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"Alan Wake": Story Review

WARNING: This review is only concerned with the story of a game. Even though the story is an important part of a game, by no means is it the defining component. A game with a horrible story may very well be one of the best games ever produced. It's just that my reviews are not about that.


SPOILER WARNING: The following text may contain spoilers for the people who have not finished the game in question yet. Reviewing the story sometimes makes such things inevitable.  

 

  

Idea:

I hate movies about making movies or novels about writing novels. Strictly speaking  Alan Wake  is a story which falls into this category. On the surface, this is a run-off-the mill Stephen King imitation. When viewed under a more precise lens however, we find that its subtext is quite clever compared to other survival horror games. Too bad that neither the subtext nor the story constructed on top of it is particularly original.

Far more effective is the structural idea of telling the story as if it's a TV mini series. The TV series gimmick was tried before, most notably in  WildArms 3rd  and recently in the Eden Studios re-imagining of  Alone in the Dark.  But unlike those projects  Alan Wake  uses the TV series structure properly and allows this main idea to shape everything about the story.  

Combined with the "commercialism of publishers versus the torment of the author" subtext, this builds a solid foundation for a great story. A prime example of using already existing ideas and improving them.   


Rating: 1 out of 2

 

Setting:

Alan Wake  takes place almost exclusively in the fictional american town of Bright Falls. Like all horror story towns, Bright Falls is big enough to contain several diverse locations but small enough to be isolated and unknown. It's the kind of town you'd see in a Stephen King novel. But we gamers are no strangers to small towns with a terrible secret are we?

Yet Bright Falls is different from Racoon City or Silent Hill. Silent Hill, for instance, is an empty, decaying town. We realize that something horrible has happened there. We wonder what happened to all the people in it. Similarly Racoon City is overrun with zombies. Something horrible has happened to the town to turn it into a microcosmos of zombie apocalypse. In both cases the setting is like a different dimension separated safely from our own reality. They are not real towns.

There is a very important difference between the theatrical release and the director's cut version of James Cameron's Aliens.  The director's cut features additional footage of the colony prior to the xenomorph attack. These scenes were cut from the theatrical release for pacing purposes. However their absence lessens the impact of the destruction caused by the aliens. If Silent Hill is the theatrical release of  Aliens,  then Bright Falls is the director's cut. Over and over again...

Bright Falls is a living and breathing town with real people in it. Its history is detailed but not force fed to the audience. Instead the realistically modeled locations take over. By day, things are perfectly normal. Bright Falls is probably no different than the city you're living in. It just happens to have some dark presence imprisoned in it.  

Like Clive Barker says, real horror lives just beneath the surface of normal and daily life.  Alan Wake 's setting is a plausible town you can relate to. It could be your own town. Therefore it's a perfect setting for a horror story.

 
Rating: 2 out of 2

 

  

Characters:

First things first: Alan Wake is an awful name for a protagonist. Yes, we get it. We know our hero is an insomniac writer and this is great. We're not controlling a space marine or a cyborg assassin. This is very nice and potentially very interesting. But "Alan Wake"? Isn't this a bit too obvious to be clever? But then again this comes from the same guys who created a cop called Max Payne. Clearly subtlety is not their forte.  

An ordinary person facing extra ordinary odds... At least this is what we expect. What we actually get is an entirely different story. See, I know a lot of writers and they are basically what you might call "nerds". Most of them cannot hold their own in a bar fight for instance. Apparently Alan Wake the writer comes from the same university of protagonists as Gordon Freeman the physicist. Just like Freeman can easily defeat an entire special forces team and wipe out an interdimensional alien invasion force using a crowbar, once combat starts, Alan Wake almost turns into Preston the Tetragrammaton Priest from  Equilibrium . He can easily duck and weave through incoming attacks, dodge bullets to a certain degree and is incredibly good with a variety of firearms even in the dark while shooting at incredibly fast moving shadow creatures. Needless to say that the suspension of disbelief quickly goes out of the window.  

But that's the not the main problem. Alan Wake is not fully committed to his own personality. It's clear that he has issues. And it's nice that the protagonist has issues for a change. Alan has anger management problems in a quite realistic way (unlike, say Kratos) He's arrogant and can quite often be a jerk... but not that much. Alan also cares for his wife and friends obviously, for his main motivation is saving his wife. Then again we're not really sure why Alan loves his wife or if he does love his wife in the first place. The relationship between these characters is never developed.  

Perhaps the intention was to create a protagonist similar to Hank Moody in  Californication who in turn was modeled after  Bukowski.  But the end result here is a guy with a hint of dissociative personality disorder.  Then again maybe his problem is precisely this. We'll never know.

None of the other important characters are any more interesting either. Most of them have questionable motivations and unexplained personality traits. Perhaps we should chalk it up to Sam Lake's poor writing skills as minors characters who don't get a lot of screen time seem to be constructed much better than the important ones. These minor characters often contribute to the general feel of the setting and strengthen the immersion. Lake just seems to be trying too hard with the central characters.

The faceless antagonist, on the other hand, is in safe waters. (no pun intended) We neither see nor interact with the Dark Presence. It's more of a situation or a natural disaster than an antagonist in the classic sense. This causes the mantle of antagonist to pass to weaker characters like Nightingale or Hartman and Wake's conflict with these characters is annoying rather than intriguing or horrifying.  

 

 
Rating: 1 out of 2

 

 

Plot Structure:

On the surface  Alan Wake  has a very simple plot. A city dwelling guy comes to a small town full of secrets and confronts a horror which somehow uses his own mind to torment him. People don't trust him and he can't make them believe in the horrors he witnessed until it's very late. What's special about  Alan Wake  is how this story is used as a metaphor to describe the problems plaguing the modern entertainment media.

See, Alan Wake is an artist. He is a writer of thrillers. Most reviews I have seen get this part wrong, calling him a writer of horror stories. But in fact he doesn't write horror. And this is a very important detail for the plot.

As a writer, Wake is essentially trapped between a dream and a nightmare. On one hand he's working with his childhood friend Barry, who functions as both his agent and assistant. He also works with his wife Alice designs his book covers. On the other hand he's caught in a downward spiral of self loathing. The reason? Well there seems to be no reason in the surface story. But the subtext paints a different picture. 
 
As an artist Alan Wake wants to write thrillers. For a the readers of a good author the stories are reality itself. In a way every artist re-shapes reality according to their own vision, which is what literally happens in Alan Wake. In designing the covers for Alan's books Alice serves more or less as the Alan's muse and vision. We can understand from the role Alice takes in Alan's writing process, that she is the driving force behind Alan's genius. Alice is essentially all that is good in Alan's life which is prone to slide into darkness. The darkness itself comes in the form of an editor and a publisher. 
 
The dark presence is Alan's publisher who turns his reality, his stories into something else, something Alan never wants to write. His life turns from a thrilling adventure into a chain of illogical and horrifying events. This is what the publisher wants for its own needs, not for Alan's. The publisher needs to expand and get out of the small lake it's trapped in. It needs to infect the whole world with its darkness so that it can sustain its own existence which is its only purpose. To that end it kidnaps and holds Alan's muse as hostage, possibly long before Alan comes to Bright Falls. (Remember that at the start of the story Alan has a writer's block.) Like all artists Alan faces a dilemma.  
 
Will he surrender to the dark presence of the commercialism and sell out; write something he does not want in order to take care of the ones he loves? Or will he resist and survive as a niche artist who eventually disappears from the memories of his audience? The latter seems to have happened to all who resist the dark presence. It is implied that both the Anderson brothers and Thomas Zane are exceptional artists, yet no one knows their names.  
 
In the end Alan sacrifices himself, but does he save the girl? Was this the correct choice? Alice is free and the darkness is defeated but now he's writing inside a cauldron of obscurity, known to no one.  Perhaps now Alan is like Zane... a twisted versions of a mentor in the Campbell monomyth. 
 
All this is simplified and presented with a terrific pacing thanks to the mini series structure. Each of the six chapters of Alan Wake has its own Freytag pyramid with its own distinct exposition, rising action, turning point, falling action and resolution. This not only divides the story into bite sized pieces which could easily be digested but it also forms its own giant structure providing a steady rhythm of breathers and thrills. Poe would have been proud. Well perhaps proud is a strong work. Let's say he would not have hated Alan Wake that much. 
  
Even though the surface story is rather weak and some conflicts (Agent Nightingale and Dr. Hartman) are resolved in a non satisfying and sloppy way Alan Wake shows how an overall good structure can make up for the weakness of its individual parts.

Rating: 2 out of 2 
 
 

Craftsmanship:

 
Despite its cool presentation and nice ideas Alan Wake struggles in the craftsmanship department. The story is not only narrated by Wake himself but we also find manuscripts pages from his unreleased novel. It's always a dangerous idea to have a writer as a protagonist. The TV series Castle navigates around this problem by simply not featuring that much of Castle's work or making sure the bits they do feature on the show are written very well. It's also a light hearted show which does not deal with deeper issues a lot.  
 
Alan Wake
on the other hand is a very intense story. It is clear that Sam Lake is a competent writer. The problem here is that his writing skills are not even near to what we are led to expect from Alan Wake, the best selling author of thrillers. The dialog and the general craftsmanship is not bad by any means. But it's also not exceptional and in fact most of the times it's sub-par. This hurts the story and makes it harder for the audience to believe that Alan Wake is a great writer.  
 
On the other hand, the audio direction is excellent. Both licensed and original music pieces are obviously selected carefully. Likewise the visual direction shows signs of excellence considering how they have managed to be not afraid of shadows and darkness and still not cripple the game play by dark environments.  
 
Rating: 1 out of 2 
 
 
OVERALL: 7 out of 10
(0-3= BAD, 4-6= AVERAGE, 7-10= GOOD)

Already Reviewed: "Infamous", "Batman: Arkham Asylum", "Wet", "Planescape: Torment", "Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2", "Uncharted 2: Among Thieves", "Brütal Legend", "Heavy Rain",  "Alan Wake"  

NEXT REVIEW:    God of War 3
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