Alan Wake, the titular character in this supernatural, psychological thriller, is an author with a brutal case of writer’s block. He hasn’t written anything for two years, so he and his wife head to Bright Falls, Wash., to clear the cobwebs.
On the surface, this quaint village seems the perfect place for such a retreat: sunny days, beautiful forests, nice locals. In fact, it’d be pert near idyllic if it wasn’t for the fact that its residents are occasionally possessed by an unspeakable evil known as the Dark Presence.
It turns out Alan has only himself to blame for the town’s awful secret. He hasn’t been in Bright Falls very long before he crashes into a trance and then wakes up … a week later. And most of that time, apparently, he spent writing. Never mind that he can’t remember it.
Slowly Alan realizes this lost week is linked to the Presence. Somehow, his writing and this malevolent force are connected, demonstrated by the fact that the horrific happenings in Bright Falls keep coming right out of Alan’s manuscript.
As he battles evil all around him, Alan finds that his own words hold the key to solving his—and the town’s—problem.
A Nightmare of His Own Making
Alan Wake feels like it could have come from the mind of Stephen King. Horror’s grand master is even quoted early on, and the game as a whole explores one of King’s most compelling obsessions: the connection between a creator and his creation.
Alan creates things for a living. He conjures characters out of nothing. Then, shedding nary a tear, kills them off in chapter three. But what if Alan’s creations didn’t just live and die on the page, the game asks? What if, somehow, they found a reality of their own? Or what if another reality fed off Alan’s dark imagination?
The game’s creators milk this intriguing premise for all it’s worth, introducing players to a fantastical realm in which they’re asked to question the reality of that fantasy. It’s a compelling trope that plays out more like an interactive movie than a game.
Along the way, Alan Wake’s fluid, immersive storyline pulls players ever deeper into its dark reality, much as Alan himself is dragged into the dark world he helped create. Accordingly, gameplay can be tense and creepy. Alan must shine a flashlight on his many adversaries to make them mortal and vulnerable. Then he polishes them off with a bullet (or 10 or 12).
Awake in the Dark
Alan Wake is rated T. But the game pushes the M barrier at every turn. During the first scene, Alan smashes into a hitchhiker with his car, only to watch said hitcher come to life again and chase him with an axe (while unleashing a couple of s-words). A nice fellow helps Alan escape the reanimated vulgar vagrant, but he gets butchered for his troubles. We don’t see the axe land, but that scene still feels like it could’ve been yanked right out of an R-rated slasher flick.
Problems pile on from there. Characters abuse God’s name and use profanities such as “d‑‑n,” “b‑‑ch” and “b‑‑tard” (along with the aforementioned s-words), wear clothing that hugs their pixilated skin and, of course, suffer and inflict all sorts of violence. One scene shows a dead man lying in his own blood. Some folks drink alcohol. And a pair of aging rockers, whose band was named The Old Gods of Asgard, reference Norse mythology.
While Alan Wake certainly isn’t trying to entice its players to worship Odin, the game is steeped in a free-form kind of spirituality, one that grapples with our fear of the dark and the shadowy things lurking there. In a broad sense, it echoes a message Plugged In has been delivering for years: The stories we tell each other matter more than we sometimes realize.
And if you wanted to take the spiritual themes here one step further, you could extract a strained sort of Christian metaphor. Alan Wake, after all, is a man of light fighting a world of darkness—darkness that emanates from his own soul—in the desperate hope of saving himself and others.
But you don’t have to go too far down that road before its logic just falls apart. Because finding salvation by gunning down hordes of possessed villagers doesn’t exactly have much backing in Scripture.
Paul Asay has been part of the Plugged In staff since 2007, watching and reviewing roughly 15 quintillion movies and television shows. He’s written for a number of other publications, too, including Time, The Washington Post and Christianity Today. The author of several books, Paul loves to find spirituality in unexpected places, including popular entertainment, and he loves all things superhero. His vices include James Bond films, Mountain Dew and terrible B-grade movies. He’s married, has two children and a neurotic dog, runs marathons on occasion and hopes to someday own his own tuxedo. Feel free to follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.