25 minutes with Alan Wake

For the last five years, the small Finnish game studio Remedy has weathered a stormy economy, kept its studio small against the trendy tide of high production costs, and has somehow kept Microsoft at bay from canning its project after a half decade of tinkering. Come May 18, Alan Wake will finally have its day in the sun. Unlike so many games that lose their steam and tech edge after a five-year development cycle (witness Peter Molyneux's first Fable and Dave Perry's Wild 9), Remedy's Alan Wake just seems to keep getting better.

At Microsoft's recent X10 event, we got to grips with a 25-minute hands-on demo featuring the game's original concoction of flashlights and flare guns, as Alan Wake arrives in a remote lake town spellbound with an evil force.

While there are many audio elements that lend themselves to Alan Wake’s eerie atmosphere, like the sound of a whistling wind overlaid with hushes, whispers, and soft moans, the key to Alan Wake’s creepiness is its use of darkness. Physically and metaphorically designed around the dual nature of light and dark, good and evil, Alan Wake finds himself using flashlights, flood lights, flare guns, and even flare grenades to ward off enemies that strike from the shadows. The problem is that light is scarce, batteries limited, and most of the time you’re blindly groping your way through the dark, fleeing from one frightful experience to another. Fortunately, problems like these are more than welcome in a suspenseful thriller like Alan Wake.

The game's first level starts off quickly. Alan and his wife arrive in the small mountain town of Bright Falls, where his two-year old book is still a big hit with the locals, and in the first diner he visits the waitress immediately recognizes him and points to a standee of him near the door. After the awkward moment, Wake receives a room key from a strange veiled woman in a dark hallway leading to the diner’s bathroom, and we get our first taste of the game's surreal nature. Was the woman real? Why don't we see her face? Did she go number one, or number two?

We're then introduced to a new scene, led by Wake's monologue narrative. Soon, Wake hurriedly drives along a mountain road and mistakenly hits a hitchhiker. He watches in disbelief as the hitchhiker disappears before his eyes – and decides to make his way towards a nearby gas station on foot. The only thing standing in his way is a thick and foreboding forest.