In survival horror games vulnerability is the golden rule – hinder the player and they are more likely to experience fear. The original Resident Evil (1996), for instance, featured clunky controls making it difficult to dispatch the slow and otherwise unproblematic zombie masses. Unfortunately the majority of modern ‘survival horror’ games are merely action-shooters with ‘frightening’ antagonists, failing to sufficiently engender a sense of vulnerability. While it is certainly an enjoyable game, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare falls into this trap.
In 2010 Alan Wake gamers ventured through dark forests populated by possessed rural townsfolk, armed only with a flashlight and firearm. Alan Wake succeeded in creating a sense of vulnerability by making it very difficult to see. Torchlight bounced off the dense trees and foliage making it difficult to anticipate and distinguish enemies from shadows.
The downloadable sequel American Nightmare, exclusive to the Xbox Live Arcade, relocates the story to the Arizonan desert. Rather than inspiring fear the sparseness of the desert setting allows the player to easily identify incoming enemies.
Horror ambitions aside American Nightmare is a decent game. The plot finds novelist Alan Wake suffering from writer’s block, taunted by evil forces in alternate reality where fiction becomes reality. In this instalment Alan lives out an episode of fictional TV series Night Springs, an homage to the Twilight Zone complete with Rod Serling-esque narration. While the original Alan Wake channelled the cult classic TV series Twin Peaks and heavily referenced the works of Stephen King, American Nightmare encapsulates the spirit of pulp and the narrative direction of higher budget X-Files episodes.
Where the original game was predominantly story-driven, American Nightmare is oriented towards action, complete with a wave based arcade mode. The variety of weapons and availability of ammunition has been significantly increased, further detracting from feelings of vulnerability and fear. American Nightmare somewhat compensates for this by increasing the number of hostiles but it is rarely enough to overwhelm experienced players. Disappointingly the introspective, idiosyncratic dialogue of the original game is also absent. Fortunately American Nightmare retains the terrific control system and solid, albeit repetitive, torch and gun combat gameplay of the original.
Alan Wake’s American Nightmare is an enjoyable experience. Where the setting and story fail the controls and gameplay succeed. It is an ambitious title given its downloadable Arcade format. However, can you still call it a nightmare if it’s not scary?