Alan Wake

FBT is Max Payne’s nerdy brother

In 2001 Remedy burst into the shooter scene with Max Payne, a suicidal burnout we thought was cool and we cared about. Two years later Remedy did it again with Max Payne 2, deepening the character, story and the gameplay. If only all game (and movie) sequels could be that good. Let’s not talk about Rockstar's Max Payne 3. Remedy then spent seven years perfecting their new man, Alan Wake; this is a developer that likes to get things right. And while there is a lot -a hell of a lot- right with Alan Wake, the game isn’t quite the sum of its unnatural parts.

Alan Wake, our eponymous and unwilling hero (I get it, Awake, but Alan? I’m an Alan?), is a famous novelist struggling with writer’s block. His wife Alice suggests a trip to Bright Falls, a remote town that’s so quaint it screams ‘dark underbelly’. Settling into their cabin on the lake, Alan’s hoping to mope about and be all tortured-artist, but Alice has an ulterior motive; get Alan to visit a local celebrity psychologist to lift his spirits and knock out another best-seller. Alan’s not best pleased but no sooner has he stropped off when Alice disappears, and Alan wakes to find himself in a wrecked car a week later. The next thing he knows, violent ghost-like figures are after him and his most valuable weapon is a flashlight.

Alan Wake is as much a pot-boiler film or novel as it is game; Polanski’s Frantic meets Stephen King – in fact, there’s so much King in AW that Remedy sent him a copy. Should have given him a credit. The world is incredible, beautiful yet foreboding, isolated but intimate, it just has this off quality and it ramps up that unease with some juicy ghost-story beats to complicate things; the cabin on the lake hasn’t existed in years, who’s the unknown woman in black who gave them the cabin keys, the slightly off-kilter locals – it’s got all the makings, and that’s before you really get into the Novel-quality story; this isn’t some contrived plot to drive the game; King, Poe, M.R James, Susan Hill, Shirley Jackson; Alan Wake fuses everything that’s good about a small-town ghost story into its own compelling and chilling tale. Where the hell is Alice, what happened in that missing week? Why are there pages of a novel Alan doesn’t recall writing scattered around the town? What broke his writer’s block? Typically, the answers are to be found in the dark and that's great, but that’s where the game unravels.

As Alan searches for answers, he contends with ‘the Taken’, previously cheery Bright Falls residents now wrapped in some evil Darkness and intent on butchering him. He can dispatch them with a wave of his torch and a well-placed bullet, and that’s the problem; it’s a shooter that doesn’t need to be a shooter. The best thing about a ghost story is nothing traditional will save you; Alan should be completely out of his depth, an everyman - when did Max Payne get here? We’ve played this a hundred times before and it’s hugely at odds with the set up and cut-scenes. The fights are scary at first as you put your flashlight on full beam causing the battery to drain while firing wildly, then take off running, desperately trying to reach the safety of a street light only to be surrounded, with low bullets and no batteries, but the further you stumble on, the more you realise there’s not much else going on; it starts to feel like a zombie shooter and it’s so rail-linear it is literally you walking one way, the Taken staggering in the other; quickly you lose the key thing about going into the woods at night; apprehension.

A surprisingly bold/frustrating move is no melee. Alan can shoot like a trooper but he can’t muster a pistol-whipping? Running out of ammo means dodging until you find a safe haven (and hope it has ammo) or just wait to die and it feels like a lazy way to add tension – it would have been so much scarier to wander with only your torch and smarts as a defence; alone in the dark, hassled by possessed locals you just had a damn fine cup of coffee with isn’t enough? Why is this a shooter? I never thought I'd be annoyed at being armed.

The story though continues to grip, with Alan under suspicion for killing townsfolk and we’re not entirely sure it’s not all in his head – the psychologist even commits him at one point, but the sinister unease is always ruined by some contrivance that forces Alan back into the woods or elsewhere, at night, again. Alan Wake needed to merge the scenes with the reality, make it one inescapable nightmare not a game of two halves. But even without the clearly defined shooter parts to interrupt the flow, the game is broken out much like a TV series, something Remedy’s follow up Quantum Break explored further. Once a story element is resolved, we go to ‘credits’ and the next opens with ‘previously on’ featuring key scenes from the last episode. Why? I should be playing Stranger Things not watching it. An encroaching, suffocating narrative like this shouldn’t be ruined by the game pausing to ask, ‘are you still watching?’

Early reports suggested Alan Wake was going to be open world but Remedy decided would ruin the suspense - it might have worked better non-linear, if you could get lost … We've all taken a shortcut at night down some alleyway, across a park or woods and gotten the heebie-jeebies; to have the town and surrounding area open up as he investigated the pages - then going into the woods would be truly horrible because we would have made the choice; and without weapons it would have been unbearable. If it had a constant clock and you roamed safely in daytime, venturing further only to get lost and see the sun setting … that would have been awesome. I should be too scared to go into the woods, not just dumped there with no choice; it reduces the narrative’s dread and scares - I should be bravely walking out, hearing a twig snap and immediately saying “I vote we go back to the Slaughtered Lamb…”

Still, out of the woods Remedy really have fashioned something beautiful with Alan Wake, it’s one of those games you grumble about then say ‘but it’s great really’; as a (cutscene) hero Alan is a refreshing one - petulant and self-obsessed, while others such as Alan’s agent/friend Barry and the local Sheriff work really well, wondering if they’re just feeding his fantasy, while the ending is brilliant; bitter-sweet and moving, it's actually one of the best game endings I've seen in years. Despite everything else, the final reveal and what Alan does saved it. Alan Wake's story is pure art, but the game-play … when you turn a bright light on, there’s nothing underneath.

Alan returned for the standalone add-on American Nightmare and a sequel was planned but poor sales caused Remedy to rework some of the ideas into Quantum Break, with mixed results. There aren’t any other developers out there with this level of ingenuity or originality in gaming; the risks and chances Remedy take are always more interesting than a play-it-safe CoD clone. Alan Wake is worth a play just to see a developer pushing the limits of what a shooter should be. Long may they continue.

2010 | Developer Remedy Entertainment | Publisher Microsoft Game Studios

Platforms; Win | X360