"I'm Alan Wake, and I'm a writer" narrates the eponymous protagonist before a sweeping camera shot showcases Bright Falls, roughly thirty minutes before he starts exploding the town's shadow-covered inhabitants with a combination of torchlight and plenty of bullets. Crikey. In my experience the lifestyle of a writer involves being able to have a nap on command and spending hours every day worrying about whether or not you'll ever be seeing another paycheck.
Like me, Alan is having trouble finishing a novel. Unlike me, Alan is a famous author who can't even take a vacation to a sleepy old fashioned town without bumping into a life-sized cardboard cut-out of himself. Stopping off in the town's diner to pick up the key for his cabin retreat, you encounter an adoring waitress, a cop who recommends you try the heavenly coffee and a creepy lady staring into the shadows who warns that "you can hurt yourself in the dark". Something is rotten in Bright Falls, and Remedy do a fine job crafting a country town with something clearly disturbed lurking around the corner with these brief opening sequences before everything starts going batty.
The creepy woman's warning is a reminder of how the contrast between light and dark is central to the game. Alan uses an improvised arsenal of light-emitting items - his torch, a flare gun, some flashbang grenades - and regenerates his health by standing under any street lights he comes across, but he's a flawed character whose psyche is almost as murky as the mysterious shadowy ink consuming the town's inhabitants. He's distant from others, plagued by nightmares and detached socially from his loving wife and professionally from his literary agent, and hopes to fix all his issues with a brief sojourn to the idyllic countryside. It all goes to pot when he discovers his wife has smuggled a typewriter into their cabin and storms off minutes before his holiday home is attacked by something unknown.
Then it all goes a little bit creepy. He wakes up a week later in a car, with a nasty head wound, unable to remember anything that's transpired since the cabin was attacked. The town's now been possessed good and proper, and its many inhabitants are absolutely determined to chop him up into little bits. Searching for his missing wife, Alan starts to realise the spooky events unfolding are eerily similar to an unfinished novel of his and begins to find manuscript pages scattered around the environment that predict, with pinpoint accuracy, what's around the corner.
The game makes a big deal out of its usage of atmosphere and dialog. "We tip our hats to some of the greats", says Remedy's Head of Franchise Development Oskari 'Ozz' Hakkinen, with David Lynch and Stephen King obvious influences - Alan himself makes a passing reference to The Shining when attacked by an axe-wielding maniac. When the dialog gets a little adverb-happy, though, it's hard not to get a fleeting whiff of Garth Marenghi's Darkplace.
It's billed as a "psychological action thriller" but there's more than a few moments of comic relief scattered about, most of them likely to come from Alan's agent Barry, who kits himself out for fighting the nasties of the dark by wrapping himself in Christmas lights and donning a miner's headlamp. Alan Wake inherits some of the kitschy schmaltz of Max Payne's narrative, although it's been toned down considerably and now strikes a neat balance between strong drama and light-hearted entertainment.
Ozz explains how controlling the drama is integral to the game, and how the team at Remedy ramp up tension by making the player "find that 'okay, I've seen this somewhere else' and what happens with that is it resonates really well, and you can't quite put your finger on it why you're scared or what emotions it is pulling out of you but you've seen it somewhere else." There might be a heavy emphasis on action, but it definitely isn't Max Payne with a slower run speed and less ammo.
Remedy also reference Lost, specifically in its ability to create a tight narrative and liberal use of cliffhangers. The team have cut the game into 'episodes', with the whole game making up 'season one', heavily implying there's already a season two on the cards. "Like any season of a TV series", explains Ozz, "we'll have a satisfactory and conclusive ending. But we've always thought of Alan Wake to be a larger story than just the one game. It's been a long development process of five years, so it just makes sense for us to make a larger story out of this." And what about the DLC? "Think of the DLC as like, if we talk TV series terminology, kind of like specials. You could have a Christmas special."
There's a lot going on in the background, but at its core Alan Wake is as much a love letter to recognisable gameplay tropes as a classic thriller: in the first episode Alan turns on machinery by playing a little minigame, defends himself whilst waiting for an elevator and fends off enemies with an impromptu spotlight turret. It's slow paced, and enemies can hack Alan to pieces with just a couple of swings, but he controls well and can dispatch foes from a distance with relative ease. The average possessed villager need to have their shield burned off with your torch before being reduced to dust with a couple of well-placed bullet shots, which creates a steady gameplay rhythm alongside a dazzling on-screen lightshow. Like Resident Evil 4 and Dead Space, it's all about thinning the ranks of enemies down before they can get up close and personal and do some real damage.
The first episode has Alan trying to elude a crazed axe-murderer in a forest. Alan starts his trek at the top of a hill, complete with a gorgeous shot of the entire forest, and the game fools you into thinking you can explore the lush foliage in any direction. You can't. It's an entirely prescribed linear path, but this is no negative design decision. The action is well paced, with rising tension leading into heavy combat, and entertaining set-pieces. In one section Alan tries to hide in a mobile cabin at a building site but is quickly forced to flee as his pursuer drives a JCB into the hiding place. The villagers might be possessed, but they've still got their wits about them.
There's only one thing that doesn't make any sense. There's an abundance of blatant product placement for Energizer-branded lithium batteries, but Alan needs to insert new ones every thirty seconds. Somebody in Bright Falls must have been swapping them with the dodgy packs of fifty you get for a quid from market stalls. I doubt we'll ever find the answer to this real mystery.
Dodgy placement aside, there's plenty of atmosphere to soak up. But what about people who'll just power through blissfully ignorant of these detailed environments? "Everybody has different consumption methods", says Ozz. "We know that we can't control how people consume. I think a lot of people will play it the way it's meant to be played and, because we've made the exploration content feel very compelling, that people will be excited." I certainly am, as the first episode (and the hands-on demo) ends with a massive cliffhanger. Damnit.
Our thanks to Oskari for happily answering our questions. Alan Wake will be released for 360 on 11th May 2010.