The long-in-development Alan Wake, one of the most enigmatic titles in development for the Xbox 360, will finally be released on May 18, Microsoft announced today. Earlier this week, the game's developers gave Kotaku a live demonstration. It was impressive.
Alan Wake has been in development by Max Payne makers Remedy Entertainment for more than half a decade, showing up at big gaming trade shows, then vanishing. It's been back, making the rounds, since E3 of last year. The game stars the fictional thriller writer Alan Wake who goes on a getaway with his wife, Alice, to the Pacific northwest town of Bright Falls. He's suffering writer's block and his marriage is in a bit of trouble. But the game focuses on things getting worse, as Alan becomes a man on the run, trying to survive the enveloping darkness and weirdness, armed with just a torch and a gun or two while a shadowy presence possesses sends men wielding axes at his heels and logging trucks flying right at his face.
The game is a thriller. It's T-rated, Microsoft announced today, and doesn't aspire to be the kind of scary game we've played before. Remedy writer Sam Lake described the game to me as a "smart, tightly-paced story" and as a "thriller". I asked what he meant be smart. "This is more of a thriller than a horror game," he said. "When you talk about horror in video games, it usually means blood and gore." He said the Remedy team wanted something other than cheap chills. "We want to make sure there are no scares just for the sake of scares," he said. Everything, all of the game's creepiness, will cohere into a narrative.
Three of Remedy's top men showed me about 20 minutes of Alan Wake. We first looked at part of the game's first chapter or, as the studio has been calling it in the model of favourite shows of theirs like Lost, "episode". Alan and Alice were driving into Bright Falls, heading over to a diner where they would meet the man with the keys to the house they'd be staying at. The diner was filled with ambiance and optional diversions. The waitress recognised Alan and squealed to him about how she was his biggest fan and even had the cardboard cut-out commemorating one of his novels to prove it. Sure enough, at the doorway was a cardboard Alan Wake. As one of Remedy's developers walked Alan to the back of the diner, our hero encountered two old-timers sitting in a booth, jawing about something or other. One of them asked Alan to play a song on the jukebox. Further to the back, Alan encountered a lady in black, her face covered in a veil. She wasn't the person who was supposed to give Alan the house keys, but she had them. And, she creepily added, she'd come by later to meet his wife. She demanded it.
We skipped ahead to the midst of an episode later in the game. By this time, we were in the action. The sun had set. The darkness had descended and the torch-and-gun core shooting gameplay was in effect. Enemies in Alan Wake are covered in a shadowy haze. To defeat them before they kill Alan, the player has to focus Alan's torch on the enemy, burning off the haze. Once that's done, Alan can - and should! - shoot. Alan Wake is a single-player game, but at this section of the game, as he tried to survive out on a wooded hillside, he was accompanied by Bright Falls' sheriff and the game's comic relief, Alan's literary agent Barry Wheeler. Since light could ward off the enemies, Barry had wrapped himself in Christmas lights. He looked ridiculous.
The trio worked their way to the top of a dam. Hounded by possessed people and flocks of birds, they did their best to survive. On the road atop the dam, the Remedy guys had Alan commandeer a big spotlight. He could use it as a turret, but any light source Alan uses has limits. His torch can run low on batteries, forcing the player to use one of his reserves. The spotlight can burn itself out. So after a little bit of spotlight blasting, Alan left the thing idle and was left to his torch and handgun. Lake told me that spotlights and other light sources can be used to corral an enemy. Leave a shaft of light beaming on the right and enemies will avoid that region.
As enemies swarmed Alan, the best defence turned out to be a flare gun. Firing this at several onrushing enemies triggered a stylish slowdown effect. The enemies recoiled and Alan dodged. But the mysterious dark force had plenty of other things in store for Alan. Unfortunately, as it got hectic, the demo ended.
Lake told me that gamers can think of Alan Wake as an "everyman", not an "action hero". Unlike Uncharted 2's Nathan Drake, he's more of a flawed character, struggling in his marriage, struggling with his craft. But, aside from that, the best compliment to pay Alan Wake the game right now is that it is exuding the style, polish and beauty of location of Naughty Dog's hit PlayStation 3 series. The game's dark Pacific northwest is lovely. Its sense of style, dark and mysterious, narrated in ominous past-tense, is winning. It took long enough, but it does feel like this game is coming together.
We'll have more on Alan Wake in the coming days, including hands-on impressions of my own time trying to survive as Alan Wake in the darkness of Bright Falls.