Alan Wake (2010)

I don’t think this is a spoiler, but it could be so, like, be careful or something. Then again, if you haven’t had the chance to read any of the Harry Potter books by now, it means you either watched all of the movies instead, or you were just too preoccupied with pruning the moss underneath the rock you have been living under. Either way, I will try to be sensitive, because I am sure you had your reasons for missing one of the most monumental phenomena in writing history (and because I know that pruning moss can, after all, be a time-consuming routine).

At the very end of what is the third last chapter of The Deathly Hallows, a certain someone (see how sensitive I am being?) says to Harry: “Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” I remember this line vividly because, frankly, it confused the hell out of me when I first read it. What on earth does it really mean and why is this line uttered during what is probably the most important moment in the entire series?

I can easily recall the agony of putting my hopelessly distracted teenage brain to work to procure some answers just because I could somehow sense this was crucial to the story. For once, the internet was not much help either. The books were still too fresh off the shelves which meant that fanboys were still engrossed in writing their rather bizarre (and disturbingly pornographic) fan fiction before sharing their encyclopaedic knowledge with the rest of us laymen.

It was only in recent months, nearly 8 years after first sweeping my eyes over the quote, that I finally understood what J. K. Rowling tried to convey to her readers. The answer actually came from reading Misery by none other than the illustrious Steven King. For a brief synopsis, the book tells a story about a psychopathic woman who takes her favourite writer hostage as she forces him to write a book for her after he killed off her favourite main character in his last paperback.

At one point in Misery, the writer gingerly gives the psycho the first draft of the opening chapter in which the crucial event will unfold that brings the main character miraculously back to life. She eagerly devours the first draft… but then seems disappointed after putting down the last page (which is a big problem for the protagonist considering her tendency to have frenzied outbursts when he doesn’t do what she says!). Fortunately for him, she chooses this moment to remain calm(ish) and explain that while she is thrilled to see her character alive again, he wrote a cheat.

She explains that a character cannot simply be written back into life using a shortcut or a cheap, inconsistent narrative strategy. Such an attempt is breaking the ‘rules’ of narrative and it forces a big, gaping hole in the plot that coerces the readers to fill in blanks by themselves. It disturbs the delicate, self-contained integrity of a good story, no matter how deeply the literature is entangled in the realms of fantasy and science fiction. Fortunately for us in the material world, you will not actually be punished if you break the rules of narrative per se. You will only be left with a crappy story. But what if you were actually punished? What if you were creating a story in which the characters you kill off and the events you bring into their lives actually had a direct consequence on you?

These kinds of themes led the Finnish game writer Sam Lake to bang out his critically acclaimed IP, Alan Wake. Lake finally noticed that it was high time Steven King’s story telling prowess should migrate into the arena of video games since so many of his books have been made into highly successful movies (Shawshank Redemption, Carrie, The Green Mile, Stand by Me, etc.). By drawing substantially from King-approved horror techniques, Lake and his team at Remedy Games managed to procure one of the most intricate plots that had ever featured in video gaming history. So much so that Alan Wake sits right up there with the likes of Silent Hill and the Bioshock series.

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New from the Remedy clothing line for men! Those prone to moody expositions get 20% off!

In fact, after completing Alan Wake for the first time I actually had no idea what was going on! Not the faintest, but this time I was not alone. When the next game from the Remedy portfolio was not to be Alan Wake 2, but Quantum Break, fans were livid to say the least. In hindsight I now think their anger stemmed from the fact that they just wanted some closure as to what happened at the end of Alan Wake. This was not lost on Sam who even went through the effort of releasing a lengthy video in which he delivered an apology to fans regarding why Alan Wake 2 would have to be put on the back burner for now.

(Personally I think it must just be exhaustion with this IP because Alan Wake was a project six long years in the making by the time it was released for the Xbox 360 in 2010. So long, in fact, that many overeager fans initially mistook it as the successor to Max Payne 2 from back in 2004. Quite a feat of endurance for such a small development studio that does their own motion capture, sound design and game engine alterations.)

For those who don’t know (and comprise honourable members of the moss pruning club), the plot plays out the tribulations of thriller writer Alan Wake who flees to the beautiful, pacific northwest pine forests in an effort to cure his career-crippling writer’s block. Wake and his wife Alice check into a small town called Bright Falls where the duo rents a cabin to avoid the pressures of city life for a few days. Indeed, Bright Falls is your typical, middle-of-nowhere, once prosperous, North American milling town that effortlessly provides a setting so perfectly ominous, it would make even Mr King get an evil grin on his face before he begins rubbing his nipples vigorously with excitement.

Wake and his wife Alice decide to rent a cosy cabin by the lake, and things unsurprisingly go south quickly. While going outside to start a generator, Alan hears a blood-curling scream followed by a splash, and suddenly he discovers that Alice is suspended beneath the water. Eventually Wake comes to learn that she did not fall in, but is in the clutches of an insidious darkness that haunts the lake.

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“Alice, honey, I think you should know… I don’t have writers block. All that time I was in my study when I said I was writing? I was actually having Breaking Bad marathons.”

This darkness manifests to Alan as a deathly-looking old woman who, just like the character in Misery, forces Wake to write a novel if he is ever to see Alice again. What’s more, it seems that this darkness holding Alice hostage is sustained through the imagination of the people it ensnares, which is why it often takes hold of the minds of writers, poets and musicians that have stayed in Bright Falls. You meet some of the previous victims in the game later on, but you notice that they came off a little crazy from the encounter.

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Lake mentioned that the reason why the darkness assumed the shape of an old woman is because it is actually a reference to a witch from old Finnish folklore. Image from divulgantemorte.blogspot.co.za

 

Gameplay therefore involves guiding Wake in his quest through the town, the creepy surrounding backwoods and eerie wood mills as he tries to figure out how to free his wife from the darkness. This should have been a simple search and rescue affair, yet the problem is that nothing about this forsaken little hamlet is really what it appears to be on the surface. Even some the NPC’s that Wake encounters on his mission appear to have ulterior motives, and to top things off, the cabin itself is suddenly nowhere to be found.

Also, to add to the woes of Wake, he must fight his way between encounters with things that have been possessed by the darkness to thwart him, including its wicked henchmen, the Taken. The taken are faceless woodcutters and log runners with evil intent, and would like nothing more than to test the sharpness of their axes and chain saws on Alan Wake’s skull.

Make no mistake, the Taken are terrifying NPC’s without having to rely on jump scares or grotesque anatomical parts, and their encounters with the player do an excellent job of making Wake feel vulnerable. In fact, it is particularly during these enemy encounters that you can appreciate the game’s astonishing gift for building tension and fear by transforming the atmosphere from spine-tingling to outright unsettling. Trees start to thrash in the air as wind and mist begin to swirl violently between them, howling around the trunks. Cloud cover starts to move rapidly making patches of moonlight race across the ground… and then, with growling and wailing, the Taken emerge from behind the trees and amongst the ferns from all sides. If you have ever camped out in the woods, you’ll get it!

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The pacific north west had some rudimentary discos…

Yet what is darkness’s ultimate enemy? – Light, naturally. And hot damn did this game give you some weapons of mass illumination! Remedy built together an appealing gamplay mechanic where light can be utilised as an actual power against anything possessed by the darkness, including the Taken. Accordingly, you could use a flashlight to weaken the taken and then pop a few caps into them, or you opt for a flare gun or vintage World War II searchlight to truthfully pulverise them! Just be careful you don’t run out of batteries.

Yet it is in the story that matters most with Alan Wake, and I therefore warn you that SOME MAJOR PLOT SPOILERS ARE COMING BELOW. I WILL NOT GIVE AWAY THE ENDING, BUT YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED! GO PLAY THE GAME AND COME BACK HERE (OR GO PRUNE MORE MOSS, ITS LOOKING A BIT LONG AT THE EDGES AGAIN).

It is in the plot that Alan Wake exposes its Remedy studios roots since nothing about the storyline is narrated or directly explained to the player up front. The story plays out in a non-sequential manner rather than a linear one, and players must unveil the plot as opposed to acting it out. In other words, this game rarely plays a cut scene in which characters blah-blah-blah-yack-yack their way through and then hands control back to the player now that the story has been progressed. Instead, the story reveals itself in a way that players must piece together the plot from various scraps they find throughout the game world, and they are usually not in the correct order. It is a tried and trusted technique employed by the survival horror genre which really makes the player feel part of the story while never quite shaking off an element of mystery and uncertainty, and Alan Wake handles it with a truly unique style.

The story goes that after Alan leaps into the water to save Alice, he is suddenly yanked out of what he remembers and awakes (get it? Alan WAKE? A. Wake?) after a car crash. What? A car crash? How did Alan get here? Where is Alice? And what are these dark creatures attacking him? What is this novel, Departure, with his name on it that he doesn’t remember writing? Why is he seeing himself sitting behind a typewriter in the cabin room on T.V. screens? Much like Alan clambering out of the smouldering wreck of his SUV in the middle of the woods, the player likewise feels confused and startled when the game really begins.

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Now this is the point at which fan theories diverge a little on what is actually going on, but here’s my interpretation based on a few common threads. Turns out that the darkness has actually animated a type of literary incarnation of Alan Wake called Mr Scratch into the very story Alan Wake is writing, which explains why Mr Scratch cannot remember writing the novel and why he can see himself back at the cabin on T.V. screens. That is, Mr Scratch is basically Alan’s literary projection acting out the events from the novel Departure, and he is the one that must be guided through a structurally sound narrative towards Alice’s rescue. This is much like the poet Vergil who guided Dante through the Inferno/hell.

Yet seeing as Alan now has his way to literally ‘pen out’ Alice’s rescue, why not just write, “and then the hero saved the day and they both lived happily ever after and the old woman died from flatulence from washing down a pack of Mentos with Diet Coke. The End”? As the unfortunate protagonist from Misery learned from his captor, a story has to abide by a kind of internal logic, and the character cannot just sprout superpowers and inexplicably rise to glory. The darkness feeds off true artistic talent, and true artistic talent would produce a good proper story that is not reckless in its narrative structure.

Besides, Alan Wake eventually discovers that another celebrated novelist much like himself called Thomas Zane (looking a bit like a Big Daddy from Bioshock) tried to cheat his way out of the clutches of the darkness and instead found himself imprisoned in its grasp forever. Wake thus realises he cannot make it easy for Mr Scratch since his story is bound by the rules, and it is precisely these rules that makes a thriller a thriller! In other words, readers regard thrillers or horrors as good books when the actions and the characters themselves somehow connect and speak to our own real-life abilities and weaknesses. It is our humanly connections with the characters that make us scared when they experience danger in the story.

As referenced by username iczelion74 on IGN forums, think about it this way: Wake jumped into a LAKE to save Alice, and the writer of the game is Sam LAKE! The game therefore plays out as an action-packed thought experiment in which the writer actually lives in the world of his own character! For instance, in the opening chapter of the game, one of the Taken corners Wake and growls:

“You think you’re God? You think you can just make up stuff? Play with people’s lives and kill them when you think it adds to the drama? You’re in this story now, and I’ll make you suffer!”

So what we have here is a game that demonstrates how a good story is something that becomes real, something that manifests. No, it is certainly not something that is tangible and open to perception by one of the five senses. Yet as Harry Potter was told, this does not make our experiences with our supra-sensory stories less real.

Sorry that this piece is so long, but it just shows you how intricate and complex Alan Wake’s story really is. So all in all, it is totally impossible not to recommend this game, even if only on the basis of it being an excellent allegory for the perils of being a writer. As per usual, I will leave it up to the reviewers to articulate Alan Wake’s flaws and sloppier moments, but they will all unanimously reveal another unmissible title by Remedy for those craving their somewhat idiosyncratic story telling techniques.

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