When Finnish game developer Remedy Entertainment announced it was turning in wronged NYPD cop Max Payne's badge and gun, only to pick up mystery writer Alan Wake's uh, pen ... and hoodie ... it was clear something was different. Over the game's prolonged five-year development cycle, Alan Wake morphed from an open-world, sandbox-style game set in the Pacific Northwest's fictional town of Bright Falls to a carefully scripted, episodic creation that had more in common with Twin Peaks than Grand Theft Auto.
That reference to Twin Peaks – one of television's first long-form, serialized dramas and also set, uncoincidentally, in a fictional Washington town – can't be escaped. Alan Wake wears its influences on its tweed, elbow-patched sleeve. Other key ingredients in the game's fictional stew: the episodic series (and Twin Peaks inheritor) Lost coupled with, let's call it the "aesthetic" of, Stephen King. You play the role of Alan Wake, famed mystery novelist and great husband ... or is that failed mystery novelist and selfish, egomaniacal husband? Regardless, Alan travels to Bright Falls with the Mrs. to help him overcome a bad case of writer's block. With the seasonal Deerfest rapidly approaching, it's a busy time of year in Bright Falls ... but that's not all that's weird. People are disappearing, Alan's wife has gone missing, and that cabin they're staying in? Yeah, turns out it's been gone for years.
It might help if we didn't think about the game's six unique "episodes" (and don't forget those two downloadable episodes!) as parts of a TV show but instead thought of them as something else: Chapters in a book. Indeed, the structure of a novel – especially the pulp murder mysteries that the titular Alan Wake created before that whole writer's block thing – is episodic by nature. Just as you would call Lost and Twin Peaks novelistic, so too is Alan Wake. As each chapter ... err, episode ends, punctuated by a song plucked from its exceptional soundtrack (Nick Cave? David Bowie?), you feel yourself being pulled deeper into Alan's nightmare.
Alan Wake isn't all about its novel (and novelistic) story, however. Threaded throughout all of that is a great game! The core mechanic of using light adds a surprising amount of depth to the shooting. Like a good survival horror game, much of Alan Wake's combat is reliant on resource management. Do you have enough flares? Batteries? Distance between yourself and enemies? And if so, do you have enough bullets? The environments – much like Alan's own mind – are claustrophobic. Enemies materialize all around you, literally pouring out of the darkness. The simple "darkness as shield" mechanic layers strategy over action, punctuated by quiet moments of exploration in the creepy, small town of Bright Falls.
Considering its open-world lineage, it should come as little surprise that Bright Falls is as much a character as Mr. Wake. But instead of a free-roaming city, Remedy has contorted it into a series of linear (no, that's not a bad word!) levels featuring some of the most creative level designs this writer's ever seen. How about Episode 4's climactic rock concert set on a stage in the middle of a field, replete with pyrotechnics to keep the advancing horde of Taken at bay? What, you didn't know there were two crazy brothers who took their band, Children of the Elder God, to the town of Bright Falls to be closer to the dark presence there? Or what about the cabin that spins a full 360 degrees with you in it? Oh, and it's floating in an invisible lake, boats, buoys, and all.
As an outlet for fantastic (and often fantastical) level design and incredible set pieces, Alan Wake excels with such rapidity and frequency, it's almost as unnerving as the tale being told. And if all of this sounds a little strange to you, then you'll understand why it's no surprise that audiences failed to find Alan on their own dark journeys (to the store). But those who did enjoyed one of the most cinematic, novelistic, and episodic games ever made and, I think I speak for that group when I say, we're all hoping it gets picked up for a second season.
Joystiq is revealing its 10 favorite games of 2010 throughout the week! Stay tuned for more must-play picks, and take heed as each staffer stands atop a soapbox to defend those games that didn't quite make the cut. Saw 2 came out this year, you know.