The collective groan of frustration that occurred when it turned out that Alan Wake wasn’t coming back made me laugh quite a lot. For those of you that don’t know, development team Remedy recently got themselves a trademark for the name “Alan Wake’s Return,” and for a while everyone got super excited at the prospect of the infamous writer’s re-emergence.
But the rumour was junk. The trademark was apparently connected to a small easter egg thing in Quantum Break, and Remedy had no intention of pulling their former star out of retirement. Or should that be “out of the shadows?”.
Sorry, bad joke. Is it too soon?
I actually had a fair bit of respect for the 2010 Alan Wake game. It wasn’t perfect and had a lot of flaws, but even now it’s fairly unique and had a clear sense of heart and enthusiasm thrumming from every facet. So with that in mind, what would we like to see from the hypothetical Alan Wake 2? Considering there was an abandoned prototype revealed last year, and the fact that no franchise can stay dead these days, it may be less hypothetical than we think.
BRING BACK “NIGHT SPRINGS”
One of the gameplay aspects that Alan Wake offered was collectables out the wazoo, with coffee thermoses, manuscript pages and stacks of cans lying around so frequently that it suggested that Bright Falls was in dire need of a clean-up. But the one kind of collectable that was worth hunting was “Night Springs,” a bunch of television sets that played one of Alan’s former shows when turned on.
And Night Springs was surprisingly good(in a goofy sort of way), a quirky homage to series like The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Tales From The Darkside. It managed to be just cheesy enough without going overboard and had some interesting ideas that sometimes outmatched those that the main game was working with. A bit embarrassing for the developers, but fun for the viewers at least.
Each episode lasted a few minutes and had some silly but engaging thought at the heart of it. What if your mirror reflection became sentient? What if you were a figment of somebody else’s dream? What if a scientist worked out he could make himself immortal by killing parallel versions of himself instead? I ended up shouting angrily at the shadow murderers outside to keep quiet and let me watch my show in peace. I can forgive brutally killing people with axes, but don’t yell obscenities at the TV when I’m trying to listen. That’s just rude.
ADD MORE ENEMY TYPES
And speaking of the shadow murderers, this leads me on to my second point. As effective as the possessed killers were, they couldn’t hold impact forever, and ended up becoming part of the routine. Which is a real issue, because if there’s one thing that isn’t scary, it’s routine. And aside from them, there were only two other forms of antagonist: overactive inanimate objects trying to give you a flying bearhug, and flocks of temperamental birds that were more annoying than frightening.
You could tell they were running out of ideas when the hero got in a fight with a combine harvester, one that wasn’t even being driven by anybody. That’s not a battle that should be difficult, Alan Wake. That’s like getting shot at by a gun hanging on the wall, or choked by a piece of string lying on the table.
So let’s have some new kinds of baddies to shake things up. It shouldn’t be hard to think of things. What about having the darkness manifest into sentient creatures? What about having people other than lumberjacks get controlled by evil forces? What about animals other than crows turning on you? I’d be more than happy to see a wolf, bear or puma going crazy with shadow powers, and all of those animals would fit into the mountainous forests that make up the world we play in. Oh, and on THAT note…
KEEP THE ENVIRONMENT DESIGN
If there was one thing that Alan Wake excelled at, it was atmosphere, brought forth by the creepy aesthetic and excellent lighting. The dark woods, the low eldritch light, the heavy mist, the constant feeling that you were being watched from anywhere and everywhere. You couldn’t see more than ten feet without a sheer wall of dark fog obscuring your vision into a hazy blur, where any shape could be a killer lurking in wait. Silent Hill would’ve been proud.
So keep that up, because it works. It’s not like Alan Wake is thriving on good graphics (and certainly not facial animation) because it’s thriving on visual design and style, all adding up to a sense of genuinely harrowing paranoia. If the guy responsible for this superb creation didn’t get some sort of award, raise or promotion, then the world is broken and I want no part of it… Which may be why I spend most of my time in digital simulations and fantasy lands.
GIVE ALAN A WORKOUT
Now, I know why they did it. In the typical horror game, the controls are usually made to be clunky on purpose, to make you feel out of control and vulnerable. I don’t have a problem with that, at least in theory. I also understand that Alan isn’t a trained space marine, or a super-soldier, or even a policeman. He writes airport thrillers, is hitting middle age and drinks too much, so there’s no reason for him to be the peak of physical fitness.
However, there is a limit to what this allows. Mister Alan Wake finds running harder than a new-born baby. He should feel quite humiliated about it, if nothing else. At regular movement speed he trundles forward like a damaged mobility scooter. Holding down the sprint button gives him a much-appreciated kick up the bum, but it only lasts for about ten seconds before he has to double over in exhaustion and clutch the stitch in his side, maybe sit down and have a cup of tea while he’s at it. And they gave Barry shtick for being overweight! They seem to have forgotten that the protagonist moves like a coma patient on Valium, and nearly collapses when he tries for anything more.
Please fix this for the next game. You don’t have to copy Saints Row 4 and make him able to break the sound barrier, just enable him to jog through a supermarket without needing medical assistance afterwards. Otherwise, I’ll want to kill him in frustration, and I know he won’t be able to outrun me if it comes to that.
PICK A GENRE AND STICK WITH IT
Now don’t get me wrong, the story in Alan Wake started off well. Very well, actually. That first act was so absorbing that my laptop somehow drank my orange juice without issue. But after that… Well, the plot went bonkers, quite frankly, and not in a good way. It started as traditional 90’s horror, then became slasher-suspense, then briefly became power-fantasy and action-comedy, then it threw in some thriller and drama for good measure and OH MY GOD WILL YOU JUST PICK ONE, PLEASE.
The biggest mistake it made was blending intrigue and otherworldly horror. A good mystery demands to be solved in a satisfactory way, otherwise it isn’t serving the story. But nothing takes the sting out of scary, supernatural beings like calmly explaining them in detail, so that wasn’t going to fly, not entirely.
And you can feel them trying to resolve this issue throughout, whilst doing justice to that superb start too. But it doesn’t work – you can’t explain something and somehow leave it a mystery, and Alan Wake never reasserts itself completely after the intro.
But they both have potential as genres, the writers just need to commit to one of them if Alan Wake 2 is to happen. Slightly supernatural mystery can work. Unknowable horrors lurking beyond the veil of our perception can work. They just don’t gel together, so don’t make them try. If I had to choose, I’d suggest going with the second of those two options, but you can make either work. You just can’t have your possessed cake and hack it to pieces with a chainsaw too.
LOSE THE MANUSCRIPT IDEA
This bit features spoilers, so skip if you’re still planning to play this six-year-old game, the one that doesn’t cost much and you’re reading an article on, the game that’s available on most hardware and was never hard to get hold of… Basically, no whining about spoilers, OK? Good.
Regardless, one of the early plot strings is that Alan has lost a week of his memory, one he apparently spent writing a new book that he’s forgotten. Now the book is coming true, and he’s living through it, discovering pages of the thing as he goes through his adventure.
But this whole idea comes to nothing, in a manner that’s absolutely surreal. Alan never uses his knowledge of what’s coming to help himself or plan accordingly, and it takes him three hours to work out the simple fact that the book is coming true, even when the audience has long accepted and adapted to it. Even his acknowledgement of the truth is weirdly casual, almost a throwaway comment. Yeah, yeah, my unknown novel is manifesting around my eyes in a terrible spiral of growing terror and madness. Whatever, CBA.
This concept of altering reality also comes with a whole spectrum of complications, complications that open more plot holes than they do solve them. Alan was trapped and trying to write an exit for himself – OK, I can swallow that – but why does he have to kill people in the story, considering they’ll actually die and he knows this? Why can’t he write a fun sex-comedy-road-trip for his escape or even just the words “everybody wins and gets ice cream”?
And once you start thinking of these problems, they don’t stop. Why can he write some Deus Ex Machina events to help him out later, but not all the time? How can he also change the distant past with his writing, which causes somebody to write something into existence to help Alan back in the present, thus ending in the mother of all paradoxes and giving me a headache? And if the book isn’t finished, what happens when we get through to the end? Does good old-fashioned chaos theory take over, or does everything fade to white and be replaced with a sign saying “back in five minutes”? Can’t Alan read what’s coming and try to do something else?
Seriously, don’t try to make too much sense of this plot thread, because your brain will start fizzing like a shaken cola bottle. I tried laying it out on paper, and it was so surreal that it might as well have been written by the Swedish Chef from The Muppet Show. “What’s that, Alan? You say the darkness is orndesh dee born flim bork cakensmoosher? My goodness, that’s terrible.”
Actually, I think there’s an idea there for a cameo in Alan Wake 2. Who’s going to start the online petition, you or me?