Opening Turn: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare

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Today on Opening Turn, a game that I’d actually been looking forward to for awhile: Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. See, I absolutely loved Alan Wake, a game that may not have been the best or most original game on the face of the planet, but because when it did something well, it absolutely /shined/. It was an odd duck of a game, too. It wasn’t exactly an action game, because Alan Wake isn’t an action hero. He’s a writer. It was a little bit like a Silent Hill game, only instead of being a psychological gorefest, they removed a lot of the actual gore and gave it some heaping bowlfuls of abstract psychology (“It’s not a lake, it’s an ocean”. If anyone can tell me what that means, I will be eternally grateful). So, how does American Nightmare stand up? Well:

What is it? Alan Wake’s American Nightmare isn’t precisely a sequel to Alan Wake. If there is ever an Alan Wake 2 (and I hope there is), then American Nightmare would probably be Alan Wake 1.5. Or 1.75, if you count the DLC for the first game. Instead of being a game sold at a brick and mortar retailer, it’s distributed over XBLA (or Steam, if you get the PC version) this time around. In terms of plot, it takes place entirely inside of an episode of a fictional TV show called ‘Night Springs’, which is sort of a cross between the Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks. In a stunning example of how to be meta, the episode is one that the title character wrote himself.

And who is this Alan Wake fellow, anyway? He’s a writer. He’s sort of supposed to be a strange combination, I suppose, of Stephen King and James Patterson (his signature character’s name is Alex Casey. How much more transparent can you get?). Though I always thought of him as a deranged Richard Castle, and if there’s ever an Alan Wake movie they had /better/ get Nathan Fillion to play him. But I digress. After enjoying popular success and being elevated to rockstar status, he apparently completely loses his shit. Now, he’s trapped in a world that has been created out of his own books, fighting creatures called the Taken, living darkness that captures and takes over ordinary people and which are highly allergic to light. Hence, in order to dispatch enemies, you use a flashlight to burn away their shields of darkness, and then finish them off with an actual firearm.

So do I need to have played the first game to enjoy this one? Aside from the fact that you absolutely need to play the first game no matter what, well, yes, it probably helps. There’s a little bit of recap in terms of manuscript pages you find along the way, but not all that much. The game is self-contained, but does very little to explain /why/ Alan is stuck fighting against these dark things with nothing but a handgun and a flashlight.

How about if I have played the first game? What’s different? Not all that much, really. It plays a lot like the first one. You still use the flashlight to burn away the darkness, and the handgun for kill shots. However, there is more emphasis this time on combat, and the whole thing feels like it’s really going for the ‘Arcade’ part of “Xbox Live Arcade”. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as the combat is easily the best and most intriguing part of Alan Wake, so a game that focuses on it is really just adding a little more of a good thing. 

So what stood out? Other than the still-amazing combat, the addition of a singular villain really makes the experience a little better. The villain this time is Mister Scratch, a character that was heavily alluded to (but rarely actually addressed) in the first game, and who may, in fact, be Alan himself. This isn’t a spoiler, as Mister Scratch looks exactly like Alan, and acts exactly like a deranged person who is on several different drugs all at once. Also, there are some very, very, very profound statements about the nature of writing and the creative process that any writer would appreciate. Specifically, that writing, that creating worlds, is a powerful way of altering reality for the reader, if only for a short time. There are other statements to this effect that are said a lot more eloquently than I ever could, and it’s one of the reasons I highly encourage anyone who writes or is interested in writing to play both Alan Wake games. Oh, and the graphics are good. Really good. Not just ‘for an XBLA title’ good.

And any disappointments? Well, having a singular villain and a game focused a little more on combat sort of takes away from the creepy ambiance that was present in the first game. However, it is something I would let slide, as that wasn’t what they were going for this time around. This time, they were going for pure, shameless camp, and they achieved it spectacularly. Whether that’s what you /want/ is another question entirely.

Anything else? There are crowning moments of awesome that I won’t spoil here. Just know that they’re there, and you’ll know them when you get to them. Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is a game I have no problem recommending, providing that you take my advice and play the original Alan Wake first. Please. It’s awesome, and I really want there to be a true Alan Wake 2.

[This review is reposted with my permission at Attack Initiative.]

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