Chill Box is where we relax and talk about video games and film from the distant past. There's a lot of cool stuff out there the younger generation have yet to experience or even heard about.
How meta is this: a writer writing about a writer who wrote about himself?
Recently removed from Steam and GOG for music licensing reasons, 2010's Alan Wake was Remedy Entertainment's love letter to all things Americana. After previously working on the dumb-faced Max Payne, the Finnish studio released this game (that spent five years in development, no less) which sought to make use of the then new Xbox 360's capabilities.The Finnish-ed (heh) product was a title so inhumanly cheesy that you'd think it was written 50 years ago. This doesn't mean that Alan Wake is bad; it just makes it an acquired taste for an audience that understands where it's coming from.
Being a writer and
consequently the worst physical shape possible, Alan blacks out and wakes up in
his crashed car a week later. The rest of the game sees the author trying to
piece together the missing week and find his wife, all while fighting the same
darkness that spawned from a manuscript he doesn't remember writing.
Afflicted with a serious case of writer's block, Alan Wake and his wife Alice take a vacation to scenic Bright Falls, an isolated mountain town that preys on my inherent fear of small towns. After renting a cabin from an old lady wearing a mourning veil, Alice ends up being dragged by a dark force into the nearby lake with Alan rushing to save her.
Barring Japanese titles, this is probably the corniest, most over-the-top writing I have ever seen in a video game. Narrated in an episodic manner by Wake himself, all of the characters fill in specific horror story roles, from Rose the fangirling waitress to Barry the bumbling sidekick. The way they deliver their lines makes you feel like you're watching an episode of Twin Peaks, a 1990s drama that is campier than marshmallows on a stick.
In fact, a lot of scenes can be attributed to various works of pop culture. The opening line is a Stephen King quote, for goodness' sake. But for some reason, it works. If you look past all the references, horrible lip synching, and faces that are canvases to too many Botox injections, the game is paced properly and executed just how chief writer Sam Lake wanted it to be.All of the six chapters start off similarly, with a recollection of past events that lets players know how deep in the crap Alan is. The first few minutes of gameplay start off slow, usually with some exposition during the daytime from a number of characters that, whether old or new, fit into the story without requiring an opening cutscene.
The rest of the episode usually takes place at night and involves Alan making his way to some far-off location in the distance while a foreboding fog sends armies of hillbillies, construction workers, and fishermen at your overpaid writer ass.
To add to the suspense the thick fog and numerous trees that block your vision give, Alan Wake does subtle things with its gameplay that put a spin on the traditional action-adventure genre.Combat usually revolves around a unique mechanic that requires you to douse your enemies in eye blinding light before shooting them with your pew-pew guns. Though the addition of the flashlight may not seem like much, the fact that enemies are invincible until you shine your beam on them adds this sense of prioritization and crowd control that isn't present in most games that have bullet-vulnerable enemies from the get-go.
This one-two combo forms the bulk of the core gameplay as you run between the various lampposts that serve as the game's many save points. And run you will; because even if these shadow puppets and inanimate objects are easy to kill individually, they can easily swarm you like friends who discover you're carrying a pack of chewing gum.
It also doesn't help that Wake has the stamina and athletic ability of an overweight policeman, making platforming sections the cause of most of your deaths and hobbling towards a save point your top priority.This looming sense of dread continues even towards the end of the game, where you carry enough guns and light sources to celebrate the fourth of July. There are certain portions that depower you by removing some of your gear, but for the most part the underwear soiling segments are properly orchestrated by letting the player know that there are just too many respawning enemies for you to handle.
These underpowered moments take a short break once you participate in one of the few driving portions of the game. Though the vehicles control are like a badly designed RC car, they succeed in delivering a sense of empowerment whenever you run over a rambling local's head.
These larger levels are just some of the things completionists have to deal with when searching for the numerous hidden weapons caches, coffee thermoses, watchable TV shows, and best of all, manuscript pages that make Bright Falls one of the dirtiest rural areas ever.
Those last two collectibles deserve special mention because apart from getting those de rigueur achievements, the TV shows and pages give a deeper insight to this strange but distinct story (even if some manuscript pages spoil certain future plot points and can only be found on the game's hardest difficulty).But what really sets Alan Wake apart from any other game is its tone.
The use of everyday people as characters in an otherworldly plot, the creepy atmosphere that stems from the escalating violin strings and choking weather, even the game's importance of light (which conditions your brain to look for every sliver like a rat searches for your cereal) contributes to the unifying element that you are stuck in a familiar place that, for all intents and purposes, has now become unfamiliar.
Sure the gameplay is a bit wonky and the ending of the vanilla campaign all but requires you to purchase the DLC, but Alan Wake was released during a time when video games were evolving from mindless hooker shootouts to a medium that could tell compelling interactive stories.It didn't win many awards nor did it stick around for a proper sequel, but Alan Wake seems content with being a sleeper hit. If you can understand that its cornball writing is a tongue-in-cheek nod to thrillers both on-screen and on paper, what you will find is an experience that will keep you A. Wake until the end.