Publisher: Microsoft Game Studios
Platform: Xbox 360
One novelist’s sabbatical gone horribly, horribly wrong
Celebrity writer Alan Wake has got it made. Every novel he publishes jumps to the top of the best-seller list. He lives in a ritzy New York City apartment with a private terrace and dazzling view. He’s happily married and has a literary agent who knows how to close a deal. There’s only one problem: Wake hasn’t been able to put a word to paper for more than two years. The creative spigot has shut off and the only thing left flowing at this point is a niggling trickle of self-doubt.
At his wife Alice’s insistence, Wake decides a temporary change of scenery will do them both good. After all, the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves spanning one wall of Wake’s living room aren’t exactly helping him get his mind off things. Their getaway destination: the quaint waterfront town of Bright Falls, Washington, nestled against the mountainous, densely wooded grandeur of the Pacific Northwest. Surely some fresh air and open space will uncork the creative juices.
Unfortunately Wake’s dysphoria is about to spiral deeper as he begins stumbling across loose-leaf pages of his latest manuscript—a horror novel entitled “Departure”—that he doesn’t remember writing. Even stranger, the chilling plot twists and supernatural aberrations recounted in the pages somehow manifest themselves in the real world. Alice vanishes mysteriously into thin air. Many of Bright Falls’ residents, perfectly congenial by day, are possessed by an evil force called The Dark Presence once night descends. If Wake is to have any chance of seeing his wife again, he must figure out how to wrest back control of this tale and craft a new ending.
Alan Wake, a years-in-the-making project by Finnish game studio Remedy, marks the first teetering steps of a new era in videogame storytelling. Game enthusiasts and developers have long had a computer-chip on their shoulder about how little respect the wider culture affords videogames. True believers bristle at the establishment culture’s suggestion that games are somehow irrelevant, a tawdry enchantment for the terminally under-mature. Every time President Obama mentions the word “Xbox,” you can be sure it’s in the context of urging parents to steer their kids toward a more enriching pursuit.
But here’s the kicker: games haven’t exactly thrown open their arms to the wider culture either. Videogame narratives—even the more accomplished examples like Grand Theft Auto IV, BioShock and Mass Effect—have contented themselves with fictional worlds that exist in a parallel dimension. Liberty City, for example, as opposed to New York City. Fallout 3’s action occurs in Washington, D.C., but its apocalyptic ruins bear little resemblance to the city’s real-world counterpart.
This approach has opened the door for richly woven parody and fable, but why have game designers, at least historically, been so shy about referencing our real world and culture? For all the ‘hooah!’-barking bravado they pack into their games, the jokers at Infinity Ward couldn’t even admit their game was obviously set in Baghdad. I mean, c’mon.
One of Alan Wake’s primary antagonists, FBI Agent Nightingale, has made it his mission in life to apprehend Wake. Nightingale is an insufferable asshole and the game doesn’t bother to make him empathetic in any way. He’s a laughably two-dimensional character, exhibiting roughly the same level of emotional depth as the life-sized Alan Wake promotional cardboard cutout that serves as a comedic prop at various points in the game. While Agent Nightingale may be a flimsy caricature of every asshole cop from every action movie ever made, his habit of jeering Wake by calling him by the name of other writers (some canonical, some populist) set off alarm bells in my head. Over the course of the game, he calls Wake names such as ‘Dan Brown,’ ‘James Joyce,’ ‘Stephen King,’ even ‘Bret Easton Ellis.’
At Nightingale’s mention of the American Psycho author, I was so chuffed I nearly turned a cartwheel in my living room and flung my Xbox controller into the air like a graduation cap. Not because Ellis is some super-obscure author whom I was excited to hear plugged in mainstream entertainment—if the game’s writer Sam Lake had stuffed the name ‘Frederick Buechner’ into Nightingale’s mouth, I might’ve lost consciousness altogether—but because invoking a name like ‘Bret Easton Ellis’ forges a more visceral connection between us and the game’s proceedings. Blurring the game’s world with the out-of-game world invites us to more fully participate in the fiction.
co-creators J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof captivated their show’s television audience by planting real-world URLs and phone numbers in adjacent commercial slots, reinforcing the illusion of the DHARMA Initiative’s existence. As viewers of fictional entertainment, we enjoy being lied to. And something as simple as scattering pop-cultural references can blur the line between our worlds in engaging ways. Hell, I remember enjoying the product placement in Rockstar’s racing game Midnight Club: Los Angeles because whizzing past strip malls containing Best Buys, Pizza Huts and 7-11s felt like the Los Angeles I’d driven through (far more safely) in real life. It rang true.
As fun as it is to play at times, Alan Wake exhibits a bizarrely lopsided sense of what constitutes good taste artistically. For example, after the close of one episode you’re serenaded by the deliciously spooky drama of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds’ “Up Jumps The Devil.” But then later in the game I was left clutching my ears as the Finnish nü-metal band Poets of the Fall sang the following words over a mélange of orchestral bombast: “When I thought that I fought this war alone / You were there by my side on the front line / And we fought to believe the impossible.” But even Poets of the Fall have their redeeming moment when they provide the shred-tacular soundtrack to a Taken-blasting showdown that takes place on an old concert stage in the middle of some aging rockers’ farm, complete with pyrotechnics and light show. Easily the game’s finest hour.
The game’s script by Remedy in-house writer Sam Lake likewise seesaws between pitch-perfect and face-palmingly awful. Wake’s literary agent and best friend Barry is the second coming of Joe Pesci. After a night spent sleeping in the local clink, Barry wakes up complaining, “I think my tongue just took a crap in my mouth.” Wake mocks Barry’s lack of heavy-metal knowledge at another point, quipping, “This from the guy who discovered Ozzy Osbourne through a reality show.”
Just when you start getting comfortably immersed, however, you choke on a lump of overcooked narration such as Wake earnestly musing, “A drowning man will clutch at a straw.” Also: “The terror would’ve burned her mind out. Ok, just one more: [Upon hearing the distressed voice of Barry in the distance after the two are separated] “For all I knew, it was Barry, caught in the consequences of leaping without looking.” If you sound like a bit of poorly translated text from a Japanese RPG, you’re doing it wrong. It’s entirely possible that the game’s protagonist is simply a shitty writer and the prose that Sam Lake attributes to him is a masterpiece of deadpan comic genius, but I’m not quite certain.
In terms of gameplay, Alan Wake is mostly satisfying. Where Dead Space complicated the straightforward task of “shoot all bad guys” by forcing players to strategically dismember alien foes by aiming for their limbs, Alan Wake’s twist is that you have to shine your flashlight beam on The Taken (shadow zombies, basically) for several seconds before they’re vulnerable to attack. This creates some incredibly stressful multi-tasking as you switch back and forth between shining and shooting, ad infinitum. In the case of the flare gun and the flashbang grenades, the shining and shooting is condensed into singularly effective combat tools. The pattern gets a bit tedious, but the bucolic set pieces provide ample reward for the game’s more protracted hikes.
Although there is a day-night cycle, the majority of the game is spent under the cover of darkness. Makes sense, I suppose, as darkness is where the crux of the gameplay challenge lies. Still I found myself constantly wishing for daylight to return. Not just so I could give my nerves a rest from the frightful, orchestral stings that occur when The Taken lurch unexpectedly out of the treeline right next to me. I just wanted daylight so I could admire the absolutely jaw-dropping environments.
Bright Falls is a place of goosebump-raising beauty. Crater lakes whose rippling surfaces glisten in the orange glow of dusk. Mammoth trees cover the landscape, swaying and sighing in the breeze. Snowcapped mountains loom majestically in the distance. You can sense the faded glory of the Bright Falls mining settlement that originally spawned this town many long years ago. I found myself wishing that Remedy’s original idea to create a sandbox environment for Alan Wake had become a reality so I could explore this game’s world just as I relished the bustling Venetian streets of Assassin’s Creed II.
Even though I’ve completed the game and offered my bittersweet farewell to Bright Falls, like any good holiday—real or otherwise—I find myself aching to return. You better believe I’ll have an economy-sized carton of flashlight batteries in my carry-on luggage, though, just to be on the safe side.