By Alec Meer on February 17th, 2012 at 4:15 pm.
A mere two years after being rather spuriously denied a PC release, the videogame called Alan has skulked, tail between his legs, back over here. Worth the wait? I fitted as many batteries as I could into my Torch Of Truth and investigated.
Perhaps the iconic image of Alan Wake: our glowering, scarf-clad hero runs from the dark wilderness that’s all around, towards an eerie light in an abandoned structure ahead of him, while the air itself seems to shimmer with otherwordly blackness… and a thermos flask glimmers improbably on a rocky outcrop in the distance. Alan Wake specialises in not entirely making sense, and the occasional, pointless coffee flasks exemplify that. You can collect them all, but… well, why? Don’t get me wrong: I of all people can empathise with any writer (for that is Alan’s trade) feeling he is utterly dependent upon the constant consumption of lukewarm caffeinated beverages to survive, but Alan doesn’t even close his eyes contentedly and make a sort of sex noise like the rest of us do when we lay our hands on sweet, sweet coffee. The thermoses are just there. They serve no purpose, there is no internal logic to explain their presence or their effects on Alan and… well, that’s Alan Wake all over.
It’s a third-person shooter with a light/darkness combat mechanic, starring a horror author suffering from the triple terrors of writer’s block, the mysterious abduction of his wife and assault by murderous monsters in human form. It is on to something, it really is. It also doesn’t seem to entirely grasp just what that something is, and instead repeatedly drops its clearly lovingly-made ball before it can stride into the sinister greatness it shoots for. Alan should be running for his life, and to save that of his missing wife, but instead he veers off to collect coffee. Alan establishes that he can defeat the shadowy figures that besiege him by shining light at them, but instead of rounding up every light source he can or strapping a bunch of floodlights to the back of one of the many vehicles lying around the outskirts of the besieged rural town of Bright Falls, he carries a crappy torch that he tops up with randomly-found batteries.
And the torch… oh, the torch. To defeat his snarling foes (example dialogue: MR WRITER. YOU THINK YOU CAN JUST MAKE UP STUFF?” “YOU MISSED YOUR DEADLIIIIIIINE” ) Alan can activate a super-bright, quasi-mystical mode that burns through a battery in seconds, in response to which he can either insert a new, Energizer-branded battery or just wait and it’ll magically recharge. What the hell kind of torch does that? An Alan Wake torch, of course. Nothing makes sense in Alan-land. Yes, he very occasionally does use a vehicle as an alternatively to stumbling through the haunted forest with only a misbehaving torch for company, but he’s bizarrely happy to abandon his wheels upon encountering even the most minor of obstacles.
There is, some might argue, an easy explanation for any logic failure in Remedy’s semi-survival horror game, which arrived on PC this week almost two years after its divisive console release. That reason is that Alan himself doesn’t know what on Earth’s going on in Bright Falls. Half the overtly Twin Peaks-inspired town’s populace is super-chummy towards him, and the rest of it is possessed by a malevolent darkness that’s trying to kill him and appears to be his own fiction come to life. Meanwhile, he can’t remember the events of the last week, he keeps finding pages of a manuscript he hasn’t written yet and he’s got a head wound from a car accident. Is he mad, in a coma, or back in time? Er, wrong teased-out mystery.
Obviously I’m not going to spoil the explanation, even if we are two years on from when the rest of the world found it out, but what I will say is that it doesn’t adequately justify the lapses in logic and coherency. Even aside from impossible torches and coffee, Alan’s is a jumpy old narrative, pinging wildly between timeframes and situations, with the game entirely happy to randomly muck around with your inventory dependent on what you’re going to face next. But that it was so liberal with your own choice of actions. Despite a richly-detailed environment, which honestly does look at least 312.48 percent better on PC than its console predecessor, your only deviation from the train-track path through those oppressive forests, imposing lumberyards and clifftop scenic spots is to occasional clearings containing a sodding coffee flask, bonus manuscript page or some extra ammo and batteries.
The wish for less linearity is perhaps the most boringly predictable cry of the lesser-spotted games journalist, but in Alan’s case it really does feel like an opportunity for a smart and sinister survival game was abandoned in favour of cutscenes linked by bubbles of rinse and repeat (if escalating) action. What it does offer is a clever twist on dual-wielding. Alan usually carries a gun of some kind, but it’s diddly-squat use against his dark-shrouded yokel foes until he burns away the blackness that encases them with his torch (or a flare) first.
So the vast majority of skirmishes involve the desperate juggling of both ammo and batteries, trying to ensure you don’t need to reload both at the same time or you’ll suffer an axe/knife/chainsaw to the chops. This is intermittently incredible dramatic, as the claustrophobic darkness and Alan’s relative puniness lends a desperation absent from most action games, and frustrating – either because Alan can too easily be swamped if his torch doesn’t immediately face the right direction or because he can simply cue up enemies if he has enough distance from them.
It is an inventive mechanic, but it’s also a boring one fairly rapidly. In normal (I haven’t tried Nightmare yet, nor can I really be bothered to) mode resources aren’t anywhere near scarce enough to truly make it a matter of survival, so really it’s just about positioning in each fight. Outside of that, it’s just about waiting for answers. There is strength in the downtime moments, when Alan interacts with apparently unpossessed and generally rather well-written townsfolk and displays his surprisingly (and entertainingly) dickish, entitled celebrity personality. Bright Falls is richly detailed and endearingly atmospheric when it wants to be, which makes the faintly irritating action game it’s wrapped up in all the more disappointing.
It’s fascinating that this has arrived in the same week as Dear Esther. Here we have two games that do great things with vegetation and lighting, two games that explore metaphysical horror and two games that throw their protagonists’ heroism into doubt. Yet while one plunges as far as it can into vagueness and consciously soporific introspection, Wake embraces over-written sci-fi gibberish and manic, jerky pacing. It is good to see it on PC, it is worth experiencing and with its raft of new graphical options, adjustable FOV and everything, it’s certainly a conversion that’s done the work. Slightly wonky mouse and keyboard controls aside – it wasn’t long before I found my gnarled hands clutching a gamepad instead.
But in the same way that ‘Alan’ is a hilariously uninspiring, even misguided title for a videogame, as a horror-action action affair it undermines its big, bold stylistic (in-game TV shows, Roy Orbison) and conceptual (light/dark; found manuscript pages predicting events to come) ideas with tedium and incoherency. It has a setting and a tone that I really do thrill to, which makes me all the more downcast that its memorable shell doesn’t house a more satisfying game.
Alan Wake is out now.