Alan Wake: A Missed Opportunity

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The bread and butter of Remedy Entertainment is making highly cinematic games with interesting storylines, and Alan Wake is no exception. However, the game also had a troubled five-year development cycle before its eventual release in 2010, and it shows in much of the actual gameplay. So what we have here is a game with an above-average, mature story that is dragged down by dull, repetitive combat sequences, pointless collection quests, and disparagingly linear level design.

The story is thus: the titular main character is a bestselling thriller author who is currently suffering from a severe case of writer’s block and is coaxed into taking a relaxing vacation with his girlfriend. Wake finds himself in the sleepy Twin Peaks-esque town of Bright Falls, where his rented cabin overlooks the foreboding Cauldron Lake. When the lights go out, Wake’s girlfriend disappears into the lake, mirroring the drowning of a girl some years prior. Wake dives in after her, then wakes up a week later behind the wheel of his crashed, flaming Ford Escape (yes, the product placement is egregious, from Wake’s Verizon cell phone to the ever-important Energizer batteries he collects for his flashlight). As he walks into town, he finds pages from a manuscript of a horror novel that is clearly his, but he doesn’t remember writing; the pages predict grim events, like the abduction of Bright Falls’ townsfolk in the night and attacks on Wake’s own life by a dark force, and all the predictions come true almost immediately after Wake finds them. If the plot sounds ripped from a Stephen King novel, then don’t be surprised that the first line of dialogue in the game is a King quote.

The game’s best sequences are during sections when Wake is visiting key locations around Bright Falls, such as Bright’s Diner and the police station. It’s usually at these locales that key plot points are slowly revealed, and the story is so complex and intricate that it’s always a treat to peel another layer off the mystery. Also, these sequences usually take place during the day, meaning that much of the tension and horror of the night-time combat sequences evaporates, allowing the player to de-stress before the next series of battles. The cast of characters, from Wake’s bumbling but loyal agent Barry (whose voice actor seems to be trying his hardest to channel Joe Pesci), to the hard-boiled but helpful sheriff Sarah Breaker (perhaps the only sane person in Bright Falls), to the rattled, lantern-wielding Cynthia Weaver, the cast remains mostly strong throughout the course of the game. Perhaps the best story sequence takes place at Dr. Emil Hartman’s psych ward, where it is suggested that Wake’s experiences of his girlfriend’s death and Bright Falls being usurped by darkness are merely symptoms of his insanity. When darkness rolls over the peaceful mountain asylum, the line between reality and fantasy becomes intriguingly blurred for the remainder of the game, and Wake’s motivations and mental stability lose their solidarity. After the psych ward chapter, you constantly wonder whether you’re actually working toward saving Wake’s girlfriend or if you’re simply descending further into madness.

The game begins to fall apart whenever characters aren’t talking to each other. Each set of cutscenes is immediately followed by an endless trek through the pitch-black forests and mountains of Bright Falls; every few steps, you’ll be dogged by the same group of creepy enemies over and over again. The fights aren’t very difficult, particularly if you abuse the dodge button, but they are a huge pain to slog through because they change very little from your very first encounter. One section of forest took me almost two hours to get through without so much as a hint of story. The combat sequences are worsened by the fact that the forest paths, despite looking like a maze of trees and rocks, are extremely linear, forcing you down a narrow path through a gauntlet of shadowy enemies. This actually takes a lot of the horror out of the game, since you know that if you keep walking straight forward and fighting enemies, eventually you’ll reach the next story sequence; how scary would it be if you could actually get lost in that seemingly infinite forest, walk too far off the intended path, maybe find a group of terrifyingly overpowered enemies? Alan Wake feels like it was intended to be an open-world game (Remedy tried to make it work for six months before eventually scrapping it), and it suffers under the weight of its own linearity.

Because the forest sequences take up so much of the game’s total running time, they seem like little more than filler designed to turn a five-hour game into a ten-hour game. They feel somewhat novel the first few times as the developers steadily add new enemy types (although they differ little from the standard drone; “the fat one” and “the fast one” and “the one that throws things” could adequately describe them), but by the time you reach the game’s midway point, you’re dreadfully tired of them. It’s difficult to say whether the game would’ve benefited from a complete omission of combat altogether (in the vein of Heavy Rain), but when your game has no multiplayer mode, it’s a very tough sell with a campaign only a few hours long.

Then there’s the ending. While I did appreciate what it was trying to do, and indeed Alan Wake‘s story is far too complex to be wrapped up neatly, I still felt that it left a lot of holes open that wouldn’t have hurt the ending’s impact if they had been closed. One character you meet about midway through the game is a hotheaded FBI agent (who is constantly referred to as “drunk” by other characters for reasons unknown, as his voice actor certainly doesn’t sell it) who shoots at Wake and then disappears entirely for the remainder of the game. He’s set up to be an integral part of the story, and then…nothing. The fates of Barry and Sarah Breaker are similarly left in limbo, as well as all of the patients at Hartman’s clinic who were supposedly swallowed by darkness, including the doctor himself. There’s also the game’s bizarre metanarrative involving a mirror author to Wake named Thomas Zane, whose name doesn’t anagram to anything relevant so it’s impossible to tell just how much of an impact he has on the game’s ending. The two pieces of downloadable content released in the game’s wake, as well as the standalone expansion Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, do little to clear up the matter.

Alan Wake has flashes of pure brilliance, but most of the time, it doesn’t feel like a game that took Remedy five years to make; rather, it feels like a game that they struggled with for five years before ultimately releasing as a gimped version of their original vision. The excellent story sequences are often overshadowed by the excrutiatingly tedious combat marathons. It’s clear they designed the story sequences first, then spent a large amount of time trying to decide how to connect them. Their eventual decision (a large volume of repetitive, skill-less third-person-shooter sequences) would ultimately end up holding the game back greatly.

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3 thoughts on “Alan Wake: A Missed Opportunity”

  1. I personally thought the gameplay was just adequate enough for me to be able to enjoy this game for the story and presentation. I also thought the DLCs took some nice steps forward in terms of gameplay. The DLCs with some added variety in terms of scenarios and American Nightmare in terms of encounter design. Having said that I wouldn’t blame anyone for feeling underwhelmed by it all like you did.

    I really loved the TV-style presentation and twisty narrative. Given the TV-like structure, I didn’t mind things being left unresolved, but that assumed we’d get a Season 2 in the form of a sequel, but with Remedy working on Quantum Break, I’m not sure when that would happen now.

    I think I personally look at Alan Wake as a bit of a flawed gem as opposed to a missed opportunity, but I can see why someone would feel the other way. Interesting article!

  2. I definitely agree. I felt the game could have been much more than it actually was. With the story being as gripping as it was, it definitely deserved to have better gameplay. The development team did fall really short on that aspect. Although, if another development team worked on it with a new set of ideas, I wonder what the game could have been. Unfortunately that’s something we may never find out.

  3. It’s unfortunate that the gameplay was monotonous. Still, after picking this game up used awhile back, I immediately started raving about this to friends. I did warn that the combat was definitely secondary to the storyline, essentially stating that it was every classic horror story you’ve ever read wrapped up to into a game. Favorite part of the game plot were the repeated references to the great authors by the sarcastic cops!

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