This week I played Alan Wake. It was my first horror video game, and it freaked me the hell out. Before I pissed my way through it, I was looking forward to playing Aliens: Colonial Marines in the future because it looks so awesomely scary. But if Alan Wake made me sweat, I don’t know that I can handle a game based on the Alien franchise.
I have no doubt that Alan Wake is a blast for people who enjoy tormenting themselves with horror. It’s a psychological thriller about a writer (who somehow manages to be a big celebrity) and visits a small town that has shadowy nightmare people (the Taken) who seem to waste away in light — but you still have to shoot them dead. Alan fights them off with firearms, flashlights, flares and flashbangs, running from one light to another to survive.
So without further ado, here’s what the game presents to players:
1. A Suspenseful Story
To sum up the plot of Alan Wake — without giving away any major plot twists or the ending — his wife is kidnapped. His unwritten manuscript is coming to life all around him. He sees himself on TV screens writing this book whose pages he keeps finding all over the place, such as the forest floor… but at first, he has no recollection of writing it. There’s an entire week missing from his memory. It turns out the house he thought he rented isn’t there, and he’s afraid he’ll be tried for murder if he tells the police that he’s been fighting people possessed by darkness. He also collects coffee thermoses.
The story had me intrigued. It plays on childhood fears of the dark and succeeds at being genuinely creepy. The game also has cinematic chapter breaks that make the game feel like a television series — an awesome and eerie touch. Alan’s desperate, confused narration carried me from one haunting chapter to the next, and plot twists kept things interesting.
2. Repetitive Action
While the story is thrilling, the gameplay is not. I’ll admit that I had loads of fun with this game for the first couple of hours. The first chapter was particularly easy to whiz through, and the terror was in not knowing when the shadowy enemies were going to jump out. When it came time to do battle with my limited gear, I broiled bad guys with my flashlight like a pro.
But for a suspenseful game, I felt like I was doing too much fighting and not enough breathless treading, waiting to see what was around the next corner. I wanted suspense, not monotonous pointing and shooting. And I know the horror genre isn’t known for its varied combat, but I at least wanted to pick up an axe or a knife or something. Even the enemies were all the same after a while. Just when I thought I’d hit an unusual one like the bulldozer, they hit me with another one. (Those crows were terrifying, though.)
In my haste to get to the next checkpoint, I didn’t explore enough to collect ammo and batteries in some places. I started failing quite a bit. The more I rushed, the less prepared I was, and the game became proportionally more terrifying for me… or maybe it wasn’t terror. Maybe it was just frustration. It was never possible to outrun enemies, but I could run with them on my tail, as long as I carefully timed my dodges — which are in slow-motion, a very cool touch — so the enemies wouldn’t whittle away my health before I made it to the next beacon of warm, welcoming light.
There was also the issue of the game telling me exactly what to do during the “downtime” between the horror bits. NPCs gave me instructions, and the game let me “Focus” to show me exactly where to go (while Alan repeated what he was supposed to do), in case I forgot in 10 seconds. It made those parts of the game easy, in the same way that a lot of poor teachers assign “busy work” in school.
It was a combat system that worked well enough for the story. It just didn’t give a lot of variety — and for me, varied action is a big part of why I love playing games.
3. A Haunting Atmosphere
Fortunately, this game had enough eerie atmosphere to make up for any lack of combat fun. I’ll admit something here… Alan Wake’s atmosphere had me so on edge that I could only play for short stretches at a time before my nerves made me take a break. When I wanted to unwind with a video game at the end of the day, this was not my go-to choice. I suppose that’s part of its appeal.
Playing this game is like walking around in a Stephen King novel — and it’s obvious that’s exactly what the game designers were going for. Whether Alan’s escaping a possessed clinic, throwing down flares in a garden maze or being attacked by birds at a colossal dam, the nighttime setting is brilliantly rendered. It’s moody. It’s dark. And though I laughed a bit at Alan’s wife for being afraid of the dark at first, I definitely got it by the end of the first chapter.
I enjoyed Alan Wake… part of the time. The game succeeded in scaring me out of my wits in places; other parts were a little tedious. I know some people like to take their time with Alan Wake, exploring every part of the forest and town and opening every creaky cabin door. And while I did a little exploring, my favorite locations were the ones that blinded me with light. Seeing the sunrise was incredibly refreshing. I guess that’s sort of the point.
I would absolutely recommend this game to any fan of horror video games. But I’ve deduced something about myself while playing: If Alan Wake freaks me out, and others say that Alan Wake is not at all the scariest game out there, it means I might not be cut out for horror video games… yet.
As soon as horror films and regular video game boss fights stop making me sweat, I’ll try Silent Hill.