If there's one emotion that the video game medium conveys better than any other, it's fear. While many are still looking for that elusive game to universally bring gamers to tears or touch the heart in ways only the greatest books and films have, fear has been kind to video games. Maybe it's something about the interactivity, or the fact that a scary environment is easier to construct in a digital realm, but series like Silent Hill, Resident Evil, BioShock, and countless others have raised neck hair and caused screaming fits for gamers all over the world with relative ease compared to other genres.
Alan Wake takes a slightly different approach to typical video game horror. Instead of relying on closet scares and oppressive atmosphere (although those are found here too), Alan Wake takes a more psychological approach, relying on tried and true literary techniques like foreshadowing, character development, and pathetic fallacy to incite unease and tension in the player. These techniques are so effective, that Alan Wake is easily the scariest Teen rated game of all time, without relying on nary a drop of blood to convey its anxiety.
When the game begins, you are given a quick tutorial in the guise of a terrifying nightmare, before reawakening on a ferry to Bright Falls, a Pacific Northwest getaway surrounded by serene lakes and forests. All seems well, as Alan and his wife get keys to their cabin and prepare to take it easy in the placid cabin secluded from the bright lights and honking horns of the big city. Of course, all is not well, as Wake is a successful writer who has been combating writer's block for two years, and isn't getting any better. It's made Wake into an irritable man who only takes solace in his wife's company and little else. Both Wake and his wife are characters that are humanly flawed, but still generally likable, all of which is established in the lengthy but necessary expository scenes at the start of the game.
Things get truly bizarre when Wake's wife goes missing, and he begins finding pages of a manuscript that he had in mind but had not even started to write. Even more bizarre, is that as he finds pages of the manuscript, they seem to be coming true as he frantically searches for his wife. The interesting thing about the manuscript pages is that despite essentially telegraphing twists and events before they happen, they actually manage to increase the fear and tension that the player feels. It's much more horrifying to know that you'll be facing an enemy with a chainsaw or having possessed farming equipment coming after you, but not knowing exactly when or where it will happen. It's a storytelling gamble that fortunately paid off in the form of an engrossing mystery.
It also helps that the manuscript pages and Wake's narration throughout the game are extremely well written, pulling the gamer in with elegant prose and mysterious plot twists. It's refreshing to see storytelling in a video game borrow some of the biggest strengths of the literary medium to tell its story, and it's this factor more than any other that makes Alan Wake a must play. The game also has an unexpected level of good humor, particularly coming from Wake's easily frightened agent, Barry.
The story Alan Wake tells is shockingly unpredictable, and filled with exciting twists and turns that I dare not spoil here. The game is actually split into six two hour episodes, complete with an ending title scrawl followed by a "previously on Alan Wake" blurb to kick off the following episode. Gamers who buy the game new will also get a card with free access to the first downloadable episode soon to be released on Xbox Live. Needless to say, the story in Alan Wake is the driving factor for the gamer, and you'll definitely want to see this story through to its bizarre and shocking conclusion. Just don't expect to learn all of its secrets by the end. The game even warns you of this right off the bat when it quotes Stephen King, who said that when it comes to horror and fear, there's little fun to be had in explanations.
It's a good thing that the story is so engrossing, because while the combat has some unique qualities, it does get a little repetitive throughout the game. Without spoiling too much, the enemies that Wake faces against have been "taken" by a dark presence. All the enemies are invincible until you use a light source to drive away the darkness within them, after which you can take them out with a few well placed shots from a smattering of guns. Light can be found in all sorts of forms, including standard flashlights, lanterns, flares, flashbang grenades, and flare guns. Since a good 65 per cent of the game takes place in the forest, light is not always that easy to come by. Flashlights must have their batteries replaced (with conveniently labeled Energizer batteries littered throughout the environments). What's neat about the flashlight is that it also doubles as your aiming reticule. While the using of light as a weapon mechanic is undeniably original, you'll eventually get sucked into a light, shoot, light, shoot, light, shoot routine that never really changes despite a variety of interesting enemies. Light also serves as "safe havens" that the "taken" can't enter, giving you time to replenish your health and ammunition.
Beyond battling with townspeople who have been "taken", you'll also have to contend with possessed inanimate objects that will unexpectedly fly at you and a slew of environmental hazards. Enemies are well hidden within the environments, and will constantly surprise you from all angles without relying on a cheap "monster closet" technique found in games like Doom 3.
There are also a few vehicle sections that have you traversing the vast Pacific Northwest setting. The game is undeniably linear, but there's still plenty of room to go off the beaten path, especially in the vehicle sections. There's something exhilarating about blinding a "taken" with your high beams before crunching them under the tires of a pick up truck.
The levels are huge with almost no loading, except for when you die. Players are rewarded with collectible manuscript pages and coffee thermoses by taking the time to explore a little further. It's also hard to get lost in the game, as a compass always points you to your destination. By expanding the story for those who go looking for it, developer Remedy has given a superb reason to keep going away from that glowing yellow dot on the map until absolutely necessary. The atmosphere is also further fleshed out with entertaining TV shows (including an awesome Twilight Zone parody called Night Springs) and radio shows to be found in deserted cabins. Playing on harder difficulties also rewards the player with more pages and extra story.
The environmental design is definitely one of Alan Wake's strong suits, with the most oppressive atmosphere since Silent Hill 2. Most of the game takes place in the forest, which is okay because it manages to be the creepiest setting to be found. Fog and mist rolls in and out realistically, foliage reacts to friend and foe alike, and the lighting system is a marvel to behold. The draw distance stretches for virtual miles, with nary a trace of texture or model pop in. Wake himself and his enemies are fantastically animated, with the twisted motions of the "taken" adding an extra layer of terrifying atmosphere. All of this graphical fidelity comes with nary a frame rate hitch too. All is not perfect in the graphical presentation though, particularly with some poor lip syncing that temporarily ruins immersion, and it happens in about a third of the cutscenes. Some of the secondary characters also lack the greater detail found in the primary players.
Sound design is fantastic. Music swells and falls appropriately with the situation. There's a creepy synthesizer sound that occurs to warn you of nearby enemies that is every bit as effective as the radio from the Silent Hill games. Sound effects are well recorded and unique, particularly the sound of light drawing away darkness. Finally, the voice acting is entirely top notch, with nary a weak performance in the bunch. This is really some of the best voice acting I've ever heard, from the frantic gushing of Alan Wake's biggest fan in a coffee shop, to Wake's own moody and brooding narration.
Despite a five year gestation period and some unfortunate gameplay flaws, Alan Wake remains a powerhouse of interactive storytelling and sometimes unbearable tension. Mix in terrifying atmosphere, fun but repetitive game mechanics, and some of the best presentation seen yet on the Xbox 360, and you have a game that is worthy of the pedigree set forth by the developers of Max Payne oh so many years ago. Remedy, it's great to have you back!