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Halloween Gaming: Alan Wake and Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

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Halloween Gaming at The Maximum Utmost rolls on.  This time with an insanely long post about one of my favorite games of all time, the cult thriller Alan Wake.

Some would probably consider Alan Wake to be one of the greatest tragedies of the Xbox  360.  A truly underappreciated gem that completely flopped in sales,  Alan Wake was the extensively long in development project (it took ~5 years to complete after being announced in 2005) of Remedy Games, who were best known for the excellent Max Payne 1 and 2, and was published by Microsoft Games Studios.  While I really enjoyed Alan Wake, one of the highlights of the Xbox 360, it’s not hard for me to see why it did so bad in terms of sales.  There were several controversies surrounding the game pre-release, one of which was that the PC version (which had been previewed for nearly 4 years) was cancelled before release.

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Long story short, a lot of (vocal) gamers were justifiably disgruntled at Alan Wake before its release on May 18, 2010.  But all of that controversy was merely a drop in the puddle compared to Alan Wake’s true problem.  You may remember this little game from a few years back called Red Dead Redemption.  You know…made by Rockstar Games…. kind of like Grand Theft Auto but with cowboys and horses…ring any bells?  Well, Red Dead also released on May 18, 2010 and was an utterly massive hit.  Alan Wake was completely steamrolled in sales, and after so many long years of development, the once proud developer of Max Payne had a commercial flop on its hands.

It’s unfortunate that all of these dark clouds hang over Alan Wake, as I actually really enjoy it as a game.  Of course, Remedy and Microsoft have no one but themselves to blame for the game’s commercial failure.  Controversies aside, at the very least they should have been smart enough not to release the game on the same day as the next major release from %&#&ing Rockstar Games!!!!!!  But one good thing about this was failure was that Remedy was able to convince Microsoft to allow them to self-publish the game on Steam to recoup their losses.  Time (and Steam sales) heal all wounds, and now there is at least a decent-sized contingent of PC gamers out there who have come to appreciate Alan Wake.

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In Alan Wake, Remedy sought to do with pop horror what they did with noir crime fiction in Max Payne.  The prime influence here is David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but there’s also some Stephen King in here as well.  When I say Twin Peaks is the prime influence, I mean this game is really built around the template of the cult early ‘90s TV series.  Alan Wake arrives in the small, northwestern town of Bright Falls and soon becomes captured in the mysteries of the supernatural horrors that use the town as a portal into our world.  If you’ve ever seen Twin Peaks, you can clearly see the similarities in this setup with that of Agent Dale Cooper’s investigation into the town of Twin Peaks.  

But while Alan Wake uses the formula of Twin Peaks, I felt it managed to create its own distinct narrative.  And the story is the real draw of this game.  It’s full of many twists and turns to keep the player hooked into uncovering the secret of Bright Falls.  It features a stellar cast of characters, both friends and foes to Alan, that possess real depth that is rarely seen in video games.  And as Alan’s journey into the night progresses, he has actual character growth, something that also rarely happens in even the most lauded video game plots.

At the beginning of the game, we are introduced to Alan and Alice Wake, a married couple who are arriving by ferry for a vacation in the small, northwestern town of Bright Falls.  Alan is an enormously popular celebrity novelist but has lately been dogged by a severe case of writer’s block.  The couple has come to stay in a cabin on the shore of nearby Cauldron Lake, hoping that the peacefulness of the wilderness will help stimulate Alan’s writing.  While Alan and Alice appear to have a loving relationship, we see that it is strained by Alan’s arrogance and temperament combined with his hard-partying celebrity lifestyle that Alice deplores.  Alice blames Alan’s personal issues on Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent who she often comes into conflict with.

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Alan and Alice Wake

The couple arrive at the cabin and bizarre, increasingly unnatural events begin to transpire.  These events culminate with Alice being abducted by a shadowy entity and drug into the dark depths of Cauldron Lake, as Alan watches horrified.

Fast forward a week and Alan wakes up after having crashed his car in the woods surrounding Bright Falls.  He has no memory of the preceding week, the last thing he remembers is Alice being taken into Cauldron Lake.  He approaches a mysterious stranger for help, but the encounter soon turns hostile, and Alan finds himself being pursued through the night by possessed men that are shrouded in shadow.  This is where Alan’s long journey into the night begins.  During the following events, Alan searches for a way to save his wife while also coming to understand The Dark Presence, the supernatural denizen of Cauldron Lake that seeks to use Alan for its own nightmarish purposes.

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The story from here on out gets rather….complex, with Alan attempting to find his vanished wife and understand what happened to him during the missing week.  The story is the true star of Alan Wake, and in my opinion it more than makes up for its deficiencies in other areas (more on that in a moment).  I have to restrain myself here, because as you may can tell I really love this game and could go on and on about this aspect of it, but I don’t want to a) spoil too much for potential players, and b) hype up expectations for potential players to a point that the actual game can never meet.

I will though reiterate how much I liked the characters in this game.  Even the Dark Presence is far more interesting than your typical Lovecraftian abomination.  She is single-mindedly evil, but the mechanism by which she influences the world and seeks to control it were wholly original (to me at least).  But as far as great characters go, I’d also like to specifically mention Barry Wheeler, Alan’s agent and best friend, who arrives in Bright Falls as Alan finds himself increasingly in over his head.  From Alice’s initial description of Barry, I assumed he was a bloodsucking agent that exploited his client for his own gains.  But while Alice and Barry have no love lost and Barry is certainly obsessed with maintaining Alan’s fame and fortune, you come to realize during the game that he is Alan’s most loyal and truest friend and unhesitatingly follows him into the nightmares that Alan must face.  These two make a duo that compete with the likes of Nathan Drake and Victor Sullivan or Solid Snake and Otacon for all-time best bros in gaming.

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While I consider the story of Alan Wake to be top tier, the combat design, on the other hand, is a bit more flawed.  The at-times iffy combat system is actually one of the reasons that makes this game hit-or-miss for a lot of people.  I won’t say the combat design is bad, but there are definitely parts of it that need fine-tuning (and were fine-tuned in the sequel), and in certain areas of the game, the less polished aspects of it can become rather irritating.  And that’s not to say there aren’t some really epic battles in the game.  People who have played the game would probably agree that the farm and the hedge maze are some really spectacular levels.  It’s just that there are more than a few areas where the player will probably end up gritting their teeth a fair bit to push through.

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I would call Alan Wake an action-horror game, more similar to FEAR or Dead Space than a survival-horror game like Fatal Frame or Silent Hill.  Ammo and firearms are rather plentiful, and the player will need to kill pretty much everything that crawls out of the woods at them.  During his quest, Alan is pursued by the Taken, people who have gone missing from Bright Falls and have had their souls sucked out by the Dark Presence and are now under her control.  The Taken are more like Ganados from Resident Evil 4 than zombies.  They have some intelligence and work to flank and overwhelm Adam, and attack using crude melee weapons, mostly axes and hatchets.  They are also initially invulnerable, being clouded in a shadow substance that protects them from bullet fire.  To defeat them, Alan must focus his flashlight on them which melts away the darkness that protects them.  After they’ve been exposed by the light, they are weak to attack, and Alan can finish them off.  There are also some other light-based weapons that Alan can use strategically such as flares (that stun and send the Taken stumbling backwards) and flash grenades (which insta-kill any Taken nearby, essentially your get out of jail free card).

As I mentioned, the game really needed a bit better fine tuning when it came to the design of the combat system.  There are a lot of little annoyances that can on occasion become rather irritating.  For instance, when Alan is blasting his flashlight at an enemy, the camera zooms in closer to that enemy.    But this cuts off the player’s peripheral vision leaving them exposed to attacks from the side (as the Taken move silently), which is a problem since the it the Taken can take quite a bit of light before they’re actually exposed.  In encounters featuring large groups of Taken that are attacking from every direction, you’ll often find yourself just getting annoyed by how much you’re being hit while just trying to get a single enemy exposed by the light.  In addition, the game could use a bit more variety in the enemy design.  There are a few different types of human Taken, but sometimes you’ll also be attacked by flocks of “taken birds,” and those things are just super frustrating to fight, no fun at all.

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I will say that Alan Wake isn’t exactly a scary game.  The tension and unnerving dread that I’ve felt in the better horror games I’ve played just isn’t present here.  Rather, it’s more true to its inspiration, Twin Peaks, in that its intrigue comes from a bizarre supernatural mystery that is slowly unravelled by the main characters and which mystifies the audience.  And it’s a well-written mystery at that.  And while it’s doesn’t posses an exactly dreadful mood, the game has a very strong atmosphere to it.  It’s one of the few games I know that captures the feeling of the solitude and quiet of the wilderness at night.  And each chapter is absolutely sprawling in geographic size, which only reinforces Alan’s isolation.  This game started off as an open-world game before becoming more of a linear Resident Evil 4-style game, and you can easily see that from how large the wilderness is in the game.

While the game doesn’t end on what I would call a cliffhanger, the ending is clearly meant to set up future games in a series.  Unfortunately, the failure in sales meant that Microsoft was unwilling to provide further funding for a sequel.  In 2012, Remedy would release Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, a much smaller successor to Alan Wake that released for $15 on XBLA and Steam.  Presumably this was done to maintain gamers’ interest in the series as Remedy searched for the funds needed to build a full-fledged sequel.   

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Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

Although a much smaller game, American Nightmare makes significant improvements to the combat design of the original game.  It is a much more fine-tuned experience, more what you would expect from the designers of Max Payne.  So confident was Remedy in this aspect of the game that they included an “Arcade Action” mode in the release that is similar to Gears of War’s horde mode.

The story, on the other hand, is far less grandiose than its predecessor.  After the events that transpired in Bright Falls, Alan travels to the desert town of Night Springs in search of the depraved serial killer, Mr. Scratch, a doppleganger of Alan that was released during the climax of the previous game.  (This is another reference to Twin Peaks.)  Mr. Scratch originates from Cauldron Lake, and consequently also has powers to fill men with darkness and create Taken to once again hunt Alan through the night.  As a $15 downloadable-only game, American Nightmare is nowhere near as large as the previous game.  The game is essentially a time-loop (think Groundhog Day) of the same night in Night Springs, with Alan visiting the same three areas through each iteration of the night.  Reusing the same three levels over and over in this way is of course a consequence of the small budget this game was created on (again, it’s a smaller downloadable title), but events play out differently in these areas through each iteration of the time loop, so it manages to stay decently fresh as the game’s story progresses.  The story might not be as fulfilling as the original, but I regardlessly still easily recommend this game to anyone who was a fan of the first, but I would not recommend it to newcomers unfamiliar with Alan Wake, as they will be completely lost with the narrative.  Play the first game first in other words.

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In the end, although the credits of American Nightmare promises that Alan’s journey through the night will continue, the series has come to an unfortunate end.  As it stands, we have two games in the series, one with an amazing story and the other with amazing combat.  It appears that Remedy was unable to secure funding for a full-fledged Alan Wake 2, and unfulfilled plot threads created in the original game will never be resolved.  Instead, Remedy are now focusing their attention on Quantum Break, a third person shooter funded by Microsoft as an Xbox One exclusive. It goes without saying there will be no PC release of this game.  I don’t want to parrot the “definition” of insanity, but I have to wonder why Remedy has gone back to the same well that ultimately poisoned Alan Wake.  (I promise I’m not bitter about it!  Honest!)  In the ideal world, we would have gotten a conclusion to Alan’s story in a game that would have combined the scope and scale of the story of Alan Wake with the greatly refined combat of American Nightmare, but alas, that is never to be.

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