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May 21, 2012

ALAN WAKE: The Horror Universe That The Mike Needed

You guys, I'm just gonna say it. I'm really bad at video games. I try, because they're so darn fun some times, but I struggle mightily whenever they require things like more than four buttons or hand-eye coordination.  (Seriously, why can't they all be Tecmo Super Bowl?)  Anyway, I think I'm even worse at horror video games than real video games.  I like to observe horror, I don't like to participate in it.  (Yeah, that's my excuse for being a pansy.) 

So, you can see why it took me far too long to get into Alan Wake, despite my gamer friends; insistence that it was "a The Mike game" and "right up my alley."  I finally went ahead and got the game sometime last November, but it still took me forever to actually get into the darn thing. When I did, I kept thinking more pansy thoughts, like "Man, this would be great if I didn't have to PLAY it."
But I was dumb and wrong when I thought that.  As I finished Alan Wake this weekend, I became terribly mad at me.  OK, so the game play is a chore and it's wicked hard sometimes, but dangit...I kind of loved the horror story it told.  Why's that, you ask?  Well, here's a few reasons why.

I suppose backstory is important - the backstory of the game, not the boring exposition into my boring life that I already gave you - so here's Alan Wake in a nutshell.  Famous writer Stephen King Alan Wake heads to a small town called Bright Springs, where he and his wife, Alice plan to spend some time in a cabin on Cauldron Lake so he can write and not have nightmares and she can not be afraid of the dark.  Those things don't happen, Alice disappears into the darkness, and Alan - armed only with a flashlight and whatever guns, bullets, and batteries that he can find along the way - must make it through a series of crazy and supernatural nights in which ominous shadow people known as "the taken" try to off him while grunting weird one-liners from their past lives.  There's a dangerous woman in black, a weird diving suit guy who might transcend time, an angry/irrational FBI agent and a whole host of "poltergeist" objects out to stop Alan too, and plenty of twists and turns along the way.
Here's the thing: Alan Wake shouldn't work. It's repetitive, it doesn't always make sense, there's not really any "boss" battles that lead to fist-pumpingly triumphant moments, and most of the "scares" are telegraphed and or given away by the formula.  But for every one of those annoyances and flaws, there's something that makes me really love what Alan Wake has to offer as a horror narrative.

First off, there's the most obvious thing I love about Alan Wake, which goes against a lot of thinking in both the horror genre and the video game world: There's pretty much ZERO blood in Alan Wake.  I don't know about you guys, but I rarely have nightmares that are as gory as a Fulci film or a crappy modern horror remake or anything in between.  I have nightmares that don't make any kind of sense but creep me the heck out and seem like endless struggles against whatever evil is out there.  That's what Alan Wake feels like.
 Alan Wake doesn't have to sensationalize things, it doesn't have to gore things up, it just goes kinda crazy and keeps doing the same thing until it wears you down.  It was several episodes into the game - oh, we gotta talk about the episodes in a few - when I realized that the fatigue I felt while playing the game wasn't as much because it was tedious as it was because the game was intentionally trying to wear both Alan Wake and I down. It's like the Billy Zabka in Karate Kid of video games. It annoys you and that's exactly what it's supposed to do. You can't blame it for that.

There's also that big elephant in the room about Alan Wake that it really took me a while to "get". Alan Wake, the character - or, to put it more simply, the guy we're forced to spend 8-10 hours controlling - is kind of an annoying dude.  He's all emotional, he's totally monotone sometimes, and he spends a lot of time sounding like he really isn't capable of dealing with his predicament. He's not exactly a whiner, but he's not a hero.  Basically, I didn't want to like Alan Wake. So, I'm running around, being to Alan Wake what Cusack was to Malkovich, and I'm not really caring. But again, it's one of those things that just kind of happened as the game went on. Alan Wake works as an anti-hero, even if we don't like him personally, because we care about his plight.  We get so invested in the journey, and the film reveals more and more about what Alan's up against, and we start to "get" Alan Wake - both the game and the character.
(By the way, I simply can not understate what Alan's agent/friend, Barry, brings to the game.  He's one of the most fun side characters in a video game I've played, and he's a great comic relief while also being a sympathetic character too.  There's a sweet moment between Barry and Alan that was a total fist pump moment for me, and that was another moment where I really realized that I was falling for Alan Wake's methods.)

Now here's what I'm hear to really say. I think, as bad as video game adaptations usually are, that Alan Wake might actually work better as a TV series.  As I mentioned earlier, the game is specifically designed to look like a TV series, segmented out into six episodes, each of which have their own story arc and each of which tie back into the bigger plot.  I'm not gonna go all the way and say that the thing wraps up everything by the end of Episode Six - there are two more DLC Episodes and a stand-alone Arcade game that I hear add to the Alan Wake universe - but the way things tie back together shows that the folks who put together Alan Wake had a greater vision than they sometimes let on.  It's absolutely fascinating to me when I realize that I've seen very few video games with a better narrative tale than Alan Wake - because I can't believe that someone allowed a video game to tell that much story while being a horror tale.
I was so wrong about Alan Wake in the early chapters of the game, and when I got to the end I was shocked by how satisfied I felt. But my thirst for this universe of horror was not quenched, and I doubt some short DLC and an Arcade game will do the trick. When Alan Wake utters his final line of the game, it's the game's way of admitting that there is a world of possibilities out there for what could happen next in this universe.  There's no reason we couldn't have an HBO or AMC series with that guy from True Blood (the Skarsgaard kid, not v-neck shirt guy) that's produced by someone like David Cronenberg, is there?  Because that's really what Alan Wake is - a mind-bending introduction to a horror world that exists somewhere between In the Mouth of Madness and Videodrome.  There are stories to be told about Alan Wake and his world, and the ones runnin' through my head remind me of horror titans like King, Carpenter, and Cronenberg.

I know that comparison of a video game to three of the best voices in modern horror sounds cray-cray, but I honestly kind of believe it. Despite my efforts to the contrary, it turns out that Alan Wake is exactly the breath of fresh air (OK, it's a two year old breath of air now, I TOLD YOU I WAS SLOW) that I needed in the horror scene.

Well played, Xbox 360.  Well played.
Oh, and the soundtrack kicks tons of butt.

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