Alan Wake

I have extolled the virtues of computer games on my blog before, with Sonic, Mario, Mass Effect and Left 4 Dead amongst others in smaller roles, but rarely do I talk about the actual game – mostly it about what the game means outside of the genre, what it’s done to my perception of gaming, and what it might do to people who don’t believe that the medium deserves the plaudits or the acclaim, critical or expert, that I personally think it should, and it will in the future – namely from the main stream media. It will always be a struggle, what with games still being used as the poster boy for bad behaviour, but that will change – time will help it to change.

This week I picked up a long in development game for my Xbox called Alan Wake. Billed as a psychological thriller, the game takes the route of a horror story and TV series. I had it on my radar for a few years, having first watched a clever trailer in 2008 that showcased the main dynamic of the title – light. The storyline goes thus: Alan Wake is a famous fiction writer who, for the last 2 years, has struggled with his wife and his writing, suffering from chronic writers block. He and his wife Alice leave for Washington State and the town of Bright Falls. They get a house on the lake and have a slight falling out as it is revealed that the place is actually home to a treatment centre for artists struggling with their craft. After this fight, Alan hears his wife scream – she has fallen into the lake and he dives in after her… only to awake behind the wheel of his car, crashed, in the forest, and pages of a book that he hadn’t written yet detailing events that are about to come true. The forest is alive with a Dark Presence, and he must discover what this is to find his wife and unravel the mystery of the town.

It should sound familiar to anyone who has watch Twin Peaks – out of towner comes to small North Western town and finds a dark underbelly. The game is possibly the greatest and most mature storytelling I’ve ever seen in a computer game and, whilst it takes direct cues from the series in tone and style, the storyline is actually quite original in the way that it is executed. For instance, Alan keeps having flash backs to his life before the event. These are playable, meaning every so often you are thrown back into a different scene. Also, throughout the game you are hiding in the dark, running to the light and using a torch as your main weapon but in the third episode (I’ll explain that in a second) there is classic inversion – you suddenly need the dark and the light is bad for you. Then there are the supporting characters that have such an important role it’s hard to imagine the game without them – even shedding tears for your character later in the game.

The structure is that of a TV series – instead of levels like a traditional computer game, the action is broken in 6 episodes, each with its own storyline and each ending on cliff-hanger (even the ending). The “Previously on Alan Wake” and the recap sections are genius, and actually helped me stop playing it at points, to think about what I expect to happen. Sometimes I get carried away in the game playing and leave the storyline behind, but in this game you are told to stop playing, almost suggesting you don’t play 3 episodes in a row and take sometime to think about where the game might go, much like you would a TV series. The only thing that didn’t work here was that after each episode, the game almost paused… like it didn’t know what to do. And that there wasn’t a title sequence when you returned to the game after the recap, it jarred.

In fact the game’s presentation is something of a marvel. Apart from some weak lip syncing, there’s a real soundtrack, great lighting that made me jump for no reason other than the shadow of my torch on trees, and the effects for the Dark Presence genuinely made me terrified to play certain parts. You are encouraged to leave the path of the game for extra bonuses, but as soon as you do that you are instantly more anxious. The use of light as the save points was pretty impressive too – several moments in the game I was overwhelmed by the demons and had to just run for it – run to the next light to get to the safe area. It shocked me that, upon arriving, the light went out and suddenly I had to frantically restart the light. Also, reloading your gun or torch is genius too – you tap faster to load faster, just like you would in any other game in a dangerous moment. It increases the anxiety to dramatic levels.

And the ending was classic Twin Peaks. It was enough to wrap the story up, but had so many hooks that a second season must be made. In fact, I’d prefer it if each episode was released as a download instead of at once, say once a week – it’d mean that I would have to play each episode like a TV series and amplify the mystery.

There are flaws, and there is so much more to talk about – the TV show inside the game, the radio shows, the dark versus light plot, the significance the manuscript pages, who exactly was Thomas Zane, was it a dream, and was Alan even real? These will not be answered for years, and I am glad I experienced as such – so much so that this post is deliberately spoiler free. I am just so sad that I will only get to play it for the first time once, and never again. That makes me really sad, and that’s probably the biggest praise I can give any game ever.