The Haunting of Alan Wake

I just finished paying the horror-action game Alan Wake.

Before I complain about the game, let that sink in for a minute: I finished the game. I hardly ever finish games. Games that irritate me usually go on the shelf and never come off. But I finished Alan Wake. So despite what follows, keep in mind that the game was good enough for me to play to completion. Which doesn’t happen that often, lately.

Alan Wake is a plot-driven, self-aware, mannered game that aspires to being a meditation on the nature of creativity and authorship. The game’s main technique for doing this is to put you in the role of a self-absorbed douchebag which, given the topic, is somehow appropriate.

The plot, in brief, is as follows. Stephen King, played by Alan Wake, is suffering from a creative drought. He goes on vacation with his wife, Alice, to the northwest logging town of Twin PeaksBright Falls, where he meets a number of quirky, unusual characters, including the loglamp lady, Agent CooperValentine, and has many cups of damn fine coffee. Shortly after arriving in town, his wife is kidnapped and Alan wakes up, a week later, in a car wreck. As he stumbles towards the nearest building he can see, he is attacked by men who have somehow been absorbed by evil shadows.

When enemies appear in Alan Wake you fight them, usually, by shining a flashlight at them. After you have painted them with enough light, the shadow- creatures become mere men, and then you can shoot them to death with your gun. There are some interesting ethical questions here that could have been explored, but the game doesn’t touch them with a 20-foot pole. In addition to the action and fighting, there are various ‘collecting’ mechanics in the game. The most interesting of these is that you sometimes find “manuscript pages” which appear to be something that your character wrote in his week-long blackout. These elaborate on the plot and sometimes foreshadow future events.

The game presents itself in 6 ‘episodes’, which should provide a clever way of letting the player know how far along they are. But it doesn’t. This brings me to my first major criticism of the game: the pacing is uneven. The episodes vary widely in playlength. I polished off the first in about an hour, taking my time and exploring every nook and cranny and wandering down every side trail to find manuscript pages. The second took me about 90 minutes, played similarly. The third episode - where I seriously considered quitting the game - took me well over three hours, and that was spent running headlong ignoring all unnecessary paths. Episodes four and five were probably also about 90 minutes, and episode six took me about an hour.

Reducing this to “minutes to completion” isn’t the whole story, though. The problem isn’t that Episode 3 was long. it was that it was long and it was boring. Had there been some compelling narrative pulling it along, or even had the set pieces been interesting, I might have forgiven this. As it was, it simply felt like I was being punished for playing the game.

This failure of pacing is mirrored on a micro-level. Survival horror games as a genre are fond of throwing endless numbers of enemies at you. When playing, say, Silent Hill you quickly learn that the order of the day is “Don’t fight the zombies unless you have no other choice,” since first, you will run out of ammo and second, like Frito-Lay, they’ll just make more. In Alan Wake, there are three types of fighting you have to do several times per stage:

The problem, as you may have guessed, is that I generally found it impossible to distinguish between the “must run” and “must fight” combats until it was way too late. By episode 5 I started picking up on some audio and visual cues that, even now, seem way too subtle to me. This one aspect of the game - leading, as it did, to many reloads and having to replay segments repeatedly - frustrated me more than any other. Having to cope with these frustrations even changed the way I played the game for the worse: by chapter 4, I stopped wandering down any sidepaths at all, lest I find myself in a “must run” situation that would result in death and a reload. Did I miss manuscript pages because of this, and therefore plot? Almost certainly.

This problem bothers me because when not worrying about whether I had to run or not I was enjoying the game. The mood of mixed terror and anger was exciting and the art direction was great. The music – particularly the selections played on the radio – was fantastic.

I even liked the plot. I did not find it arresting, or emotionally gripping, but it was interesting, in a dissociated, Twin Peaks sort of way. I do think that Remedy really sold themselves down the river by establishing Wake as a jerk so early on in the plot. Part of the true horror of Silent Hill 2, for me, was discovering exactly how damaged and unreliable its narrator was. It got to the point where by the end of Silent Hill 2 I was happy to be fighting zombies, because fighting zombies was less scary than contemplating what the character I was playing might have done. Alan Wake tells an interesting story. But that story is about a dark place somewhere else, whereas a truly great horror game is about a dark place inside. Alan Wake, the character, is never an “I”. He is always a “he”.

So where does this leave us? We have a game with some great game mechanics. Decent (though not transcendent) writing. One of the best soundtracks for any game in recent memory. But for me, at least it does not connect emotionally, and in places the pacing fails completely.

I’m happy to have bought and played Alan Wake, which is more than I could say about other, more hyped yet much worse games. But I’m not haunted by it. And I want to be haunted by it. Instead, I am haunted by the game that it could have been.