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.
Alan’s mental terrors and doubts are more than a backstory to ground the character in the player’s mind. They also provide the jumping-off point for everything that is to follow. While damaged protagonists in horror games are nothing new, Alan Wake seems determined to make the bruised nature of its central character complicit in creeping out the player as often as possible. Lake says the key factor in this is to find a balance between the mundane and the supernatural elements of the game.
“When you’re crafting an experience like this, it’s important to have a ‘real-world’ normal side to things,” he says. “It’s also important to not plunge the player – and the character – into what is effectively a continuous nightmare. Eventually the player would get numb to this.
“If you keep shifting between the real and the imagined, you can switch effectively between an atmosphere where things feel safe and normal. Then you can suddenly drop the player into a situation where they’re fighting for their lives.”
Beyond its constantly changing mood, Alan Wake‘s splintered narrative blurs the line between what is and isn’t real. Remedy continually uses the tension between fantasy and reality to wrong-foot the player. In one sequence, Wake needs to make his way from a car-wreck to a gas station on a ridge about a mile or so away. After a series of battles, which take him through the woods and then a lumberyard, Wake finds himself in a shack listening to a radio phone-in show where a caller reports a lost dog. The everyday nature of this affable exchange grates against his skirmishes with the supernatural creatures around him. Weirder still, upon reaching the gas station Wake comes across a static-filled TV set. When he tries to switch it off, he sees himself, pacing around a typewriter in a room back at his vacation cabin, muttering and yelling to himself. Is it all a dream? Or is it possible Wake’s writing may be the source of the terrors lurking out in the woods?
“As the game progresses, the player starts to experience these vision-like occurrences of Wake struggling with his writer’s block in mysterious circumstances,” says Lake. “This goes back to a very basic questions in psychological thrillers: What’s real? What’s not? Which side of the screen is reality on? Are you seeing glimpses of the truth, or is this all in Wake’s imagination?”
Alan Wake‘s narrative supports the idea that whatever is going on in this world, the titular character’s fallibility is at the core of it. Even the combat mechanics reinforce the sense that Wake is a genuinely vulnerable character. He’s different from the usual horror game protagonists, who usually become dead-shots with firearms the moment they pick one up. Wake’s sharpshooting skills are negligible at best, and the story doesn’t kick off by endowing players with a large arsenal of guns and ammo. Instead, the tense combat system makes players feel constantly out-matched and under threat: When players draw a bead on an opponent, Wake doesn’t immediately snap onto his target, and the AI isn’t stupid, either – if Wake is set upon by more than one opponent, the moment he aims his weapon at one of them, the others will fan out. This makes the combat into a frantic, tension-filled experience.
In fact, Wake’s limited combat proficiency is likely to be on par with that of most of the players controlling him, something Lake says was intentional. “Very early on in the project, when we were sorting out our main vision, we knew that we wanted the game to center around an everyman,” he says. “We didn’t want an action hero; rather, we wanted someone to grow into the role of a hero.”
Lake says this makes it far easier for the player to get into Wake’s headspace and goes a long way toward ensuring they approach each battle with a sense of caution. Players aren’t likely to be in constant fear for Wake’s survival, but they certainly won’t approach every enemy by simply charging in guns blazing. In a strange inversion for a videogame, the combat is dictated by the nature of the game’s protagonist and not the other way around.
In this way, Alan Wake‘s protagonist is at once players’ entry point into the game and at the same time their greatest opponent. Even early on in the plot, Wake’s doubts and failings seem to drive the otherworldly antagonists and create the waking nightmare in which he find himself. But while the plot might sound like the blurb on the back of a paperback horror novel and its gameplay feels like classic survival-horror, Lake is keen to reinforce the idea that Alan Wake isn’t a horror game in the strictest sense.
“We always knew we wanted to make a thriller rather than a horror game,” he says. “All too often in videogames, ‘horror’ just means blood and gore and monsters. Even if there are many elements in Alan Wake that you would call horror if you saw them pop up in a movie, we feel that ‘thriller’ is a much better definition for what we’re doing.”
While Lake has a point, he may also be underplaying the horror aspect of the game somewhat. Even if Alan Wake‘s sinister antagonists spring from the mind of its protagonist, and even if the overarching doom-and-gloom atmosphere may be a product of his dark mood, that doesn’t make them any less real – or any less frightening. Wake, as a character, is clearly being deployed to unsettle the player from the outset. According to Lake, it’s part of the process of getting the player into Wake’s headspace.
“It’s very important that the main character and the player are in sync,” he says. “So early on, the player will be confused. They’ll be learning the mechanics, but also learning about Alan and his situation. It’s important that the player be as confused as Alan – they need to be feeling like they’re trying to get their bearings.
“The experience should go forward from there,” he continues. “As the player understands more about Alan and his predicament, so does Alan. The two learn at a pace which runs in tandem with each other.”
It’s Lake’s contention that by syncing the player’s emotions with Wake’s and by leaving traditional horror elements to one side, Remedy’s new IP can’t be classed as a horror game. But the irony here is that the game’s central conceit echoes a central theme from the works one of the most celebrated horror writers of all time, H.P. Lovecraft.
One of Lovecraft’s most critically lauded storytelling devices was narrators and protagonists who couldn’t determine if the horrors they were seeing were real or a product their own derangement. Lovecraft also employed the idea of a writer willing supernatural horrors into existence: The “old gods” of his stories were demons trying to return to our world through the written descriptions of those who had encountered them.
Wake’s demons are clearly far more personal, but that doesn’t make them any less horrific. Alan Wake is a game packed with heart-stopping tension and enough chills to fuel a dozen Outer Limits episodes. The splintered narrative recalls David Lynch at his darkest, and story of a writer battling demons in physical form is vintage Stephen King. But beyond its influences, Alan Wake seems to tell the story of a creative yet flawed individual whose doubt and anger causes his grip on reality to slip. Once it’s gone, it seems Wake will tumble into darkness – and there are few places more terrifying to be trapped in than one’s own imagination.
Nick Cowen is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.