RETRO REVIEWS: Alan Wake
The downtime caused by this quarantine has offered me some opportune time to get back in touch with my gaming roots. The last console I owned was a Playstation which should give you an idea of what generation of video games I peaked on. Everything that came after, I missed out on. So as I relive the carefree gaming days of my youth, I thought it’d be a fun idea to review some of the games I missed out on.
With its elevator pitch of Stephen King-meets-Twin Peaks, Alan Wake was probably one of the last games to catch my interest as I was easing out of my gamer phase in 2010. In fact, I still have the pirated installer in one of my old external hard drives. The idea of playing a horror game that was less of your run-of-the-mill horror game and more of a cinematic experience intrigued the college student in me. But alas, college life hit and I just didn’t have the time to get to it. A month or two ago, this game celebrated its 10th anniversary and went on sale on Steam so I knew this was my chance to finally play it.
As with a lot of King stories, the game is centered on a writer, whose latest novel manuscript may be behind the supernatural disappearance of his wife in a lonesome Washington town. There’s a strong emphasis on psychological horror here as the titular character wrestles with visions and memories he can’t quite trust. All of these personal issues Wake has to face himself amidst a backdrop of townspeople going crazy, inanimate objects getting possessed, and an unseen force wreaking havoc everywhere.
With decent characters, good voice acting, and a consistent tone, the story is mostly fine, save for the fact that a lot of what happens doesn’t actually make much sense in the big picture. A lot of things here just happen because… psychological horror stuff and you kinda just tread along with it because the game really wants you to. I guess you could blame me for this nitpick having read Twin Peaks in the elevator pitch but it’s my biggest caveat with the game and psychological thrillers in general. It doesn’t necessarily make the game terrible but it just left me wanting way more from the story as the credits rolled. The two DLCs that are set after the game are even more nonsensical.
Another thing for me is that the story riffs on a bit too hard into Stephen King for my taste. The first thing the titular character literally does is quote King. The mere fact that King exists in the game’s world is so odd when the story posits Wake as the celebrity horror author of the world, much like King is in our real world. King and his work are continually alluded to throughout the game that by the end (there’s a Shining-esque hedge maze sequence that is pretty dope), I wondered if my Steam purchase went straight to King’s residual checks. I think it would have been more effective to just make Wake the Stephen King of the story instead of verbally referring to him every step of the way.
But I digress.
A game isn’t worth much if it doesn’t give you a fun gameplay experience and Alan Wake does that really well. It may sound simple but it mostly consists of you walking through a dark foggy forest armed with a flashlight and various guns, facing a bunch of townsfolk possessed by this dark, evil entity. They’re terrified of light so you point the flashlight at them to weaken their defenses and you finish them off with your gun. However, you’ve got a limited battery life for the flashlight and an even scarcer set of bullets so balancing the usage of these two weapons is a big part of the combat system. The combat system is surprisingly modern for a decade-old game. There’s a smoothness and weight to the aiming system which makes it feel somewhat real.
Much of the game shines when you’re out in the dark trying to find the nearest checkpoint, which is presented as various sources of light like lamp posts and floodlights. The atmosphere of this game is absolutely great and it’s mostly thanks to the visual and sound designs. Fog beautifully nestles over treelines and the moonlight illuminates just enough for you to get by a dirt trail. Suddenly, you hear a guttural scream from the shadows. Music swells as silhouettes of possessed people wielding chainsaws and axes dramatically emerge from the shadows, reminiscent of classic slasher films of the 80s.
With a limited set of ammunition, a slew of possessed townspeople to fight at a single time, and sound design that gets more unsettling by the second, every enemy encounter was followed by me needing to take an Alt+Tab breather. There are instances in the game where I’m faced with at least 5 enemies with only 3 bullets and 1 flashlight battery to spare, and I just run like hell past them towards a light source. I like that the game allows for desperate decisions like that to progress.
The true charm behind this game is how the storytelling is presented. The whole game is framed like a season of television; each chapter literally ends with a cliffhanger or some giant soap opera twist and each chapter begins with a recap of the previous episode. This format was immensely satisfying to me, someone who consumes content in bite-sized definite chunks (I hate not finishing an episode of TV or an issue of a comic book. Either I finish the whole thing or not do it at all). As a sucker for serialized mediums, this was easily the most notable highlight for me. Also, the songs that they got to play after each episode is amazing. Props to Remedy for sneaking in Bowie into the game.
It’s obvious the game takes pride in its countless nods to pop culture, like its blatant references to the classic Twilight Zone show as well as to literary figures like Raymond Chandler and Brett Easton Ellis. A lot of the story beats in the game are downright Hitchcockian. From the mere fact that you battle a flock of evil birds in various points in the story to the way tension and fear are dramatically escalated. My complaints about the game being a Stephen King lovefest aside, these references to other forms of media help elevate the game’s push for cinematic storytelling.
Was my decade-long wait worth it? Yes, even if only in a completist sense. I’m glad to have finally experienced it and cross it off my list. The story may not have been perfect but the tone, atmosphere, and overall direction of the game are more than impressive. It’s a game that absolutely holds up after all these years. I highly recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of horror films in general.