Alan Wake understands the power of words. In 2010’s Alan Wake the titular best-selling horror writer lived through a novel he was forced to write by a black cloud dredged up from the bottom of a lake. In the downloadable follow-up American Nightmare he’s stuck in a TV show he wrote. We’re lucky he’s never written a videogame, or else the feedback would melt our 360s into toxic puddles.
Wake’s entire life is a convoluted metafictional puzzle. He’s disappeared into the “Dark Place”, an evil metaphysical nether-realm comparable to the Black Lodge of Twin Peaks. He’s a free-willed wild card in a weird world that closely follows the plot of a TV show he wrote, an episode of an old Twilight Zone aping supernatural horror anthology called Night Springs. If you played Alan Wake you’ll probably remember the Night Springs videos hidden throughout that game; alternately campy and spooky, they were slyly self-aware tributes to Rod Serling’s enduring classic.
That tone suffuses American Nightmare. The entire game is now an interactive episode of Night Springs, with Wake confronting Mr. Scratch, the malicious doppelganger from his script. Gone is the episodic structure of Alan Wake, as the entire game is one single episode viewed multiple times in a row. NPCs are as purposefully underdeveloped as the one-note stock characters that would have a few lines in a single episode of a TV show. Wake repeatedly talks to the same three women, each one a robotic cipher who varies between two staid poses. Their memories are hazy outside of their interactions with Wake and Scratch because all they could possibly know is whatever their creators let them.
Scratch is Wake’s dark side made real, an edgy, fearless, charismatic version of our hero who can make fast friends with anybody before brutally murdering them. (I think he might also moonlight as a maître d’ at the type of gourmet restaurant found in sit-coms, which would explain his slicked-back hair and all-black suit.) He appears in several full-motion video clips, acting like the gleefully malicious psycho killer in a cut-rate Tarentino rip-off. That lurid, cartoon noir tone fits perfectly in the Alan Wake universe. Wake fights to undo Scratch’s evil by changing the script from within, erasing the terror he’d unleash on his own creations if he lacked restraint and a moral compass.
The limitations of a downloadable game are readily apparent, as American Nightmare consists of only three areas. Wake returns to each one three times, improving them slightly with each visit. It gets a little repetitive, but each play through eliminates some of the groundwork so you don’t have to trudge through it all again. And detecting the slight differences every visit and how your actions subtly tweak each level makes your work seem worth it.
The basic combat of American Nightmare is the same as Alan Wake’s. You have a flashlight and a gun. Use the former to wear away the protective cloak of darkness around each bad guy and the latter to take them down for good. There are a small number of guns to discover or unlock, from pistols to shotguns to high-powered assault rifles. Ammo is easy to come by, as are extra batteries for the flashlight, thanks to new refill stations found throughout each level. Flares, flash grenades and flare-guns are limited in number but highly effective. Lampposts act as safe zones and restore your health. It’s basically the same as the original, only your resources are now essentially unlimited. That makes for an easier game, which is fine for one that’s so heavily concerned with story. And if you don’t get enough of the combat while playing the story, there’s also an online wave-based multiplayer mode.
American Nightmare is too short and specialized to feel like a true sequel to Alan Wake. That doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, though. If anything, the industry should use this model more often. Instead of tacking on extra episodes or trying to amend the original game’s story, American Nightmare feels like a brief glimpse into the continuing misadventures of reality-challenged author Alan Wake. It’s a treat for Wake fans but a fine diversion for anybody interested in smart, self-aware videogames.
Garrett Martin is Paste’s games editor. He’s glad he doesn’t have to live in one of his mediocre videogame reviews or his pointless tweets