The horror genre seems dominantly interested in evoking two responses from its audience. The first is repulsion — usually copious amounts of blood and viscera serve as the vehicle for eliciting this kind of response. The second is dread — an unsettling sense that something bad is coming that maybe we don’t fully comprehend.
While horror films and games really try to be both repulsive and to provoke feelings of dread. I tend to think that many works in this genre lean more heavily towards one than the other. Slasher flicks and torture porn tend to focus on the gore, but there are a fair amount of films that creep one out with unseen horror and vague uncertainty about what lies just out of the corner of one’s eye.
I also tend to prefer this latter form of horror to the former, which is why I enjoyed the first Alan Wake game. The first game is almost entirely bloodless, as far as I can recall, and really derives most of its scares from its creepy atmosphere and moody tone.
In the first game, Alan Wake is a writer in search of his missing wife in the dark woods outside a town called Bright Falls. The woods serve as a perfect setting for an unsettling, dread inducing form of horror, as the density of trees makes things difficult to see, and only a heightening intensity of music indicates that something dreadful might be lurking around the corner.
The game also encouraged exploration by dotting the landscape with manuscript pages for Wake to find in order to fully understand the twisted relationship between Wake’s own fiction and the supernatural phenomenon in Bright Falls. Poking around the woods to locate these items (and the oft criticized “thermos collectibles,” which have been excised from the sequel) often led one into the bad sorts of situations that could lead to some legitimate scares and breathless chases through the trees.
So, it is a bit curious that the game’s follow up, American Nightmare is set in the wide open expanse of the Arizona desert. The settings are still, like the first game, richly detailed and a real pleasure to look at and investigate. A roadside motel and a drive-in movie theater are particular highlights here. However, there is something much less dread inducing about most encounters with Wake’s darkness-infused opponents, The Taken, when you have a pretty clear view of your surroundings (even if they are all slightly obscured by the night sky).
Additionally, the game is being advertised as much more focused on action. And indeed, encounters with the Taken tend to be bigger and faster than in the first game. The Taken tend to swarm in much greater numbers, making such encounters feel less horrific and more run-of-the-mill. Weapons are unlocked over the course of the game’s nine “levels,” but I think I had a hold of a sub-machine gun about five minutes into the game. You feel a lot less safe with a pistol and a flashlight than you do with a full automatic at the ready.
The core of gunplay is the same, though, as the first game. Wake still must use a flashlight to burn off the darkness protecting the Taken before shooting them down. This is still a fun mechanic, and it is nice how the flashlight’s beam both makes enemies vulnerable and serves as means of getting a bead on enemies more easily.
Despite being more “action oriented,” there still is a great deal of focus on plot here, also one of the stronger suits of the first game. Here, the conceit is that Wake is living out a version of an episode of a fictional television show (the Twilight Zone inspired show, Night Springs, featured in the first game). Events here may not be entirely real then (or part of the continuity of the series). Plus, this allows the game to re-use the three main environments that the game takes place in (roadside motel, observatory, and drive-in) over and over again like a television re-run.
A new evil has emerged from the same Darkness haunting Bright Falls in the form of a doppleganger of Alan Wake, Mr. Scratch. Wake spends the game attempting to re-write “reality” (the television episode) until Mr. Scratch is defeated by getting all of the details of the scripted episode right (leading hopefully to an eventual happy ending).
Repetitions of events and environments serve this plot but take away from the pleasure of exploration that the first game provokes. It also steals away another vehicle for fostering uncertainty and dread in the player, the feeling of being lost that those wooded hills of Bright Falls were so good at creating.
Mechanically, the game is still a good alternative to the standard over-the-shoulder shooter and it looks very beautiful, but I really want the tension and fear back from the more dread inducing first game.