Almost ten years ago, a group of a dozen or so aspiring programmers and designers delivered one of the best full-on action games of its period. “Max Payne” was penned with the fatalist atmosphere of a noir pulp tale and enacted with the frantic vertigo of a John Woo gunfight, a video game worth remembering for its success in compromising a virtuous literary dimension inside the cramping coordinates of a populist genre in a populist medium. Where “Max Payne” was a love-letter to noir, “Alan Wake” is an homage to classic horror thriller. Ellroy and Miller now pave way to King, Lynch, Hitchcock and Serling as master references, in a clear play of reverence and idolatry for pop tropes and genres. The ability, as in the past, lies in the careful weaving of these elements into an aesthetically cohesive experience; these citations are neither shallowly absorbed into meaningless minutiae nor regurgitated compulsively, instead acting as founding pillars to the game’s universe.
Narrative is still the center piece, with a dense plot following Alan Wake – the writer whose horror novel suddenly comes to life – acting as driving engagement to the experience. However, unlike most videogames, the storyline never lets itself become trapped in the cutscene vortex, leaving a lot to be explored in actual gameplay, by employing several contextual mechanisms to establish character, atmosphere and texture. Which is great, since due to some immaturity in cutscene production, “Alan Wake” ended up pretty poor in terms of facial animation and aesthetic cohesion when it comes to non-interactive segments. Counterweighing this glaring flaw are the superbly well crafted interactive portions. The naturalist representation of the American Northwestern landscape, with its dynamic weather and shadowing systems, is an aesthetic and technical tour de force. It is an absolute delight to immerse yourself in some of the most enticing fictional spaces in media: you get to drive around the misty mountains as in the opening of the “Shining”, watch the green pinewood forest lulled in the warm sunlight as in “Twin Peaks”, or bravely venture into the dark brooding woods at night armed only with a bright torch’s raycast as in the “X-Files”. The writing (by Sami Järvi) and voice-acting help dig deeper into these environments, and once again, bear a quality comparable to film’s high standards. And in that vein we can’t help but compliment the more ambiguous psychological profiles of the characters, which despite fitting basic film archetypes and falling back on some clichéd dialogue, effectively evade videogame hero antics and the stylistic overkill of “Max Payne”.
But it would be dishonest for us to claim that “Alan Wake” is not disappointing. It follows a bit too closely on the footsteps of its predecessor, and in a clear sign of videogame’s stagnation, shows little evolution in its ground language and delivery; it has been a wasted decade and the game suffers from it. Though it is moody, sharply scripted and paced, filled with insightful narrative details and brimming with twisted variations on its basic motives, it still tends to enter the action game strut of repeatedly shelling out combat with monsters. While this is clearly meant to afford some ludic appeal, it bars deeper exploration of its aesthetic and semantic dimensions. The game’s greatest achievements – the intimate scenes between Alan and his wife, the open exploration of the wide rural landscape and the psychedelic nightmare trips into Wake’s psyche – end up underdeveloped in favor of the old shooter routine. The experience eventually loses steam and never achieves the heights it initially hints at: Lynch’s bizarre and King’s emotional candour are never fully explored, and some of the final scenes in the game are as linear, shallow and explicit as what we have come to expect from videogames. It’s a shame, because it is clear from the immense care to detail that there is enough talent in Remedy to try and push the bar in similar ways as “Heavy Rain“, or maybe even come close to something like the original “Silent Hill’s”. Yet in the end we only get treated to what is, for the most part, a “Resident Evil 4” look-alike.
Notwithstanding, once the feeling of wasted opportunity dims, it’s hard not to give credit to Remedy for, once again, subverting the rules of the industry in their own benefit, and delivering another shining example of a poignant literary tale, subtly masked as a dreary dumb action game for the mainstream audiences. For in these dark times, one dares not ask for more.