Something seems to have been lost in recent horror videogames. Sure, next-gen consoles can practically hurl gore and viscera through the TV screen, and the monsters have never looked more real (or more vile). But unless players can sympathize with the protagonist of whatever hi-def nightmare they're in, the horror will never truly hit home. How, then, will gamers react to Alan Wake, a game in which the horror stems from the vulnerable and conflicted nature of the protagonist they inhabit?
Developed by Remedy Entertainment, the studio behind Max Payne 1 and 2, Alan Wake is an altogether different type of horror experience. It doesn't contain demons or monsters. There are no gore-splattered scenes of carnage, and the titular character isn't some super soldier armed to the teeth with exotic weaponry. Instead, the game unveils its horrors gradually and cerebrally by inserting them into the damaged headspace of its lead character.
The game's head-writer, Sam Lake, doesn't even classify it as a horror title in the strictest sense."Alan Wake is a psychological action thriller," he says. "We want to give players a heart-pounding thrill-ride, and so we've combined the mind a of psychological thriller with the body of a cinematic action game."
I wasn't sure what to expect from the game when I had the chance to play it for an hour during a recent trip to Remedy's studios in Finland. I was mainly there to talk to Lake, the man who also penned Max Payne, about why Remedy's new game had been in development for six years. (Short answer: They have a 45-person team doing the amount of work a company like EA would employ around 2,000 to do.) But something happened between Lake's presentation and the end of my time with Alan Wake: The character started to grow on me. In fact, in the short hour I had with the game, Wake came across as one of the most compelling, fully realized protagonists in recent memory.
"We wanted to create a protagonist who felt like a real person," Lake says, "someone who has a background, who has problems and who has strengths and weaknesses. Someone who has a human touch. You very, very rarely in videogames - especially in action games - have main characters who have this. Alan's got problems - with things like his marriage, his work - and all of this lends him depth."
Alan's troubles are evident right from the start, as he and his wife arrive in the small town of Bright Falls. The pair are ostensibly on vacation, but in reality Wake's on the run from his publisher. He's battling writer's block, which has lasted for so long he's become plagued with doubt over whether his talent has completely dried up. Not only that, but he's started having nightmares in which he attacked by shadowy figures wielding axes and knives.