Saturday, January 5, 2013

Alan Wake - A Psychological Action Thriller

It was December 25, 2012, otherwise known as Christmas. On that morning beside the tree, I happily opened my presents and got some nice surprises, although the presence of a wishlist beforehand had ensured that I received certain things that I had asked for. Some of these gifts would turn out to be video games, each designed to work with their own system. As I tore the wrapping paper from one rectangular object, I took a good look at the artwork visible from the green box's plastic. There was a black background, and aside from the usual bugs, I could see the logo formed the words Alan Wake. Light seemed to shine through the words, a forest and mountain range visible in the background of the image. The hole in the title's third "A" was replaced with a man, flashlight and gun in hand, presumably the titular Alan Wake. Above this, a phrase reading "A Psychological Action Thriller" was emblazoned on the cover, completing the atmospheric box art. In that moment, I had a feeling my experience would be different from other games I played.

Since I was still playing Metal Gear Solid 2 at the time, I felt unsure of when I would begin playing Alan Wake, but surely enough, I had finished and reviewed it within the following week. Looking for something new to play, I considered some options based on my feelings at this point in time. Out of curiosity, and looking for a break from the stealth genre, I decided on Alan Wake. Shortly after, I unwrapped the plastic and removed a rather annoying security sticker, though I nicked the disc art slightly in the process; I suppose I wasn't being too careful at the time, but I learned my lesson there. Within moments, I popped the game disc into my Xbox 360 and turned on my controller. At the game's title screen, after I waited to see the animation loop, I pressed Start and began a new game.

The game began distinctly with an opening narration where Alan Wake introduced himself as a writer whilst quoting Stephen King. It then transitioned to the first game play sequence, in which Alan was having a nightmare involving a character he killed off in one of his books. As Alan confronted this horror, an orb of pure light showed up to assist him, giving him the necessary tools to fight it off. This turn of events intrigued me, so I did as prompted in what I would recognize as the tutorial, a prelude for what was to come. Continuing forward, I was able to pick up the game's unique and intuitive mechanics with ease, watching as it came to an end with the urgent need to outrun a vicious and unusual cyclone. I felt tension and ran as fast as possible toward the brightly lit exit.

Alan then awoke from his nightmare on a small ferry, his spouse Alice Wake standing outside the car. I watched as he got out of his car and learned that the two were on their way to Bright Falls, WA to take a vacation, mainly to give Alan time away from the limelight. However, peace would not come to him so easily as a conversation was initiated with the only other man on the ferry, going by the name of Pat Maine, a man who owned a radio station. He asked Alan about the possibility of an interview, but after having it shot down, Pat decided to respect the writer's privacy, although he still offered one up should he change his mind. Alan's policy of silence was also driven home as he answered a call from his agent, Barry Wheeler. What really stood out to me during the cut scenes on the ferry was that the audio seemed out of sync with people's mouths. I hoped at the moment that this would be a one time occurrence, which was quickly proven correct.

After finally leaving the ferry, Alan went to a local diner to get a key for the place he was to stay at. Getting a feel for the town of Bright Falls, I explored as much as I could of this diner, beginning with a conversation Wake had with an employee, Rose. Rose revealed that she was a big fan of the artist's work, his identity confirmed due to a standee advertising his latest book, entitled The Sudden Stop, placed near the door by Barry. Alan humorously expressed annoyance, after which I pressed on, activating a jukebox at the request of an old man. When the machine malfunctioned, I gave it a whack, after which the vinyl was placed onto a spot in the machine and the needle entered its grooves. Suddenly, a song began to play audibly over the speaker system, a familiar tune which could add an element of lightheartedness to any situation and drive away the darkest demons: Coconut by Harry Nilsson. With this song now in my head, I wandered toward the back to continue the plot, where I encountered an elderly woman who seemed very afraid of the darkness near the bathrooms. Ignoring her warnings, I went to the men's room to try and find Carl Stucky to get a room key. However, a woman dressed entirely in black confronted Alan instead, informing him that Carl was deceased, handing him a key to a cabin on Cauldron Lake. Believing I had accomplished my goal, I proceeded to exit the diner, being stopped briefly by a ranger talking about how the town behaves around Deerfest, which was to come up in two weeks time. After this detour, I left and watched as Alan drove off with Alice to Cauldron Lake to start their vacation. Then, my heart sank when I saw a man briefly run out of the diner after the car. He was clutching a motel room key for Alan Wake. Carl Stucky was still alive.

I watched as Alan arrived at his cabin and controlled him as he crossed the bridge over the lake. It turned out that the power was out, so I walked over to a generator and completed a mini-game where pressing A in the green portion of a spinning flywheel a number of times would start it up. After looking around a little more, I headed back inside and explored every possible area I could. One of the points of interest turned out to be a box of books that had already been on a table. They were all written by Thomas Zane, a name that I was sure would become important later on. I also took the time to grab an innocuous coffee thermos in the kitchen. Outside the cabin there was a porch overlooking the lake, with stairs leading downward to a wooden dock. On the porch itself I found a radio and turned it on. Pat Maine's radio show came from the speakers, where he had a caller on the phone; this let me know it was a call-in show. The person on the line was none other than Rose, who revealed that Alan Wake showed up in Bright Falls, much to his annoyance. After exploring the dock, I went back inside and headed upstairs.

Up in Alan's room, a cut scene played out in which he discovered that Alice had set up a typewriter under the impression that he might want to get some writing done while he was there. Upset from this turn of events, since Barry tried to convince him to write as well, he walked out for some fresh air, only to hear Alice scream from within the cabin. He rushed inside to help her, only to find that she had ended up in the depths of the lake. In desperation, Alan jumped into the unknown darkness and the screen faded to black. When the view once again became clear, I watched him wake up in his car as it dangled over a cliff, bleeding from a single cut on his head. Wishing to find out more, I began the objective of getting to a gas station to try and call for help. At some point along the way, another cut scene unfolded in which a large stack of paper flew by Alan, a single page smacking him in the face as the rest flew off and scattered. Alan read off the title: Departure by Alan Wake. He could not recall writing such a manuscript, but after reading the first true page, felt something stranger about it. This feeling manifested itself within me, one of both foreshadowing and dread. I had to press on.

Soon, I encountered an enemy similar to one from the opening dream sequence. It was a man, or at least the lifeless husk of one. Shadows appeared to surround the figure, but very quickly it became evident by the way he acted and spoke that the shadows had taken full possession of the body as though it were an empty vessel into which it could pour its essence. I aimed my flashlight at the threat, removing its defenses so that I could put a couple rounds in its chest with my revolver. The enemy disappeared in an instant, no longer able to cloak itself with the shadows. Continuing onward, I encountered more of these possessed bodies, which acquired knowledge would call Taken. While the forest yielded more Taken over time, it also housed points of light known as Safe Havens. At each Safe Haven along my journey, I replenished my lost health and found some conveniently placed ammunition and batteries. Though their reality came into question, I grabbed them anyway, hoping they would make my trip to the gas station much easier.

At some point during my trip, I wandered through a construction yard and noticed a yellow arrow in the light. It seemed to exist through a special paint property, for only the light would allow its visibility. Curious, I followed it as more made themselves known to me. These arrows stopped at a chest, where now a light sensitive drawing of what resembled a circled torch lay above a physical chest. Opening the chest, I discovered more helpful items, which I would later put to good use fending off Taken. As I retraced my path to exit the site, I noticed more light sensitive markings, but this time in the form of writing. Though I couldn't remember what it read, the fact that these markings were there at all implied some mystery that might solve itself later on. Intrigued, I looked for more of these writings on my way to the station.

I know that at this point I'm recalling the events of my journey to the gas station out of order, so I apologize to whoever may be reading this account. However, while I generally know what I saw, I simply can't remember the exact order of events. In this case, I ask you to please bear with me, for soon enough it shall all become clear.

Along the ever winding path, I also managed to pick up a few more pages from the manuscript for Departure. As Alan Wake read them aloud, I found myself mystified by their contents. I wondered to myself if these could contain some knowledge of the future, for they seemed to describe events that had yet to transpire. Eventually, the collection of these pages took on a sort of addicting quality, each supernatural text quenching my thirst for the arcane knowledge of what was to come.

After enough time had passed, I finally reached my destination. The strong lights of the gas station were comforting, as I finally felt safe from the legions of Taken that had tried to encumber my path. One of the first things I noticed was a sign advertising Deerfest. Alan observed the sign, describing that it acknowledged the festival as being only a week away. Recalling how long ago he had arrived, he came to a dark and grim realization: somehow, he had not only been in Bright Falls for a week already, but he had no memory of that week before waking up in the car crash. The situation was further complicated when, in the station, Alan found himself on a nearby television. The footage displayed consisted entirely of himself in his Cauldron Lake cabin rambling on about writing Departure. The shock of this strange turn of events reverberated beyond the screen, both to Alan and to myself.

From there, the situation escalated twice, once when I was forced to fight a possessed Carl Stucky and again when the police arrived on the scene. The officer that stepped out of the car was Sheriff Sarah Breaker, who had been sent to investigate Alan's disappearance. The scene that played out was one I remembered reading in the manuscript; Alan wanted to explain his situation, but left out a lot of the details to avoid being sent to an asylum, thus losing track of Alice. To satiate Alan's pleas, as well as his insistence of its existence, Sheriff Breaker drove him over to Cauldron Lake so he could get to his cabin. However, upon arrival, a new reality presented himself, one which I would spend the rest of the game trying to understand. It turned out that there was no cabin on Cauldron Lake, because the island it was situated on never existed.

Thus concluded Episode One of Alan Wake, coupled with a song that seemed very apropos. With a sense of mystery and an interesting plot to kick things off, I continued the game as soon as I could.

With each new Episode of the game I played, more mysteries were answered and introduced, but in a way that made me curious to find out more about what exactly was going on. I also found more manuscript pages to help enlighten me, their contents growing more and more prophetic while also filling in the blanks on what happened whenever Alan wasn't there. As I witnessed the plot thicken and the twists resolve themselves, things started to make more and more sense, or at least as far as the context of the universe would allow. What helped was understanding that the Dark Presence at Cauldron Lake turns all art into reality, regardless of their medium. However, I still had a hard time understanding exactly what happened at the end, though I think I'll write about that later on here. I'd prefer not to gloss over something else as I write this log.

Over time, I witnessed the Dark Presence grow ever stronger, which seemed to influence the Taken as well. They took advantage of their surroundings well, ambushing me in ways that I couldn't expect. Fortunately I was able to find the right tools to help me fight them off. Light was my greatest weapon, and my handheld sources only improved with time. I also found plenty of weapons to complement it and destroy the Taken, but strangely I found myself sticking with my revolver most of the time. There was plenty of ammo anyway and batteries came to me with ease.

My surroundings themselves were able to heavily influence my emotions. For the first three Episodes, I braved my way through the large, dense forest. The towering trees and blanketing veil of night made me feel as though I were exploring the vein of nature. As the thick fog ebbed and flowed through every nook and cranny, I only felt the need to run as fast and as often as possible. When the fourth episode rolled around however I began to notice a more open and varied expanse, the world of Bright Falls itself. My encounters with the Taken did not cease, the Dark Presence learning it could also contaminate the lifeless souls of inanimate objects like metallic puppets hurled by a particularly pissed off puppeteer. Many gates and vehicles stood in my way as I tried to reach my goal. Though guns proved ineffective against them, my flashlight and flares ended up having the most effect, since they outright eliminated these obstacles.

As I played through the fourth episode, I made my way to the Anderson farm. Beforehand, I learned that Odin and Tor Anderson were part of a rock group called Old Gods of Asgard and that their farm may hold the key to defeat the Dark Presence. In the middle of the field was an elaborate stage construction, which showed they really didn't half-ass their Norse imagery. When Alan stood on stage, Taken attacked both him and Barry, who became increasingly involved with the story, who triggered the stage and activated the impressive pyrotechnics to hold them off. Children of the Elder God played as I ran around collecting ammo and destroying Taken. At that moment, I was sold on the stage being one of the best parts of the game I had played up to that point.

After a very intense and involving play session, I finally started to get some light shed on the lingering mysteries through Episodes Five and Six. I became amazed at just how many characters from the opening had become important over this period, and one in particular filled me in on the man named Thomas Zane. Armed with the knowledge I received as well as what Alan had discovered about him through the manuscript, I started to truly get confused. As the confusion settled in, I thought back on a Penny Arcade strip I had read in the past. In this strip, Gabe, an artist, was cursing out Tycho, a writer, for suggesting that Alan Wake had a good story. In the second of three consecutive panels, Gabe boiled down the game to a simple sentence that I now finally began to understand the significance of. With apologies to Penny Arcade, I recall that he said "Alan Wake is about a writer writing about another writer who's writing about himself and another f***ing writer!" It was only at this point that the statement made sense to me, though I shan't recount exactly how; it was enough of a mind screw to just think about it.

When I watched the end credits roll down my television screen, I thought back on how I felt about my time with Alan Wake. I thought about how Remedy seemed to do a really good job building and maintaining an atmosphere that felt genuinely scary, relentlessly setting its sights on the brain instead of the heart. It didn't seem to go for shock value, which I liked, and the way writing got involved in the story was interesting. Having to use light as a weapon really changed things up a bit from other games and proposed unique challenges. Collecting thermoses encouraged exploration and introduced a mildly addicting element to an already immersive experience. One touch I also recalled liking was the televisions that could be found all over, some of them playing episodes of a show called Night Springs, a sort of thinly veiled reference to The Twilight Zone. It felt cheesy, yet added to the atmosphere and related to my task at hand. I also liked the implementation of music into the game, with radios and Episode endings playing music relevant to what was going on. If anything, I felt that my only real complaint would have been that the default difficulty felt a little easier than it should have been, though once I considered the accuracy of an analog stick versus a computer mouse, it made just a little more sense.

With the Title Screen now in front of my eyes, I recognized just who Alan Wake would appeal to the most. I decided on those who like their games with a psychological spin or those who are willing to try out an original story with unique combat; maybe even prospective writers like myself. I also felt that maybe action and horror purists would be turned off, but those willing to meet halfway should get a copy when they can.

Gathering my thoughts, I redeemed a code I had and began downloading Alan Wake's first DLC, The Signal, eager to continue exploring the mysterious story behind Bright Falls and make sense out of the ending. Once the download finished, I sat before my laptop and began to type what would become my review of Alan Wake.

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