And Now For Something Completely Different: Alan Wake: An unabridged and critical look at Remedy’s latest thriller

I want to start out by stating that I want to say that I like Alan Wake.  What’s not to love, right?  It’s clearly one of the best-looking titles on the 360, not to mention that Remedy has pulled out all of the stops in hyping this one up to Game of the Century.

The game has taken a long 5 years to make, and while I don’t typically know how long games take to make, apparently that’s a longer time than usual.  And while there are some enjoyable moments in Alan Wake, the whole thing leaves me with a sour feeling in my stomach–something that I can’t quite put my finger on.  Every person that has asked me how I enjoy the game, I tell them a similar opener.

Before you read on, please note that this is just my opinion.  It (probably) in no way reflects the overall opinion that the site has of the game.  Be sure to check back with RoH for our official review of Alan Wake, and our full-in-depth coverage of the game, such as Manuscript Guide and other collectable locations guide.  Also, this article has a fair bit of spoilerage in it, and a fair bit of foul language.  I feel the need to warn you if you’re offended by that sort of thing.

So allow me to continue, now that we’ve let your temper flare and your mind settle down a bit.  Alan Wake is alright.  Not spectacular, not fantastic, just…alright.

I became wound up in the hype of Alan Wake a few weeks prior to its release.  I had initially been opposed to a game that developers seemed to pedal relentlessly.  In my mind, anything that needed to be pushed that hard was something developers were either too cocky about, or unsure of.  Everywhere I turned (on the Internet, at least) there was a story about Alan Wake–the first hour or so of the game appeared online before it was even released–I avoided watching the whole thing to avoid spoiling the entire story.  The train that was Alan Wake hype dragged me for a few weeks before I peeled myself off, and now all I’m left with is a nasty burn.

Okay, so I’m an adult, and I know more than anyone that no game can live up to everyone’s expectations.  But I honestly expected more out of Alan Wake. What I could say I expected, I’m not really sure, but the whole experience left me feeling a little cheap inside.  So why exactly do I have a general dislike for this game when everyone else loves it?

Allow me to explain…

The game that was supposed to be original is decidedly not.  Alan Wake takes the best of movies and television and suits it to fit the game, whether it’s worthy or not.  Almost everything in the game is something that we’ve seen before, something that can be seen done better somewhere else.  One need not look beyond the opening intro to see the developers’ view on a lot of the game, including how it borrows from other media.  Something along the lines of “Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations, they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.  In a horror story, the main character keeps asking why, but there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be.  The un-answered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end.  My name is Alan Wake…I’m a writer.”

So, aside from the fact that the dialogue breaks there quite unnaturally, you can see right from the beginning that this game is going to take a lot of inspiration from Stephen King. Not a bad thing, but that all depends on ‘how much’ Mr. King has influenced the game, and how he has influenced the game.  The opening scene is straight out of Kubrick’s The Shining, the only thing that’s missing is the ominous music.  But this isn’t the first time that Kubrick and King combined have made an impression on game developers.

“Mr. Jayden, you’ve always been the caretaker at The Overlook Hotel…”

The show in the game, ‘Night Springs’ takes a lot of inspiration from television shows like The Twilight Zone, there’s even a board game and a video game featured in the game itself.

The concept of a man’s wife gone inexplicably missing and a spooky lake (seriously, there must be something horribly wrong with Toluca Lake if the same kind of thing is happening in all the towns along the lake) makes one reminiscent of Silent Hill 2, and how often have we seen or heard a story where the writer gets sucked into his own work of fiction?  It’s all familiar, and now it’s all in one place.

The story of the poet Tom Zane, who lost his love to Cauldron Lake happens to take quite a line from Pet Semetery, another of King’s novels.  In Alan Wake, Barbara Jagger drowns at the bottom of the lake, but since it’s a magical lake where everything you write comes true, Tom Zane tries to write Barbara back to life.  Well, it didn’t quite work as well as intended, and much like in Pet Semetery, some things (or people) are just better off dead.  So…where exactly does that leave Alice?

I don’t expect a whole hell of a lot from a video game story.  Heck, now that it’s been out for over a year, I’ve even come to terms with Resident Evil 5’s story.  But Alan Wake’s story doesn’t only borrow from other stories at will, it also turns what story is there and twists it around so much that you can’t make heads or tails of it. I would have settled for the fact that Alan Wake was just a nut and willfully committed himself to Moorecock (yup, totally think it’s called that…don’t bother correcting me) Institute for Creative Individuals with Creativity Problems and a Lot of Money.  But…then the game would have been over three hours prematurely, and we can’t have that!

Above: Not crazy, unfortunately.

As the game progresses on, it takes more and more absurd storyline twists, until at one point I wondered if I was actually playing a horror game, or just a parody of one.  There are only so many twists a story can take before it indeed becomes a parody of itself, and before the viewer/reader/player loses interest.  And since we’re talking about games here, we have to assume that most of the people playing it already have a low-tolerance for hard-to-follow stories (kidding!).

Yeah…those are Christmas lights…

But to help us out, Alan Wake thinks a lot during the game play.  Almost to the point of it being annoying.  He isn’t thinking though, he’s narrating.  Narrating something that we have just seen, something that we’ve just experienced, something that will no doubt be in the book that he’s writing!  Telling us what we’re supposed to feel in Alan’s shoes, making it seem like it’s actually us there.  Normally this would be a good thing, and in some places it is.

It’s bad enough that we find manuscript pages everywhere, but Alan is already telling us, in not quite the same language used, what just happened, what’s about to happen.  For people who don’t know what’s going on, hey, that’s great, but for those who might have…STFU Alan!

And that brings us to the manuscript pages! A unique concept and extends the game play for an hour or so, but probably superfluous.  Collectables and Achievements, woo!  Alan is looking for the manuscript pages that have somehow already been written, scattered about Bright Falls and surrounding woodland areas.  They reveal clues as to what’s going to happen next, they tell the player what’s going on (again) but furthermore…they spoil the plot.  It wouldn’t be so bad if there were maybe one or two well-written sets of pages that explain what was going on, no.  There are 10-15 pages scattered throughout each level, each one foreshadowing something that probably would have been better left unsaid until it actually happened.  Each page as plain and boring as the last.  Sure, call me a bit of a writing snob, but if by some chance this isn’t a first-draft of The Departure and it actually sells, it’d be a goddamned miracle.

About halfway through the game, Alan Wake states that he’s writing himself into the novel he’s….already written?  Or needs to finish?  We already knew he was written into the novel—or we assumed so, right?  Better not bother to try to explain it, it will either aggravate or ruin all the damned fun.

Okay, so enough of the story, what about the characters?  What could I possibly have against them?  For starters, Alan’s character is condescending to every character other than his own.  As an ego boost, almost every woman in the town (that’s interesting) is more or less a Mary Sue towards Alan Wake, despite what a terrible writer he is and what a jerk he is to them.  But the real kicker here is that everyone in the story is not even close to being as smart as the ‘gifted’ writer, either in that they’re intellectually inferior, or they’re ignorant as to what’s been happening in their own goddamned town for however long they’ve lived there.  Bright Falls must just not be as interesting as we had originally been led to believe.

It’s like this is grade school, and Wake is R.L.Stein (….no?  Robert Munsch?  Whatever, I tried).  I should probably stop hating on a fictional character, so I will.  This isn’t just bad writing on behalf of Alan’s part, it’s bad writing on behalf of the development team’s part.  They should have known better than to use a cheap tactic to make us like their protagonist.

If Alan Wake was Robert Munsch, the whole weird-stuff going on could be explained by the coke.  Ultimately would have been a lot more interesting.

Other characters show up for a few minutes in the game and are then put onto the back burner.  People who don’t necessarily like Alan Wake are written off negatively.  For instance, Agent Nightingale—why he was looking for Wake isn’t exactly explained in the game, so you better have bought the collector’s edition so you have the accompanying guide to the plot!  We can only presume the fact that he’s a drunk aggro is written in to make ‘us’ hate Nightingale as much as Wake does.  We’re never told ‘why’ he’s a drunk aggro, he’s just sort of left out.  There aren’t even any pictures of him on Google.

So what else does the game have to offer?  The game is broken into episodes which are obviously remnants of a game that had been originally intended to be delivered through episodes.  Granted, I probably wouldn’t have been so harsh on the story if I had a few weeks in between episodes, but that didn’t happen, and the concept of episodes does nothing more than break the flow of the game up, and allow the next scene to load.  Don’t believe me?  Consider that you get to see the closing cinematic to an episode and then you get to watch the credits roll by.  Wait, there aren’t any credits.  Okay, you get to listen to a song that’s vaguely related to the episode (the first one is Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams.’  At the start of the episode, you get a recap of what happened in the last episode.  So wait a minute!  If you missed Alan’s ramblings during the game, missed a few manuscript pages, fell asleep while playing the game or have the attention span that matches that of a goldfish, you’re told what’s happened 3 times.  And none of it, NONE OF IT makes any goddamned sense!


Be prepared to see a lot of this.  Personally, I prefer Eneloop.

There was a poll on the site recently asking if you liked in-game advertisements.  In all honesty, product placements aren’t that big of a deal to me.  They help to pay the bills for a game that might otherwise have exorbitant costs.  As long as they’re not advertising how easy Sync is to use with their Verizon cell phones (you probably wouldn’t get coverage in Bright Falls anyway, Alan…) and that Lithium Energizer batteries last longer than your average Duracell batteries and keep the Taken at bay longer.  A little on the unoriginal side though–it’s more enjoyable when there are clever puns on products in games, not cheap plugs.  I’m getting a feeling that ‘maybe’ this is why Alan Wake took so long in production.

More articles cropped up claiming that Remedy wasn’t making Alan Wake out to be a horror story.  Good thing too, because despite how much Alan keeps saying that his work is being twisted into a horror story, Alan Wake just…isn’t that scary.  The scares it tries to deliver are seen from a mile away.  Enemies show up only at designated times, with a grandiose entry.  Unless you too, like Alice, happen to be afraid of dark places and power outages, you probably won’t be too fearful when playing.  Fear is a subjective thing though, what might be bland and boring for some might scare the pants off of others.  So we’ll take Stephen King’s advice and not bother trying to explain it.

Well in a game, that leaves one thing left, and that would be the game play.  Overall I don’t have much to gripe about regarding the game play.  The enemy AI is a little unbalanced at some points in the game, either adding to the challenge or causing you to lose exorbitant amounts of hair.  The control scheme is alright, I guess.  Enemies show up in predictable patterns…there’s never really a moment where they will catch you when you’re not expecting it, catch you when you’re weak.  However, the game frequently takes away everything that you have and leaves you with little to nothing to face the enemies during those frequent trips through the goddamned forest to reach a destination just a few more times over the horizon.  If you get lost, there are clues written around in photosensitive paint, but they pretty much say all the same thing…okay!

Despite my negativity towards the game, there are some really positive aspects to it—things that kept me going despite how badly I wanted to quit and trade in the game for another.  The game, for the most part is one of the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen, and for the 360, it’s definitely one of the games that can be put up to contest any PS3 snob’s graphics war.  The score is heartpounding and it does an incredible job of amping up the adrenaline for an upcoming battle.  Several nuances around town really make Bright Falls feel like any old small town you might know of.  The collectables make you want to keep you playing the episodes until you’ve found them all, and the fact that some of them are only available until you’ve completed the game once makes you want to start again and collect those as well.

So yeah.  That’s my take on Alan Wake—probably not the review you were expecting, right?  Well this isn’t RoH’s official review, you’re going to have to wait for that again.  These are things I just wanted to get off my chest, and also so I can give people a URL when they ask me what I thought of Alan Wake.  I understand I might have pissed off a lot of people

with this review, but it is my opinion, we’re all entitled to our opinions.  I know that there has to be someone out there who agrees even in part with me, right?  If not, let’s just agree to disagree here, alright?

–jeeves86

               
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