So, last year I wrote an evaluation essay for a college compositon class about the game Alan Wake. Below is the full text, hope whoever reads this enjoys it.
Alan Wake: More than Just a Video Game
If a video game exists today that can be called a work of art, it’s Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake. As a game, Alan Wake’s genre is “third-person shooter/psychological thriller”. The game isn’t strictly horror-based, just as it isn’t strictly a shooting game. Rather, the game is more about survival and telling a story in a similar way to some of the best novels written by Stephen King himself. Like King’s novels, Alan Wake has a story that is full of vivid descriptions, foreshadowing, and cliffhangers in addition to the actual horror elements. The game progresses through different “episodes”, similar to a television show, with the game itself being thought of as “Season 1”. Every episode ends with a cliffhanger, leaving the gamer wondering what will happen next, and each subsequent episode opens up with a “Previously on Alan Wake” intro. The game Alan Wake can be seen as a form of art with its stunning visuals and a constantly-developing plot, ensuring that the experience of playing the game is just as intriguing as reading a horror novel.
The plot of the game, at first glance, seems simple and ordinary enough. Bestselling writer Alan Wake has not been able to write a single word since his last book was published two years ago. His wife Alice convinces him to come with her to the small idyllic town of Bright Falls, Washington in an attempt to break his writer’s block. The town seems innocent enough at first; there's a small diner, a town hall, and a sheriff’s station. Everybody knows everybody, and at the time of Alan’s arrival, the town is preparing to celebrate its annual Deerfest.
All of that quickly changes when, on the night he and Alice arrive, Alan’s quick temper causes him to leave his wife alone in the dark. When he returns to their cabin, Alice has vanished, and Alan soon wakes up behind the wheel of a crashed car to discover that an entire week has passed—a week he has no memory of. As he stumbles through the darkened woods, Alan comes upon manuscript pages from a novel titled Departure. Though he is named the author, Alan can’t remember writing it. Worse still, he finds that the contents of the manuscript pages begin to come true. As Alan attempts to reach the safety of a local gas station, he is forced to fight for his life against the Taken. These are humans controlled by the game’s main antagonist, an ancient malevolent spirit known as the Dark Presence. The game’s plot, as stated above, is constantly developing. In Episode 2, Alan receives a phone call from Alice’s kidnapper and must meet him at midnight in the middle of a darkened forest. By Episode 3, Alan finds himself on the run from both the police and an unstable FBI agent.
Alan Wake is full of cultural references, and part of the game’s entertainment value is being able to think “I know what that’s from!” One example of this is Alan’s clumsy but loyal agent, Barry Wheeler, dubbing his headlamp the “Flaming Eye of Mordor”. The two main points of inspiration and reference in Alan Wake come from the TV show Twin Peaks and the works of Stephen King. The main setting of the game, Bright Falls, is nearly identical to the town of Twin Peaks. A small, quaint town that seems innocent enough, Bright Falls nonetheless contains many strange and unusual occurrences. One of the characters, an elderly woman named Cynthia Weaver, is known as the “Lamp Lady” due to the lantern she obsessively carries with her. Anyone who’s watched Twin Peaks will see the similarity between her and the Log Lady.
Alan Wake’s very first line is a direct quote from Stephen King: “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear”. This quote is by no means unrelated to the game’s ability to terrify; the way that the King-like horror is brought to life is what makes the game such a memorable experience. Like in King’s novels, inanimate objects come to life and attack, and supernatural enemies appear out of thin air, creating a feeling of constantly being in danger. On one occasion, Alan even mentions that King served as an inspiration to him early on in his career, and Alan’s writing style, including his use of metaphors, reflects a similarity between the two writers.
As a character, Alan is a change of pace from the typical video game hero. He’s not as virtuous or heroic as the “white knight” figure, nor does he have supernatural powers. His main strength is his creative imagination as a writer and his ability to somehow survive overwhelming odds. Personality-wise, Alan doesn’t possess the selflessness of other fictional video game heroes. On the contrary, he is cynical, short-tempered, and stubborn. That’s not to say that he’s a bad person; as the game shows, Alan loves his wife Alice “with an almost frightening intensity”. Despite this, his frustration at his two-year writer’s block results in Alan quickly losing his temper and taking it out on her, despite Alice’s attempts to help him.
The NPCs (non-playable characters) of Alan Wake have their own personalities, as well. These various personalities are mostly stereotypical, such as the “sunshine mood” waitress who works at the diner or the kindly park ranger who is infatuated with her but doesn’t say anything. Upon arriving in Bright Falls, Alan also meets Tor and Odin Anderson, a couple of old men who once made up the rock and roll band known as the Old Gods of Asgard during the 1970s. Like Cynthia Weaver, they appear to be insane at first glance, but as Odin says, “Who else could understand the world when it’s like this? It takes crazy to know crazy!” As the story unfolds, it becomes apparent that these kinds of characters know more about the strange goings-on than the rest of the town.
As far as video games go, Alan Wake contains some of the most beautiful and realistic scenery ever viewed in a game. During the day, the Pacific Northwest’s natural beauty is evident; tall pine trees rise up from the ground to form forests, a clear blue sky is illuminated by a bright sunrise with only the minimal amount of dust-colored clouds. The game deliberately positions Alan so the character can view this scenery from an ideal spot; in one area, the player begins the level with Alan overlooking a mountainside road from a rest stop high above. From this position, the player is able to easily see the beautiful landscape in the distance.
When night falls, the beauty of the Northwest is snuffed out, but the environment is no less real. As Alan makes his through the darkened woods, shadows literally race across the ground to signal the arrival of the enemy. The air becomes thick with heavy fog, and if the player tilts the camera upwards, they will find that the night sky is no longer clear and starry. The water of a lake, once clear but dark, has now turned pitch-black. The way that the darker areas of the game are rendered both foreshadows the arrival of the Taken and allows the gamer’s imagination to run wild with speculation as to what foe they might face next.
These kinds of thoughts do not go unrewarded...or unpunished. Because darkness is the main enemy, light acts as the game’s primary form of attack. In order to defeat the Taken, Alan must first burn off the darkness protecting them with a light source such as a flashlight. Only then can he finish them off with a conventional weapon such as a revolver or a shotgun. While this method may sound simple in theory, the game’s multitude of different enemies is where the challenge sets in. The Dark Presence is able to possess and control virtually anything in Alan’s path, from townspeople to birds to vehicles. Even smaller inanimate objects like car tires or wheelbarrows can become deadly projectiles under the corrupting influence of the Dark Presence. Size is no exception, either; in Episode 3, a massive bulldozer filled with darkness rushes at Alan, roaring like a maddened beast. In Episode 4, a giant harvester impedes Alan’s progress as he makes his way across a darkened farmstead. The reality that virtually anything in the environment might rise up and attack is the game’s core fear factor, and the result is a feeling of constant danger while wandering the darkness.
Collectibles in the game come in the form of manuscript pages, and the content of these pages eventually comes true, making the gathering of these pages both a useful and terrifying experience. The way the pages foreshadow what comes next gives the player time to prepare, but at the same time adds yet another layer of fear to an already grim situation. As Alan makes his way out of the woods in Episode 2, he comes upon a page that describes his relief at having finally made it out of the woods. The page ends with the foreboding sentence “That’s when I heard the chainsaw”. Sure enough, upon reaching the entrance to a campsite, the player has their first encounter with a large, muscle-bound lumberjack wielding a chainsaw and chanting “Log-ging is a haz-ard-ous occ-u-pation!” in an uneven, disjointed tone.
Naturally, even a game like Alan Wake is bound to attract some criticism. In an article of the New York Post, William Vitka compares the game to “John Carpenter’s ‘In the Mouth of Madness’ as told by Stephen King, directed by David Lynch”, claiming “This mutant mix is then tossed into a blender—with a dash of almost every other major Stephen King creation out there”. While it’s true that a good portion of the game is exactly what you’d expect to find in a King novel, anyone who’s enjoyed Stephen King’s books should have no problem being impressed and terrified at the way those same horrors are brought to life in the game.
Another criticism, made by Charles Onyett in his online review on IGN, is the lack of clarity and overall vagueness of Alan Wake’s ending. Onyett writes that “By the time everything's wrapping up at the end you might feel a slight pang of disappointment since enough loose ends are left fluttering to allow for future episodes, and the climactic encounter teased throughout the course of the game leaves quite a bit to be desired”. Without giving away any details, it’s easy to understand the lack of satisfaction someone might experience with what they see as loose ends. However, the ending of Alan Wake was deliberately left ambiguous so that game players might draw their own conclusions as to Alan’s fate. This can effectively allow the player to be satisfied with their own interpretation rather than an ending that has been decided for them by the game’s developers.
As previously stated, Alan Wake is not merely a video game; it is a work of art on par with Stephen King’s works of horror. The game terrifies in terms of both enemies and scenery alike while at the same time inducing awe at the beauty of how well the Pacific Northwest is recreated. Anyone who has read and enjoyed Stephen King’s horror novels will find Alan Wake an engaging experience. The constant feeling of danger induces a compulsion to look over your shoulder every second, and the daytime portions present just as much entertainment in the form of more subtle clues that not all is right in Bright Falls. Unfortunately, the true feelings that come from playing Alan Wake can’t be expressed in mere words; the game must be played first-hand to get the full experience. Just make sure you keep the lights on.