Fear is the defining thread of Alan Wake, but some types of fear work better for the game than others. The most compelling terror in this action thriller is evoked by Bright Falls, the small Pacific Northwest town where superstar novelist Alan Wake goes to relax with his wife, Alice. When Alice disappears, Wake forges into Bright Falls’ inky, ominous back woods to unravel the mystery—which he seems to have written himself, judging by the manuscript pages he finds amid the gloom.
The unsettling ambience complements your main nemeses, the Taken, who are local villagers turned evil by all-consuming shadow. As Wake, you have to burn away the enemies’ shade with your trusty flashlight—or the occasional flare—before you can gun them down. Thus the typical scrum plays out in streaks of light and frantic gunfire, a gorgeous visual representation of panic. The game creates a craving for light and a corresponding dread of the inevitable dark stretches.
But Alan Wake is undermined by another sort of anxiety: the developers’ fear that, after they spent five years on the game, players might not get it. This neurosis is embodied by the protagonist, whose patronizing narration overexplains even the most minor turning points. No allusion goes unexplicated: Wake notes, David Brent-style, that an ax murderer chopping at the door is “like Nicholson in The Shining.” He also manages to spoil the already-easy puzzles. “The Viking boat looked imposing, almost like a battering ram,” he intones, 30 seconds before you use a Viking boat as a battering ram. It’s the stuff of drinking games—take a shot every time Wake says something that any sentient observer would already know. The exposition is a minor distraction at first, but it’s so clumsy, frequent, and predictable that it becomes a hilarious sideshow. Not exactly the right vibe for a thriller.
The narration is the centerpiece of a misguided effort to keep players from drawing their own conclusions. That’s a disappointment, given the enormous potential here. As you piece together the details of your plight, Alan Wake weaves a sophisticated, gripping story about love and the nature of creativity—one that incorporates conventions of film, TV, and books, yet feels like it could only be told in game form. A shame, then, that the developers didn’t have enough confidence in their audience to deliver the masterpiece they had within their grasp.