For a game about a writer, the actual writing in Alan Wake is perhaps its least interesting aspect. That’s not to say it’s poorly written – even though it kind of is, but at the same time isn’t poorly written – rather that as you might expect from Remedy, the developer of Max Payne, the game’s core strength is as a highly accomplished third-person shooter.
Wake himself is a Stephen King wannabe. A best-selling horror/thriller novelist, Wake even quotes King (“nightmares exist outside of logic and there’s little fun to be had in explanations”) in the game’s opening cinematic. But as he and his wife Alice embark on a vacation to the US northwest town of Bright Falls, Wake hasn’t written a word in two years.
That Wake is actually a hack writer of genre fiction should be obvious when he enters Stucky’s Diner and is immediately not just recognised but fawned all over by the ditzy waitress. I can’t believe this is the type of person who appreciates my work, you can see him groaning inwardly. The look of anguish on his face betrays his unease at his celebrity status, a feeling only exacerbated by the presence of a near life-size standee propped near the diner’s entrance advertising Wake’s last novel. Fraught with self-loathing as he stands awkwardly in the diner between the grotesque apparitions of his commercial success and artistic failure, Wake’s writer’s block is the result of his disgust at the commodification of his creative outlet.
Over the course of Alan Wake, the game, Wake manages to overcome writer’s block and produce a manuscript for a new novel, titled Departure, dozens of pages of which you’ll find scattered throughout the world. Each page typically foreshadows some imminent or future event, but there’s little remarkable about them otherwise – terse excerpts written to be scanned quickly between the action rather than coming together as a coherent, longer form work.
That Wake’s own writing is mediocre is a deliberate move by developer Remedy and game writer Sam Lake. Amusingly, the FBI agent who arrives in Bright Falls to investigate the disappearance of Wake’s wife taunts Wake at every turn by referring to him as “Dan Brown” or “H.P. Lovecraft”. Elsewhere Lake and his team display a sure authorial hand in guiding Wake’s story through a dense fog of metaphorical allusion, supernatural suspense and the odd deft comedic touch.
Ultimately, Alan Wake is a third-person shooter, and a fine one at that. The core combat loop is based around using light, usually Wake’s trusty flashlight but also flares, flashbangs and other less common tools of illumination, to burn the “darkness” from an enemy and then bullets to finish it off. This combo – burn and shoot – can be thought of as similar to having to deplete an enemy’s shields or armour before being able to do any real damage, as in Mass Effect. And it works brilliantly.
Unlike many other third-person shooters, Alan Wake eschews a cover-based system in favour of constant movement. Wake cannot duck behind a convenient waist-high wall to avoid enemy fire or regenerate his health. Encounters play out in wide open spaces where there’s no cover and enemies arrive from all sides, often even surprising you from behind. Wake is forced to keep running, ducking and weaving, and constantly re-prioritising targets, juggling enemies – burning one, shooting another – as their threat levels rise and fall.
It’s frantic, gripping stuff, ably assisted by the variety of hostiles you’ll encounter. Facing off against guys, two of whom are coming at you with axes, a third is charging you from behind with a chainsaw, and the final pair are lobbing knives from flanking positions, provides a stern but exhilarating challenge. Especially when you’re low on ammo, you’ve run out of flares and you’re desperately trying to pop a new battery into your flashlight. Later, even the environment itself turns on you, as machines and vehicles, buildings and bridges, are consumed by the darkness and fling themselves against Wake.
Remedy’s original open-world ambitions – a design that was abandoned part-way through development in order to focus the narrative through a more linear lens – remain in the grand sweep of the world. Each area is enormous and, despite all the action taking place at night with Wake surrounded by fog, you’ll frequently be greeted with spectacular vistas as Wake treks through the valleys and mountains of the heavily forested Pacific Northwest. These scenes serve to guide your way, affording glimpses of the welcoming light of the gas station on the other side of the river or the radio tower at the top of that mountain up ahead, but reinforce the notion that Bright Falls is one continuous, coherent space rather than a series of levels.
When you’re out in the forest, you’ll feel vulnerable because you can see just how distant you are from civilisation. Narrow paths give way to larger, more open areas that, as the night fog rolls in and the darkness swirls through the trees, leave you feeling disoriented and grappling with an uneasy combination of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Wake’s writing doesn’t need to be scary or suspenseful because the game design – Remedy’s writing – achieves that on its own.
“My name is Alan Wake. I’m a damn fine videogame.”