Xbox 360 (PEGI 16)
Alan Wake is a survival horror adventure on the Xbox
360. You control Wake, an ill-fated writer, as he journeys into the
collapsing nether-world of his imagination. If this doesn't sound
like your cup of tea, hold judgement a moment as I felt just the
same before playing.
My sensitivity to horror films usually makes me steer clear of
them. Since watching The Thing at an early age and being
left with a variety of alien-like nightmares, horror usually seems
like too much emotional hard work for too little gain.
However, Alan Wake quite unexpectedly became a
cathartic experience for me. Unlike watching a film, being in
control meant that I could dictate the pace and direction of each
unsettling scenario. Furthermore, because the game-world exists as
a whole, rather than as discreet levels, it became a familiar space
in which I felt safe enough to engage my fears.
On the surface Alan Wake appears to be about the thin line
between creativity and insanity. It works hard to be more than a
derivative excuse for shooting and decapitation. A narrative
conceit has the player, as Wake, trapped in a story he is the
writer of, and must escape by mustering up the nerve and clear
thinking to write a suitable resolution to the horrors thus ending
the nightmare. To do this he faces various locals (the "taken") who
are possessed by dark spirits that must be freed using his
flashlight before being dispatched with his shot-gun -- the
contradiction in these actions passing unnoticed.
However, underpinning this pulp-horror fiction is something much
more interesting -- the landscape in which you play. Through a
peculiarity of development Alan Wake isn't a game any developer
would set out to make - it's an open world experience that only
grants access to as much of that world as is required by the
narrative. Under normal circumstances this would be a huge waste,
since much of the effort invested in the world will never be seen
by the player.
Remedy Entertainment's long gestation with Alan Wake
started out as an open world game you could explore at will. Some
time later, after much of the open world work was completed, it was
narrowed down to a directed experience more in vogue with modern
This strange provenance gives Alan Wake a unique sense
of place. When playing the game you can see your next destination
in the distance getting slowly closer. The agony and fear of safety
within sight but just out of reach is effective because these
distances actually exist in the game's geography.
Your path is directed through forests, roads and valleys. But
again, because it was initially an open world game you can stray
from the path should you wish, without being forced back on track.
The fear of being lost in the landscape feels ever present because
you really can go astray.
While this all adds to the foreboding, more interestingly it
also mitigates against it. The real geography of Alan Wake
connects every encounter to the world around you in the game. Not
only can you progress at your own speed but also make creative use
of your surroundings -- shelter, circumnavigation, concealment and
high ground. Unlike a horror film where the viewer is captive to
the director's lens, here you are able to take charge of both pace
and direction. You can get to know the world in intimate detail and
grow to rely on its consistency.
The valleys, lakes and forests steadily underwrite the story
with a sense of perspective. Much like the deserts, mountains and
seas of the biblical narrative the land of Alan Wake
quietly suggests everything will be alright the morning after, or
when the promise of the destination is reached.
Underneath its pulp-horror, Alan Wake is a fascinating
study of how landscape functions in our psyche. Even in the thick
woods of the dark unravelling night hope is present in the very
locations we are running through. Stripped of other securities we
discover that the wild is in fact our companion rather than our
adversary. Things aren't permanently dark because of the ongoing
nature of the world in which we play.
It's here that the main story of Alan Wake works in
tandem with its environment. As Wake finally manages to get his
psyche under control, to face his personal fears, the world around
him also falls into its proper place and shape. Even as we find
safety and refuge for Wake in the mountains and canyons, he finds
the strength to cling on to his sanity in the overrun woodland
paths of his inner terrain.
I had expected Alan Wake to be an interactive horror
film. Although it does use filmic techniques to shock and frighten
the player, what stays with you is the Pacific Northwest landscape
that wraps around you like a warm blanket while you run for your