Review: Alan Wake: American Nightmare

Warning! 
This review contains end-game spoilers for Alan Wake. There was no way I could make my point in a reasonable way without them. Sorry.

There are two sides to Alan Wake. Which is half the point of the game, but I didn’t mean it like that. I meant in the real world instead of the fictional world. Which is the other half of the point of the game.

In the real world there’s Alan Wake the game and there’s Alan Wake the franchise. The two are very different. For a long time – since before the release of the game – developers Remedy have been upfront about their vision for Alan Wake as a franchised series, which is reasonably hard to reconcile with the experience of playing the first game.

Setting gameplay aside for the moment, Alan Wake didn’t feel as if it was configured correctly – in a narrative sense – to serve an on-going series. It was hard to imagine what the sequels could actually be, and concern that the gameplay might become stagnant or the story too convoluted was hard to shake.

I adore the game, by the way. I’m dwelling on the negative for a bit but only because I love it and want to see it reach its potential. I’m essentially parental over Alan Wake. No matter what nasty things I say about it I think it’s awesome.

There is a nagging uncertainty about why Remedy is so keen and forceful about establishing it as a franchise. The long and presumably very expensive development time of the game, coupled with its ‘just very good’ sales, together with the buy-out deal with Microsoft make it easy to see as a commercially influenced direction – particularly when the content of the game seems like it should be a ‘happy if it’s a one-off, delighted with a sequel’ sort of game, not a ’10-year plan for world domination’ sort of game.

However, that’s just the experience of playing Alan Wake the game. Starting with the first DLC pack Remedy began to explain the concept of Alan Wake the franchise.

At the end of the main game Alan finds himself trapped in the ‘dark place’, which is much, much funnier to anyone who’s seen Garth Marenghi’s Dark Place. The dark place is essentially a magical and extremely deadly other realm which ordinarily aesthetically resembles our own, but where nothing is stable or consistent. The rules are that nothing makes any sense or has any meaning or direction until it has been written about, which gives it purpose, and writing can change this reality in an instant. Fiction shapes the course of events as well as the landscapes and characters.

This makes the first game essentially the back-story to a framing device. In terms of the continuing franchise that device is that the main character is living inside fiction, so he can go anywhere and be anyone. In a similar way, the framing device in Assassin’s Creed is that the main character is inside a futuristic machine, so he could go anywhere or be anyone.

This theory seems to fit with Remedy’s decisions, as it would explain why they seem so strangely lackadaisical in their attitude towards spoilers for the conclusion of Alan Wake in American Nightmare‘s marketing. They don’t merely reference it in the trailers, they explain it. The PC version was only released this week and they’re explaining details about the end of the game in trailers? Journalists have been blasted on gaming posts about American Nightmare for spoiling the end of Alan Wake, but these reviewers aren’t in some sort of delusional bubble in which they are recalling a plot-pivotal fact from the very end of a game’s predecessor and throwing it in there just for something to say. They’re telling us what’s on the press release.

Remedy don’t care about spoilers. They just really want us to understand how the concept of Alan Wake the franchise works.

The DLC eased us into the idea with a story that directly continued the plot of the first game, but pushed it in a new direction because Alan wasn’t in ‘normal’ reality any more. This demonstrated the kind of imagination and possibility the series could offer, but Alan Wake: American Nightmare is the first true and bold test of the concept. It relocates to Arizona, mixes up the gameplay focus, changes the tone and takes inspiration from a whole different body of influences. The big question is: will Alan survive the leap from his comfort zone in fiction which resembles his own life, or will he be lost in the transfer to a new scenario that’s too far removed from his last incarnation?

I’m a little bit disappointed in American Nightmare. It’s brilliant, because it’s Alan Wake, but for me the shift in focus towards action has done nothing but harm the experience. Not harm it so much that it becomes bad, but harm it enough to hinder it. The new bigger, badder guns feel out of place, and the quieter moments spent exploring the world and the story from the original game is sorely missed.

Even though the focus has shifted to the combat, the combat is less fun in this game. Lots of critics disagree so maybe I’m just a traditionalist. Non-boosted flashlights no longer affect possessed objects, so fighting them is much less fun – you don’t feel like you’re divining the evil out of them like a mad priest anymore. Worse, you can’t become at one with the game and use a low-battery moment to detect the speed, location and angle of a projectile and swiftly dodge it by correctly reading the vibration of the controller. Bloody vibrating controllers are in every game and add nothing; along comes a game that uses the feature in a subtle, smart and organic way and it gets lost in the sequel. Such a shame.

There’s no longer a dynamic reload system, which I suppose is there for balance as this game is much faster, but it’s an inarguable case of depth being removed from the equation, so maybe that should be a sign that the change of balance itself is the problem: it nullifies a mechanic rather than enhancing it. Flashlight batteries and stamina have also been given a huge boost and all ammo types are now plentiful, so that’s all good if you want to make half the combat mechanics less valuable and interesting. It’s all a bit too Left 4 Dead 2 for me and I don’t want to go through that again.

Remedy are still exceptional game developers, so the new enemy types are functionally very good and smoothly implemented in the gameplay sense. But again, their existence takes something out of the fiction of the world, and I think I prefer preserving the integrity of the story to just shooting more Taken.

Whilst all of the above changes are a shame there is plenty to love about the story here too. Mr. Scratch is a brilliant villain and certainly a highlight. The story and concept is suitably insane in a cleverly constructed way, and thankfully there’s no sign of any shortage of imagination – which is the root reason why American Nightmare is still a success for me despite all those flaws.

This series has now become about imagination. Remedy made it so when they used so damn much of it, and it seems that continuing to explore the possibilities of creative gameplay fiction is the most important element needed to keep the franchise alive and interesting. American Nightmare delivers on that front with the same gusto that the Alan Wake DLC did before it, so I would recommend it to any Alan Wake fan for that reason.

Although it hasn’t taken the direction I would have preferred, I’m delighted to see that the game is getting good reviews and seems likely to achieve high sales. It’s good that the PC release was well-timed to get additional awareness out there too, and I’ll definitely be picking up whatever else Remedy want to add to the Alan Wake world – there are too many interesting possibilities not to.