Alan Wake, Microsoft, Xbox 360, £49.99
Who wants to be a grumpy star – even in such a pacy story?
Sunday 30 May 2010
The atmospheric, supernatural-themed action game Alan Wake is nothing if not up front about where it found inspiration. The first words spoken in it are "Stephen" and "King", and if you're at all familiar with that writer's canon, you'll get the gist of its plot right away.
You play as the titular bestselling mystery writer, whose wife, Alice, in the hope of curing his writer's block, has booked them a holiday in a lakeside cabin in an idyllic small town in the Pacific North-west (Twin Peaks, by any other name). Not long into the game, however, Alice, the cabin, and a week of Alan's life have all gone missing; pages from a novel he has no recollection of writing – but which foretells events that befall him – are scattered around the town for him to pick up; and countless axe-wielding maniacs, apparently escaped from his own imagination, are lining up to get him.
The nature and art of storytelling are brought to the fore in Alan Wake, then, and there have been some bold claims made about the quality of its writing – and not only by its publisher, Microsoft, and the Finnish firm that apparently spent nine years developing it.
And if it doesn't exactly aspire to literary greatness, it does take several steps in a direction that videogames can only be applauded for taking. For one thing, a novelist called Alan is not your average action-game protagonist. And his leather elbow patches are a nice touch.
The game is divided into six episodes. Each ends with a well-chosen song (Roy Orbison's "In Dreams", for example, hasn't sounded this creepy since it was appropriated by David Lynch for the film Blue Velvet), before the next begins with a TV-style, "Previously on Alan Wake ..." recap. This in itself gives the game a pleasing pace, but more impressive is the patience with which individual episodes unfold. In the early parts of an episode, the player's objective might be to complete as mundane a task as changing a fuse or making coffee. Some may argue it's a failing of the game that such moments can seem as involving as the shoot-outs with which episodes invariably climax. But it can equally be argued that these intimations of normality, and the real world, are Alan Wake's biggest innovation and greatest success.
Voiceover is used in a particularly clever way, both to guide the player ("I had to go to the lighthouse – I knew there was something important waiting for me there") and to offer some arch, self-reflexive commentary ("I'd fallen off so many cliffs it was ridiculous"). The plotting is in a bit of a mess if the truth be told, but individual elements and scenes demonstrate real wit and invention on the part of the writers. Where they've failed, and badly, is in the characterisation of Alan himself. A singularly dull and humourless man, he is also inexplicably curt with other perfectly friendly characters he encounters, and needlessly abrupt with his wife. In a game so enamoured of mysteries, the biggest are how Alan's portentous prose style was ever accepted by a publisher, and, unfortunately, why we should want to spend time playing as him.
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