Released in May, Microsoft Game Studios' Alan Wake is an action-adventure game for the Xbox 360, where the gamer follows mystery writer Alan Wake who is trying to uncover the mystery behind his wife’s disappearance. The music is by Finnish composer Petri Alanko who, despite extensive experience in the music industry, worked on a video game for the first time in Alan Wake.
The opening title track is a dark, moody piece with a melodic idea that appears often set against a dark textural backdrop of amorphous sound until a mysterious piano theme appears. It is a sound straight out of any mystery-of-the-week film with nice shifts harmonically as it plays out. The music that Alanko provides here is filled with engaging thematic writing that flirts with Twin Peaks-like melancholy at times but is conceived in a large-scale cinematic sound.
Ambient textures and design elements are also integrated into the score in tracks such as "Taken by the Night", helping to create a sense of ambiguity and tension that is occasionally played against dissonant clusters. Nevertheless, each such piece is still subtly compelling; indeed, each track is well crafted musically and the primary theme of the score asserts itself in grand gestures creating a sense of continuity to the score from sequence to sequence.
Between the darkness, there are many moments of tranquil beauty. Such elements first appear in the final bars of "Welcome to Bright Falls" and are more extended in both "Bright Falls Light and Power" and "The Well-Lit Room". These tracks feel more like character reflections, appropriate for showing Alan Wake's journey. The emotional direction of the music somehow manages to hint, without giving away, the storyline of the game itself, which is no small feat.
The thrust of the score plays like any contemporary mystery thriller with engaging themes, such as the beautifully effective "Deerfest", and enough action sequences that help break up reflective or slow tense segments of the score. "Waking Up to a Nightmare" is one of the center tracks where the design, thematic, and soundscape elements are all employed in ways that are quite chilling with plenty of tremolo string ideas to provide tension.
There is a mix in this score of both live and sampled electronic instruments, the former provided by Dynamedion's recordings in Germany. Fortunately, the combinations are done so well that one is never distracted, nor is it easy to tell the difference when live or electronic samples are used. Alanko includes an amazing number of textures in such a way that things blend well together and sound as if they are one ensemble playing together instead of disparate musical threads.
Overall, Alan Wake is an impressive listen. It is rare to encounter an orchestral video game score as deep and emotional as this. The music is a stunning complement to the game and is also a fulfilling stand-alone experience. Certainly, it is well worth seeking out for video game score fans and there is plenty of it here to enjoy.