A cabin in the woods is no place for an author. Rod grabs a flashlight to conquer one of the creepiest games in recent memory.
Artwork by A.D. Black
Who made it?: Remedy Entertainment (Developer), Microsoft Game Studios (Publisher).
Platform: Xbox 360, Xbox One, PC.
Format: DVD, CD-ROM, Download.
Released: 14 May 2010 (UK).
Alan Wake is truly something special. For those who have never played this game, I definitely recommend that you do, especially if you enjoy the works of authors such as Stephen King, or directors like David Lynch and his Twin Peaks (1990-1991). The development of this awesome action thriller began in 2005 for the then-soon-to-be-released Xbox 360 console. After five years of waiting, Alan Wake most certainly delivered! There were also two DLC’s released, those being Special 1: The Signal and Special 2: The Writer. There is also a spin-off game called Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (2012) which was downloadable via Xbox Live.
Best-selling author Alan Wake, mostly known for his work in the psychological crime thriller genre, in particular his series of works starring hardboiled detective Alex Casey, serves as the player’s avatar. Wake and his wife Alice are on vacation in the town of Bright Falls, which is about to celebrate its annual Deer Fest. They arrive at Bird Leg Cabin, situated on an island in the middle of Cauldron Lake. Since Alan has been suffering from writer’s block for quite some time now, Alice has been in contact with Bright Falls psychologist Dr. Emil Hartman, who specialises in creative people with problems, and organises an appointment without Alan’s knowledge. When Alan discovers this, it causes him to get angry at Alice, and he goes for a walk to calm down. However, he runs back to the cabin when he hears Alice cry out for help. Just as he returns, Alice is dragged into the lake by a strange entity. Alan dives in after her but is rendered unconscious. He eventually regains consciousness, finding himself in his car which he has crashed. But he has no memory of what transpired, and it turns out he’s missing a whole week!
The story is told in a very interesting, intriguing and effective way, using the concept that you’re playing a narrative from one television episode with each chapter representing the next instalment. This is mixed with the way a novel is structured, complete with narration at certain moments from Alan himself, giving you an insight into what he is thinking. This perfectly translates into video game form due to how characters in novels have internal dialogue to provide the reader with character exposition. But there is yet another layer of the game which is also a great aspect to the entire experience, and this is in the form of a television show called “Night Springs”, with each episode being short. These episodes are broadcast on certain televisions you come across. If you enjoy shows like The Twilight Zone (1959-1964), then Night Springs will feel very familiar as it is in the same vein, and is the inspiration for the concept behind it, even going so far as to have a voice actor provide narration in a similar way to the creator and host of The Twilight Zone, Rod Serling.
Along with Alan, Alice Wake and Dr. Hartman, you will meet other characters along the way, such as Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent, who arrives in Bright Falls after failing to hear from from Alan in over a week. He is one of my favourite supporting players, and serves as the comedy relief. Sheriff Sarah Breaker is investigating Alice’s disappearance. Cynthia Weaver is a strange woman who seems very wary of darkness. Rose Marigold is a waitress who works at the Oh Deer Diner and is a huge fan of Alan Wake’s work. The Anderson Brothers, Odin and Tor, were once part of a band known as Gods of Asgard but are now elderly men, and they also provide some humour to the proceedings as well. And there are many other characters, too, that I haven’t listed but make an impression.
At certain points, you will see a live-action Alan Wake appearing on some televisions, often seen in the room with the typewriter in Bird Leg Cabin, talking to himself or at the camera, adding a very interesting internal logic which makes you question the reality of the world you’re experiencing. At one point in the game, you actually watch an appearance that Alan had on a talkshow to promote his final Alex Casey novel. This fictional chatshow also has Sam Lake appearing, who was the face of Max Payne in the 2001 game. He even does the iconic Payne smirk. Sam is also the lead storywriter of Alan Wake, and had worked on Max Payne as a writer, too. Mikko Rautalahti also worked on the screenplay. The actor who actually plays Alan in all these live-action portions, as well as in the cardboard cutout of Alan that Rose has at the front door of the Oh Deer Diner, is Finnish actor Ilkka Villi, whose likeness is used as the in-game model of Alan. His voice is dubbed by voice actor Matthew Porreta, who also lends his vocals to the in-game version of Alan that you control. Even though there’s essentially two actors portraying Wake, this feels seamless when actually playing the game, and you don’t really notice it too much, at least not to the point of it being distracting anyway.
The combat system is pretty simple, aside from the dodge move which can be difficult to master. First, you must use Alan’s flashlight to weaken enemies known as “Taken”, who are citizens of Bright Falls inflicted with the darkness created by an entity known as The Dark Presence, and in order to destroy them completely, you must dissolve the darkness surrounding them that renders them impervious to attacks. You can simply point your flashlight at them but it dissolves the darkness slowly. If you want to make the process quicker, you can increase the intensity of the flashlight’s beam. Keep in mind, though, that this will drain your flashlight’s battery much quicker. The meter will gradually refill itself, but if you drain too much of it, then you will have to replace the battery, and you don’t have an unlimited supply of them either. You can find better flashlights that are even more powerful, with a battery that doesn’t drain as fast, allowing you to dissolve the darkness around Taken more swiftly. Once the darkness around them is destroyed, you can then do damage with your weapons in order to kill them. Aside from a revolver, Alan can also find a shotgun, a pump-action shotgun, a hunting rifle, and a flare gun. You can carry a revolver, a shotgun and a flare gun at the same time, but when you find a pump-action, you will have to replace the regular shotgun if you want to pick it up. Or, if you come across a hunting rifle and you already have either shotgun, then you will have to swap those for it. The flare gun really helps out if you want to destroy a Taken in one hit, and if you aim properly and time it right, you can even kill a few in one shot. Flashbang grenades are also extremely useful, too.
Light obviously plays a huge part in this game, but your flashlight, flashbang grenades and flares aren’t the only light-based equipment in the game. If you come across any vehicles that you can get into, you can use the headlights to destroy the darkness around Taken, using the same methods as your trusty handheld. But increasing a vehicle’s headlight beam will also drain that vehicle’s battery, and you cannot replace these. There are also lampposts strewn about the place, and these not only serve as checkpoints but also provide Alan with assistance, too, as whenever you are bathed in their light, the Taken cannot harm you. Not all of these lampposts are already lit when you come across them, because there’s a generator nearby you need to kickstart in order to power them. Then there’s flares Alan can use, which really come in handy when you are surrounded by multiple enemies, as it also weakens the darkness surrounding Taken, and provides you with a quick moment to regain your composure, or to give you that extra bit of breathing space to get under a nearby light source.
In a lot of survival horror games, sometimes it is better to outrun your enemies than face them. But since Alan can only run for short distances before he tires and tries to catch his breath, you need to be very careful if you intend to run away from enemies, especially when there’s a group of them after you. This can be a frustrating aspect to the game but it didn’t ruin the experience for me; it can just get irritating when you keep dying from getting hit too much. A tactic I use is to run for a couple of seconds, stop and try to dodge any attacks from enemies while moving forward at the same time. The fact that your health is replenished when under a lamppost means you can risk it.
Taken come in a few varieties, such as your regular folks overtaken by darkness, as well as bigger and stronger foes that will require you to keep your flashlight trained on them for a longer period, requiring longer exposure to your intensified beam of light, in turn making it much more necessary to replace your flashlight’s battery. In what is considered a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s film The Birds (1963), you will also fight winged terrors that have been overtaken by the Darkness, and these can come at you in a swarm. The obliqueness of The Dark Presence can also possess inanimate objects, vehicles, and farm machinery as well, which will actually fly at you, or try to run you over in order to kill you. These possessed objects become poltergeists, and could definitely be considered as a reference or homage to the film Poltergeist (1982).
As you explore, you will find manuscript pages along the way, which are basically collectibles. These serve not only as interesting notes to read, complete with Alan Wake reading aloud the contents, but they divulge more information about the events Wake experiences, as well as giving the player an idea of what to expect next. It is yet another aspect of this game which makes me appreciate it even more. When you play the game on Normal or Hard, you can only find a certain amount of manuscript pages. If you want to collect them all, you must play the game on Nightmare difficulty. Coffee thermoses are another collectible, and collecting all of these will cause you to gain an Achievement. While not a collectible, you will also come across drink cans that are in a pyramid-shaped formation, and knocking over these will also unlock an Achievement. And you will also discover supplies stashed in First Aid kits, including ammo, flares, flashbang grenades, and batteries. But you will also find these scattered around the place as well. Then there’s hidden crates full of light-based supplies that you can find by using the beam of your torch to uncover directions to them, conveniently varnished with fluorescent paint.
The music in this game is phenomenal. Within the world of the game, the songs of the band called Gods of Asgard are actually performed by real-life act Poets of the Fall. But you also have the actual instrumental score composed by Petri Alanko that is a really strong element of Alan Wake. In every way, the audio is just as great as the story and visuals and a real testament to how effective a video game can be in its execution. At the end of each episode, you will hear a song, too. There was also a music video of the track “War” by Poets of the Fall that uses live-action footage of actor Ilkka Villi intercut with clips of the band members. As you play through each chapter, you will even be able to listen to the songs featured in the game at any point by going to the menu.
Overall, Alan Wake is a must-play game. Even though it came out six years ago now, it still holds up for me. And recently, it became backwards-compatible on the Xbox One. The story is engaging, pretty much giving you the same must-keep-going feeling that you would get from watching an episode of a television show, or like reading a novel and finishing one chapter and wanting to keep turning the page. For years, a sequel has been wanted by fans and Remedy were working on Alan Wake 2, but the project was shelved. Hopefully, we do eventually get a sequel because I think this first game certainly deserves it.
- Alan Wake was awarded the first spot in Time magazine’s list of the top 10 video games of 2010.
- On 5 April 2016, Remedy released Quantum Break, a spiritual successor to Alan Wake, with many references of this game hidden throughout the campaign.
- Originally, Remedy planned Bright Falls as a free-roaming, sandbox-style open world city, similar to those seen in the Grand Theft Auto series. After trying this idea for six months, the team decided to scrap it, because it interfered with the pacing and storytelling they intended to deliver in a thriller game.
- The limited collector’s edition of the game includes a 144-page book called The Alan Wake Files, which expands on the fiction of the game. A novelisation of Alan Wake was written by Rick Burroughs.