Alan Wake Review: Transcending Its Medium

Alan Wake promises to deliver a new style of storytelling to the Xbox 360: A "psychological thriller", "riveting plot", "multilayered character interactions", all bullet points that scream: This game could be really bad.

But it is a game by Remedy Entertainment, the creators of Max Payne. And it's an intriguing idea, taking on the role of an author who travels to a tiny town tucked away in the foggy mountains of Washington State in search of his muse, only to find a nightmare world of tenuous reality.

So which is it: Really bad, or really good?

Loved
Concept: The notion of giving life to darkness, transforming it from a hiding place for evil to its personification, delivers players into a world of slowly cresting fears. Shadows envelope life at night, transforming what is basically wholesome into something stuttering, unexplainable and just wrong. To fight back, you have to first temporarily rid your attackers, be they once friendly townsfolk, animals or shifting objects, of their shadowy mantle with a flashlight, and then you can unload into them with a gun.

The duality of your attacks means you have to keep an eye on not just the ammo of whatever weapon you happen to be carting around, but the battery supply of your flashlight. It also means you have two things to worry over. As the game progresses, your arsenal grows, delivering hunting rifles, police flashlights and even, occasionally, floodlights. You'll also have access to flares and flare guns, the most powerful weapons in the game because they can serve both purposes.

Always fighting with flashlight in one hand and gun in the other, also adds a layer of complexity to the battles themselves, something that makes each encounter more satisfying then a simple gun fight.

Go to the Light: Light isn't just a weapon in Alan Wake, it's also a literal save point. Throughout the game's plentiful night encounters you'll find spotlights, lamps, industrial work lights, some lit, some needing to be started, but all of which mark a spot where the game will save. The emotional impact of seeing a light in the distance as you run through darkened woods, howling shadows at your heels, cannot be overstated.

Frighteners: This is a scary game. A game that wants to be played in a darkened room, but one you may want to leave a light on for. People tend to have an innate fear of the dark. When that darkness can come to life and reach out for you, can enshroud a person and make them slowly, methodically stalk towards you with a half-raised ax, there's a reason to fear it.

What I found most frightening was the game's ability to create situations that were naturally scary. This isn't a virtual haunted house packed with monster closets and things that drop from ceilings, this is a small town with its lights out. When Alan Wake scares you, and it will, it will be completely unexpected, the product of a slowly-building, maybe even unnoticed, dread that suddenly comes to a panicked head.

Having an Episode: Alan Wake is essentially a television series, at least in the way the game is delivered, broken up into six, similarly-sized episodes. Apart from the opening episode, Nightmare, each starts off with a summary, delivered in a tightly-paced series of cut scenes, of what's happened leading up to the episode you are about to play. Each ends with a dramatic moment, often one that pulls you into the next episode.

The reason this episodic game play works so well is because each of the one to two hour episodes have their own story arc, but also contribute to the overarching story. Someone with just enough time to play for a couple of hours can have a satisfying experience, one that feels complete, playing through a single episode of Alan Wake. But it's going to be very hard for them to stop with just one.

Story: The story of Alan Wake is as gripping as the gameplay is frightening. Delivered from Wake's perspective, the story never gives you enough time to sit back and absorb what's happening to you, to analyze the bits of information you find in dialogue, encounters and the wayward pages of your unfinished manuscript. The result is an ending that drops on you like an avalanche, leaving you to mentally tie together the final strands of the story as the credits roll.

Emotional Experience: As I sat on my couch watching the credits slide up the screen of my television I thought "Wow, this is it." For the first time in my life, I have experienced something that plays like a game but has the impact of a movie. The credits roll and I feel a deep sense of longing, the after effects of a being so absorbed in a story, the world of Alan Wake, that I was temporarily, emotionally displaced. That's a rare and special thing.

Figurative Language: From the main character's name, A. Wake, to the half dozen Stephen King novel references, Alan Wake is a game packed with hidden imagery, literary and film references and deeper meaning. This is the sort of replayability that works, not forcing someone to play through a game twice so they can find nonsensical trinkets, but engaging a player so deeply that they want to replay the game to find more references, more plot points, more story.

Night Springs: There are more than a dozen working television sets in Alan Wake. Each has something to show you with the help of what appears to be live, not digital actors. My favorite TV viewing in Alan Wake were the episodes of Twlight Zone-esque Night Springs, a black and white show that managed to deliver a short story and plot twist in three to five minutes. These micro TV shows were not only entertaining in their own right, but also increasingly spoke to the situation that Wake was finding himself in.

Music: Each episode ends with a song. It's a clever emotional hook that sharpens the impact of what you've just experienced and whets your appetite for more. Music has very rarely had such an impact in a game's evocative nature.

Hated
Character: Alan Wake is a powerful ride, an experience bound to leave you thinking about it and wanting more for days after its completion. But there was one thing that really bugged me about the game: The treatment of one character.

The game is packed with memorable people; most key to the experience are Wake himself, his wife, his agent and perhaps the sheriff. But somehow you learn both the most and the least about Wake and his wife. As a couple, insight comes from their interactions, a flashback or two and some mentions of their past. Wake's growth as a person is subtle, but powerful, delivered in cut scenes and gameplay. But his wife, perhaps the most important person in the game, is also the most absent, not only from gamplay, but as a character.

Alan Wake, in its forgetful treatment of so important an element of the plot, gets dangerously close to becoming a story about a damsel in distress. Fortunately, the other pieces of the plot are so well crafted that this slight is easy to miss.

I had perhaps the biggest scare of my adult life while playing this game. And it wasn't something that was designed into Alan Wake. There were no triggers. Instead it was something completely organic, the result of my late night play session, the darkened underground room where my console is, the constant little scares that kept picking away at my sense of calm and then one single moment that literally made me drop my controller. That's what we should expect from all games of this nature. It doesn't surprise me that Remedy Entertainment was the studio to nail it.

I am open to the potential of the year's games, but I still can't imagine that Alan Wake will be topped in 2010. It tells a story that is engaging, and yes, emotional. It makes you care, it delivers scares. But most importantly it redefines interactive storytelling. More aptly put, Alan Wake finally delivers on a phrase so overused that it has become a joke.

Alan Wake was developed by Remedy Entertainment and published by Microsoft Game Studios for the Xbox 360 on May 18. Retails for $59.99 USD. A copy of the game was given to us by the publisher for reviewing purposes. Played through the single player game. Replayed the last episode three times.

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