The night had been one desperate situation after another. I was exhausted and my body felt as though it had been chewed up and spat out.The flashlight was heavy in my hand, and each pull of the trigger sent a painful shock up my arm. But I was finally out of the woods and things were looking up. That’s when I heard the chainsaw.
It’s a rare case that a game can genuinely freak me out. The fog-choked streets of Silent Hill unsettled me, and the relentless monster-closets of Dead Space had me in a state of perpetually half-jumping off of the couch, but those were more primal reactions, igniting the fight-or-flight response that we all have. Alan Wake, from famed Max Payne developer Remedy, completely leapfrogs other games in the horror genre with nary a drop of gore or cheap jump scare in sight, but instead uses perfectly executed writing and some genuinely snappy plot devices to get inside the player’s head.
Alan Wake is the story of a writer on a retreat with his wife to the Washington town of Bright Falls, hoping to overcome the writer’s block that has kept him from producing for years. In a series of strange events, he winds up with a week of missing time, trying desperately to save his kidnapped wife from a man who demands that Wake hand over the manuscript to his latest work: an account of events occurring in Bright Falls written before they even happen. As if that weren’t enough, there’s also the matter of the Dark Presence, a living darkness that infects everything around it with one singular purpose: stopping Alan Wake.
Wake’s only defense against those infected by the Dark Presence is light, which burns away the darkness so that Wake can destroy the host body underneath. This makes the game’s sparse combat sequences a harrowing experience, as you have to balance between catching enemies in the beam of your flashlight and dodging their incoming attacks. This is accomplished using an intuitive system that relies on only a few button taps to finesse your way out from under your enemies’ assaults, which is an absolute godsend given the relatively weak Wake; only a few blows from his enemies will send you back to the Load Screen.
As intense as the combat can be, however, it’s the game’s plot device of Wake’s manuscript that allows it to get under your skin like no game has before. You’ll find scattered pages strewn across the game’s landscape, and reading them provides frightening insight into the events unfolding around you. It’s one thing to have to kill the once-friendly park ranger when he becomes infected by the Dark Presence; it’s another to know that the last thought to race through his mind was his love for the waitress at the local diner. Creepier still are the pages that lay out events before they happen, which crank the tension up to dizzying levels as the player waits for the event that they’ve already read about to unfold in the game world. There are other smart asides and side plots contained within the game, both through local radio broadcasts and the Twilight Zone-flavored show Night Springs. The latter are especially engaging, encouraging the player to take a break from the mayhem and watch the bite-sized anthology to gain a little more insight into the world of Bright Falls.
All of these brilliant plot devices are held together by characters that are, honestly, the best-written I have ever seen in a game. Without hyperbole, I can say that there has never been a video game cast with the level of depth and texture of Alan Wake’s characters. Wake himself is a flawed everyman frustrated with his writer’s block, his wife Alice is a well-meaning woman who holds a crippling fear of the dark, and even his agent Barry is elevated above simple caricature with a quality of nobility and loyalty. This isn’t just excellent writing for a video game, it’s excellent writing, period.
While certainly a departure from their previous titles in the Max Payne series, Alan Wake proves to be a much more mature effort. They’ve traded in Payne’s noirish swagger and tortured caricatures for a much more human approach. They’ve proven that they can be just at home in the David Lynch-flavored Pacific Northwest (which, to be honest, is really just a west-coast analogue for the New England towns of Stephen King and Lovecraft) as they can be in the seedy underbelly of the Big Apple.