After completing the first episode of Alan Wake, the first thing that I did was return to the main menu to restart, jacking up the difficulty from Normal to Hard. I think that horror needs to have a little tension.
The game begins well enough by introducing us to Alan Wake, a somewhat pretentious and irritable author with a bad case of writer’s block, along with his wife, Alice, as they arrive for a much needed vacation in the scenic small town of Bright Falls. A stop at a local diner introduces Alan and the player to a number of off beat characters, a waitress who is an obsessed fan of the titular author, a one-eyed and aging rocker and his brother, an older woman terrified by the prospect of a darkened bathroom hallway, and a creepy old woman in a veil whose interest in meeting Wake’s wife seems far too great a fixation. The quirkiness and foreboding evoked by this introduction to the “local color” sets a nice tone of uncertainty and anxiousness before Alan and Alice settle in in a remote cabin in the middle of Cauldron Lake.
As night falls, things start getting weirder, of course, and Alan soon finds himself suffering from a loss of memory of the full events of the evening (and the seven days following it) and, more critically, from the loss of his wife. Wielding a flashlight and revolver (as he does through most of the action sequences in the game), Alan goes tramping off into the darkened woods of Bright Falls in a desperate effort to find out what happened to both.
Being lost is the main conceit of the game, and it is how much of the tension of this horror game is generated. Darkness possessed humans called the Taken, armed with knives, hatchets, and even chainsaws, emerge with terrifying effectiveness from the woods dimly revealed by the beam of Alan’s flashlight. The light is Alan’s chief means of protection, as it is an aid in locating the proper path through the woods, in driving back the Taken, and in ultimately weakening these creatures of darkness sufficiently, so that Alan can gun them down. Tension is created from a sense of being lost in the woods and being uncertain about where and when the Taken will emerge.
Alan’s combat with darkness is a delicate balance between playing offense and defense, using light sources (the flashlight, flares, and flare guns) and physical weapons like the revolver, shot guns, and hunting rifles. The need to weaken an otherwise invulnerable enemy with light before being able to dispatch it works very well and keeps battles from growing stale as the player has to think about juggling between light and weaponry to fend off frequently overwhelming groupings of Taken. The frequent gun play may make Alan Wake seem more like an action game than a horror game, but the open environments of large wooded areas are what makes these battles more anxiety inducing than producing the feeling of being some sort of a badass gunslinger.
Truthfully, the Taken’s strategy in taking on Wake, which largely involve flanking maneuvers, does seem derived from games like Call of Duty, but again, it is the vulnerability of being in a wide open area with no cover that changes the experience from one of hard pressed hero to desperate survivor, trying to fend off darkness in a familiarly terrifying landscape. Alan Wake recognizes its audience’s recognition of the fear of getting turned around in the woods and not knowing what is beyond the next tree and uses that fear of the unknown in nature to its advantage. The game is at its best in these wide open spaces but loses some of its sense of tension when Alan makes his way through more confined spaces, as tunnels and hallways serve as choke points as they would in a shooter, making the player feel markedly more secure about controlling a situation.
Getting the player to feel vulnerable and encouraging him to “get lost” is necessary here though, as most of the levels as largely linear experiences with Alan having to get from one place to the other. Collectibles, thermoses of coffee and manuscript pages that flesh out the characters and town of Bright Falls, serve as one encouragement for exploring an otherwise inhospitable environment and getting off the more clearly marked paths at times. Unfortunately, the use of these bits of “player bait” both work for and against the mood of the game at times. Poking around where you otherwise shouldn’t be (don’t go down in the basement!) to make sure that you have collected a snatch of story can get Alan very turned around and leads to ugly encounters with the Taken (which is good), but the mania of collection will also drain the tension from certain scenes. A park ranger cries desperately for help from a room in a darkness besieged cabin? Since the game is constantly moving Alan forward and doesn’t allow him to return to explore places later, the collectible obsessed player will forestall going to his aid to comb every intervening room for coffee and manuscript pages.
Nevertheless, it is the more psychological scare tactics that serve as the centerpiece for a tale of horror. There is no gore in the game as chainsaws being revved up in the distance are more suggestive of violence than overt representations of them chewing through flesh. The Taken evaporate into shadowy wisps when killed. Thus, the game distinguishes itself from many others in the genre by not producing fear through repulsive figures and bleeding walls. Alan Wake wants to scare us based more on what we can’t see or can only fleetingly see, rather than by eviscerating bodies or twisting flesh before our eyes.
Which makes sense, since Alan Wake is about the terror created by the imagination, as it might be experienced by reading a horror novel, rather than by the fear of things that are observable and, thus, can ultimately be dismissed as something clearly apprehensible and comprehensible. Werewolves are scary in the dark, where we can hear them panting and stalking about, but seen in the light of day, they become less frightening. They are just really big dogs after all. Like the world in a Stephen King novel (an obvious influence on the game), the terrors of Alan Wake are more often hinted at and imagined by the player because of the atmosphere evoked, rather than that which is directly “seen.”
In that regard, the plot of the game makes much hay out of the power of the imagination and creativity to shape our perception. Wake’s writings feature heavily as the real “villain” of the game, since it is his own imagination that is shaping the events taking place in Bright Falls. Like the player, Wake’s own fears are being brought to life because he has chosen to immerse himself in this nightmare scenario, which is why I recommend cranking up the difficulty of the game. Fear is what you make of it.