Yes, I know that the game came out half a year ago, but I only recently had the chance to play it. Really, I just want to talk about it.
Let’s get the whole “game” thing out of the way; it’s a competent game with fairly solid controls. It does get let down a bit by being relatively easy, with a halfway competent player finishing most levels with the maximum number of flashbangs and flares. Also, the suspense tends to be killed somewhat by music stings and slow-motion camera angles giving away the enemies approaching, especially since the stings play when the baddies are far enough away to be killed effortlessly.
This is secondary to the real meat of the game, though. I am one of those pansies that actually likes a plot with his gunplay, and the world of Wake was fairly engaging.
Many of the great survival/psychological horror games have one thing in common: they all take place in an environment where the world itself seems to be out to ruin your day. Silent Hill 2 was famous for this, as well as the Condemned series, Amnesia: The Dark Descent, the famous Ravenholm chapter of Half-Life 2, and various books and movies of all kinds.
All of these examples have various ways of accomplishing this goal, but let’s focus on Wake’s method: darkness.
The fear of the dark, one of the primal fears that everyone has rooted in their subconscious, is a powerful thing in a horror setting. After all, darkness represents the unknown and can house any number of horrors. However, it’s more than simply a cloak for scary monsters to hide under, it can take on something of a physical form as well.
Light and darkness have always been opposites, this much is obvious. Consider how each of them plays a role in their respective time periods, i.e., day and night.
Day: Light, provided by the sun, fills everything that isn’t purposefully constructed to hide from it (sunshades, buildings with tinted windows, so on). Most people are active during the day as well, which means that every building is filled to the brim with fluorescent lights. The only place where you might find true darkness would be a windowless basement or the depths of a cave, and the former can be lit by simply opening a door. In short, light is in excess to the point where darkness must be purposefully constructed.
Night: However, the roles are reversed at night. Since the sun, and therefore the unlimited source of light, disappears, darkness reigns supreme. Darkness has a different dynamic than light, though, it acts as an encroaching force that must be driven back by a man-made light. Yes, the moon does prevent the world from sinking into pitch blackness, but anyone that has tented in the woods before can tell you that it doesn’t help that much.
Note that the light, your sanctuary from the dangerous darkness, is man-made; this means that it can be destroyed. Houselights are tied to powerlines and generators, both of which are located in, you guessed it, the dark. Generators are particularly vulnerable, as they require a constant fuel source. The same goes with flashlights (batteries), lanterns (batteries or a combustible fuel), and even torches, which can burn down or blow out.
This fact is important because it makes your light source, and therefore your assumed well-being, fragile. And even if it was unlimited, it only helps to a certain extent; they illuminate either a conical area brightly or a general area dimly. The effect is still the same, you have a single source of light barely keeping back the cancerous approach of darkness.
Of course, darkness is not intrinsically evil. After all, the absence of light is exactly that, nothing. However, our minds have a tendency to personify such things, giving them cruel intentions.
Why is darkness so powerful a force, then? It takes away the power from the character and forms them into nothing more than an insect trying pathetically to stave off its impending death. Think of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories, where the humans were faced with a power that was so immense when compared to their own. There’s plot strength in forces that are overpowered like that, where the creature would normally look at your tiny little flashlight and laugh. No, that wasn’t an euphemism.
The second aspect of the power is more cliche, but no less true. It’s fitting that Wake opens with one of Stephen King’s more memorable quotes, which essentially says the appearance of the monster in the story is always a let-down. It’s comparable to waking up in the night and hearing something banging around in your trash cans. It could be a raccoon, or it could be that serial killer that you’ve been hearing about on the news. Guess which one your mind will jump to first?
The darkness is a faceless entity, one that is never truly defined and therefore always scary. After all, you know that there is something out there, hiding behind the bushes, waiting for you to walk by…
Wake follows this idea to the letter in the implementation of the Taken. Oddly enough, some of the sections in the forest are the low point of the game, and not because of the gameplay. It’s because killing a group of Taken means that you’re safe for a while, as they rarely spawn rapidly. This is a tension-killer, of course, because the tension of the forests comes from the hiding of the enemies, not the fighting. Thus, the appearance of the monsters is a fairly big let-down.
There are parts of the game, through purposeful design or bugs, where you won’t get a sting until the group is almost on you (if at all). These are the pants-wetting moments, as the shadows of the bushes begin to look a lot like a man with a chainsaw after you’ve been running around in the dark for a while.
It’s the unknown, the anticipation, the fear that makes the game, well, scary. And that’s what gives the darkness power.
I’m rambling, so I’ll wrap it up. Let me say this: good horror doesn’t rely on the jump-out-and-scare-you kind of things. Real horror is the kind where the author could write the monster out of the story completely and it’d still be terrifying.
Oh, Alan Wake. Hmm. “Good game, let down by some poor choices in the mechanics. Decent story, would probably be better as a book”. Speaking of which, I hear that there actually is a book based off the game. So it’s a writer writing about a writer writing about a wabble dongking loosch. Still, might be decent…