How long does one have to wait for a game before the reality can’t possibly live up to expectations? We have no answer to the question, no comforting equation to turn this nagging concern into something quantifiable, something real. All we know is that seven years ago we finished playing Max Payne 2, five years ago Microsoft announced a new project from Remedy Entertainment, and a few days ago we finally placed the Alan Wake disc in the Xbox 360 tray, and sat down to play it.
Just what happened in the seven years between Remedy’s last videogame and its latest has been the subject of some intense discussions. The official version of events is that this relatively small studio was simply taking its time, marshalling its limited staff to achieve the best possible results on what is an enormously ambitious project. The unofficial version encompasses a variety of theories, from a premature announcement brought on by the pressure of the console war, to creative issues causing the entire game to be put on hold and then restarted from scratch.
The only truth that really matters is the disc in the tray. A critic should be concerned with the product, not the labour, but that maxim won’t halt the tide of reviews that hold Alan Wake to nebulous standards, as if somewhere beyond all of the pixels, physics and mechanics there will be a simple solution to the seven-year riddle that has played out in our heads.
However, just as in nature, the enthusiast’s brain abhors a vacuum, and the silence that followed Alan Wake’s E3 2005 launch trailer had to be filled by something. With no guidance from its publisher or developer, that ‘something’ was idle speculation, and now the game will be greeted by a multiplicity of expectations. Silent Hill? Alone In The Dark? Twin Peaks?The collected works of Stephen King? All have been cited in relation to Alan Wake, and you’ve no doubt created your own personal cocktail of anticipation in response. Our advice: leave it all behind because, in terms of atmosphere and experience, Remedy has crafted something far lighter and more accessible than its reference points suggest.
Admittedly, things get off to a poor start. When Stephen King’s fiction has been widely publicised as a key inspiration, it’s probably best not to open with a voiceover saying, “Stephen King once wrote…” Similarly, when a growling, axe-wielding psychopath chases the main character into a wooden shack, it’s probably best for his voiceover to avoid describing the pursuer as, “like Jack Nicholson in The Shining.” It’s as if Remedy was so keen to flaunt its research that it briefly considered making Alan Wake a parody. Thankfully, these clumsy nods and winks are quickly reined in, but the voiceover continues to cause problems for most of the game’s opening episode.
We can understand the reasoning: Alan Wake is the story of an author’s fiction taking form in the real world, so having the main character narrate the events in voiceover seems like a neat touch. However, all too often it merely condescends to the player, describing what is already known or abundantly clear. Wake is searching for a generator to power the lights in a house, and finds one in a dilapidated shack outside. “An old generator,” he says. “Perhaps there’s a way to get it working.” A little later, Wake is outside when the lights in the house go out, and his wife begins to scream. “The lights had gone out in the cabin,” he observes, instantly destroying any tension the moment might otherwise have built.