Our own Mat C reviewed Alan Wake in 2010, producing a definitive, thoughtful piece of work. I agree with basically everything he said and the way he said it, so I don’t mean to just regurgitate. Mat took care of a lot of the heavy lifting for me by doing the Reviewer’s Job; my intent is to look with the space of years, a platform change, and perspective between the game’s 2005 announcement, its 2010 self, and its now self. Alan Wake is an exceptional effort that could have been even better. Yet to reject it as just a missed opportunity is unfair. There’s more to it than what we got, but what we got is still a superb game.
And I made a video! You gotta watch my video. Click the button! CLICK IT!
Video work really isn’t for me – I enjoy doing it, but I’m obsessive about tiny things and wind up spending outlandish time fanatically tweaking meticulous crap unnoticeable to anyone but me. That’s the main reason this piece didn’t arrive five weeks ago.
Remedy Entertainment – the Finnish studio best known for Max Payne – is a cinematic developer often reproached for its focus on drama. The claim is accurate but unfair; it implies that gameplay takes a backseat, and I’ve yet to observe that in any of their work. It’s true that Alan Wake could readily have forgone practically all of the combat, environmental challenges, objective-driven progress, object searches, all the structured gamey stuff. It would have worked just as well as a movie or TV miniseries. But Remedy isn’t in the business of movies or TV, it’s in the business of games, and they took the time to make this one good.
Being a novelist is a hard job – I know, I’m related to one. When most people think of writers, they conjure up established names like Stephen King or George RR Martin or Dennis Lehane. Those guys are outliers: long-time survivors whose every book is a bestseller. Rich and entrenched, mundanities like publisher deadlines do not affect them. But they are an infinitesimal minority. Most writers are workaday, living in fear of getting dropped by their publisher or losing their representation or failing to hit sales projections. Think of professional actors – for every “star” there are hundreds, thousands, who make a good living but never appear on Fallon. For them it’s the hope of glitz and glitter plus the reality of feeding their families with a skill that’s mercurial and often painful to have.
Ask Alan Wake. He has three or four bestsellers under his belt – that’s three or four more than many novelists will ever achieve. He’s on the brink of Being Somebody, but he’s not there yet. It could all fall apart in an instant, so when Alan is clotheslined by writer’s block, ruin looms all too real, and he’s helpless to do anything about it.
Insomnia creeps in as desperation mounts and the page stays blank. Like many creative types Alan has a history of substance abuse; nothing serious, just “enough,” and he starts medicating his inability to write or sleep with booze. Two years into the dry spell, he’s run out of grace from his publishers and the press. The strain is terrible; he’s on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
His wife Alice suffers with him. The couple shares an intense love, the kind that leads to fiery codependent relationships and reasonably good video game plots. As wives go you can’t ask for a much better one than Alice Wake. She’s been patient, tolerating the drinking binges, the drugs, the depressive episodes, the moments of ego, the sometimes-deranged behavior. She understands the pressure he’s under and the helplessness he feels, but it’s all approaching a limit.
Thinking time off from their bustling Manhattan day-to-day will help, Alice arranges for a vacation to Bright Falls, Washington, a sleepy small town nestled in the vast dark forests of the Pacific Northwest.
Not without her own idiosyncrasies, Alice is crippled by nyctophobia. What a strangely humiliating thing for an otherwise functional adult, to be paralyzingly afraid of the dark. She is simultaneously mortified by and matter-of-fact about it, ashamed even around her husband but strict as a peanut-allergy sufferer about keeping those lights on. For some strange reason, despite this Alice has rented them a generator-powered cottage in the dark northwestern woods, perched on an island in the black caldera of Cauldron Lake.
Upon arrival she shows Alan a surprise that predictably triggers one of his unpredictable rages. A brief one-sided screaming match and off he stomps into the night she fears so much. Seconds later his tantrum is interrupted by a shriek. By the time he races back, Alice is gone, having left behind nothing but a broken railing, a bloodcurdling scream, and a frantic husband who may be losing his mind to darkness far more chill and pitch than the icy, fathomless black water that laps at the shores of their little vacation island.
It’s not a lake. It’s an ocean.
House of Leaves
“What the hell does that mean, Steerpike?” you ask, but I won’t tell. Alan Wake is a menacing, unbearably tense psychological thriller piñata-bloated with all the best such an experience can offer. Darkness is a prevalent theme, because darkness conceals. Foes, dangers, the truth. Things lurk in darkness waiting to spring. Minds and people slip into darkness and are lost. Darkness conceals.
Your quest is to find and save Alice if you can, but don’t expect crystal clarity. This protagonist brings new meaning to the term “unreliable narrator,” as Alan’s brain, half-mad with stress and worry, begins to unhinge completely. He loses time like normal people lose their keys, often waking up miles (and days) from where he’d been a minute before. His consciousness twists and kinks, the barriers between dreams and reality crumble.
Charming Bright Falls and its primal forest become the setting of a man’s private nightmare. You find loose-leaf, manually-typed pages scattered from hell to breakfast, pages from an Alan Wake novel that Alan Wake never wrote. Finding them is crucial to preparing yourself for dangers, because whatever this book is and whoever wrote it, it’s the key. Or, y’know, a key, sprinkled out of order across miles of terrain. The book’s passages are just as likely to ramble about a park ranger’s secret crush on the waitress at the Oh Deer Diner as they are to divulge a clue of substance. Manuscript pages reveal events that won’t happen for days, and then happen precisely, word for word. Motivations of characters you haven’t met, kidnappers’ schemes, whispers of dark powers lurking in the town, and worse things too.
In the woods, the Taken set upon you: shadow-wreathed apparitions that appear to be locals. They jabber and mock, flitting like wisps and attacking with axes, shovels, chainsaws. Shine a light on them and the enshrouding darkness will burn away, leaving them vulnerable. Soon enough Alan finds a gun, but new horrors materialize relentlessly. Defeated Taken burst and evaporate, leaving behind no sign that they existed at all. Hell, maybe they didn’t.
Alan, wake up.
Women’s Murder Club
The mystery of Alice’s kidnapping deepens: there is no island. There is no cabin. There is no record of the Wakes coming to Bright Falls, nor does anyone remember seeing Alice. Sarah Breaker, Bright Falls’ young sheriff, is dually (and duly) sympathetic to Alan’s plight but cognizant of the Crazy Alarm blaring in her head. The hysterical Wake clearly believes his bizarre story, but his behavior is making things worse. Alan is actually kind of a douche. Even before Alice’s disappearance we note that he doesn’t appreciate his fame and is too quick to pull attitude or temper when things don’t go his way. He considers the possibility that he’s lost his mind, but won’t listen to the calming voices of those who try to help him. He’s selfish, arrogant, and entitled, dismissive of the townspeople and sheriff even as he demands their help, quick to call in New York powerbrokers like his agent for moral support, then ignoring them too. He revels in the “Virtuoso, Tortured, Artist-Turned-Tragic-Savior/Asskicker Victimized By His Own Brilliant Fiction” label while refusing to consider that it’s ruining him.
Basically, Alan Wake and Alan Wake are both very well written.
Now, I must smirkily note that this story – the one about a Virtuoso, Tortured, Artist-Turned-Tragic-Savior/Asskicker Victimized By His Own Brilliant Fiction named Alan Wake – was penned by a dude named Sam Lake; I don’t know if he thought we wouldn’t notice that or what. A lot of Lake’s psychology is on full display in Alan Wake and honestly I think he should consider seeing a therapist. Münchausen-by-Histrionics isn’t uncommon among writers; instead I’m unnerved by the consistent presentation of violence against women in his work. It can’t go unremarked upon that this is very much a cornerstone of Lake’s writing. That the women in Remedy’s games are typically very awesome and strong doesn’t ameliorate the fact that many are also victims, and that swell but tormented men endlessly rescue, seek, aid, or avenge them. Lake and Remedy must be commended for regularly producing stories that other games struggle to manage; it’s disturbing that this one trope is something they can’t seem to get away from.
Remedy Entertainment is a huge favorite of mine on account of the Max Payne games. I love them. More than the gunplay and level design and nods to Hong Kong cinema, more than the noir stylings and Hammett/Chandlerisms. It’s where Remedy took it all, creating video game baklava, a tightly rolled sweet that indulges more than such a compact package should be able to.
So it probably comes as no surprise that Alan Wake was once a game I had been very excited about. When they announced it in 2005 I put it on my watch list sight unseen. A psychological thriller? You rarely see those in games. Intriguing, definitely a departure from the frenetic slo-mo gunplay of Max Payne, but still in the wheelhouse. A story about marriage, madness, obsession, terrible vacations, and the vagary of discernment? Count me in!
Alas that Alan Wake was doomed to suffer a tortuous development cycle, slipping again and again, repeatedly undergoing extensive structural overhauls and platform changes before finally kerplunking onto shelves in May of 2010. I hadn’t exactly lost interest in it by then, but I wasn’t in a rush to pick up a copy. Indeed, I remember passing Gamestop many times – there’s one on the corner like 35 feet from my house – thinking “I should stop and get Alan Wake,” only to drive on.
Its baffling press didn’t help. It was like everyone wanted to heap praise but had forgotten how. As if after so many years everyone had expected Alan Wake to be a bad game, and it wasn’t, but no one could decide how to reverse their predisposition. Nobody had serious complaints, yet the acclaim sounded reticent, faraway, delivered by someone who has only heard of applause and isn’t entirely sure they’re doing it right. The decision to make it a 360 exclusive drove away at least as many as the lacklusterly positive reviews, and an announced (but never executed) a la carte DLC monetization strategy pissed audiences off. On top of all that, its ship window was disastrously timed, arriving within days of Red Dead Redemption.
The combined result was that Alan Wake sold a dismal 45,000 units in its first month. At this point I stuck a mental fork in Remedy Entertainment. The small studio had always been ahead of its time, had always made great games, and had always stumbled for reasons that weren’t its fault. I just didn’t see them surviving a disaster of this magnitude.
But Alan Wake continued to quietly sell, and people noticed. By December of 2010, as illustrious a publication as Time magazine had called it Game of the Year, gushing over its tight play, twisty, suspenseful plot, intense foreboding premise, stunning visuals, and outstanding small-town Americana. The game had a backbone, muscled with peerless technology and solid mechanics familiar to any Payne aficionado. The eventual release of a Windows version helped, and by the beginning of 2013 Alan Wake stood at well over two million units sold, making it a success, though hardly a blockbuster.
It wasn’t just the long wait that persuaded the inert ho-hummity of Alan Wake’s press and reception. Gamers who’d watched the title had a very valid reason to think they ought to have been disappointed by what they got. Let’s rewind to 2005, when Remedy was riding acclaim from the Max Payne games and seen as a bold rising star of the medium.
Into this critical landscape they announced Alan Wake, revealing a game design that seemed aspirationally in tandem with the developer’s evident skill and growing adulation-sourced confidence. Max Payne 1 and 2 were, ultimately, shooters; Alan Wake was unveiled as an open world – a game that looked like Max Payne but played like a nonlinear action RPG.
Remember now, we’re waybacking to 2005. Open worlds weren’t revolutionary – your Morrowinds and Arxes of the Fatalis variety were around. But shooters hadn’t made the sandbox transition yet and the lure of a gritty, character-driven mystery in such an environment was exciting. Plus, some of the stuff Remedy showed off was more than just innovative, it was groundbreaking.
They demonstrated reactionary AIs that responded dynamically to Alan’s behaviors and attitude, and a system by which weather, of all things, would guide the player away from areas he wasn’t ready for. When combined with Alan Wake’s premise, their day/night cycle put me in mind of Castlevania II – a game that pioneered the concept – in which the setting sun didn’t just bring darkness, it changed the nature of the world, transforming locals into fell spirits, altering the landscape and even the laws of reality… unless, of course, it was all only happening in the protagonist’s troubled mind. An action RPG sandbox set in and around a living town, with nonlinear activities and objectives, dynamic environments, and a dark, psychological, adult mystery with a dusting of horror – all this sounded too good to be allowed.
Not a shred of it turned up in the game that finally shipped.
Feature changes happen, but Alan Wake’s five year development saw it conceptually eviscerated in ways that far surpassed normal adjustments to scope. The Alan Wake that saw the light of day is an entirely linear, according-to-Hoyle third-person shooter without the barest vestige of sandboxery.
Remedy says they ditched the open world idea because nonlinearity interfered with their story structure. This may be partly true, but I suspect there’s more. By 2010’s dawn, Alan Wake was stupidly overdue, and costing somebody a fortune for every day it stayed that way. By “somebody” I mean Remedy itself and its publisher Microsoft, which had once hoped to use the game as a showcase for the Windows Vista operating system but settled for making it a 360 exclusive when it missed Vista’s release by three years.
During the plodding eons of Alan Wake’s development, a veritable salsa of open world shooters had come and gone; what’d been revolutionary in 2005 was been-there now. Plus it’d been months since anyone had seen the game in action and there was no reason to believe it was remotely close to ready. Alan Wake wasn’t just late, it was becoming a joke.
So I can’t say for sure, but my bet is that Microsoft put on its Awfully Stern Voice and told Remedy to ship their god damned game before Ballmer himself made them do it with a claw hammer. Whatever the reason, Alan Wake is a straight up corridor 3PS with a forest standing in for the corridors. And that is the longwinded reason for the complimentary but reserved press, leisurely sales, and why people weren’t as excited about it as they might have been.
Thing is, though, there’s nothing wrong with linear games, and there’s nothing wrong with shooters, and there’s nothing wrong with Alan Wake. While not what it was supposed to be, it is extraordinary, a five out of five. The only problem is bruised anticipation: you gotta get wistful when you consider how freaking awesome it would have been if it had delivered on that original concept.
The Devil’s Double
Hilariously, four months before Alan Wake finally heaved itself out of Remedy’s offices, someone else did deliver on that original concept. I speak, of course, of Deadly Premonition.
- A psychological thriller
- Set in the American Pacific Northwest
- Specifically Washington state
- With a protagonist who might be crazy
- Who’s trying to solve a mystery
- In a small town filled with weird people
- That maybe turn into monsters sometimes
- A psychological thriller
- Set in the American Pacific Northwest
- Specifically Washington state
- With a protagonist who might be crazy
- Who’s trying to solve a mystery
- In a small town filled with weird people
- That maybe turn into monsters sometimes
The games could basically be each other, if their very respective essences did not yearn so mournfully for what each missed. Alan Wake has coherence, accessibility, solid mechanics, strong narrative structure, great performances, and cohesion… everything Deadly Premonition lacks. Meanwhile, Deadly Premonition has the open world, the freeform mystery, the independent player choice… all the things Alan Wake was meant to have. Collectively they’d make something remarkable, but until then I’ll say that despite Deadly Premonition’s cult following and many ingenious aspects, it is an ultimately flawed game and Alan Wake isn’t.
It’d be hard to really toe the line of psychological thriller in a video game, particularly one built on an engine like Max-FX, designed for action shooters. To their credit, Remedy didn’t try to shoehorn a slow pace in. Instead they created a product wherein shooty action scenes cushion the whole, like Styrofoam packing peanuts surrounding fragile Faberge globes of character-fueled drama, dialogue, and discovery. The vast majority of Alan Wake plays like a shooter, albeit with the added mechanic of flashlighting away the enemy’s cloak of gloom before you can bust a cap up into their business. Practically speaking that just replaces an “aim” function, so it’s not like you’re in uncharted territory there.
And there is plenty of combat to be had – ranging through dark forests, lumber yards, treefall festooned craggy mountain slopes, Bright Falls’ night-shrouded streets. The Taken attack Alan on cue, usually in groups of three or more. They also seem to pounce if he dawdles in one area too long, adding a level of go-go-go to hunting for manuscript pages. For some reason there are also coffee thermoses scattered around, acting as pointless collectibles of no value, but failing to at least try and gather them left me with a sense that I was somehow playing the game wrong.
Eventually the environment turns against Alan as well, so there’s a fair bit of variety in what you face. Boat hook-packing rednecks wearing shadows like rain slickers would get old if they weren’t broken up by the occasional possessed backhoe or low-flying flock of railroad ties or murder of possessed crows. Combat is generally no harder than medium-rare; ammunition and flashlight batteries are packed into each level like salarymen on a Japanese commuter train. Tactical weapons – chiefly flashbangs and stick flares – are thinner on the ground; plus it takes some practice to learn how these items are best deployed.
I found combat most fun on the rare occasions when Alan is not alone, when someone (or at least he is imagining that someone) is out in the night helping him. Not only do these scenes open up the interesting secondary characters like the previously mentioned Sheriff Sarah Breaker and Alan’s agent Barry, they’re also opportunities for occasionally crackling dialogue and one-liners that help alleviate the otherwise unyielding tension that Alan Wake doles out.
Depending on your perspective, the 14-18 hours you spend with Alan Wake could get a little boring by the end. In the video I said it ended “just when I wanted it to;” thinking about it, that’s not really true. I was ready to be done about 2 hours before the game actually wrapped. The final slog drags unnecessarily, and it did make me growl at certain repetitive actions in the combat mechanic. Whenever Taken attack you get a one-second cinematic pullback, useful since it’s often hard to immediately tell the direction they’re coming from. Despite this, Remedy chose to place one Taken right behind Alan practically every single time, meaning they get a cheap shot in no matter how hard you try to avoid it. Between this and the frequency with which you get pinned by environmental assaults late in the game, I was beginning to lose patience, so go forewarned.
In the Forests of the Night
Early on I found myself stopping a lot to stare in awe at the fantastic flashlight effects. The lighting is mostly dynamic, and Remedy’s designers so captured that shroudy nighttime deep-forest haze: not quite fog and more than mist, invisible until pierced by a flashlight beam, at which it illumines with suddenly twisting knots of blue and white vapor that eddy and merge, now transparent, now opaque, and in that strange lambence for the first time you can truly see light – not light once it hits the wall or ground, fulvidly puddling there bereft of all its vigor, but light as it is when it’s going somewhere. Often the flashlight beam will catch and trip on a solid thing like a chair or tree stump and the obstacle will instantly double, its shadow-twin unsheathing itself and slithering up and over and around, growing and shrinking and shearing in its weird dance with the light.
Equally awe-inspiring were the environment’s colossal draw distances. The designers take pains to put Alan on top of a lot of bluffs and outcroppings so you can look out across the forest and be gobsmacked by seamless, faraway detail. There’s no question that the MaxFX-3 Engine could have powered an open world. Its performance was silken even when rendering miles of animated, dynamically lit forests.
A handful of brief vehicle segments further imply that at least some technical leftovers of the early open world concept survived. Vehicles usually appear when Alan needs to cross a long distance in a short time. You actually could walk most of them if you wanted to, but with vehicles come powerful Xenon headlights that flambé the Taken right out of their shoes. It’s a small part of the game and no one has really made driving with a mouse and keyboard a responsive or fun thing to do, but it’s a nice break from being on foot.
It all comes together to form a wonderfully immersive experience. Our planet’s vast forests are unique – the dark, whispering, misty, woodlands of the American Pacific Northwest don’t feel the same as Germany’s druidish, black-trunked primeval Fangorns or the dense, towering stands bearding the New England side. The forest and town are just real, real, real.
Remedy’s still Remedy. Show of hands: who at least stopped on their second playthrough of Max Payne 2 and watched all the TV shows? Lords & Ladies? The Adventures of Captain Baseball Bat Boy? Anyone? Just… just me then? Well, those little moments of handcrafted polish are back. Alan frequently comes across TVs blaring old reruns of a show called Night Springs, a Twilight Zone knockoff that was, not incidentally, his first writing job. The late-night radio station combines clues of what’s to come with absolutely riotous call-in segments. Yeah, a game can be a relentless pressure cooker and still have moments of levity.
No Country for Old Men
Remedy is fascinated by aspects of American culture, and I’ve always been fascinated by how deftly they capture them. As an American myself I don’t really think of us as having a culture; indeed, I’m not sure an American developer could do genrefied America quite as well as the Helsinki-based Remedy. Max Payne was a beautifully caricatured noir tale, part hard-boiled 1930s and part wire-fu post-Matrix cop drama. Alan Wake is picket fence horror, small towns with big secrets, Stateside celebrity porn, our culture-by-entertainment, and the stark contrast of American ignorance and American well-meaningness. There’s so much here to remind us that for all the development problems and all the promise on which it doesn’t deliver, Remedy still has it to make fantastic, gripping work that weaves story and gameplay together more deftly than anyone else in the development arena today.
By the way, Alan Wake didn’t end the way I thought it was going to. I can’t go into detail without spoiling the actual conclusion, but those of you who know me well can probably guess where my thoughts had taken me. I will say, entirely without ego, that the ending I anticipated would have been much better, its superiority outstripped only by the complete impossibility of a publisher allowing it in a video game. If you’re dying to know what I thought the ending would be and why I think it would’ve been so much better, maybe you can goad me into spilling in the comments.
If you play the Steam version, as I did, you’ll also get The Signal and The Writer, two solid DLC packs that expand the story past the game’s ending and give more background on key characters. Last year saw the release of Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a quasi-sequel I haven’t played yet. Press indicates that while okay it’s not as good as the source material, so I’m not in a rush.
It would seem that Remedy survived the catastrophic early sales of Alan Wake. The company just moved into a posh new office space and they claim they’re close to announcing their next project – which presumably they’ve been working on secretly for some time. Hopefully this will alleviate the usual years of anticipation we’ve come to expect from the developer. Whether it’ll be Alan Wake 2 or not I can’t say, though I kind of hope it’s not. The story has an end, a pretty good one, and there’s no point in dragging it out. Besides, I’d like to see Remedy finally get behind the wheel of a steamshovel and create something much more ambitious than its usual story-driven shooter. You know, something like a working Deadly Premonition.
My only regret regarding Alan Wake is that I didn’t play it sooner. It reminded me of all the reasons I love Remedy, and why I believe the studio may still achieve the kind of creative influence it deserves. That ideal fusion of story and play is no easy task, with most games that try erring on the side of one to the detriment of the other. Remedy’s games strike a much more perfect balance, and I’ve never been disappointed by their work. Don’t judge Alan Wake for what it could have been, when what it is delivers.
Tell Steerpike he’s a bit heavy on the metaphors at Steerpike@tap-repeatedly.com.