This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Alan Wake.
I'll say one thing for Alan Wake straight away: you can never accuse it of being rushed out. Planning began in 2001. Fuck, the space program didn't last that long. Well, let's not look a gift whore in the poo pipe.
Alan Wake is a self-styled "psychological action" game that borrows somewhat heavily from Twin Peaks and arm-dislocatingly heavily from the works of Stephen King. It's about a writer with personal problems being tormented by an unknowable evil in small-town America. You know, the same plot as that one book Stephen King has been writing over and over again since 1975. I'm not a fan, personally, but someone at Remedy almost certainly is. He gets name-dropped like four times. In fact, Stephen King's name is the very first piece of spoken dialogue. So basically Alan Wake has its virgin bumhole offered squarely to Stephen King with a whipped cream arrow on its back pointing down.
The game opens with a nightmare, full of the usual sort of nightmare imagery: running through a dark forest, being chased by some indistinct evil force, a big voice in the sky giving you a combat tutorial, until Alan Wakes up - "oh, I see what you did there!" - to find a hideous, grinning mannequin creature leering over him. Oh wait, that's his wife. There's something very fucked up about the human faces in this game. She looks like she's been using Botox to treat her chronic face tumors. And I've seen better lip-synching in episodes of Captain Scarlet.
Anyway, Alan and his pet monster are on holiday in a small lakeside town when Alan throws a hissy fit because his wife expects him, a professional writer, to actually do some writing at some point. And then a hideous, unknowable evil kidnaps her so they can trade beauty tips. It's up to Alan to come to the rescue and uncover the dark secrets of the town, both of with he feels can best be achieved by running around in a dark forest for several hours gibbering to himself.
Throughout the game, Alan gives a running narration of events, which is almost always completely redundant at best. While most games would just put a smelly dog in a room, and maybe design the room so the player sees the smelly dog as soon as they come in, Alan Wake has a voiceover going "suddenly, I saw a smelly dog in the room" and wrestles the camera from you to show the smelly dog guiltily shitting in a hat.
In fact, this game has a generally low opinion of your attention span. It's presented episodically, and each episode begins with a recap of the story so far. You might think, O listener, that the intention is to give clear stopping points (although I've always felt games that out-and-out instruct you to stop playing them would be difficult to explain to the marketing department), but there's no opportunity to save and quit between the episode end and the next one. So its only function is to give a quick recap of the plot every few hours. And if you're being so distracted by your mother desperately belly-dancing for attention in the corner of the living room that you need one, then I think you have bigger problems.
And then there are the moments when monsters appear and the camera zooms into them, goes slow motion, and yells: "Hey, there are monsters here! Look! Look! Can you see them! Good, 'cause we wouldn't want this game to get scary, would we?" It's mystifying, because the environments do a good job of building atmosphere, with eldritch light illuminating the mist that coils around the trees, flickering shadows making an innocent mulberry bush momentarily look like a round-shouldered murderer with an axe and a massive erection. It's just that the game is fully aware that it does dark, spooky forests best but little else, so every half-hour it has to contrive a new reason for Alan to be lost in a spooky forest at night. It's like a crime drama about a detective who can only concentrate when he's around pastry, so every week the crime has to conveniently take place in a bakery or within walking distance of a pie shop.
The forest sections are the obligatory "action" part of the "psychological action" promise. So they mercilessly pad themselves out for hours of atmospheric but nonetheless samey scenery, until I'm going: "Fine! I'll put up with your Botox-faced, hand puppet sausage people cutscenes! Just enough with the fucking haunted logging mills already."
As for the combat itself, the idea is you wear down the shadow creatures' defenses with your flashlight before gunning down their physical forms. Since this essentially means you can stun-lock your enemies by looking at them, I only ever needed to use the starting pistol and had bucketfuls of ammo and flash grenades handy for the occasionally hairier moment. As long as I could keep backing away and duck the odd scythe or hand axe flung Resident Evil 4 style, then the combat was as mechanical and predictable as a factory production line. Shine the light in their eyes, then two shots, bang, bang, like an indecisive hitman/optician.
I did like the bits where the darkness possesses inanimate objects and starts flinging them at you like an angry spouse chucking teacups (except the teacups are lengths of three-foot thick industrial piping). It's actually quite hectic and unnerving, although spoiled somewhat when Alan blithely narrates, "Hey, inanimate objects coming to life! That's a theme that Stephen King likes to explore, isn't it? Have I mentioned that we like him?"
But let's conclude by returning to the all-important story. One of the sidequests involves gathering manuscript pages, which all unfailingly spoil upcoming plot events, which is kind of in keeping with the theme, so I'll let it slide. But it's a shame Alan never uses his foreknowledge to prevent any if the phenomenally bad decisions he's destined to make. For example, accepting the hospitality of a character who despite her previously cheerful demeanor is now speaking in a strange, emotionless monotone, with cold dead eyes and wearing a t-shirt reading "I Am Possessed", without even entertaining the notion of her being possessed until after having some of her homemade lemon-and-sleeping pill tea. Or, when the comic relief character - in a sense that it's a huge relief when he shuts his fat fucking mouth - suggests getting shitfaced while trapped in a house surrounded by evil shadow murderers, agreeing to do so instead of punching him in the head (and, indeed, missing all the other opportunities throughout the game to punch him in the head).
But I suppose there are lots of horror stories that wouldn't exist at all if people never made bad decisions in them. And Alan Wake is certainly all about bad decisions: bad combat, bad narration, good atmosphere. Picture an elegantly decorated house through which soft classical music plays and occasionally an obese man in a Halloween mask charges through it swinging a football rattle and screaming at the top of his voice. He's weirdly fascinating for the first few laps, but then he pulls down your curtains and shits on a doily.
Hiding behind you right now: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
Hey here's some incisive wit for you: Alan Wake is an anagram of 'Anal Leak' if you swap the W for another L
Yahtzee Croshaw's journey through shit will continue