Jul 7, 2010

Games: Alan Wake

I am a casual gamer. I care mostly for the story and atmosphere of games, which means that I end up playing around ten or less per year. However, Alan Wake is nothing if not story-driven and atmospheric, and so I couldn't pass it over.

The game is a "psychological thriller action-adventure", developed by Remedy Entertainment (of Max Payne fame). It is heavily influenced by Stephen King, to the point of being slightly ridiculous about it - King's name is the first piece of spoken dialogue in Alan Wake and pops up at random places in the game. The story takes us to the little north-western town of Bright Falls (what is it with small town horror and creepy scenic names?) where Alan - a successful writer of thrillers with a heavy writer's block - and his wife Alice go for their vacation... or so Alan thinks. Pretty soon Alice disappears, and then the writer wakes up in his wrecked car, missing a week and finding random pages of a novel he has no memory of having written. Alan is forced to uncover the dark secret of Bright Falls - one that has been lurking under the waters of a caldera lake for more than thirty years - and find Alice before what has been unleashed by his arrival manages to set itself completely free.

The supernatural element of the story is very strong, and adds to one of the more interesting gameplay additions. Alan's enemy is the Dark Presence - a force of pure darkness that possesses the townsfolk, turning them into the Taken. The Taken - apart from being really scary buggers - are invulnerable while the Darkness protects them. To be able to inflict any form of damage, Alan must first purge their defense with his torchlight.

Unfortunately for the player, this more or less sums the gameplay up, as there is nothing more in Alan Wake but fighting the two or three kinds of Taken with your torch, revolver, shotgun and flare-gun. But despite being repetitive, the gaming experience is more than adequate, and does its job, which is not to stand in the way of the story. The story, on the other hand, is superb! The mystery of Bright Falls and Alan's involvement in it, is told in the form of six "episodes", thus adding to the feeling of watching a TV show miniseries. Each episode adds new layers to the story, and as it unfolds, we are treated to a beautifully imagined world where art comes alive, but also one where forces both human and inhuman try to pervert it to their own ends. There are other world-building elements, like the radio-show programs the player encounters through the course of the game. Those give information of the normal life of Bright Falls and add to the feeling of being utterly alone - you know that people's lives go on just as usual no more than a ten minutes walk from where you are fighting for your life. More interesting however, are the episodes of the TV show "Night Spring" - an obvious tribute to The Twilight Zone, and deliciously creepy one at that.

Alan Wake has, simply put, one of the greatest and most masterfully told stories in the game industry, and even though the game is planned as the first in a series, it is completely stand-alone, and satisfying. One could gripe about the characters' faces (which are - with the possible exception of Alan himself, quite hideous) or the almost non-existent lip-sync, but those are really not such a big deal, and are easily explained by the long development process (the game was announced back in 2001!). True, Alan Wake could have been more diverse in its gampleay, and that would've only enhanced the gaming experience. But with this quality of story-telling, it just doesn't matter.


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