Last weekend, a $30 game that had been on my Steam wishlist for a while, Alan Wake, finally went on sale, and I snatched it for $3. Alas, the reason it was on sale was because the game’s music licenses were expiring, and so this sale was a final chance to buy the game digitally, unless the developers decide to renew the licenses.
I don’t want to encourage binging on games, but I admittedly binged on this game, spending most of my weekend on the eleven-to-twelve hours I took to beat it. I probably wouldn’t have went that far in that short a time if a few hours in I hadn’t skimmed through the reviews on Steam and saw one that mentioned that it doesn’t have a happy ending. So, my Last of Us PTSD kicked in and drove me to finish it before Twilight Princess so that I’d have something uplifting to finish afterwards (I made the mistake of making last year’s playthrough of Ocarina of Time before my lone playthrough of The Last of Us).
Given that it’s a zombie-ish mostly-shooter, it certainly reminded me of The Last of Us, even Half-Life 2 (though any action-horror game with a gritty art style, including The Last of Us, reminds me of Half-Life 2). But Alan Wake is neither post-apocalyptic nor dystopian; rather, it’s a psychological/supernatural horror-thriller broken up into six episodes, an homage to Stephen King and Twin Peaks; given how I’ve neither seen Twin Peaks nor read/seen hardly any Stephen King, I can get much more invested in this type of stuff if I’m playing it.
The game itself doesn’t ignore its inspirations; the titular protagonistic writer Alan Wake mentions a couple of times that Stephen King was one of his inspirations growing up, only to find his life turn into a Stephen King novel when he vacations with his wife Alice to the Washington town of Bright Falls. …Or rather, it’s his own novel come to life, quite literally.
Given the T-rating, none of the violence, despite a few particularly harrowing deaths, is as viscerally unsettling as anything from The Last of Us nor as manipulatively mean-spirited as anything from Half-Life 2. The weapon-wielding zombie creatures in question are also still a bit human, except they’re possessed by the same entity of darkness that’s brought Alan’s work, which he only knows about by finding pages of it scattered throughout the town as he has no memories of writing it, to life and can be most easily vaporized by bullets when the light of a flashlight penetrates their forcefields. Though the easiest ways to vaporize them are with flashbangs and flare guns, and the easiest way to escape them is by standing in the light of a lamppost.
While I enjoyed the spooky thrills, the constant action, especially in the last two episodes, often gets in the way of what really kept me invested: the storyline. Not only are there walking simulator sections that just let the story develop, but the story is filled with mystery, intrigue, and colorful characterizations. Alan also has a strong enough relationship with his wife, whose kidnapping by the Darkness sets him on his journey, for me to want to see him rescue her, even when the insanity happening around him gets him to contemplate going down some very dark territory that largely gets averted (the most disturbing moment in the game for me was actually when Alan indirectly kills a person of nuisance and sadistically grins afterwards).
Eventually, the story gets lore heavy, and I legit didn’t get the lore. I mean, the end of the third episode reveals a character that the game assumes we as an audience are already more familiar with than we are. Did I miss something? As for that unhappy ending…well, at first, it seemed bittersweet—unhappy in a way, but not overtly nihilistic. That is until I realized that the second-to-last line implies that the Darkness has the final say. But then the cliffhanging final line suggests that everything was a delusion.
Either way, I just can’t win, can I?
I know, it was a pretty bleak journey to begin with. Yet, a virtual journey this bleak makes me desire a happy, or at least morally sound, ending even more than a virtual journey as joyous as Ocarina of Time. To, with inspiration from Catholic in the 21st Century, quote Saint John Paul the Great’s “Letter to Artists”: “Even when they explore the darkest depths of the soul or the most unsettling aspects of evil, artists give voice in a way to the universal desire for redemption.” I want video games to give me hope that evil can be destroyed, that the good in humanity can triumph. That’s one reason I love Zelda games so much: they let us feel accomplished in the end. Games like Alan Wake, The Last of Us, and Half-Life 2 beat the player, and it should be the other way around. What’s the appeal of spending hours of your life to get screwed over in the end and revisiting that experience (not that I didn’t do that during my Half-Life 2 phase…)?
I know, the credits assure us that Alan Wake will return, but the way he returns, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare, is, from what I’ve heard, more like a reimagining of this game as an 80s action fest, so we have yet to get a proper sequel. Still, a video game demands to be more of a standalone experience than a franchise even more so than a movie does.
I suppose the benefit of having played The Last of Us is that I’ve been more prepared to be let down by a gripping, cleverly written virtual adventure from then on. That doesn’t excuse how I deserve a cathartic payoff for the hours I invest in the journey, especially if said journey sets up clear weaknesses that defeat the villain, only for the rug to be pulled out from under us at the last second. It’s not that Wake was anywhere near an ideal hero to begin with, but the game would have been more agreeable with the proper ending.