'Alan Wake' searches Northwest for missing wife in new game

If the plot "Alan Wake" sounds like something from Stephen King's paranoia, you're not far off. Writer Sam Lake has testified to his King adulation; and the first sentence spoken in the video game begins, "Stephen King ..."

In this cinematic tale of psychological horror, Alan Wake is a successful novelist who has suffered writer's block for two years. So, his wife Alice whisks him out of the big city to take him to a lake cabin retreat in the Pacific Northwest.

Immediately, she vanishes. Alan experiences a mental break. He's not sure if she's dead, alive, kidnapped, or what.

You portray Alan and begin his weird journey to find and save Alice, if she's alive. The action of the game (which comes out Tuesday) goes like this:

It's almost always nighttime in the forest as you trek across mountain trails. Evil shadow spirits sneak up on you in the dark. You must shine a flashlight on them to illuminate their human form, then shoot them with a revolver or shotgun.

Meanwhile, all along this path, you surreally keep finding manuscript pages from a novel you wrote but can't remember, and this novel is coming true before your eyes.

"Alan Wake" really keeps you guessing as to what the hell is even going on.

That is, for a long time, you don't know if, A) your wife has been kidnapped, B) she died but you can't face the truth so you're hallucinating psychotically, C) you're trapped in a supernatural dimension, or in a "Jacob's Ladder" purgatory, D) you're stuck in a nightmare state created by someone else, or E) you're somehow living out one of your novels.

There's a lot of voice-over narration in "Wake," which isn't a shock, since it was developed by Remedy, the company that in 2001 brought us the noir masterpiece, "Max Payne."

And "Max Payne," you'll remember, was similarly packed with narrative; was also a rescue fantasy centering around a wife in peril; and remains one of my three favorite games of all time.

My one real complaint about "Alan Wake" is you often run through forests without having much to do. I killed only 440 spirit dudes in two days. You shooting gamers know that's a low kill count.

You casual gamers may dig the film and TV quality of the story, plus the frightful ease of the horror action -- until the end, which is quite hard.

I finished "Alan Wake" in a weekend. And let me tell you. Its Pacific Northwest is huge. Game makers snapped 60,000 digital photos and took hundreds of hours of video of the area before illustrating this game's 100 square kilometers.

I think Remedy could recycle the whole environment into a four-wheeling game, a camping game, or a skydiving game, or something.

Isn't that a great idea? Every hit game's environment could be turned into an entirely new game of a different genre. "Call of Duty: Mario Kart." Hey game companies, I want idea royalties when you pull that off.

("Alan Wake" by Microsoft will retail for $60 for Xbox 360 starting May 18 -- Plays fun and interesting. Looks very good. Moderately challenging. Rated "T" for blood, language, use of alcohol, use of tobacco and violence. Four stars out of four.)

Contact Doug Elfman at delfman@reviewjournal.com. He blogs at reviewjournal.com/elfman.