Full disclosure: Remedy provided me a free download code for Alan Wake’s American Nightmare for this article.
With its new Xbox Live Arcade release, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, developer Remedy has temporarily eschewed the first game’s pseudo "DVD boxed set" episodic format in favor of a standalone “pulp action adventure.” As a shooter, it works fine; the encounters are thrilling, the weapons are suitably bonkers (and include a combat shotgun straight out of The Expendables – video NSFW), and the enemies are increasingly ridiculous.
As much fun as it is, however, it’s hardly pulp. Despite its grindhouse-inspired title screen, silly action sequences, and the road-movie/serial-killer storyline, it still feels like Alan Wake. It’s an odd complaint to make, but American Nightmare is too well-written to be pulp, and its plot and set pieces evoke neither grindhouse nor low-rent fiction; it feels more like a sidequest from the original than “Alan Wake’s Crazy-Ass Adventure.”
Having said that, Remedy’s idea of telling a one-shot story in a different genre is a good one even though American Nightmare doesn’t explore it far enough. I’d be interested to see the writer appear in additional separate projects between “seasons,” but if they’re going to do it, they shouldn’t be afraid to go all out. Here are three suggestions for other genres the developer might take on.
Lovecraftian detective horror
OK, I know that’s really specific. I'm talking about a subgenre of a subgenre, but it would also be a great fit for the world of Alan Wake. If you’ve ever seen the movie HBO film Cast a Deadly Spell – and only a few people I know have — you’ll know what I’m talking about.
Besides lending itself more readily to the pulp vibe that Remedy was going for in American Nightmare, this type of story would build upon the Lovecraftian "ancient unspeakable horror" references that already exist in the original game. It would also work considering the fact that Alan Wake, like a noir detective, can’t resist the urge to narrate and comment upon everything he does. Casting the writer as a hardboiled detective confronting a shadow out of time would not only be a refreshing shift from the “summer-read thriller" tone of the other games, but it would also allow the developers to return to the kind of hard-bitten, overwrought dialogue and characters that they did so well in Max Payne.
Monster-of-the-week TV drama
One of the best parts of Alan Wake is its format: The story unfolds as if the player is watching a season of a television show on DVD. Each “episode” was a self-contained story with a beginning, middle, and end, with the metaplot of Wake’s search for his wife running through it all.
Remedy could push the episodic nature of Wake even further with installments resembling The X-Files, or go back even further to something like Kolchak: The Night Stalker, the show that The X-Files shamelessly ripped off. Every episode, newspaper reporter Carl Kolchak investigated a different mysterious crime, providing narration via the articles he wrote about the events. It was cheesy and often silly, but damn if Darren McGavin didn’t give it all he had.
If continuity is out the window (as it may very well be in American Nightmare), Wake could be portrayed as a similarly snoopy reporter or Fox Mulder-style outcast. He could also get bonus points for staring down the police when they walk in on him straight-up murdering a vampire. American Nightmare approaches this format with one-off villain (or is he?!) Mr. Scratch, but his appearance in the previous game anchors him in the larger story instead of letting him truly stand alone.
American Nightmare is presented as an episode of Night Springs, the Alan Wake universe’s version of The Twilight Zone. What this amounts to is that a Rod Serling sound-a-like will occasionally pop in to drop some cryptic narration on you. It works well — that is, until you remember the creepy little Night Springs shorts you could watch on TVs in the first game; Nightmare’s plot never approaches the weirdness or carefree ridiculousness of episodes like “Quantum Suicide.”
A blueprint exists for a new take on the anthology idea, however, and it’s not The Twilight Zone. Instead, imagine Alan Wake as The Crypt Keeper.
He could probably do without the cleaver in the heart, though.
The difference between the Crypt Keeper and Rod Serling is one of involvement: While Serling’s role on The Twilight Zone was merely to present these stories to you in a casual, almost clinical manner, in the original EC books, I always got the impression that the various “hosts” were offering tales of their own creation, as implied by the constant bickering and trash-talking that went on between them.
Feeling like the Crypt Keeper, Vault Keeper, and Old Witch have personally written their stories to share with readers made me feel closer to the books. Serling always felt removed somehow, like he had nothing invested at all. When I watch The Twilight Zone, I always feel like I’m watching TV. When I read EC books, I feel like I’m being let in on something.
According to the first game, Alan Wake wrote several episodes of Night Springs. Imagine a scenario in which he presents a few of them that are unconnected except for the fact that they all involve the Darkness in some way. Playing as different characters in these stories would open up the game universe and allow the developers to explore different facets of the world they have created. It would broaden the scope while still keeping attention centered on Wake himself.
I don’t mean to say that I found American Nightmare disappointing. Quite the opposite — I want more games like this. I hope that if Remedy pursues more bite-sized titles after the inevitable Alan Wake 2 (if the Steam sales numbers are any indication) that they will really let themselves go. It’s a series about creativity, after all, and the world can always use more of that.