There are plenty of psychological horror games out there, but only one evokes a mix of fear and excitement in gamers by simply speaking its name. This meticulously built psychological experience from Remedy weaves a nail-biting story into gameplay that uses the elements of light and darkness like never before. Thirteen years later Remedy is finally getting the chance to deliver on its vision of a sequel, but before its release, the first Alan Wake is still a must-play experience for any fan of horror — especially now that it’s free with PlayStation Plus.
Right from the jump, it’s clear Alan Wake is heavily inspired by Twin Peaks, and writer Sam Lake has been vocal about how much the David Lynch series inspired him. What’s brilliant about Alan Wake, however, is that it doesn’t just draw from Twin Peaks for inspiration, it uses that storytelling style as a springboard to create an experience that’s only possible in a video game.
Alan Wake revolves around a best-selling mystery writer of the same name who’s currently in a bit of a writing slump. Because of that, Alan and his wife Alice take a trip and get away to the quaint town of Bright Falls, Washington. Things immediately start getting weird as Alan meets the quirky inhabitants of the town and starts having visions. After Alice vanishes, Alan starts finding pages from a horror novel that he’s written but doesn't remember — and the words on the page start happening in real life.
Every one of Remedy’s games is great at building atmosphere, but Alan Wake is the best example the studio has of creating atmospheric horror. The pages from Alan’s books bring forces of darkness to life, literally drenching Bright Falls in shadow. His only defense is light, either from various street lamps or the flashlight you carry. The entire experience is built around this idea of safety in the light versus danger in the dark, which creates a fantastic visual aesthetic.
Alan Wake is presented as a kind of TV series, with chapters of the game acting as “episodes.” There’s an impeccable tale weaved throughout the experience, diving into Alan’s psyche and insecurities just as much as it involves paranormal events. There’s so much detail crammed into this world, from the in-game Twilight Zone-esque TV series Night Springs to the notes you can find detailing daily life in the cozy mountain town.
The narrative of Alan Wake is basically a psychological thriller layered on top of a Max Payne-esque action experience. The mysterious otherworldly power haunting Alan can bring inanimate objects to life, on top of creating shadow people known as “The Taken” that hound his every move. In order to defeat enemies you need to use your flashlight to burn the darkness off of enemies, which then makes it possible to damage them using your guns.
The shooting in Alan Wake feels surprisingly great, even today, with tight shooting and a nail-biting dodge option that feels every bit as intuitive as Resident Evil 3’s dodge. It’s not quite a survival horror experience, but Alan Wake does put a bit of an emphasis on managing your ammo and flashlight batteries.
Meticulous pacing helps keep the story surging forward, while the game introduces a host of environmental options and new weapons to keep things interesting. One of the best aspects of combat, however, is the optional manuscript pages that you can find scattered around the world. These pages describe events that have yet to happen, and if you’re vigilant you can find hints on upcoming combat encounters, caches of supplies, and more. It’s a clever way to integrate collectibles directly into both the story and gameplay experience.
Alan Wake was undoubtedly overlooked when it debuted in 2010, but it’s a game that’s aged like fine wine. Remedy was clearly onto something with this Twin Peaks-y world of light and darkness, and Alan’s story of his work coming to life is one of the most gripping thrillers you can find in video games — at least until the sequel arrives.