Revisiting My First Horror Game: Alan Wake

Alan Wake Remastered Lighthouse

As I was working on our recent horror games list to celebrate October, I chose to start the list with Alan Wake. I have not played it in over a decade but it lives firmly in gaming memories. It was the first, and for a while, the last horror game I played until I became obsessed with horror in my late teens and into college. 

The game lived in my memories as this monolithic thing that pushed the limits that I thought were possible at the time in storytelling and atmosphere. But I could not be sure if it was all just nostalgia. When playing the remaster, I found it to be not quite the masterpiece I remembered, but it remains a tour de force in the atmosphere and pulp storytelling with endearing characters and thrilling meta-mystery narrative.

In-game Screenshot

Passing Interest to Passion

I first ran across it as a preteen. At the time, I liked games, but I rarely ever stuck with them or ever bothered asking for one. I would play Star Wars Battlefront 2 with my brothers and get the occasional DS, Wii, or Gameboy game (or more often sneak into their room and ‘borrow’ from them). But for the most part, it was passing interest that was more of an activity to escape boredom than a passion.

Several years before, my brother had gotten an Xbox 360 and now spent most of his free time playing the latest M-rated game. However, I was not allowed to play any of them or even watch them. My mom strictly followed age guidelines, especially when it came to games. Regardless, I would still sneak down to the basement to peak at my brother playing Bioshock or Just Cause, scampering away if I heard the slightest creaks overhead.

These glimpses stuck in my mind just as much as the conversations we would have about games at the time. He described incredible worlds and a freedom in games I could only dream of. But these mythical experiences were locked behind the impenetrable M-rating. It was my look behind the curtain of adulthood. The times I could watch freely with parents away or huddle behind doorway hearing and watching the bursts of explosions or unusual environments are stuck in my head even now.

“It’s like a really good tv show you can play through!”

Often these conversations would include my dad, who loved games as a kid and young adult but fell out of the hobby after starting a family. But it was in one of these weeknight chats right after dinner, my mom absorbed in a book or movie in the other room, that we were standing around the bright lacquered wood dining table and to take in my brother’s newest game.

“It’s like a really good tv show you can play through!” I remember my brother saying as he launched into the otherworldly narrative of Alan Wake. I was enthralled hearing the premise of Alan wake and the evolution of its story over several nights. But the thought of playing it? No way! Too scary. Even with the approachable teen rating, I couldn’t even imagine fighting off the shrouded taken. I was so frightened by horror, I couldn’t even watch Goosebumps.

Finding the Courage

In-game Screenshot

But a year later, I pressed start. I don’t know why. Whether it was boredom or my brother’s abandonment of his third Xbox 360 (two others red-ringed) or something else entirely that pushed me back to Alan Wake. Regardless, I was there in Brightfalls, Washington, and soon discovered, he was right to love it. I struggled to tear myself away as I devoured the game, playing mostly during the day, hopping back up the cracked blue steps of my basement with nightfall. I loved the ebb and flow of its tense combat, broken up by radio shows and mysterious cutscenes, and funny character interactions. It made me care about its world and characters like nothing else I had played ever did.

I dreaded the woods and the taken that lived inside its dark maw even more than Alan. Taking a step out of the comfort of lense-flaring street lamps was challenging. I listened to the radio stations well after they finished speaking. But yet the fog, the melancholic mountainous forests, the secret abandoned buildings, and mines, or the next turn in its crazy narrative kept coming back. I pushed through the fear, and I’m glad I did. It not only laid the groundwork for my love of horror but also my love of the outdoors and hiking. For many years afterwards, I wanted to move to Washington State simply because of my hazy memories of exploring the woods of Alan Wake.

That emotional weight is a lot to live up to for an 11-year-old Xbox 360 game. As I walked into GameStop, picked up the last available PS4 copy, and pressed play for the second time when I got home, I was unsure if it would hold up.

“In My Restless Dreams I See That Town…”

In-game Screenshot

The first hour had me doubtful, with oddly paced narration, flat dialogue, and awkward animations that had my girlfriend laughing. Even the story was pulpier and cheesier than I remembered. But the woods were just as terrifying as in my memories. I even appreciate the level design; hazy and confusing in a good way. It makes you feel lost and afraid in mostly linear levels. The HD textures were stunning. Even now, what Remedy was able to sculpt is impressive; misty peaks and idyllic lakeside towns and homes. Well, it looks great except for clay-like character models.

I slowly bought into its narrative, enjoying it for all its pulpiness and still feeling genuine fear with each encounter. In this playthrough, I even got its references and influences, from Silent Hill  to Twin Peaks and the Twilight Zone. I was bringing my cultural literacy to the table, and it made it apparent how special and unique Alan Wake remains even all these years later. It walks a tightrope of camp mystery, and Lovecraftian horror few games can match.

It is also entrenched in the meta-game scene of the early 2010s, with Alan writing himself into the story to take control of the narrative. You could even call it ahead of its time, arriving before staples like The Stanely Parable. But enough going down memory lane, go play this gem!

By the looks of all of these hidden QR codes in the game and the recent DLC connection in Control, I think a sequel is on the horizon.

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