Genre: Action Adventure
Developed by: Remedy Entertainment
Published by: Microsoft Game Studios
Platforms: XBox 360, PC
Feeling Like: Wide Awake
It’s pitch black. Or, it should be – but video games mercifully let you see enough to get around even when your batteries on your flashlight are running on empty. I’m uneasy. I’m hearing things in the dark. Forests are beautiful in the day, but an unwelcome danger at night that have me praying for any type of sanctuary. My ammunition is low, and the moon is high. This is Alan Wake at its absolute best and it’s Remedy Entertainment’s calling card; atmosphere, setting and feel.
Remedy is responsible for other residents on the 500, including the unforgettable first two Max Payne games and the extremely effective Control, which was nearly my game of the year in 2019. Alan Wake is the weakest of the four mentioned, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to appreciate here. Instead of a snowy winter New York, or a brutalist-style government agency building, the location here is in the Pacific Northwest. Trees are everywhere, water is never far, small mountains litter the horizon and colors are a very particular type of green and brown. They did their homework; this is a stunning rendition of a corner of the planet I’m extremely familiar with. As nervous as I was combing through decrepit cabins and fending off the ghastly shapes that wanted me dead, I was equally impressed with the attention to detail.
While the environmental graphics and lighting have aged beautifully, the character models haven’t. Even in 2010 these were rough and I definitely felt some uncanny valley going on. With other games, this would have been a major knock against the effectiveness of the storytelling…but I’m not so sure here. Alan Wake drapes itself in player’s previous knowledge of shows like the X-Files and Twin Peaks. Meaning, they know the players know what this is, but they also know they like going along for the ride so they’ll accept some oddities. That’s part of the show. I’m not sure if that makes a whole ton of sense; what I’m saying is that games and shows in this type of genre done well are pretty rare, so the fanbase is forgiving for little foibles. No? Ah, well maybe it’s just me then. Since the game is both trying to take itself seriously AND it totally outlandish, I think it gets away with having people’s faces look like broken animatronics and amateur-sounding voice acting. But I think that’s the point.
I also never got a hand of combat. In other games, I’ll start to really master the systems and the joy comes in adjusting the game to my own playstyle, crushing mobs of tiny enemies and feeling confident against any challenge, even if I fail a few times. Here, I always struggled and never felt like i was using the big sources of light effectively. Eh, maybe that added to the tension I already felt sprinting alone into an abandoned factory in the middle of the night searching for my dead wife.
Combat wasn’t the game’s highlight, but the presentation, soundtrack and one particular set piece near the end more than made up for it. Remedy is notorious for adding a ton of sizzle to spice up the experience. So, the game is already divided up into “episodes”, complete with the “previously, on Alan Wake” like you’d see on TV. Beyond that, Remedy has created a show within a show, clearly influenced by the Twilight Zone. These little shows are even more outlandish than the game you’re playing and are hilarious, bite-sized respites from the horrors that await you during gameplay. And they all fit in with the atmosphere. Nice touch.
I’ve mentioned a few great things about Alan Wake, but what really solidified it as a better experience than 199 other games is the Concert Stage Fight. It feels necessary to capitalize the words; once you get through the battle, you’ll understand. You reach an abandoned concert stage in the middle of a field. If you’ve been to ANY concert in a field, you know the setup. It’s wide open, the wood doesn’t seem all that stable, the stage is deep enough to accommodate the endless wires, speakers and people required to put on a live show. And you’re about to defend all this against waves of enemies, while a real rock song plays. It is the only time the song is played in the entire game, and it is phenomenal.
It’s an unforgettable experience. You’re laughing, because it’s a video game. It shouldn’t have a rock song with lyrics. It should have a sweeping orchestral song, or bleeps and bloops, or no sound at all. Nope. You’re here for an impossible, demonic rock show and you’re the star. A metric ton of ammunition is at your fingertips. Want to flashbang grenade those psychos on the left? Done. Use a flare stage right? Be my guest. It was difficult to focus, I was having so much fun. All I could do is nod my head to the badass song and revel in the moment. This is Alan Wake’s signature scene and I never fail to smile at the memory.
It’s not the only rock song present in Alan Wake. The excellent, real-life band Poets of the Fall (moonlighting as the Old Gods of Asgard in the game) also grace us with The Poet and the Muse. It’s terrifc, but not just for the melody – the lyrics provide hints for the player, and provide backstory for some of the characters. I’ve never seen a game do this before, and Remedy should be commended. Beyond having a spot at 301, I mean.
I’ve yet to play a Remedy game I didn’t like. I thought the addition of Dr. Darling in Control was absolutely brilliant; a real life actor stole the show. Not a video game character, but a real life person. When has that ever happened? That’s one way to avoid the uncanny valley. Its purpose isn’t just for the sake of being different, it adds an element of uneasiness. If what I’m watching is reality, doesn’t that sort of shake the notion of role playing a “real” person? That dissonance causes some shakiness, at least to me. The visual contrast is important too, it makes the small videos more meaningful since they’re rare, meaningful and totally different than the rest of the game. I was a huge fan of how they did this in Enslaved: Odyssey to the West, I was a huge fan of it in Control and I was a huge fan of how they relied on player’s knowledge of television and music to enhance their experience in Alan Wake.
I’ve mentioned before how I will always forgive a mess of a game if the developer swings for the fences and hits the odd home run. Emotional peaks and frisson matter more to me than fundamentals of storytelling, or gameplay. It’s why Walking Dead hit me so hard, and why I enjoyed Final Fantasy 15 way more than I should have. It’s the same with movies, TV and books. If the creators can get me to care enough about the happenings going on to get an adrenaline rush from me, or a verbal exclamation, then they’ve done their job. Alan Wake doesn’t quite stick the landing in every aspect, but I was more than satisfied. And the Poets of the Fall/Old Gods of Asgard still rock.
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