Alan Wake Hands-On Intro ImpressionsBy Andrew Pfister - Posted Apr 29, 2010
I had just returned to my desk and noticed a square, white envelope sitting on my chair. How it got there, I wasn’t sure -- but I found myself suddenly overwhelmed by enthusiastic curiosity. I flipped over the envelope to discover that it was a final build of Alan Wake, a game about an author trying to write a new story. I immediately knew what had to be done: assemble some writers about games to write a story about a game with a writer who is trying to write a story. This…is that story.
Andrew: So Alan Wake has some issues with writer’s block, huh? Whenever I can’t think of anything to write, I usually take a walk or focus on something else for a while…I never tried the whole “lash out at spouse and summon unspeakable horror” method. We’re limiting this discussion to the introductory chapter of the game, “Nightmare,” and I wanted to know what you all think of how Alan Wake sets the mood.
Jake: I’m a big David Lynch, Stephen King and Lost fan, so to finally be able to step into my dream amalgamation of a game that is Alan Wake was one of the most joyous moments of my adult gaming life (and I’m only a few hours in!). Hyperbole aside though, there is something so enthralling about the world that Remedy has created here. Everything from the opening Stephen King quote, to the use of clever licensed music, to the “Previously on Alan Wake…” episode intros create an instantly engaging and familiar/unsettling experience that I can’t wait to continue.
Patrick: Since there wasn't a new episode of Lost this week, I turned to something directly influenced by Lost as a replacement: Alan Wake. Perhaps more striking than any observations about the game itself is when I decided to turn it off. Alan Wake is divided into chapters, just like an episodic television show. The first chapter comes to an end after about an hour and some change, not unlike an hour-long television show without the hassle of commercials. When you finish a chapter, the logo comes up, the game saves and, then, presents a perfect opportunity to turn it off and move onto something else (or, in my case, go to sleep). If you happen to press A, however, it immediately cuts to a "Previously on Alan Wake" summary of the events you've recently played through and hastily jumps into the next chapter. As gamers, we're naturally inclined to smack a button when prompted...so I did. Even though it was nearly 2:00 AM, the DVD-style jump to the next episode made me want to keep playing. I found the will to turn Alan Wake off, but so far, it's clear they're onto something with this style of presentation. Did anyone else turn off the game at a point that wasn't a chapter completion?
Andrew: I had to turn it off right after the incident at the cabin, but only because I had to play another game for preview -- otherwise I would have kept playing for sure. It was one of those instances where I resented having to do my job. Feel sorry for me, please.
I’m hopeful that they can do the episodic-style, “previously on” gimmick in a way that works better than it did in Alone in the Dark. I know I’m not watching a serial television show, you don’t need to try to fool me into thinking that I am. But based on what you’re saying, Patrick (and Jake), if they can nail that “one more episode” compulsion that sinks its teeth into me whenever I’m watching a TV series on DVD at my leisure, then I’m all in favor.
Sterling, what say you?
Sterling: Going into the first chapter of the game blind, I had no idea what to expect beyond a supernatural bent. I'm glad that's how I experienced it. Because frankly, it scared the crap out of me. I honestly can't remember the last time I've been this weirded out by a game. Perhaps Dead Space? So far, Remedy has done an amazing job with juxtaposing beautiful environments and soothing calm with a great deal of tension. I found myself constantly stressing over what might be around the corner, and what might be coming to hunt me down.
Andrew: I’m glad you brought up Dead Space. I’m not usually scared by games, so it was actually the constant tension of not knowing what’s going to happen next that kept me on edge for that game. Alan Wake seems to have some of that, but also some genuine spook happening here. There’s a moment very early on in the cabin, where the lights go off and things get super freaky…and then how the growls of the Taken hitch-hiker aurally deteriorate into something horrible…they’ve done an excellent job establishing the mood with the visuals and the sound design.
Jake: Yeah, you know all that “we worked really hard on the engine to represent light in all its forms” talk that Remedy has been spouting over the past few years? They weren’t joking about that. This game is gorgeous, and the lighting effects (blinding mid-day sun, long-shadowy dusks, moon-beam tinted nights, etc.) are simply stunning. And then there’s the sound. Sweet Lord. If you have a sound system, crank it and play in total darkness, because this is, so far, one of the most unnerving and joyously frightening games I’ve ever played, and a lot of that is because of the sound design. Finally playing the first episode after having watched the first two episodes of the Bright Falls prequel was especially great because you meet a few people and visit places from the show in the first episode of the game. I was really looking forward to watching all of Bright Falls and then jumping into Alan Wake to get the full effect, but I guess I’ll have to settle for just playing one of my most anticipated games of all time a few weeks early. Boo hoo.
Andrew: Don’t we just have the worst problems? Am I alone in having concerns about the Alan-as-narrator, find manuscript format? I like the foreshadowing element, and explicitly telling me that I’m about to be chased by an axe murderer in the forest is a pretty effective way of making me afraid of axe murderers in the forest, but it’s hard to take him seriously as a professional novelist based on the opening prose of “Departure.”
Eric: Yeah, the set-up and story is well done, though the dialog can be a bit stilted and Alan's narration sounds at times as if it was ripped from Garth Marenghi's Darkplace; in a word, cliché. Even with some of the presentation being off, the story is interesting though. It begs you to ask questions about what's going on either in Bright Falls or Alan's state of mind.
Remedy did an amazing job creating a world here, but my biggest peeve right now is Alan himself. He's a bit of a douche. On first meeting a guy with a radio show who invites him to be on his program, his first instinct is to rebuke him. He meets a super fan at the diner and doesn't even offer an autograph, bagging on her behind her back, and then he blows up aggressively at his wife when she's just trying to help...which leads to bad things. After all, not-so-nice things happen to not-so-nice people! Oh, Alan.
Andrew: I can sympathize with Alan’s editor. Deadlines with him must be hell. Time for gameplay impressions!
Eric: To set up properly for this first chapter experiment, I turned out the lights and cranked up the surround sound. Sound is important here, because when you first hear the shadowy Taken calling out in the distance or a whirlwind springing up behind you, it's nerve-wracking. Light is also just as essential as it's the key to the game itself, as you need to wield both flashlight and gun to dispatch enemies or heal in lighted areas. After lurking in the dark under siege by very bad men, seeing a lighted safe patch in the distance is a great stress reliever. Alan Wake is incredibly atmospheric, and wandering around in the virtual woods has never been scarier. It's also never been more boring. Granted, this is only the opening chapter so maybe it serves as a more linear episode than the rest, but there seems to be a lot of freedom in exploring but not a lot of reward to do so other than collecting an occasional coffee thermos. Why? Alan really loves his coffee.
Andrew: Yeah, the presence of collectibles kind of annoyed me. I mean, I still collected every one I saw, but it still annoyed me. I liked that there wasn’t an info pop-up after the first one, though. Do what it takes to maintain that illusion!
Sterling: Call it control quirks, or call it tension-building, but it's hard for Alan to shake off a large number of The Taken at once. It makes even the simplest encounters taut and tense affairs. And even a simple goal, such as "get to a safe point to call law enforcement" becomes a real ordeal to get him through. In the end, it truly captures the ambience of a Stephen King miniseries, down to the motif. Needless to say, Alan Wake strongly has my attention. I haven't had a game all year that I've been so anxious to continue since Heavy Rain.
Andrew: Okay, let’s stop here and reconvene when we’ve got more under our belts. Just so that I can write a lengthy “Previously, on the Alan Wake Preview...” intro.