Review: ‘Alan Wake’

A suspenseful mystery-thriller, set in the same style as "Lost."

Story is typically an afterthought in videogames. The intense focus on gameplay elements (and often graphics) leaves little room for a well-thought-out tale, let alone a nuanced one. “Alan Wake” is an exception — offering a carefully crafted saga that still manages to be one of the better titles put out in the past year. A suspenseful mystery-thriller, set in the same style as “Lost,” the game is one of Microsoft’s big bets of 2010 — and has been one of the industry’s most anticipated titles for several years; today is the day the wraps come off.

Developer Remedy is well respected in the industry and among players, having created the “Max Payne” franchise (which Fox adapted into a 2008 film). Any Remedy game is going to appeal to the sweet spot for gaming’s core audience (typically males 18-24). But with Microsoft’s marketing machine behind it, the title may reach beyond that to a mass audience, as did the “Grand Theft Auto” franchise.”Alan Wake” blends a spooky atmosphere with tremendous combat elements, adding some creative storytelling to keep the player riveted from beginning to end.

The titular character is a novelist suffering from a bad case of writer’s block who’s on vacation with his wife in the Northwest logging town of Bright Falls. After a traffic accident and subsequent blackout, Wake finds his wife missing and begins finding pages of a thriller he doesn’t remember writing. Worse still, the story seems to be coming true before his eyes.

The enemy is quickly revealed to be a dark force that possesses the town’s citizens and inanimate objects. As in any action game, there are guns, but the best weapons are light-based weapons — a flashlight, flares, flashbangs and the like — that burn the darkness away.

If left at that, “Alan Wake” would be just a good but probably not outstanding action game. However, Remedy has crafted a vivid supporting cast, some seemingly drawn directly from David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” and borrowed some of the best elements of television storytelling to move the plot along.

It’s broken into six “chapters”; the developers realize that marathon game sessions aren’t for everyone. Each chapter begins with a “Previously … on ‘Alan Wake'” recap of the story so far, never letting players forget the driving force of the game, even if they’ve put the controller down for several days.

That was intentional, as Microsoft’s internal research found that among today’s players, only 30% finish games they start. With “Alan Wake,” the players quickly become invested in the story, which drives them to the end of the game.

(Notably, Microsoft’s in-game advertising department seemingly picked up a few cues from the networks as well. Product placement is all over “Alan Wake” — from the Ford Focus he drives early in the game to the Duracell and Energizer batteries he uses to fuel his flashlight. Nothing is rubbed in the player’s face, but the brand names still get their screen time. That probably helped offset the development costs of the game, which took Remedy six years to create.)

Story aside, the game quickly immerses the player in a tense, engaging environment. Being attacked by the Taken, as the game’s enemies are called, produces a few jump-off-the-couch moments and never lets one completely relax. It’s also paced tightly and never feels like it has overstayed its welcome.

Still, the game’s not perfect. The lip-synching on interstitial video segments is bad. And while the game’s real-time graphics are beautiful, those same interstitials (which tell the bulk of the story) are less engaging. Small forgotten details in those scenes (i.e., character’s hands are closer to a mannequin than human, which looks ridiculous when they pick up a cup of coffee) are jarring. The voice acting — featuring Matthew Porretta as Wake and Shari Albert as Nurse Sinclair — and the story compensate for the shortcomings, though.

Overall, “Alan Wake” could be an indicator of how the videogame industry has matured and where it is going. As real-time console graphics have begun to peak, developers and publishers are finding they need to focus on other elements to envelope the gameplay. For some companies, that focus has been the controller.

It’s refreshing, though, to see some gamemakers realize that a good story not only retains the audience, it makes them hungry for more.

Alan Wake


A Microsoft Game Studios presentation of a product developed by Remedy Entertainment. Written by Sam Lake. Directed by Petri Jarvilehto. Exclusive to the Xbox 360 platform. $60.
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