The Best Book I Ever Played
I really like Alan Wake. The game, not the dude. Although the dude’s all right. I mean, the game’s about him. But dammit, I’m not even out of the first paragraph and I’m getting sidetracked.
I just played through all of Alan Wake again, because it’s just a good time. For those of you not familiar, it’s a horror action game with shooting and flashlights. Okay, that probably just confused you even more if you didn’t know about the game already. So let’s take things slow….baby.
In Alan Wake, you play as the title character, an author who is experiencing a bit of writer’s block. His wife decides to take him on a vacation so he can relax, get away from distractions, and maybe even get a bit of writing done. Unfortunately, her vacation spot of choice happens to be on a lake that’s just brimming with evil. Like, 10% water, 84% evil, 6% fish. The fish are also evil. Well, presumably. Anyways, things happen, I don’t really want to get TOO into the story for the sake of avoiding major spoilers, but you end up crashing your car, getting out and finding yourself trapped in a forest at night. Well, that’s not good!
And it gets even worse when you start getting attacked by weird shadowy dudes. And it starts to get weird when you start finding pages from a manuscript you supposedly wrote, which write about things that have yet to occur. And they always seem to be right. Well, either you’re just the best damn writer in the world, or things are weeeeeird. Spoiler alert, it’s the latter. So you wander around trying to figure out where your wife is, why that shadowy jerk with the axe seems to have a problem with you, and how to get back to town. Mind you, this is just the opening to the story. It gets a lot more in-depth, a lot weirder, and a lot more awesome as it progresses. The story itself is divided up into six episodes, plus two bonus “specials”. Each episode has these manuscript pages scattered throughout it, plus more of those shadow jerks who are out to ruin your good time (and your nice tweed jacket).
The story plays out like a book. Which makes sense, because you’re a writer, and you’re finding manuscript pages. There are times when Alan will narrate what’s going on, and it’s very well written. If this whole thing was a book, I would read it, and enjoy it. But thankfully, it’s a game instead, so we get to experience it more intimately, by putting yourself right into the action and the mystery. This game is the sort of thing that makes me very, very happy, just that it exists. I’ve always believed that video games are the perfect medium for story-telling, and this game is a great example. This could easily be a book or a movie, but I feel that it would lose a lot of what makes it great if it was forced into either of those roles. But I’m rambling a bit. The point is, it plays out like a horror book, complete with loads of metaphors that would make Adam Thomas proud. And yes, that’s what crossed my mind when I was going through it. Shut up.
But just having a great story doesn’t make the game good. Without a good engine and well-built gameplay mechanics, the whole thing would fall short. And that would just be wasted potential. It’s always a shame when a good idea is brought down by poor implementation. But thankfully, Alan Wake is not victim to this issue. Phew. The controls can be a little clunky at times, namely when attempting to perform cinematic dodges to avoid your foes, but aside from that I never had any issues. And…I won’t lie, most of my cinematic dodges were frantically performed while running away from the enemy, so that could be a part of it.
So the iconic image of this game is the silhouette of Alan Wake carrying a flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. That alone shows you what a good chunk of this game is going to be like. You’re going to spend a lot of time in the dark, shining your flashlight left and right, looking for something to shoot, or for hidden messages painted around the town that only appear under the light. Which makes me wonder why people don’t see that shit during the day and wonder where these arrows are going. But plotholes be damned.
Every enemy you come across in the game is going to be covered in a cloak of moving shadows, shielding them from your bullets, fists, and hurtful words. But thankfully, you’re armed with a flashlight. Or flares. Or a flaregun. Or flashbang grenades. Each of which can cut through those shadows like a very, very bright knife. Once their shields are gone, bang bang bang. That means you shoot them. And then they burst into flames, their bodies disappearing right before your eyes! I love it when enemies disappear after you kill them. None of that guilt that comes with a big bloated corpse sitting there staring up at you with those dead eyes. Except in games where you can interact with the corpses, then I’m okay with them. I can’t tell you how many corpses I dragged around in Fallout 3 from place to place, or put in funny poses. Good times.
So you wander around in the dark a lot, going from forests to town to a lakeside lodge to a farmhouse and other such things. Everywhere you go, you uncover more and more of the story, and try not to get brutally murdered.
The game has a really neat atmosphere, as well. Everything works together to make it creepy as hell, and you never know when and where enemies will be popping up, or when the next hidden cache of weapons will be. Some times I was overloaded with ammunition and flares, other times I was running around screaming like a little girl (yes, me, the player) trying to avoid getting chopped to pieces because I didn’t want to use the last of my shotgun ammunition in case something big and unpleasant popped up. Now, this being my second time through the game, this run through I had a much better idea of when I was going to be stripped of my firearms, so I didn’t feel the need to ration myself quite so much, but my first time through the game I mostly just used my pistol on everything, and then became sad when the episode came to an end and I lost my half-dozen flare gun shots. But then, I’ve always been one to hoard all of my ammunition in video games. And then you get to that obligatory point where they take everything away from you and force you to start again with nothing, and then I yell at the cat, because it can’t yell back.
Okay, I’ve gotten a little sidetracked. Did I mention that Alan Wake has AWESOME shadow effects? Because yeah, it does. Which is pretty important, if the majority of your game is going to be based around shadows and flashlights and the like. When I was playing through it this time, when I felt relatively safe, I would sometimes just wander around shining my light on things and observing the shadows created by it. This, of course, has one MAJOR weakness that I simply cannot overlook. There was no combination of buttons that allowed me to make little shadow puppets with my hand. I mean, yeah, I would have had to put the gun down to do it, but sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your art.
But yes. Shadows. Flashlight. Manuscript. Story.
I’m going to launch into a bit of a spoilerish part now and discuss a couple aspects of the story, so I apologize for that. If you are not interested in reading that, skip ahead and I’ll end my spoiler with a picture of a bear. So when you see the bear, you know you are safe to read again. At which point I’ll probably briefly discuss the semi-sequel, American Nightmare.
Okay. So, in this game it turns out that this place, Cauldron Lake, is home to something evil. Think Old God, think something like Cthulhu but with less tentacles (I hope). It uses the creative power of…well, creative people. Authors, musicians, poets, painters, that sort of thing. It warps their creation, breathes life into it. It steals Alan’s wife and forces him to write it a manuscript, which starts to turn more and more into a horror story about darkness taking over the world. It uses those words, imbued with its evil power, to alter reality and make these things start to happen. Which is why when you find a manuscript page, you know that whatever you find is something that is coming up. Often it serves as an early-warning system, if you can find the pages in time. But that’s the basic story. Evil thing takes wife, makes you write a story that starts coming true, but you manage to write an escape into your story and get out to try to defeat the evil of the lake and save your wife. And the story goes from there. And you get into some pretty zany misadventures. Pretty much the best moment of the game is when you head to the farm of two crazy old rockers interned in a mental clinic of sorts. They used to be big heavy metal musicians, but of course were influenced by the dark presence within the lake. When you reach their farm, you find the stage where they apparently used to have concerts, complete with a giant fire-breathing dragon, fireworks everywhere, and a kickass sound system.
So you spend a bit of time there fighting to heavy metal music, defending the stage from the shadowy creatures while fireworks are going off left and right, stage lights are melting things, and all sorts of madness. It’s pretty damn epic.
But yeah, that’s the sort of basic story. Time for a bear picture, just in case anyone didn’t want spoilers.
RAWR BEAR. Theoretically once I have edited this, there is a bear picture in there now. Because awesome.
Before I touch on American Nightmare, I did want to give a proper shout-out to Alan Wake for having a really enjoyable companion character. Barry, I love you man. He’s a fat little sarcastic dude who happens to be Alan Wake’s agent, and he accompanies you for parts of the game. He’s not the most useful companion character gaming has produced, but he is damn entertaining. And even playing through the game the second time, I still got a good laugh out of Barry. Just wanted to give him an honourable mention here, since he came close to be used as an example on my companion character article I put up a few months ago.
But now the sequel. It’s not a real sequel, it’s a much smaller game that takes place in a more limited area. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare was released as an Xbox Live Arcade title, with a PC version coming about three months later. Oh, on that note, Alan Wake was originally only on consoles, but fans successfully got them to port it over to PC, where they managed to recoup most if not all of their development costs for the port on just the first weekend. Mostly thanks to Steam.
Though it’s not a proper sequel, Remedy Entertainment has said that they are not yet done with the Alan Wake franchise, so there is definitely hope for something more in the future. And thankfully when they release a smaller game, they give it a smaller price tag. American Nightmare is only fifteen bucks, which is quite a difference compared to a normal full release. Right now, Alan Wake is available on Steam for thirty bucks.
Anyways, American Nightmare continues where Alan Wake left off. Well, to be precise it continues where the “specials” left off. Without getting into too much, you’re hunting an evil version of yourself, because evil twins or clones or whatever are awesome. You go around shooting shadow dudes and exploring the three various maps, which you end up going back to a few times each. So there’s not as large a world as the main game to wander around in, but that’s okay, because this game works pretty well for itself.
Also very notable in this game, Alan has abandoned his signature jacket in exchange for a plaid shirt. As someone whose wardrobe consists of 80% plaid dress shirts, I wholeheartedly approve.
This game is a lot more combat-oriented. Ammo is now much less of an issue, because ammo boxes are scattered more generously around the map, and there are a few ammo supply caches that straight-up refill all of your ammo. So you spend a lot less time worrying about running low on ammo. Plus there are more weapons. In the first game, you always had your pistol, and you had your choice between a double-barrelled shotgun, a pump-action shotgun, or a hunting rifle. And then the flare gun. Those were your guns. In this one, there’s a submachine gun, a nail gun, two different pistols, hunting rifle, assault rifle, shotgun, sawed off shotgun, combat shotgun, and maybe another gun or two I didn’t bump into. So you get more options, which is nice when you’re going around shooting dudes.
The combat also flows a lot better this time around, I found. Which is good, because this game is a lot more built towards it. It focusses less on the atmosphere, although it still manages to give off a creepy vibe. I didn’t get as many scares out of this game, but I still had a good time shooting dudes.
Also, every other character you talk to that isn’t your evil clone thing? Is a pretty lady. I know, right? It’s like this game was built just for me! Guns, pretty ladies, and monsters! Just my sort of thing.
Despite being smaller than the base game, American Nightmare also manages to feature a bunch of new enemies that didn’t pop up in the first game. Which is a big benefit for a game that centers around the combat. The freakiest one, by far is the bird dudes. That shit freaked me right out.
Also, the cutscenes in the game are stellar. Just great. It uses actual actors and a melding of CGI and live-action stuff, which ends up looking really, really good. I mean, remember when video games used to try to do stuff like that? It generally looked just…just awful. And then it was pretty much given up, as far as I’m aware. But here it’s done, and it’s done well. The actor who plays Alan Wake does a great job, especially when portraying his evil self. There are a lot of spots in the game that have televisions set up, and you can use them to see a little pre-recorded of your evil twin dude doing…well, evil things. It’s what evil twins do. And it looks awesome.
The game also includes an arcade mode where you’re dropped in a small area (the first one that I played was a graveyard) and try to survive for ten minutes. Score multipliers, weapons, points, all those things that arcade modes in video games have. I tried it out briefly, and it was pretty fun, considering the varying enemy types, the different weapons, and the improved combat system from the first game.
But I’ve rambled enough for now, I suppose. So I’ll end this post by saying that right now, at the time of this writing, Alan Wake is on sale on Steam for 75% off. The whole franchise, including the first game, collector’s edition extras (including the soundtrack and oh man is the soundtrack good), and American Nightmare, is only ten bucks. Definitely well worth the price, in my oh-so-humble opinion. And on sale all weekend, until Monday.
Have you played Alan Wake? Did you like it? Did you hate it? Do you just want somebody to talk to? Leave a comment and help me justify spending almost twenty hours playing these games in the last week!