Thanks to the staff of OnlySP, I am inviting you to come on a journey through our 50 favourite games. This week we look at a thrilling action game; not quite survival, not quite adventure, but a uniquely cinematic blend of suspenseful television and horror fiction.
#47. ALAN WAKE, by Mitchell Akhurst
Alan Wake is a tense action-adventure, an outstanding interactive television series, and a clever enough example of schlock, too. Like Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead trilogy, Alan Wake works best for an audience that can take a joke, but the horror is real and well realised. Remedy Entertainment has always had a reputation for quality, but among its high definition oeuvre, Alan Wake certainly stands tall.
When announced in 2005, Alan Wake was a mysterious next-gen IP: promoted off the back of the success of Remedy’s genre-defining Max Payne games, yet altogether different. Alan Wake was to take place in Bright Falls, a small town in the wilderness that holds a dark secret, populated by alternately weird and unsettling characters.
The game’s story follows the eponymous protagonist, a writer, as he arrives in town on vacation with his wife—but something deep under the ominously named Cauldron Lake has other plans. Somehow, Alan’s work as a writer is involved with the presence under the lake, and as events that resemble his airport thriller novels begin taking place, he must battle the presence to prevent it from escaping Bright Falls and causing havoc across the world.
As with its other cinematic action games, Remedy was clearly evoking a specific collection of tropes, but rather than crime and film-noir, this time the game would be an open world horror game in the Stephen King mould.
As development progressed, however, Alan Wake lost its open world. Much like the recent Ubisoft Towers trend, the original open world trend was in full vogue following Grand Theft Auto III, but had become less so in the years leading to Alan Wake‘s release in 2010. Still, when the game released, some vestiges of production as an open world game remained. The town of Bright Falls and the surrounding mountain forests are spectacularly realised, as enormous and elaborate as any game world but reconfigured into a whip-smart linear action-adventure, at points reminiscent of Half-Life 2: Episode Two‘s complex open levels.
At other times, when things get more cramped and tense, Alan Wake evokes classic horror games such as Resident Evil, but the game never loses sight of its true inspiration, that of visual media made in the wake of Stephen King’s popularity.
Alan Wake is where Remedy doubled down on a studio-wide obsession with television. As King-ly as the game’s universe of struggling horror writers and kooky small towns may be, the game’s most prominent inspirations are 1990s television series, The X-Files and Twin Peaks. Instead of King’s favourite New England settings on the east coast, Alan Wake is situated in America’s Pacific Northwest.
Successfully, the game looks a hell of a lot like television in the best ways. The cutscene camerawork mixes clever but understated composition with occasional Evil Dead-inspired “monster POV” shots, but never more elaborate than could be achieved with live-action trickery. Most of the setting was developed from photographs, rather than concept art—and the horror elements focus more on an interplay of light and shadow than terrible monsters, downplaying the theoretically unlimited special effects budget that video games can achieve (since everything is developed inside a computer).
I am a bit of a monster junkie myself, and so cannot truthfully say I would not have preferred more creativity in the creatures, but for Alan Wake to terrify players with its basic townspeople and regular-objects-turned-sinister shows remarkable restraint and allows the game’s excellent direction to take the spotlight.
On the negative side, the game as-presented is much less than the sum of its horror inspirations and its terrific visual style. Characters’ faces never escape a disgustingly marionette-like stiffness; alternately flapping their mouths like a puppet or substituting gurning for anything like nuanced facial expressions. This is less acceptable in 2018 than 2010, but given that in the same year God of War III and Red Dead Redemption both displayed much more credible animation, little excuse exists for how the facial animation undermines Alan Wake‘s aspirations to live-action.
The intentionally schlocky writing is also irreconcilably at odds with the incredible level of polish in direction and visuals, apart from the faces. True, the dumb and unsubtle dialogue—the sort that Alan Wake himself would write—is more obvious in the game than say, simulated bad special effects would have been (even The Deadly Tower of Monsters had a hard time nailing that) but bad writing is bad writing whether on purpose or not.
Finally, the ‘adventure’ component of the game is so downplayed to be almost absent. Slightly deviating from the main thread will have the player discover collectible coffee thermoses, or a cache of special weapons with the concomitant reduction in difficulty offering cold comfort. Otherwise, play is squarely focused on the action—which is exciting, but uses the same mechanical interaction of shining with the flashlight and then shooting through the whole game.
Ultimately though, the core shooting mechanic and level design really is good enough to carry through the six main episodes of the game on-disc (the DLC episodes and digital-only sequel American Nightmare are a different story, literally) and as for the faces and bad writing, time heals all wounds. Alan Wake is above all else interactive: many years later, the most notable highlights—its design and direction, fascinating locations and thriller themes for example—all play directly into the action experience, and the aforementioned niggles fade from memory. The fact that the material has come full circle and is now being adapted as a television series seems like a bad idea.
With its next game, Quantum Break, Remedy greatly improved its character animation as well as just straight-up including live-action television elements. Yet, that game was more specifically based off of J.J. Abrams style science fiction shows, and lacked the intangible power of Alan Wake‘s idiosyncratic approach to world design. For the same reason this game is one of our 50 Favourite Games and Quantum Break is not, fans continue to hope for a second season of Alan Wake, despite Remedy having gone in a new direction with 2019’s Control.
Control being more visually distinct than Alan Wake is unlikely, but its lack of FMV and more diverse reference pools, including the New Weird literary movement, Brutalist architecture, and Metroid of all games, make it at the very least a more satisfying prospect for another great Remedy Entertainment game. However, hopefully, after Control, Remedy will return to Bright Falls and Cauldron Lake for some more rural horror, based on one of its greatest action-adventure titles. Bring on Season 2, in video game form please.
Thanks for joining us for an original title that is thrilling to have on our list, but one we hope to see more of one day. Do you have a favourite series that you wish could return for another go around? Why not share in the comments, and we will see you next week with another of OnlySP’s 50 Favourite Games, a stone-cold classic that spawned somewhat-questionable sequels.