Why Alan Wake Has Endured

Published: September 20, 2021 12:00 PM /


The name Alan Wake in dark blue text on a black background

The recent PlayStation Showcase showed plenty of things to be excited about. A classic Star Wars RPG is getting a remake. Dad of Boy is continuing his adventures. There were even a few Marvel surprises to be found. Personally, I was beyond excited for the remaster of Alan Wake, marking an honest second chance for this mesmerizing and beautiful experience to reach a larger audience.

Alan Wake sitting at a large desk, his back to the camera, a mountain is seen in the window.
Time to set the scene....

The Development of Alan Wake

Chances are, unless you're a big fan of Control or have been charting out the shared universe worldbuilding that game employs, a history lesson is in order. Alan Wake was released for the Xbox 360 on May 14, 2010. It was the latest major release for Remedy Entertainment, the Finland-based studio, after helping bring slow-motion bullet ballet to gaming with the Max Payne series. It was also seen as a major shift in genre and tone for the studio. Max Payne was a John Woo-style noir detective action romp; Alan Wake was a psychological thriller mystery.

The development history of the game as well as its marketing is quite interesting. The very first extended trailer for the game was shown at E3 back in 2005, full of very early environments, lighting effects, and text crawls. The pitch was simple as well. Alan Wake is a best-selling horror author who goes on vacation in a small town in the American Northwest, but one of the stories he's written is becoming real. His wife is missing, and he's exploring the town for answers. At the time it was seen as really impressive for its technical ambitions as well as the atmosphere and intrigue it presented.

While rumors did get around, it wasn't until an in-depth video interview with Ars Technica that Lead Writer and Creative Director Sam Lake opened up about this part of the production. Originally, Alan Wake was imagined as an open-world adventure where players would have to strategically manage daylight to collect supplies and follow the story, followed by intense battles for survival against nightmarish creatures during the night. To this end, Remedy made a comprehensive map of the town of Bright Falls, making sure the entire area looked like a believable, livable world.

A cabin in the woods with the sun setting in the distance.
I know we're spoiled on ray tracing, but back in 2010 this was impressive.

Unfortunately for Lake and his team, implementing a seamless and coherent open-world game was far too taxing for the technology they had at the time. This led to the production going through major restructuring. Microsoft, which was the game's publisher at the time, even aided as best as they could with these technical issues, according to Lake.

It was over a stretch of three years that the version of Alan Wake that arrived on store shelves began to take shape. Lake massively rewrote the story's script into a more traditional, linear fashion. He even framed each story chapter like a prestige television series with needle-drop musical cues, dramatic cliffhangers, and “previously on” story recaps. The team focused on taking segments of the open world and getting them to work as linear levels with key objectives.

But the kicker is that despite this massive change in scope and level design, the overall layout of the town of Bright Falls, Cauldron Lake, and the mountains remained unchanged. In fact, looking back at the original E3 2005 trailer, it's amazing just how much of the environments shown are present in the final product. Lake even mused that players could feel this holistic texture as they played, that Bright Falls just felt like a real and authentic place and not just a video-game facsimile.

An image of a laptop with showing Alan Wake promoting his novel
A video promoting book within a video promoting a game about the writer of said book.

On the marketing side of things, Microsoft admirably worked hard on promoting Alan Wake as a psychological thriller mystery full of intrigue and suspense. They helped produce a Collector's Edition with a case shaped like one of Alan's fictional novels. It included a small journal titled The Alan Wake Files, which was written by an in-game character about the weird happenings in the town. I own a copy myself, and it was worth every penny. There was a miniseries of six live-action shorts produced, simply titled Bright Falls, all showcasing characters and locations recreated from the game available for download on the Xbox Marketplace. Alan himself even cameos in a few episodes, played by his live-action actor Ilkka Villi.

When the game released, reviews were very positive. Critics championed the story and characters and tolerated some grating gameplay elements. But despite Remedy's pedigree as a talented studio, Microsoft's PR, and very strong word of mouth, Alan Wake was a sales disappointment, selling 145,000 copies in the opening month.

Why was this? Well because a week later on May 21, Rockstar's own Red Dead Redemption came out and dominated the landscape. Take-Two's boss at the time even admitted in an interview with VentureBeat that the release, “sucked the oxygen out of the room.”

Alan looking at a swarm of birds surrounding a cabin
Huh, there's even a bit of Alfred Hitchcock in here too.

Alan Wake's Cult Following

If this was any other video game released, that would be the end of Alan Wake's story. But, it turns out all of Remedy's compromises and changes did lead to the game finding an audience. In February 2012, an Alan Wake fansite called The Sudden Stop went live. It was here that fans grew to further appreciate all of the work and effort that had gone into the game. It took a while, but the game had become a gaming cult classic.

But what is especially impressive is just how much the original release still holds up. While an excellent PC port by Nitro Games definitely helps, there really is no other gaming experience like this one.

The heady mix of Stephen King tropes about the power of storytelling shaping the world and David Lynch-inspired small town oddity helps make every single supporting character leap off the screen. It makes the corrupting nature of the dark force all the more grotesque and offputting as it hollows its victims of personality and identity, turning them into mindless thralls. The twists and turns in the central mystery regarding the nature of Bright Falls and the manuscript that correctly predicts future events are filled with genuine tension and dread. Alan Wake himself is a great mix of the most unconventional video-game hero that can still pull off combat and set pieces. Even the genre and tone moves seamlessly from slow-boil supernatural mystery to horror action near the end.

In gameplay terms, there's a lot to enjoy as well. Using light sources to weaken and disrupt enemies is a novel idea that Alan Wake explores thoroughly. Sparking power lines, road flares, flashlights, headlights, Christmas lights, even flashbangs near the end are all combined with hunting rifles and revolvers into solid third-person shooting. There are a few undercooked spots, there are some really clunky platforming segments, and the vehicle sections are about as realistic as using matchbox cars, but these can be mostly written off as leftovers from the original open-world plans.

Alan's wife, Alice, seen through a driver's side window
In stills, she looks okay but it's unsettling in motion.

It's only when we look in the technical department that the age really shows. While the fog and lighting effects and sound mixing are still really impressive and hold up phenomenally, texture work and character models are really offputting. Water that looks like melted plastic, jagged rock faces, character faces that fall hard into the uncanny valley, these are just a few issues that have only gotten worse with time.

Yet, Alan Wake has only grown and endured with fans. This is thanks in part to Remedy's shared universe worldbuilding peppering the haunted writer and his supporting cast throughout their games, but thanks to its ardent fanbase demanding to know how his story will continue.

This is something that Lake himself has not taken for granted. While the PlayStation Showcase on Sept. 9 was where footage was shown of Alan Wake Remastered, Lake confirmed it not only existed but had been completed in an open letter on The Sudden Stop on Sept. 7.

A lighthouse shining through a foggy night
It always seems to come back to a lighthouse in these situations.

Alan Wake's Return

Second chances are rare in the field of video games. You either do well but then fade away as trends change, or you become the next big thing. Alan Wake has been trapped somewhere in between for the longest time. Something full of bold personality that refused to be ignored, even as times changed. It's the kind of experience that would benefit the most from a remaster, not just for the enhanced technology and accessibility, but because it will finally have room to breathe.

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More Info About This Game
Learn more about Alan Wake
Game Page Alan Wake
Epic Games
Release Date
May 18, 2010 (Calendar)
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