Contrary to early reports, Alan Wake is not a transcendent gaming experience. This, it should be noted upfront, is a good thing. For all its daring and ingenuity, Remedy Games's long-in-production third-person Xbox 360 title has one foot firmly planted in expansive, compelling storytelling, and the other in basic gameplay. And there's something refreshingly honest about the game's standard action mechanics, which—though somewhat butting up against the narrative's desire to be a profound, haunting meditation on issues of light and dark, fiction and reality—don't attempt to position the material as some groundbreaker it's not, as was the case with the wretched "interactive movie" Heavy Rain. Aside from some shortcomings, the game's plot captivatingly expands on traditional game scripting, yet Alan Wake never loses sight of its fundamental search-kill-puzzle construction, a focus that does much to ground the proceedings even when its aspirations exceed its ability.
Opening with a verbal reference to Stephen King (whose novels, especially The Shining, proves a primary source of inspiration), and then telling a tale heavily indebted to Twin Peaks and Lost (right down to the action being split into "chapters" that commence with clever "previously on" episode recaps), the game has the player take control of Alan Wake, a crime-fiction novelist on vacation with wife Alice. After an intro tutorial sequence set in Alan's nightmare, we learn that Alan is beset with writer's block, and has been convinced by Alice to travel to the remote forested town of Bright Falls, Washington to clear his head, though Alan's attempts to spend some time out of the limelight are thwarted by locales who not only recognize but adore him. Alan Wake takes its time during these interactive, non-battle-oriented early passages, establishing a strong sense of milieu as well as community. This is key given that much of the ensuing drama hinges on Alan's rapport with the world around him, a relationship that soon goes screwy once—upon being tricked into staying at a cabin on ominous Cauldron Lake—Alice goes missing, and Alan wakes up alone and confused behind the wheel of a crashed car.
As Alan attempts to make sense of his circumstances, it becomes clear that the town has been overrun by an amorphous Dark Presence that possesses townspeople by night, and that the key to stopping this evil force lies in a novel, Departure, that Alan has no recollection having authored, and is now coming true. Manuscript pages from Departure are strewn throughout Bright Falls's many areas, and while finding them isn't crucial to completing Alan Wake, they enhance and flesh out the central mystery, which is rooted in the idea of fiction's power to alter existence, and the God-like role of the author in sculpting reality. It's a premise whose black-and-white dichotomies initially seem destined for simplistic, heavy-handed treatment. And to be sure, there's quite a bit of clumsy writing, from Alan's sometimes groan-worthy inner monologue to everything about his grating agent and sometimes-sidekick Barry. Yet in terms of immersive storytelling, Alan Wake remains one of the richest games in recent memory.
Remedy's script balances Wake's constant interior musings with sudden flashbacks and repressed memories, dream sequences, smoothly integrated cutscenes, and dramatic one-against-many incidents to sterling effect. The saga is consistently rooted in the struggle between facts and imagination, light and dark, as evidenced by a primary action mechanic that requires Alan to fell possessed enemies—known as the Taken—by first blasting them with a flashlight (to exorcise the Dark Presence), and then kill them with firearms. Alan Wake's narrative is a well-thought-out amalgam of blatantly referenced inspirations (which also include American Psycho, Silent Hill, and The Dark Half, to name just three) that's defined by its own sturdy thematic concerns. And if its primary gameplay doesn't, a la Bioshock 2, wholly correlate with its larger ideas about creation—by which I mean, the player's run-and-shoot objectives are conventional game requirements that don't have an underlying relationship to Wake's need to invent his own reality—the dual-weapon action (made easier by copious ammunition caches) is still strong and varied enough to keep the title thrilling.
That combat can become a bit repetitive, considering that so much of it takes place under the cover of night along forest paths. Yet as Alan Wake proceeds into its latter stages, enough environmental variety appears to offset such monotony, culminating with a phenomenal standoff against hordes of the Taken that takes place on a heavy-metal concert stage in a farmland field. Moreover, those environments are so beautifully rendered—the forests alive with malevolent spirits, and the daytime shops and pit stops authentically homey—that Bright Falls both elicits admiration and invites exploration. Originally conceived as an open-world sandbox title, the game operates along a fixed route, though there's plenty of room to roam, if only to locate hidden manuscript pages as well as 100 coffee thermoses that, while nothing more than random collectibles, relate to Alan's attempts to distinguish waking and slumbering states. Further fleshing out this world are a host of local radio broadcasts, as well as TV episodes of a Twilight Zone-style program called Night Springs—acted by real people, and viewable in their entirety—that do a superb job of enhancing the otherworldly atmosphere.
The cumulative effect is a sense of operating within a fully realized work of fiction, one in which the player is both puppet and puppetmaster, at the mercy of the Dark Presence (which often takes the form of a black-clad woman known as Barbara Jagger) and yet imbued with dominating power. And while its gameplay could have used a bit more inventive tweaks, its straightforward conventionality (including the fact that each chapter features a nominal "boss" battle) does much to alleviate any narrative pretentiousness, as well as slyly speaks to the game's overriding belief in the vitality of traditional fictional formulas. Falling short of revolutionary, Alan Wake—alternately scary, intriguing, and exciting—nonetheless weaves together its various elements with suspenseful deftness, opting not to reinvent the wheel, but rather to embrace tried-and-true game tropes and modes and, in doing so, prove their considerable, lasting worth.
Alan Wake. Publisher: Microsoft Games Studios. Developer: Remedy Entertainment. Release Date: May 18, 2010. Platform: Xbox 360. ESRB: Teen. ESRB Descriptors: Blood, Use of Alcohol and Tobacco, Violence, Language. To purchase, click here.