Gaming: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

I’m the champion of light again. Or at least that’s what the Rod Serling-like narrator calls Alan Wake, who I am navigating through this town in the middle of nowhere comprising of a diner, a motel, a drive-in theater, and an astrological observatory.

Cactuses dot the landscape liberally, and various oil rigs pump up and down, sounding wetly in the night. I have my flashlight and my gun, both staples of the gameplay from the first game, and I am constantly swinging them around, in case the Taken, the smoky black possessed enemies in the game, choose to attack.

When Alan Wake was released in the spring of 2010, it had the misfortune to come out on the same day as Rockstar’s Red Dead Redemption. I don’t know who made that decision, but they should be fired, if they haven’t already. Because I’m an alpha gamer, who, I can realistically say, is devoting a full third of every waking thought and deed obsessed with gaming, I’d bought both. I’d play Red Dead during the day, and Alan Wake at night.

Alan Wake was okay. I didn’t fall into it with the same degree of devotion as I did Remedy’s other game – Max Payne, but I trusted the developer enough to play it all the way through, which is rare for me to do with a game. These days I’ll play a lot of a game, but invariably, something new will come along and catch my attention, and I’ll have all these games that are something like 70 percent completed, like half-drunk beers on the table.

I think one of my main problems with Alan Wake was the unrelenting hike through the dark woods of the northwest United States. I can see how it couldn’t be helped — as the gameplay, the double action of flashlight-shining and revolver-firing, was integral to the game. But it still wore on me. Compared to the day-night cycle of Red Dead, Alan Wake was too much of the same for too long. Its episodic sequel, however, seems to have taken a page from Red Dead’s Undead Nightmare, Rockstar’s zombie-filled grindhouse alternate reality.

American Nightmare, while still treading that same dark path, feels a lot more open, largely because it is. A single desert highway links all the major areas of the game, and the desert sky, littered with lights, is quite bright.

When Max Payne 3 came out a couple weeks ago, there was some concern on the gaming forums that the shift to Sao Paulo, Brazil was doing a disservice to the NYC noir heritage of the character, but the shift hasn’t actually lightened Max. In fact, you see how dark he is in contrast to the socialites of Brazil’s rich and famous. A fish out of water, you really get to see the fish, see what he’s made of.

Something similar is happening with Alan Wake in the desert. The dark woods and Twin Peaks vibe of the first game was so much of its character that this spaghetti-western alternate reality whose conceit takes its inspiration from the Twilight Zone series really acts as a completely different experience. The rapid-fire weapons that Alan can wield, like a submachine gun or a nailgun, really adds to that, as all you had in the first game was a simple revolver. I am enjoying this empowerment of Alan, though I don’t know if it can last.

When Alan Wake was first announced, I was very excited to see what Remedy would do with him. Alan, a Stephen King sort of writer, was such a contrast to Max Payne, a brooding cop addicted to painkillers and alcohol. Alan wore a tweed coat with elbow patches and Max wore a battered leather jacket. To serve the fiction, Remedy deliberately made Alan an everyman caught in exigent circumstances, but to do so, they had to cut heavily down on his arsenal, as it wouldn’t make sense that a writer would be handling carbines with ease.

But the beautiful thing about fiction is that anything can happen. And in this dream landscape, where Alan is caught between worlds, caught in between various episodes of Night Springs, a Twilight Zone analogue, some Matrix-like super-gun shenanigans can occur.

I’ll be honest — American Nightmare is a breath of fresh air compared to its predecessor, but I’m not too fond of the Alan Wake franchise. While Max Payne was grounded in an — admittedly schlocky — real world, Alan Wake seems to have ventured into a dream-like territory where the stakes are seemingly malleable and open to shifting. And while that might be par for the course for a franchise based on a fiction writer, when people die in Alan’s world, I can’t tell if they were real or just someone he made up.

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Sherwin Sullivan Tjia is the author of five books: Gentle FictionsPedigree Girls (Insomniac Press), The World is a Heartbreaker (Coach House Books), The Hipless Boy (Conundrum Press). His latest is a choose-your-own-adventure story told from the perspective of a cat. It’s called You Are a Cat! (Conundrum Press). His most recent invention, the E-Z-Purr, is a CD with over an hour of cats purring! and is available for purchase from CD Baby.

Related on The Smoking Jacket:
Getting Into Max Payne, Again
Predicting Meta Critic Game Scores
In Which a Gamer Strokes His Gamer Boner 

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