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.