E3 2009: The Five: Alan Wake
The Skinny: Remedy's kept Alan Wake under the covers a long time. The studio responsible for the Max Payne series first announced the supernatural thriller in 2005. The titular character's a best-selling novelist who comes to the Pacific Northwest with his wife Alice to crack a two-year-long case of writer's block. But, Alice vanishes mysteriously, and he becomes desperately focused on finding out what's happened to her. Take a gander and see if Alan Wake's fevered imagination is enough to rouse your interest.
1. As he starts to investigate his wife's disappearance, Wake encounters shadowy enemies controlled by a supernatural force. Fighting them off, it comes to light that Alan's trapped in a hell of his own devising. The happenings in the small town mirror the events in a manuscript he doesn't remember writing. He's literally the architect of his own nightmare, and the pages of his forgotten work hold the only clues as to what happened to his wife.
2. Unlike the foggy, foreboding locales in series like Silent Hill and Resident Evil, Bright Falls looks like a place where I'd go for vacation. With tucked-away cabins, scenic paths and ocean-side views, the quaint town looks like the last place you'd expect grisly murders and disturbing phenomena. The outdoor environments I saw invoked an especially believable sense of place, and should make the terror more palpable.
3. Alan may be exceptionally handy with firearms for a writer, but his animations make it clear that he's anything but another tough-guy protagonist. As he fights off silhouetted woodsmen and other enemies, Alan's panicked run and stumbling dodges tell the player that he's out of his depth and scared silly. The details speak to a strong emphasis on characterization. Even the comic relief -- Alan's literary agent Barry -- feels like a personality with a vested interest in Alan's well-being.
4. When darkness is your enemy, light's your most potent weapon. If Alan's going to survive, a simple flashlight's far more important than a sawed-off shotgun. The enemies he faces in the game thrive in darkness, and by shining a beam of light on them, he can weaken them enough to kill them. It's not just murky lumberjacks and corrupted wildlife that menace the wordsmith. Inanimate objects like chairs and typewriters will careen at Alan, and vehicles will start up and try to run him down.
5. The game's narrative apes that of a television-show season. Levels begin with a recap and end with cliffhangers, as Alan talks about where he is in his search to find Alice. The episodic structure could work on multiple levels: It's a metatextual riff that winks back at the audience; the cliffhanger rhythm keeps the player guessing; and the first-person voiceover lets us bond with Alan even more.
The Crispy Forecast: Sunny, in a cool, dry Pacific Northwest kind of way. You can argue that Alan Wake may never live up to four years of expectations, but given Remedy's track record with Max Payne, I'd say it deserves the benefit of the doubt. Remedy knows how to communicate psychological tension, and if it manages to keep the gameplay interesting, Alan Wake may be a sleeper hit in 2010.
This preview is based on a developer-driven demo of the game at E3 2009.