Although there are plenty of reviews out there, it's worth looking at Alan Wake one more time in case you aren't sure if you should pick it up tomorrow. For this review, I'm going to play with a new format as well. Since I'm in the process of setting up a series of studies on the (interaction) effects of Narrative, Immersion, Presence and Identification on both gameplay and game experience, let's see how well that fits in a review.
First of all, the basics. Singleplayer only, 6 episodes that easily take 1,5 to 2 hours if you don't rush through it, it's pretty easy on Normal (i.e., not too scary in terms of survival), but it has an unlockable Nightmare difficulty which is required to 100% the collection cheevos. Oh, and you should get at least 800/1000 on a single playthrough or so.
Narrative Obviously Alan Wake's selling point and its strongest element is the narrative. The storytelling is, in my opinion, unparalleled in gaming to date. Forget Heavy Rain with its retarded story, this is how you do an interactive game. Luckily for you, you have a 360 and a PS3 by now, so you can play both! If you take apart the entire narrative for analysis, there are a number of influences that will either make you love the game, or just like it for a single playthrough. The most obvious influence is Twin Peaks: a small town, memorable inhabitants, a storyline that draws you in with its mystery, and a resulting feeling of "Get me the fuck out of this town. NOW!". While playing Alan Wake, you can feel like perhaps Remedy went all out on the Twin Peaks elements in an earlier design stage, but eventually removed some things so that game wouldn't alienate 90% of the consumers out there. Yet there are those few typical Lynch moments where you can just see the amount of love for the material and the years of trying to make it work. Luckily for Remedy, they pulled it off.
While the Twin Peaks influence is there, the storytelling itself borrows a lot from Stephen King and Lost. King, in the way that mystery leads to the supernatural in a way that is both ridiculous and believable within the still realistic world of the story. The horror is real for those involved while the outside world just goes on about its daily business, ignorant of the lurking horrors that exist. Or perhaps willingly ignorant of them? And Lost in the way that there is sometimes a giant black "smoke monster" thing that tears through the forest and makes noises all around you. Plus there is the whole "the darkness wears their face" Flocke/Esau/Man in Black thing for most of the enemies. Another way in which the Lost influence is obvious is the way every episode ends in a relatively surprising twist and a "Previously on Alan Wake" opening in the next episode.
Finally, there are plenty of Lovecraft over the place. In every episode, you can find a TV set that will show a 4 minute Twilight Zone kind of short horror story called Night Springs. Suffice to say that one of them is about a guy that ends up being impregnated with the seedlings of some Lovecraftean Old God with a number of singe quotes in its name. Awesome! A large part of the plot also seems to be lifted directly from Lovecraftean lore, but it's up to you to explore in what ways.
Suffice to say that if you love all of these things in books and TV, you will love the story in Alan Wake. If you do not like any of the things just described though, a feeling of sheer joy while playing or experiencing the game may turn to 'meh'-ness. One thing I noticed while going through reviews on Metacritic, is that there seem to be plenty of reviewers who do not really have any affinity with the material that inspired Alan Wake, and reflect it in their score or verdict about the game.
A big concern with all of this is that the story will have a ton of plot holes. Actually, there might be one or two if you look really closely. Because the format is that of a 45 minute tv show, you can expect about the same amount of narrative progression while playing through one episode. But because it is a game, and it has to be fun to play in between cutscenes (*cough Heavy Rain cough cough*), some of the plot twists may feel like they come out of the blue sometimes. That's fine with me, because after 7 years of Lost, I am down with that. If you don't like Lost, or don't have a 360, you may want to put extraordinary effort into trying to pick it apart and then whine about it on these internet blogs they have. In either case, you are dead to me. Then I will wear your face and harass your family. Moving on!
Immersion While this has been a bit of an overused word with plenty of commentary, Immersion in psychological research with respect to games can be loosely summarized as "The manner in which a player feels he is in a believable virtual world with both believable interaction between actors, and rules (cultural or other) that make up this world". If you can accept the world of Mass Effect 2, it can be highly immersive. If you don't, then you are more likely to focus on things like the core gameplay itself. But that doesn't mean it has to be a real world in any way. You can be immersed while playing Tetris for instance, or Ikaruga, or Sonic.
In Alan Wake, this process is being created by the Bright Falls area. A lot of effort has been put into the characters that make up the town and its immediate surroundings. While it is of course just a story, or a game, the setting is a realistic one. You use Energizer batteries and a flashlight, revolvers, shotguns and hunting rifles that you may find in a small mountain town where there might be bears, deer or wolfs around. While the town is mostly empty when you do get to 'freely' walk through it (at night of course), there is enough exposure to its inhabitants to make you believe that Bright Falls could be a real place. Let me put it this way: Bright Falls, WA felt as real to me as Forks, WA feels to Twilight fans. But then with 100% less sparkling.
As a location, the Bright Falls town and area make up the entire game. That means that you may encounter some areas twice, although they never feel the same. It also means that some areas that lie outside of the town take some time to get to. The game does a great job at making you feel you are actually a guy who has to walk or drive to get to places. Then again, sometimes you are at one location at one point, and then wake up somewhere entirely different. Luckily the narrative kicks in to distract you from questions like "how did I even end up here?".
While I'm not entirely sure if it is a part of Immersion, or better served as a separate element, the atmosphere in the game plays a huge part. The dark is always a threat, with enemies that can spawn behind you if you are fucking around for too long, and new enemies get introduced to keep you from feeling at ease while exploring for goodies. I recommend you play the game on Hard, as on Normal it did suffer a tiny bit from Dead Space syndrome; enemies can be scary the first few times until you figure out how to efficiently dispatch of them with a minimum of ammunition. You can also walk backwards and pick off enemies a lot, until some enemy appears behind you where you didn't look. In that regard, there are some traces of Resident Evil's tension building (i.e., where you don't look there may be a threat).
Overall, if the things mentioned in the Narrative section above intrigued you, you will be heavily immersed until the episode you are playing ends. Every episode also ends with a song, which is directly related to the plot developments or the episode itself. Even though I'm not necessarily a fan of the genre of music that was used, I noticed I just sat on the couch for a minute or two after each episode, listening to the lyrics and slowly processing what the fuck I had just witnessed. The best way I can describe the feeling is they way you feel after a great episode of Lost ends with the 'LOST' end title, after which you tend to sit and go "daaaaaamn".
Presence Presence is basically the feeling of being IN the game. A lot of things can influence this, like the spatial elements of your surroundings. For example: I feel present in this room because I see walls, a roof, a door, the chair I'm sitting on and the desk I'm sitting behind. At the same time, perception factors into this feeling of Presence in different ways. Through tactile feedback, I know this chair and desk are here. But I only have my visual input to tell me there is actually a room with walls and a roof here. Maybe my auditory input also tells me something about it through the way sound reverberates, but for all intends and purposes, the room I am sitting in only exists in my mind through the sensory input my brain processes.
An easy way to discern Presence from Immersion in a game is to just look at a puzzle game. Tetris can make you forget about the flow of time through being immersed in it. Yet you never feel like you are inside Tetris's world. I am not the invisible cursor that controls the falling blocks. There is nothing to make me feel like I am actually present inside that world.
Other ways in which presence can be created is through the interactions with the world. Do people react to you in a realistic way, thereby establishing my being there through their responses to me? In Alan Wake, the sensory and social feedback is what drives presence. While the NPC's mostly act like NPC's in any story driven 3rd person action/adventure game (think Uncharted's interaction with Sully), they kind of respond to your being there with some scripted lines but still tend to just stand around, waiting for you to come within range before saying something relevant. Just like in Heavy Rain's mall level, you'll probably find yourself running into people or trying to jump on their head to see if they respond to it. Games are not there yet to create truly convincing NPC interaction to drive true presence, not yet.
While the social feedback from NPC's is decent, if far from perfect, Remedy plays around with your senses in the game's survival horror sections. Visual input is greatly reduced by the darkness, meaning you have to scout around with your flashlight in order to try and map the surroundings off the beaten path. If you strip down all atmosphere, the outside levels are similar to Fable. There is a clear area where you can walk, and where the level's borders are. But because there is no map, and because this area around the main path is large enough to want to explore, but not too large to get lost in, it feels a bit unfair to compare it to Fable directly.
Sound design works in making you feel ill at ease for most of the time. At some point about halfway through, you will have learned what is background noise and what indicates potential enemies, as there are different cues for them. If you don't think about it too much, it works. However, we've played enough games to know exactly where to look in terms of what sound means what. Still, it is interesting to see how sound is used to screw with your normal sense of presence as you have it in the real world. Sounds that make us feel at ease in the real world (a car honking in the background, a calm wind blowing outside) are used for calmer sections, while anything that can unnerve us if we heard it in an area in real life is used to do the same in the game.
The fact that it works to make you feel a range of emotions from calm to distress, depending on your health status and how far you are from a save point, is a testament to spending 7 years or so on making the game. If you want to nitpick though: other games like Silent Hill or Fatal Frame have done the same before: twist sound and visual input to cause distress. An experiment has been done/is being done on twisting sensory input to affect feelings elicited through Presence in the Chinese Room project, for those interested.
Core Gameplay Since it is a game, and not a series of interactive and seemingly random situations where you can make breakfast or go through a sequence of required boring actions to progress, it would be nice if the gameplay worked. Luckily, it works fine. You aim your flashlight at enemies to remove their shield, in a sense. Then you shoot them dead. Deader. Dead Again? You remove them from the game world, there. You can also focus charge your flashlight by holding the left trigger to be more effective at this, which costs energy that regenerates over time and can be instantly replenished with batteries. It feels similar to zooming in over the shoulder with LT to effectively kill enemies in, say, Gears of War. Yet it's different enough to stay fresh for a while.
Flares can be held or dropped to create a kind of shield, or if you are a dick you can drop them around some undead hick and then shoot his ass with a shotgun. Whatever works for you. Flashbangs can instantly remove a large portion of the shadow shield from larger enemies, or totally disintegrate lesser enemies. Finally the Flare Gun works like a rocket launcher with an AOE damage attack while it flies. If you play on Normal, don't be afraid to waste some shots, as you can almost finish the entire game without ever using it outside of some required sections.
A minor concern with the gameplay is that it can get repetitive. You don't want to wade through the same waves of enemies, even if they come in varied forms, for hours on end. As Jim mentioned in his review, the dodging can take a bit to get used to in terms of how long the animation lasts and at what point you are actually dodging an attack. Good thing you should only be dodging if you are failing at dispatching of groups of enemies. Then again, when a chainsaw guy runs at you and it's obvious you can't dispel his shadow 'shield' before he reaches you, many panic button presses may occur. Hell, you might even dodge him!
Any concern about the repetition can be solved in two ways though. First, there is the narrative and some expertly designed pacing to keep things interesting and varied. Second, it's best to play it one episode at a time. I played it one episode per day until the last two, which I did on a Saturday with a couple of hours break time between eps. This worked very well as you get a short recap before each episode starts, and you get some time to get into the game again instead of being dropped right in the action while you are still remembering what was going on again. The last episode is pretty long though, with a lot of combat and action. Some reviewers have complained that it got repetitive by then. I just saw it as a way to finally go all out on everything I had learned over the course of the game. A bit of a playground before the end, so to speak.
Identification While studies on identification are not very prevalent in the body of literature when it comes to games (even though there is not really a giant body in the first place), they tend to focus on how people identify with their avatar for instance. In a study done by a group of my students in a game studies class, they found some effects for personality and avatar choice. For instance, some people like to choose an avatar in a game like Neverwinter Nights 2 that corresponds to how they perceive their actual self. Others (a majority in general) instead want an avatar that corresponds to their ideal self, although what influences their preference is dependent on personality factors (e.g., how open or closed off they are in social interaction).
As you can read, I'm not much of a writer so I don't necessarily identify with Alan Wake because of his profession. Actually, we don't learn that much about his personality at all, other than that he is mostly a typical human specimen that tries to deal with the success of his past books, a resulting dark period and the will to redeem himself. Come to think of it, I didn't really identify with any of the characters at all. Yet, they are mostly displayed in a realistic way, where "realistic" means "fitting in a Stephen King story". So if you are familiar with those, it is easy enough to kind of meta-identify with the characters through the familiarity with these types of characters and their motivations.
In theory, Identification can also work through familiar cultural and social aspects in terms of how people interact and in what ways. Since it's about a small town in Washington state, it's familiar enough for a Western player. I'd say that overall the immersive and narrative design makes up for the lack of identification with the main character, but you could criticize Alan Wake as a character if you want to (Hair Palace dude did for instance).
Conclusion Well, that was a bit longer than expected. How do these elements tie together in Alan Wake, and is there more that should be analyzed separate from the current elements?
The core gameplay is fitting, and fun. But on its own, it doesn't hold up for an entire game. This is a game that is driven by the narrative though, and it succeeds in that regard. The immersion elements seem to interact with the narrative to create the best representation of a believable creepy small town in the middle of nowhere. So, the game world works and the story works as a device to not so much drive your progression, as it is there to lure you forward.
While in game, creative design with respect to Presence elements work to unnerve you and in many cases make you think twice about exploring in the dark with little ammo. Yet as an experienced gamer, you'll quickly learn when there is a danger, and when there isn't, which undermines your sense of dread. For that, there is the higher difficulty setting, as Normal mode was really too easy for a survival horror. Then again there are two or three memorable "L4D finale" sections that look like they would be hard enough to retry a couple of times on the hardest difficulty.
The weakest link seems to be identification, as it's a game about playing through Alan Wake's story, and not so much your story as a player. In that regard, it is a very disconnected experience, but at the same time similar to watching a TV show in the genre: the player is a viewer and not so much an actor in the sociological sense.
I'm still playing around with how these elements work together towards the whole of a game experience. I'll try to do it for this game and see how future game analysis will hold up, maybe a common theme will emerge by itself. Maybe not.
A strong narrative drives the progress through a highly immersion environment while the core gameplay is sufficient to keep the game varied and more than just 'interactive'. Design choices for presence help to improve the gameplay above what it is on paper, and to elicit emotional response while playing it. Interaction between narrative and immersion on one hand, and presence and core gameplay on the other, both work on separate levels to create a unique gameplay experience. Gameplay as in: a game and not an interactive series of scenes that are not really a game. Sadly, identification is lacking, but a probable direct result of using TV shows and books as inspiration, without the time or exposure to character development to really identify with the main character. To be honest, most of the side characters, while believable, are a bit stereotypical too if you are familiar with the genre material.
Sadly, that also means there is not really a way to rate it with these elements. Except in a model form of sorts. Perhaps that is the future of game reviews?
tl;dr verdict Do you like Lost? Do you like Stephen King's better work or do you like him in general? Do you like Twin Peaks, or the idea of it if you never made time to watch all of it? Do you want insane horrors to exist in the dark, the shaping of reality and unreality slowly leading you down the mouth of madness? Then you want this game. The entire game is a love letter to those influences, and as someone who loves all of it, the attention to detail made this one of my favourite games of the year. Plus you'll probably be screaming for the DLC episodes down the line. I know I am. The main game's story itself does have an ending and if it takes 5 years or more to make a game like this, I'll gladly wait for it.
Do you not like any of those things? Then just rent it like you did Heavy Rain: to see what the big deal is. You'll probably find enough to complain about. That's ok, I recommend you go watch Date Movie or Meet the Spartans for your cerebral stimulation instead.
Do you guys think these elements cover most games, or am I overlooking an obvious element? I do tend to overlook things because of personal bias, and a preference for certain genre games, so shoot me a comment with what you think. Many researchers like the "videogame violence is a causal link for violence" people tend to show a severe disconnect between academics and how people actually play and perceive a game, so actual gamers' feedback should be a core aspect of any future academic or practical research into games.
Edit: After having finished it on Hard, I recommend you start the game on that difficulty. It feels more like the way it was perhaps intended to be. I missed a few collectibles that will make for some very tense searching around though... perhaps too much for me :)