Video games can scare you in ways that movies can’t. The fear you experience watching a movie character walk into a spooky-looking room is very different than the fear that comes when you’re the one making said character do the walking. Remedy Games, the designers of the new psychological thriller “Alan Wake,” know the difference between the two.
“Alan Wake” delivers not only a horror game experience but a commentary on creativity in games as well. It announces its metatextual ambitions almost immediately, when an assailant says, “Cheap thrills and pretentious shit! That’s all you’re good for. Just look at me.” The game, available only on the Xbox 360, revolves around the title character, a former hotshot novelist who’s lost his mojo. After two years of implacable writer’s block, his wife Alice cajoles him into taking a vacation to de-stress. Once they arrive at the quaint town of Bright Falls, Washington, the couple gets into a fight, and Alan storms out. Just as he’s beginning to cool down, Alice’s screams echo from their rented lake house. By the time Alan returns home, both it and Alice have disappeared.
These set-up scenes, which explicitly deal with mundane concerns like blocked creativity and marital stress, establish the mature, naturalistic tone that runs through the entirety of “Alan Wake.” Even when it’s revealed that Bright Falls is haunted by a necromantic energy called the Dark Presence, there’s nothing in the way of bombast and the gameplay remains elegantly simple. Whenever Alan fights the Taken — the citizens of Bright Falls possessed by the Dark Presence — he needs to point a flashlight at them to slow them down and make them susceptible to gunfire. The Dark Presence also throws inanimate objects and birds at you, and you need to scavenge around for batteries and guns in the game’s gorgeous Pacific Northwest forests to keep yourself alive. There’s some incidental bits of puzzle-solving, but “Alan Wake” is mostly about creeping through an all-encompassing darkness that could, at any minute, coalesce into human form and chop your head off.
“Alan Wake” sets itself in opposition to the mechanics of most stealth action games, where darkness is typically your ally and your weapon. Here, you actually need light to survive. And unlike other “everyman” video game heroes — “Uncharted”‘s Nathan Drake, for example — Wake is no man of action. He’s always outmanned and frequently outgunned. Don’t go looking for a button that throws a punch either, because the guy can’t fight (he’s a writer, remember). He yelps and staggers in a confrontation. He’s the anti-tough guy.