within arms length. Tension mounts when you leave one of these heaven Havens and the nighttime environment sways like a hurricane is approaching and the world around you seems to be literally breathing some evil exhalation, summoning the Taken to surround you. It's some pretty intense stuff your first time through. Remedy's treatment of the main enemy type is dang terrifying. The townsfolk gunning for you taunt you with normal everyday talk interlaced with demonic and irregular pitches that tear at your feelings of safety. Many times enemies will come at you from behind, adding an extra level of fear (and annoyance) when you find your best bet is to run as fast as you can to the nearest Safe Haven. Prepare to jump, be startled, and play with bated breath during most of your journey through the woods of Washington.
Exploration is encouraged, however aggravating. One of the game's achievements is collecting 100 coffee thermoses scattered throughout Bright Falls. Why? Who knows (see Stephen King quote again). If you've ever played Assassin's Creed and gone after the flags achievement, you'll know what I'm talking about. If you are a nook-and-cranny explorer like I am, then you will find many a time where the level design appears tailor-made for a hidden goodie, but alas there's nothing there but probably some Taken waiting to emerge from thin air. But you should still explore because the environment is simply incredible. Bright Falls is a completely realized town.
Coffee thermoses - *sigh*
The last level - There are a handful of unusually frustrating sections.
Dodging makes you run less - The cinematic slow-mo effects that happen every so often when you dodge are awesome, but they don't always work. But the worst part is if you try to run away after you've dodged a couple of times ... you won't be running away long because you will be ...
Dying - The act of dying isn't a negative, it's the fact that Alan can die at all (this is not a spoiler). Think about it ... you're in a world where things happen because they're written on pages that you've found, and Alan has written them. Do you ever read about him dying in these pages? Theoretically, if he's not dying in the written pages, can he die in between? I don't think it makes a whole lot of sense. Unfortunately it's a necessary paradox in this game (unless you want to take a Prince of Persia route) and it doesn't detract from the experience. Perhaps it falls under that inexplicable "Why" in your attempts at ...
Understanding the story - "Wait a minute, fake Louis Tulley, you just said that you really aren't supposed to understand all of the story and there's even room for interpretation!" Verily, verily, I say to you ... well, yeah, I did say that. But hear me out ... some things are further explained in the Limited Collector's Edition, not the regular, so if anyone has questions they're dying to know, then they're out of luck if they bought the $60 version. I guess it's a privilege for the Collector's Edition buyers, but it does seem a tad unfair.
I want to recommend Alan Wake to everyone, but I know not everyone would like it. That's not to say that this is a niche game made for one type of people. But Remedy has completely catered to single-player gamers such as myself, and they should love the developed story and the action, which is dead-on fun and addictive, with a frightening world to run around (or away) in. They knew what game they wanted to create, and they pulled it off. It's hard for me to say that the game is a full package, what with the Limited Collector's Edition being the true full package, and DLC intended for the future, but the quality of the game speaks volumes and is enough to warrant a very high score. I loved Alan Wake and I hope so many more people do so that Remedy will decide to make a sequel because, me, I already have my flares packed to go back to Washington.
FINAL GRADE - A