What we thought we knew of the ages-in-development Xbox 360 game Alan Wake is that it stars a writer who faces psychological and physical horrors in a town and forest in the Pacific Northwest, with light as his scarce ally.
I learned in Tokyo, however, that sometimes Alan won't have his flashlight or a gun. Sometimes it'll be the dark of night, pitch black except for the flashlight beams bouncing through the woods — silent except for the bark of the police dogs and the woosh of the wind when it sways the trees.
Two developers from Remedy Entertainment, the Finland-based studio making the game, showed me the part of Alan Wake we previewed from E3 and then a new, differently disturbing experience.
In the spirit of the game, which begins it's levels with a TV-inspired "Previously on Alan Wake...." montage, I'll provide a quick recap of what we last experienced. Alan Wake, the character, is an author who was suffering writer's block. On vacation with him in the Pacific Northwest, his wife has gone missing. In the E3 sequence, he was armed with a flashlight and a gun. Before shooting, he used light to break the darkness and weaken possessed townspeople who emerged from shacks and the woods to attack. A cars or a box might break the still of night and hurtle toward him, as if possessed. Wake skulked through small wooden buildings on a hillside, discovering pages from the thriller he couldn't remember writing. A malevolent force seemed to be at work somewhere in the darkness of the trees, bending them and possibly being the thing sending nature against him. Wake narrated some of the action during gameplay, usually in the past tense — as if the game was all one bad memory he had to reluctantly recall.
Remedy is trying for a spooky atmosphere for their dark thriller, with only a flashlight or red flare as an effective defence against the night.
It gets spookier when Wake has no gun or light.
That was Wake's plight in the new Tokyo Game Show sequence that mixed the now-familiar influences of Twin Peaks and the X-Files with The Fugitive. An FBI man, Agent Nightingale, had enlisted the town's sheriff to put her department on the hunt for Wake. The demo opened in the dead of night, with Wake walking through a dried-out riverbed. As he passed beneath a high bridge, a police officer shined a flashlight. The concept would be chase. The pursuit began. The gameplay was to run.
The sequence appeared to involve a series of scripted events. A developer, not me, was in control, so I couldn't tell how tough it all was. But i could tell that it looked like a first-timer would find it tense. A police helicopter buzzed through the night sky. Sirens from squad cars blared nearby and flashing lights split through the forest. Then a police car tumbled past Wake's path, thrown by who knows what. When Wake got to a ridge, the forest filled with the bobbing beams of flashlights and the sounds of dogs. They'd get their prey. But then something happened. The trees shook. Men screamed. Wake moved on. The helicopter returned to chase Wake across a high ridge. Agent Nightingale, audible from police radios, shouted for Wake's arrest. Possessed police from the forest climbed a cliff to approach Wake. The demo ended with him surrounded.
Wake was weaker in this part of the game, though the developers told me this degree of powerless is an exception.
What I witnessed of the game in Tokyo was less of a shooter than what I saw of the game at E3. As the demo ended, I recalled some reader feedback. Some had complained that the introduction of possessed enemies into the game's action at E3 had exposed the grown-up thriller they wanted Alan Wake to be as merely another horror shooter full of monsters.
The Remedy developers said not to worry.
"We don't have crab monsters or giant spiders," Remedy managing director Matias Myllyrinne told me. "We don't want to take it too far and have these all-powerful monsters coming at you." He promised that the enemies come from the town, from the environment, from a more grounded thriller tradition. He referred to potential Alan Wake customers as gamers who are "a bit more mature" and said they would be satisfied.
In Tokyo, Alan Wake didn't look like a monster game. It looked like a haunting journey through a quietly menacing place, with good mood but with the asterisk that it's gameplay could not be judged with only a developer at its controls.
As the game's early-2010 release approaches, hopefully we'll see even more, to determine just what kind of adventure Alan Wake and the players who control him are really in for.