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Alan Wake takes video games to an art form (review)

Alan Wake is a work of art, and it’s one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It deserves critical accolades, but the jury is out as to whether it will also be a commercial success.

The famous movie critic Roger Ebert recently wrote an ill-informed post about how video games are not an art form. He did so without playing a variety of highly recommended, artistic games, from Braid to Flower. And he did so without playing Alan Wake, which was developed by Finnish game studio Remedy Entertainment over six years. Published by Microsoft, the game debuted last week on the Xbox 360, to much critical acclaim from everyone except Ebert. If he actually played this game, he’d eat his words.

I give the game a rating of 9.5 out of 10; that’s the highest I’ve given any game in a while. As a psychological thriller, Alan Wake is in a class by itself and is my favorite game so far this year. It has an innovative game style that revolves around manipulating the power of light against the forces of darkness. It is visually arresting and has an atmosphere that is as creepy as the Stephen King novels or horror movies that inspired it. And while it borrows heavily from the pop culture of horror, it’s as original and innovative as a video game can get.

I realize that calling a horror-adventure video game a work of art is like saying that Stephen King is a literary master. But don’t let the medium or genre fool you. An English major in college, I once bristled at anyone who suggested King was an artist; I changed my mind after I read his Dark Tower series (pictured right), which was full of literary references and memorable moments. Those novels opened my mind, and maybe Alan Wake will do the same for those who have shut off their minds to the possibility that games might be art.

As Ebert notes in his article, a starting point for the definition of art comes from Wikipedia: “Art is the process of deliberately arranging elements in a way that appeals to the senses or emotions.”

Video games have plenty of artistic moments that can be appreciated as much as the finest scenes in novels, movies, TV shows, plays, and classical musical concerts. Alan Wake has a lot of moments that are full of fear, humor, revelation, action, and horror. The game comes at a time when other great games — Mass Effect 2, Heavy Rain, God of War III and Tom Clancy’s Splinter Cell Conviction — are showing off the full range of what is possible in video games. I would hope that it is enough to silence the dinosaur-like Eberts. And I hope it is enough to make the game a commercial success, as this kind of game has astronomical costs compared to typical games.

Remedy, which made the popular Max Payne series of shooter games, took about three times longer than the usual time it takes to make a console video game. The budget, financed by Microsoft, is no doubt in the tens of millions. But Microsoft and Remedy have to make bets like these to take games to the next level. They have a vested interest in creating exclusives like Alan Wake on the Xbox 360 so that gamers will buy the machines. If Alan Wake gets gamers to buy an Xbox 360, Microsoft scores points in the battle against Sony and Nintendo. And if they create something deserving of the phrase “artistic,” they can broaden the market beyond hardcore audiences to those that appreciate fine stuff.

The plot unfolds in episodes that are much like TV shows. At the end of each episode is a song that summarizes the feeling behind the episode, much like the songs at the end of the Sopranos episodes did on HBO. The game lasts for six episodes that last about 10 to 12 hours. The business model is clear. If the game is a success, Microsoft can release more episodes for the game via download on its Xbox Live online gaming service.

Like any piece of art, this game has a strong story. It borrows from the story of Stephen King’s Misery novel and David Lynch’s Twin Peaks television show. The main character is Alan Wake, a bestselling horror novelist who has had writer’s block for two years. His wife arranges a vacation in the idyllic Pacific Northwest town of Bright Falls in the hopes that he will shake his inner demons and begin writing again. As he drives there, he slams his car into someone running on the highway. When he tries to see what happened, the body disappears. Wake blacks out, and when he comes to, his nightmare starts. His wife is missing and his latest novel is a thriller that he doesn’t remember writing.

The words for this unpublished novel are coming true right in front of his eyes. This allows the game to foreshadow what’s coming up; you read about an attempted murder and find there is almost no way to dodge it. You feel a certain dread as you realize that you’re walking into a trap. Wake finds that during the night, evil spirits possess the dead and animate them. The spirits, called the Taken, can even animate inanimate objects such as bulldozers or boxes; the only escape from them is to shine a flashlight on them and then dispatch them with a weapon. They materialize out of nowhere in the dark and vanish in a shower of sparks once you vanquish them.

It is quite literally a battle between the forces of light and darkness. Sometimes, the only thing guiding you is the moonlight reflecting off a rocky path. To survive, Wake has to move from one oasis of light to another, all the while searching for his lost wife and making sure his flashlight doesn’t run out of batteries. Meanwhile, he’s being pursued by the cops and a rogue FBI agent. Not only is Wake fighting against the environment. The battle between light and darkness symbolizes his inner turmoil, as he tries to gain control of himself and banish the madness of nightmares and his writer’s block.

At the beginning of the game, with the beginning of what becomes outstanding voice narration, Alan Wake states, “Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations – they are antithetical to the poetry of fear. In a horror story, the victim keeps asking ‘Why?’, but there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end.”

Wake knows that what is going on can’t possibly be happening, but he has to ride the story out to its conclusion, playing by whatever rules work in his nightmare. Rather than being paralyzed, Wake adapts to the nightmare and, in pursuit of his lost wife, becomes increasingly adept at living out the story and taking control of it. His logic is that if he’s living inside a Twilight Zone episode, he might as well do what it takes to survive.

The story holds your attention. But the real test of a great game comes down to a simple question: is it fun to play? Alan Wake is indeed fun. When you first clash with the Taken, you shine a flashlight on them to stun them. A colorful burst of light erupts and then they are disabled to the point where you can hurt them with gunfire. The action takes place in third person, with you looking over Wake’s shoulder as the action unfolds.

You have to be a master of the game controls, juggling the different tasks of shining a flashlight, shooting your guns, inserting new batteries, and reloading your weapon. There is always an oasis of light ahead of you, whether it’s a gas station light or a street lamp. You have to get there before the Taken stop you and surround you. What makes this dynamic more fun is the special ammo you find along the way. You can use flares, flare guns, or flashbang grenades to take out a bunch of Taken at the same time. When you are hopelessly surrounded, you can use a piece of this precious ammo to free yourself. You start with a revolver, but find shotguns, rifles, and cars. It can be quite satisfying to fry the Taken with your car headlights and then run them over (pictured, above). Every fight is a desperate and intense combat experience. That is why this game will hold the attention of hardcore gamers. And when you use your flares, the light show that results is an amazing visual display akin to a Pink Floyd laser light show. One of the best scenes of the game is akin to a fireworks show above a rock concert.

In the game, the terrain is a big factor in how you play. This is not an open world where you can do anything, but any given area is sizable. That means you have to read the terrain and figure out how you’re going to get through the enemies and on to your next light haven. The Taken always try to surround you and come at you with scythes, knives, axes, or chain saws. But you can use the terrain against them by blowing up propane gas tanks.

The graphics are by-and-large beautiful, although flaws show up frequently in the animations. From Cauldron Lake to the town of Bright Falls, the depiction of natural beauty is wonderful. The water is reflective. The forests are full of foliage with wind-blown trees, bushes, plants and dirt. At night, the malevolent Dark Presence takes control and a scary mood takes over. The foliage then becomes a place where the enemies can hide and ambush you. In every match, you have to conserve your ammo because you never know how long it will be before you find more. At every checkpoint, you find a convenient emergency kit with flashlight batteries and ammunition.

The characters in the game are well done. There is a lot of depth to the relationship between Wake and his lost wife, Alice. The Sheriff adds the voice of authority and reason. And Wake’s sidekick and literary agent, Barry (pictured in red, right), provides the comic relief in the story, making cracks like he’s heading off into Mordor in the Lord of the Rings. The voice acting of Wake, Barry, and Wake’s wife is particularly good. There are plenty of twists in the plot, like when Alan Wake finds that he is not the only writer who has lived through this nightmare.

The dialogue is good and the references to pop culture are many. I liked that because it means that the game is aware of what has come before it and is trying to build on top of that heritage. It means the storyteller is acknowledging that the gamer is smart enough to catch these references. When an ax comes through a door, Wake quips that he half expects Jack Nicholson’s crazy character from The Shining, Stanley Kubrick’s film based on a Stephen King novel, to make an appearance. When black crows attack, a character remarks it’s like a scene out of Hitchcock (a homage to the horror film The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock). The Pacific Northwest setting is reminiscent of the small town environment of Twin Peaks. The lone FBI agent is another homage to the David Lynch TV show. When you turn on a TV set, you see excerpts from a show called Nightwings, which is a lot like The Twilight Zone.

There are some silly things in the game that wreck some of the mood. You can collect blue coffee thermoses in the game, collecting points. That detracts from the narrative of the story and reminds you that you are playing game. While some of the visual effects are spectacular, others are flawed. The lip sync is sometimes way off. After six years of development, I’d expect these little  problems to have been fixed. In that sense, the game is not as good a visual masterpiece as Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, which had spectacular visuals that pushed the PlayStation 3 to its limit.

You can play the game in a variety of ways. You can try to get from point A to point B as fast as possible, fighting as little as needed and driving onward to each safe haven. Or you can scour the bushes and side paths for pages from the manuscript or other goodies. Some of the action gets tedious, as you realize at some point that you have seen every kind of Taken possible. And when you find a big cache of ammunition, you can psychologically prepare yourself for a big battle just around the corner. That takes away from the element of surprise in the game.

But the overall atmosphere of the game is memorable. You feel the need to search out the well-lighted places in the darkness and find the next revealing page of the manuscript. The game has a combination of fun action, spooky and tense pacing, satisfying visuals, and a story arc that comes full circle, which makes it one of the best games of the year so far.

Is it art? There are plenty of ways to twist the definition of the word so that it suits your point of view. For me, it is an original work that affected me in a way that was truly memorable. I don’t feel so much like I won the game by completing it. Rather, I feel like I experienced Alan Wake.


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