The first two words of Alan Wake are "Stephen King." The next big Xbox 360 exclusive game is an interactive thriller played in the shadows of America's Pacific Northwest. I recently played the game's impressive first full "episode."
Remedy Entertainment's May-dated game comes on a disc but is divided into episodes. These chapters are sometimes narrated in the past tense and they are designed to end in cliffhangers. To describe the first one, as I'm about to, involves spoilers, though we're talking spoilers of a pilot episode designed to set up mysteries and tone and answer just about nothing — that's what the rest of the episodes are for. So reading this will allow you to remain as much in the dark as I was at the end of the first episode or even as was Alan himself.
The first episode is called Nightmare. It opens with the "Stephen King" reference and some narration by Alan, setting himself up as "a writer." He's a King-style writer, an author of thrillers, visiting a Twin-Peaks-style town, Bright Falls in the Pacific Northwest. Nightmare begins in the middle of things. Alan Wake is driving down a dark highway. It's late. He drives smack into a hitchhiker. Alan has a flashlight, wielded in his left hand in this third-person game. Pulling the Xbox 360's left trigger focuses the beam. Seconds after he is out of his car, Alan is creeping down a path that descends near the highway's cliffs. He's being pursued by a shadowy figure, possibly the hitchhiker, who is maybe a character from one of Alan's books. As would be the prevailing gameplay theme of most of Nightmare's action sequences, Alan was being pursued, hounded, by one and then by multiple shadowy axe-men.
The gameplay was mostly panicked escape in this first section of Nightmare. I had to rush Alan down outdoor paths and into a house. A couple of times, a mysterious voice offered advice, pointing out a pistol that Alan could wield and a player could fire with a squeeze of the right trigger. When confronting a shadowy enemy in Alan Wake, the main mechanic requires using the L trigger to burn off the shadows covering the enemies and then shooting them with the R trigger. A well-timed press of the game's dodge button triggers a slow-motion effect, shades of Remedy's Max Payne games, which allows the player more time to roll Alan out of the way, turn and fire a good shot.
Alan Wake is a thriller that appears to be the exception to two gaming genre rules. Games that are scary often have two deficiencies: controls and graphics.
The former can frustrate in a Silent Hill or a Resident Evil, forcing the player to deal with clunky or muddy controls. The inability to move a character with swiftness and finesse is arguably an essential element of the games' creators' intent to make the player feel overpowered and afraid. Recent, more dynamic controls, such as in Resident Evil 5, seemed to help make the game more of an action movie and less of a horror flick. Better controls produce fewer scares?
Alan Wake's scheme denies that better controls necessarily alleviate fear and tension. Alan may have controlled pleasantly, like a man and not a tank, but the need to illuminate enemies and then shoot them — and to do so while batteries swiftly drained and then needed to be recharged or be replaced in the flashlight — provided just enough enjoyable trouble to make skirmishes a fright, without being a frustration.
As for graphics, well, it's hard to say if the darkness enshrouding many of the games in the genre excused less than industry-leading graphics or if it is smaller development teams, not armed with the resources to make industry-leading graphics that turned to the horror genre. Whatever the case, it is rare to see a game in the dark-and-creepy category that could be a Best Graphics candidate, but Alan Wake, like EA's Dead Space before it, represents a pleasant exception. The Pacific Northwest is a rare and magnificent sight in video games, rendered in real and spooky detail in the episode I played. The forests were tall, dark and dense, light playing through branches. As Alan ran into a house for refuge, I noticed it was full of details, chairs and TVs and wall-hangings, meeting my newfound Uncharted 2 standard of amount of stuff I think a developer can render in a realistic indoors space. As some dark presence shook the house apart, I felt not that I was in a primitive diorama but that I was in a big-budget blockbuster. Even in the dark it felt I could see far across the valley, that this was a detailed world so well-rendered I could almost smell the sawed logs.
I've barely described the events of Nightmare so far. Alan's shelter is wrecked. He is told, by that voice, to go to a lighthouse that beams in the night. Light is refuge in this game. As he runs, the shadowy figures pursue him. And just as he's getting there, this first little bit of the episode ends.
Time turns back. It's sunny. Alan and his wife, Alice, are driving to Bright Falls, ready to start a vacation. They park their product-placed car on a ferry, where Alan is immediately recognized by a local disc jockey. Alan takes a call from his agent. The ferry rides us into town, setting that Twin Peaks scene of a remote and quaint corner of American civilization full of folks who know each other maybe too well. There's some sort of festival called Deerfest starting in two weeks.
The couple goes to a diner to pick up keys to the house where they're going to stay. They want to meet a man named Carl Stuckey. Alan is recognized again in the diner by a waitress gets an earful from two old codgers, one of whom wants him to put a song on the jukebox — I don't know if it matters if the player does it — and then heads to the back where a creepy lady in a black veil hands Alan the keys she says he's looking for. Alan and Alice drive away. Carl Stuckey stumbles after them yelling that he needs to give them keys. That's the first sign of trouble for Alan and Alice.
The cabin they drive to is nice. It's set on a small island at the end of a dock, nestled into a cove at the foot of wooded hills. This house also is highly-detailed, with rugs and a radio (the disc jockey is blabbing that Alan is in town), paintings and furniture and an odd framed photo of what looks like someone in a diving suit. I had control of Alan on the island. I walked him around to explore and picked up the details about Alan and Alice's struggles. Their marriage isn't perfect. His writer's block is a struggle. He wanted the trip to be a vacation from the stress and is not pleased when he sees the surprise Alice has set up for him: A typewriter in a room of his own. She's even found a local doctor who she thinks can help him surmount any mental blocks. Alan's angry.
The next events happened fast. Alan is back outside. It's getting dark. Alice is suddenly calling for help, as if she's drowning. Alan dives into the water for her. And then a scene change. Alan wakes up in a crashed car. He's outside of town. What follows are some dark and lovely scenes of chase and combat. Putting them in words wouldn't do them justice. Alan winds up chased by shadowy figures in a logging camp. The big trucks that haul and cut tall evergreens create their own frightful shadows and set up new dangers: rolling logs, falling logs, blind corners hiding another enemy. Alan sees a service station in the distance. Its bright lights are his his goal.
The first half of the episode, which would last about an hour, was easy. The second half was tough. Enemies are numerous and relentless. On some walls my flashlight revealed arrows which pointed to hidden caches of weapons or batteries (also product-placed, Energizer brand). There are pages of a novel seemingly written by Alan scattered in the level. Collecting them tells a story. Everything, including the arrows, has a narrative explanation, if players dig for it, the developers told me. But I was busy trying to survive. I fared better with a shotgun and then with a flare gun which can flash-shock a cluster of enemies. I made it to the service station after a few more tough fights and called for the police. A sheriff showed up. She drove Alan to where he said his wife had fallen into the water, outside that house on that island in that cove. The sheriff drove him there and made him look. There was no house there. Just a dock leading to nowhere. Just a cove.
End of episode.