Behind closed doors: Alan Wake
Behind closed doors: Alan Wake
The final booth stop on our Microsoft behind closed doors was a bittersweet occasion for the Aussie press attending. On one hand, we were finally getting a chance to be up close and personal with Alan Wake, the horror game that seems to have vanished off the radar a couple of years ago. But balancing that out was the realisation that no, we were not going to be checking out Natal - the star of the show for those who saw it, basically.
After we get crammed into a room, Remedy precedes dimming the lights with a disclaimer. They're expanding on the Xbox keynote for their demo, so initially at least, they will be covering familiar gound.
To recap: Alan Wake (a Christian Bale circa American Psycho lookalike) is a best selling author with a problem. He has writer's block. His wife takes him to the small town of Bright Falls in an effort to get away from it all - and maybe even get the creative juices flowing.
Things go horribly wrong. Wake's wife vanishes and he finds himself trapped in a nightmare where he's enacting a horror story he has written. Even worse - he doesn't remember writing it.
To try and get a jump ahead of the horrible events that are beginning to occur (and to rescue his wife) Alan is on the hunt for missing pages of the story manuscript. The gruesome events contained in the pages of this manuscript, we're told, "have a disturbing habit of coming true".
The game is styled and paced like a modern day TV series. As we mentioned in the Microsoft keynote, this deliberate attempt at episodically presenting the content means chapters in the game will end on cliffhangers (such as we experienced in the demo) and employ familiar techniques to keep gamers interested. This also means there needs to be a significant effort made towards characterisation, even in a setting where most of the humans have become pawns of darkness.
Thus we meet Wake's agent, Barry. He's unhip, neurotic, and prone to allergies. He serves as light relief for the darker story matter. What we saw in the presentation made him look a trifle one-dimensional - we're hoping Barry has some kind of journey within the story arc beyond being a disaster-prone, bumbling fool.
Remedy tells us there is night and day in the game, but they emphasise they control when each occurs. This is critical in a game like Alan Wake, as there's so much content that must be experienced at night-time to sustain a level of tension.
It's also important because darkness is the veil behind which the worst excesses of the evil presence Wake is confronting operates. And besides, it's a lot harder to scare people in broad daylight.
Light, we're told, is the key. Light reveals certain things - a key gameplay element. Wake has a torch which occasionally illuminate scrawled on the terrain. The ones we saw were pretty literal, like "use the light", but that's sure to be the tip of the iceberg. On the other hand, darkness we're told is a thing to avoid; a source of terror.
Alan's main weapon is light. Without a torch, flare or other light source, Alan can not penetrate the barrier of darkness than cloaks his foes. When Alan uses his torch on the shadowy others, the light burns away this shield allowing them to be dispatched with pistol, shotguns or whatever future weapons Remedy reveal. Light is a finite resource for Alan - he can opt to intensify the light output and make it more destructive, but it makes the light run out faster.
Alan narrates his own story, we hear his own thoughts as well as listen as he reads the missing manuscript pages he finds. It's a very fitting, if traditional-to-TV-or-radio way of revealing the plot - and a stark contrast to the more revolutionary method Ubisoft are revealing in Splinter Cell Conviction. Between them, these two games showed more finesse in telling a story than any other title we saw at E3 2009.
Wakes enemies in our demo are the Bright Falls locals taken over by the dark presence. The darkness surrounding the villagers makes them look freaky as hell - flickering blackness obscures their appearance, an effect accentuated by the fact you're usually seeing them in semi-darkness.
We see Alan fire a flare gun and the action appears to go into slo-mo. Sparks flying off keeping enemies at bay - a pinkish red hue tinges the area around the flare. The flare allows Alan to buy some time and find a more permanent, lit safe haven - in the case of our demo, a small building.
Shortly after getting inside, whatever respite Alan was hoping to enjoy is obliterated when an entire wall in the structure is demolished by a bulldozer. Nobody is driving. Remedy tells us the dark presence can take over inanimate objects - such as vehicles - and have them attack Wake.
I quiz the team about this design decision, and they liken it to a poltergeist effect. My point was whether having non-living things like cars attack you might rob the game of some of that malicious atmosphere. There's something innately menacing about living creatures co-opted into becoming minions of evil that say a bulldozer trying to run you down doesn't possess.
To be fair, nobody I spoke to thought it was a stretch to have cars attacking you - and that Remedy's design decision made sense in the big picture. After all, Stephen King had a successful book and film about a car doing just that. Shrug.
After Alan manages to avoid death by dozer, we ultimately see him getting into a car - obviously a non lethal one - and on the basis of information he gleans from a dying cop, he's heading to a lighthouse to secure more pages. He drives along a winding highway with the lighthouse blasting light through the darkness. The draw distance in this sequence is exceptional. The demonstrator was controlling the vehicle driving as well - this wasn't a cut scene.
As Wake exits the car and approaches the lighthouse, it transpires it's a horrible trap - the lighthouse power shuts down, and a mini tornado of darkness approaches him. The demo draws to a close`from the darkness' point of view as it moves in on a cowering Wake.
Alan Wake has been in development for five years. Remedy has 40 people in the job, and they've built their own tech to do the job. The big concern is just how replayable the game will be upon completion. While Remedy points out there will be plenty of options for exploration, the downside of having such a strong story-driven approach means once the game is finished, the impact will be greatly reduced on subsequent plays.
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Sat 06 Jun 09, 2:53amtele-fragd
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