Why Alan Wake deserved better

Niall looks back at one of the finest - and most underrated - games from the last generation of consoles...

The darkness awaits. The unknown that lurks in the shadows is a terrifying prospect for anyone. Alan Wake, released on the Xbox 360 back in 2010, revels in introducing its audience into the nightmarish world of fact and fiction, past and present, light and dark. A flawed but truly stunning tour-de-force, the game has been relegated to something of an unknown quantity to many Xbox 360 & PC owners. Developed by Remedy Entertainment, the creative talent behind Max Payne, Alan Wake remains one of the most original, cohesive and fulfilling gaming experiences around but it has never been revered as one of the best games of the last generation. I believe it is the previous generation’s underrated gem.

The story focuses on the aforementioned writer suffering from a crippling bout of writer’s block and in an attempt to combat these psychological issues, decides to seek solitude. The game twists and turns amongst the backdrop of Bright Falls, a serene, beautiful and inevitably spooky American town that takes influences from David Lynch’s fantastic series Twin Peaks as well as Stephen King’s interpretation of community. We’re immersed in the conflict between good and evil, intrigued by the disappearance of a loved one and engulfed in mystery that follows. Alan Wake builds tone and atmosphere against its surroundings submerging the player with eccentric and developed characters, gorgeous landscapes and frightening figures of darkness.

So why did Alan Wake never quite reach the gaming heights it arguably deserves? The answer potentially lies in dissecting its elongated and complicated development process. Alan Wake was first showcased back at E3 2005 as a PC exclusive, over five years before its eventual release. The trailer demonstrated key thematic tones that remained within the 2010 release, such as the psychological horror in the form of darkness, Wake as a writer, the town of Bright Falls as well as light becoming an ally. The end of the trailer proudly shows off the positive buzz from various gaming sites and magazines with many commenting on its originality and feel the game radiated. Problem was however, this early buzz was generated for the originally intended PC exclusive.

Over the following years the game shifted between a near release to quietly retreating back for additional development. Set to be on the PC, the game progressed onto the Xbox 360 and lost all the initial fervour and momentum it had generated with PC gamers back at E3. Long development times contributed to gamers becoming disillusioned and lost by a game that almost seemed destined to be scrapped. Finally in May 2010 the game was released on Xbox 360, but in the firing line of Rockstar’s masterpiece Red Dead Redemption. Competing against one of the finest games of the last generation was always destined to be a herculean task and inevitably Red Dead Redemption emerged triumphant. The game outperformed Alan Wake in sales due to greater marketing clout and reviews that lauded the game for being one of the most immersive sandbox experiences ever created. Alan Wake just didn’t have the stamina to keep up.

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These issues led Alan Wake to generate lower sales than expected, the subsequent doubt and conjecture of the game’s sequel is proof of that. In response Remedy convinced Microsoft to allow them to port the game to the original game’s platform of PC. So, in February 2011, the game was finally released on PC nearly six years after being announced. At the time it was widely reported the games PC sales were so large that within two days the money generated covered both the development and marketing costs the game has incurred. It was a startling turnaround but raised debate as to why it was never released on PC in the first place.

When released the game received generally solid reviews for both Xbox 360 and PC versions, with praise being heaped upon the tone, atmosphere and narrative as well as the progression and development of key characters. However, the majority of negativity focused in on the linear nature of the game as well as the underdeveloped combat system. From personal experience in discussing the game, the combat system is the major stumbling block in trying to convince others of Alan Wake‘s greatness. Some, like myself, become so immersed in the world of Bright Falls that this flaw is something that can be overlooked. Others simply are not aware of any negativities about the system and actually enjoy it. However, for mainstream gamers it was a problem that provided no solution.

The combat system adopted by Remedy was an intriguing concept with “darkness” playing the antagonists rather than any physical foes to deal with. Shooting entities out of a nightmarish dream turned out to be a refreshing change from the countless games that have the player encountering endless hordes of humans or zombies. Light proves to be your greatest ally and the combination of flashlight (how did Energizer ever agree to have its batteries run flat so quickly?) with a choice of weapon, normally a pistol or shotgun, gives the player a differing experience than the norm.

The episodic structure provides what should be the perfect platform to develop this system by introducing new features or additional moves that can be adopted by the player, a structure that is normally used with complex battle systems. However, there isn’t a strong wave of progression. Changes are superficial and dressed up as major occurrences in the game. Flashlights become bigger and stronger essentially increasing defence, rarer weapons are introduced increasing firepower but sadly nothing really evolves. It is a flaw that I will readily hold my hands up too and agree with. It is the game’s weakest asset. Repetition eventually become frustratingly tedious. Many gamers felt that Alan Wake was testament to this feeling.

However, it is the game’s strengths that make it stand out above the majority of previous generation titles. It is a game of such grand narrative ambition; a game that treated its audience with intelligence and respect. Its screenplay, available to read through as “bonus materials” on Steam, was a gargantuan tale rooted in the personal tragedy that afflicted our protagonist. It sways between fact and fiction and brilliantly captures the creepy, surreal atmosphere that Twin Peaks so successfully managed to achieve in the early 90s. I became lost in its intricate and complex plot that was told over six episodes, each one designed to recreate the tension and cliffhanger effects normally reserved for TV. This format was believable, such was the strength of what writers Sam Lake and Mikko Rauralahti had conjured up.

If released today Alan Wake would work perfectly using the format adopted by titles such as The Walking Dead or The Wolf Among Us, keeping audiences gripped by the promise of uncovering more of this wondrous mystery. The game’s mechanic of foreshadowing through the collection of written pages was an ingenious inclusion. It could so easily have blunted any suspense or horror the game wanted to create. Instead, the ambiguity surrounding why we have these pages leads to intensifying the gaming experience and adding to the atmosphere.

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The town of Bright Falls is a cacophony of personality and charm of the Americana. While sadly not benefiting from the sandbox experience the game had originally intended to be, the broad cast of characters that dwell within the small confines of the town provide warmth, humour and conflict; each is their own, each provides something unique. Barry Wheeler, Alan’s loyal but chauvinistic, arrogant manager finds heroism where cowardice was previously his speciality. Odin and Tor Anderson, the wonderfully eccentric rockers from the fictional band Old Gods of Asgard provide humour, charm and wisdom. While Alan Wake himself is a conflicted, enigmatic presence struggling to break free from the shackles of his imagination.

The game’s smaller, more personal moments were a chance to reflect on what had been and what lay ahead. Radio conversations added depth and a real connection to the town. Listening into Bright Falls KBF radio added authenticity to the town demonstrating that Bright Falls is a humble community and one rooted in honesty and righteousness. At the end of every episode a song plays that captures the spirit of what has just occurred. Listening to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” or Poe’s “Haunted” helped make what we had just witnessed feel real, that we were part of Bright Falls.

The incredible Night Springs, the Bright Falls equivalent of the sci-fi classic The Twilight Zone, beautifully captures the supernatural, the weird and the unknown as well as harnessing the spirit of the original TV classic. Its six episodes are not merely there to distract, they are there to add weight to the world of Bright Falls, to make the player think and repeatedly shudder at its creepiness. Its ambiguous tone keeps the player guessing, constantly asking whether what we are seeing is real or fiction. A grandiose explanation is offered for the madness, fitting the eerie Twin Peaks atmosphere the game set itself within. It all served to suck the player in further, never letting go.

The team at Remedy created a game that should serve as a template for ambition, aspiration and progression. It attempted to expand the traditional videogame into a cinematic venture, pushing the boundaries of what is expected and for the most part it succeeded. Despite its problems Alan Wake is a journey, one that remains worth taking. It has its rough moments yes, it is a flawed experience no doubt but perhaps Alan Wake‘s teething problems are part of its charm. It was a game destined to fail, ready to be washed up amongst the countless titles that are abandoned mid-development. However, it survived and the game’s parting words are indicative of what the game stands testament too. It is more than a sum of its parts, a game that draws you into atmospheric surroundings with resonance, character and suspense. Alan Wake is one of the previous generation’s finest titles. It is not a lake. It is an ocean.