Alan Wake: Of intrigue and light

I have become a highly demanding gamer. New titles have five minutes in which to grab me. If the intro montage is too long or the gameplay anything less than spectacular, they’ve lost me. Gone are the days where I had hours to spend in front of a console after school or between classes. What I need now is short, potent doses of escapism, delivered without prelude, so I can get back to work.

Alan Wake is one of the few titles in the last year that gripped me from the get-go and kept me glued for longer than the gameplay tutorial. And that isn’t because it delivered on premise, but rather because it didn’t.

What I was promised was an action thriller from the creators of Max Payne with a clever gameplay gimmick involving light. With bad memories of the flashlight in Doom 3, I was immediately skeptical of the light-bit. The title also seemed a bit lame, tying the lead character to the storyline a bit too literally.

What I got was an intriguing storyline with robust gameplay and gorgeous graphics. Elements that, on their own, would not hold up – but combined to keep me interested and wanting more after the first play.

Alan Wake is not “scary”. The zombie-like foes one faces in the game are about as frightening as a stumble in the dark. There is little suspense or believable danger – but the psychological element that underpins the story is compelling and this is part of why I like this game so much.

You are Alan Wake, a famous writer who is escaping to an island on a lake in the country with your partner Alice for a much needed break. But everything goes pear-shaped when your dream-states start merging with the real world. People and objects referred to as ‘The taken’ are after you. Some of them are characters from your books, others are people from the local community of Bright Falls.

It’s not the most ingenious of story-lines but in the world of video games is about as intelligent as they get. There are also absorbing little additions to the story – such as references to old-school scuba diving in the murky waters around the island – that keep the intrigue going.

Alan Wake also breaks the mold of immersive storytelling in games that all too often happens at the expense of gameplay – which was one of the reasons I didn’t like Heavy Rain much.

Then there’s the gameplay. This is a third-person shooter, with a twist. The Taken are pretty unstoppable in the dark, but shed some light on the matter (sorry, couldn’t resist) and it impedes them allowing you more time to take them down with a gun. You can use a torch to slow down or knock back your enemies and a flare gun can be used to spectacularly blow away groups of Taken.

Whereas this approach to gameplay could’ve turned out to be more annoying than anything else, in practice it just works. The only improvement I would’ve added is some form of targetting system, ala GTA.

Another effective gameplay element is that you can dodge axe-swings and the like which leads to a brief, slow-motion cinematic sequence that is highly satisfying.

This is undoubtedly one of the most intelligent video games I’ve played and a coup for Microsoft in that it is exclusive to the Xbox 360. It remains to be seen how long it will manage to keep me intrigued, but for now Bright Falls will be a preferred destination for my brief spurts of escapism.

I'm a writer and broadcaster who also designs apps and strategies for disruptive startups in the financial world. Find out more on my about page.