Alan Wake Remastered Review (or is Alan Wake a jerk?)

2010 was a ridiculous year in video games: Mass Effect 2. Fallout: New Vegas. Red Dead Redemption.

It’s also a year the narrative driven game hit its stride, with Quantic Dream’s Heavy Rain, and a wildly experimental game called Alan Wake. A stand out against this catalogue of heavy-hitting roleplaying shooters, Alan Wake is an experimental, story driven game, inspired by David Lynch and Stephen King.

More than a decade later, the game has been remastered into 4K for new audiences and nostalgic fans. But it’s important to put Alan Wake Remastered in its proper context, because it is a product of its time. For modern players, Alan Wake treads an uneasy line between experimentation and gameplay, one that isn’t always successful in a contemporary context.

But for 2010, it must have been remarkable.

I didn’t play Alan Wake when it came out, so I was completely new to the story and world when approaching the remaster. Perhaps some of the game has been lost on me without the nostalgia for the original; at the same time, I can look at the story with an unclouded eye.

So, what’s Alan Wake about?

So what’s Alan Wake about? Buckle up kids. It’s a wild ride.

On one level, Alan Wake is about a thriller author who goes to Bright Falls hoping to break his writer’s block. He’s got an absolute babe for a wife, a ride-or-die literary agent, fans throwing themselves at him, and an envious publishing career. He’s also got writer’s block, insomnia, and probably a pretty terrible hangover. And he’s taking it out on all the people around him. Poor Alice and Barry, wife and agent alike, are bearing the brunt of Alan’s insufferable egotism.

Mostly, Alan Wake’s a jerk. Part of the struggle of reviewing this game as a woman is playing through Alan’s behaviour; I don’t expect all characters to be good or likeable (far from it – I want richness and depth). But telling the story from Alan’s perspective about his marital breakdown nearly excuses some of his behaviour towards Alice.

That’s the straightforward version. The reality (or unreality) is not so simple. Strange things are happening at Bright Falls, much like its sister city Twin Peaks. Darkness has overtaken the town, and sinister spirits called Taken attack Alan from the darkness. His wife Alice disappears, and much of the narrative involves tracking her down, while his own mind spirals into madness. The story is told in a non-linear fashion across six episodes, with flashbacks to past events at Bright Falls, and hard jumps between scenes and locations.

I appreciated that Alan Wake Remastered is not a long game – each episode took around 1.5 hours to complete, except for Episode 3 where I kept getting potatoed by a bulldozer.

Alan Wake Remastered Gameplay

This metaphorical fight against the darkness is built into the combat system. Alan’s a writer, not a fighter, although it’s beyond me where he got so good with a gun. Clearly ‘Merica.

Most combat encounters involve reducing an enemy’s invulnerability with a light source, then shooting them into oblivion. Torches, flares, and floodlights all play a part in defeating the encroaching shadows. Firing off a flare into a crowd of enemies never gets old, the red striking bright against the darkness. In the years since its release, this combat system of fighting the spirits of darkness with light has spawned several imitators, but none so memorable as the image of Alan Wake holding a flare against the dark.

Screenshot of combat in Alan Wake Remastered of Alan holding a flare against the darkness.

There’s a delicate balance of limitations here, making combat more challenging than expected. Alan clearly needs to do more cardio, because he can’t run for long without heaving for breath. Because of his lapsed gym membership, running away from enemies can only happen in short bursts. You can’t just sprint through the game; a well-timed dodge is vital. On a successful dodge, the game lurches into slow motion, deeply satisfying when you’re fighting with low health.

There’s also the limitation of resource management; mismanage your lights and ammo, and you’ll be up for some very challenging combat encounters. Use up too many flares too early, and you’ll be swarmed by enemies later on. The environment can be used as a weapon, with gas cannisters, bear traps, and electrical wires lurking around Bright Falls. Clearly, not enough OH&S reps in town. I would have liked to see more flexibility with these objects, such as the ability to move gas cannisters and traps. One of the best strategies to avoid being overwhelmed is to keep your back to a wall; the ninja-like shadows can’t sneak up on you then.

More irritating are the poltergeists that turn everyday objects into flying weapons. Machinery and vehicles hurl towards you in unpredictable ways. Boss battles, if you’d call them that, alternate between large shadow creatures or possessed farm machinery, or both. The game wasn’t clear on whether you could defeat these machines early on. It was only until late game that I realised the faint circles on each enemy signify how much shielding they have left. Keep hitting them with light until this disappears, and you can finally take them down.

And it’s not a real thriller without a chase scene. Alan Wake gets all Dukes of Hazzard, hooning through the fields in the various cars left around Bright Falls and Cauldron Lake. It’s a fairly simple driving sim, but it’s fun doing donuts while fighting the darkness, headlights fizzing the shadows into nothingness.

Even though the game has been remastered, there’s still some jankiness to the controls. Alan’s responsiveness can frustrate players at important moments. Combat has come a long way since 2010, and it’s slower, less dynamic than what you’d expect from a modern game.

Despite this, there are several memorable battles in Alan Wake, like fighting off the hordes of darkness from a rock stage, while literary agent Barry sets off fireworks. Or shotgunning your way through Bright Falls, decorated for the upcoming Deerfest celebrations. It’s these kinds of iconic scenes that set Alan Wake apart from more generic horror games.

Screen shot from Alan Wake Remastered of Alan looking at his manuscript

Outside of combat, Alan traverses the town and its surrounds by completing some fairly simple puzzles, mostly finding generators to turn the power on and open doors, or using levers to raise platforms. None of these were challenging, although a little frustrating while being attacked by shadows. There are trophies for collecting pages of Alan’s poorly written manuscript, and other small collection tasks. Perhaps this was once a substantial reward for exploring the world of Alan Wake, but it feels tedious to scour the world, when the NPCs spend a lot of time ushering you through the narrative.

It’s one thing that deserves note; the use of NPCs to herd the player through the game is a little heavy-handed at times. You don’t want to be told to hurry up, when you’ve got a conflicting goal to collect things and explore. It’s also detracts from experiencing the full environment design.

Remastered graphics and environment design

As any author will tell you, atmosphere is key to immersion. And the environment design of Alan Wake plays a huge part in maintaining the game’s tension. The woods don’t feel like a generic cutout of replicated trees; it’s easy to get lost, wandering in circles, much like the panicked author. Again, it took me a long time to realise the HUD gave a general direction of where to go; this could be improved given the tangled maze of paths. I admit, it could just be user error.

It’s also one of the early examples of light being used as a directional tool. Get lost in Alan Wake? Head towards the light. This kind of environment design is more common now, but it’s a beautifully clear compass for the player, drawing the eye to the intended destination with white lights and neon signs.

References to the Shining abound in the world itself, from the soaring opening sequences to the escape from the asylum through the hedge maze. Luckily, Alan doesn’t suffer the same fate as Jack Torrance.

One of the most enjoyable pieces of level design is crossing Bright Falls with Sheriff Breaker, moving through the church to the bookstore. It’s a well thought out level, with smart progression. Also, who doesn’t want to fight the Taken in front of a giant deer float and a bunch of port-a-loos?

Alice's face in Alan Wake Remastered

You’d expect sharpness from the 4K version, and it delivers down to the blackhead-filled pores of Barbara Jagger. While this level of detail looks great in the environment, it’s a different matter on the animated NPCs, with clothing and facial textures feeling a little smooth and under-rendered.

It’s also quite dark when streaming from the PS5; on a HDR monitor, this looks great, but when broadcasting the game you’ll need to bump the brightness right up.

Extremely dark vision of Alan Wake remastered on Stream

But what’s Alan Wake really about?

At its heart, Alan Wake is a character study of an unlikeable guy, coming to the realisation that he needs to write himself out of the story for his wife to live. Yet in telling the story from a male perspective, the women in the story suffer from being stuffed into the classic archetypes of maiden, mother, crone. Whether this is a product of the story itself imitating cliches, or whether this is unintentional, isn’t made clear in the narrative. If you’re going to rest on these archetypes in modern storytelling, you need to subvert them.

It’s also a game full of overwrought symbolism, where the obsession with homages sometimes outshines the originality of the story. References abound to Michael Moorcock, Alfred Hitchcock, Edgar Allan Poe, David Lynch, Stephen King, and, of course, H. P. Lovecraft. The aggressive FBI agent Nightingale, potentially representing the inner critic of Alan Wake himself, continuously shouts out a list of comparisons. It seems he’s more well read than Alan.

Added to these homages are the jumble of mythological symbols: ravens hover over the lake, referencing the mythical messengers Huginn and Muninn of Norse mythology, or perhaps just Poe’s infamous poem. The band Old Gods of Asgard rock out in this world, one musician with an eye patch referencing Odin himself. Stealing from Greek mythology, Alan Wake’s narrative mimics that of Orpheus going into the underworld to rescue his wife, only for him to turn at the last minute. Added to this jumble is a topping of Lovecraft’s elder gods (Azathoth, is that you?). This pick-n-mix approach to mythic symbolism needs a more refined vision.

Deerfest float in Alan Wake Remasterered

Which points to another challenge with Alan Wake’s story; the narrative fails to anchor the player in the world. There’s too much going on for it to have a clear through line. In parts, I failed to understand Alan Wake’s motivation because I was so caught up in trying to understand the story. Why do I need to go to Cauldron Lake again? Why do I need to find the radio station? It’s like trying to read a street map while you’re riding a rollercoaster.

This is not an argument to remove the experimentation – far from it. But to tell an experimental story, there needs to be a single line of truth through the narrative, so that the players can it apart and piece it back together like a puzzle. In a sense, there is. An evil presence has taken over the lake and turned the residents into shadow. But I had to turn to the internet to confirm what I suspected, when I want to be hit by the realisation in-game. In Alan Wake, there are too many puzzle pieces, which means the impact of the experimentation falls somewhat flat.

The ending’s impact – the classic ‘and then I woke up’ – doesn’t hit as hard as it should, muddied in this pool of symbolism. The foreshadowing is there, but it’s buried. Alan repeatedly wakes up throughout the episodes; there’s a reason he’s called Alan Wake. He’s trapped in a dream, within a dream, within a dream, representative of the writing process itself, where the author delves into the subconscious in order to create a structure from symbolism. But much like how Alan brushes off his biggest fan in waitress Rose, what’s lost here is the final stage, the connection with the audience.

Alan Wake meets Barbara Jagger, a veiled old woman in Alan Wake Remastered.

Writers like Margaret Atwood would argue that this is the most important point in literature; she describes it as negotiating with the dead. That we go down to the place of meeting in the afterlife, to commune and connect with another in the art of writing a story. And that’s where the story exists, in that meeting point between player and narrative. It’s an apt critique for Alan Wake, with its heavy mythological leanings.

But the best part of the game is when the symbols throughout the environment are replaced by words. The game is broken into its simplest parts: words. Because how else is a game created than by imagination? And where does this crossing from imagined world to final product start? In words. It’s this moment where Alan Wake becomes something else, something bolder than the other games of its time. Art, perhaps?

Despite wrestling with the overwhelming symbolism of Alan Wake’s world, I love that there’s something to wrestle with. I don’t want to play a game that leaves me ambivalent. What’s great to see is where Remedy has gone from this. Control refined this experimentation with a more mature, clearer vision for the world (and with maturity comes restraint). I haven’t played Alan Wake II yet, but its outstanding reviews indicate it’s an even better game, and I’m keen to check it out for myself now that I have some understanding of what’s gone on before. Or not.

Here’s hoping Alan Wake’s also less of a jerk.