Unpacking Alan Wake: Episode 1

It is worth remembering that traditions are not the mechanical repetition of an inflexible form but rather a joyful play of variations and rejuvenations.

– Jorge Luis Borges

Reducing the impact of Alan Wake to the game’s predecessors is an injustice I must actively avoid, as Remedy’s immaculate attention to detail constantly spoils the player with intertextual tricks and treats. Anyone who has played the game can identify the references to cultural monoliths such as the Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks, and the spectacular realization of Bright Falls is a subject deserving of discussion on its own. More than a tableau of Americana and some of its unsettling elements, however, Remedy digs deep into their original sources to unearth the postmodern tensions of artifice and identity. These genre-spanning themes give Alan Wake two surprisingly consistent legs to stand upon, and in true horror fashion, Wake uses these legs to run.

As you might have guessed, Alan Wake‘s principal influences include campy horror films and gory pulp fiction. So when the game has the player taking control of a faltering writer who is unsure of both reality and his contribution to it, Remedy enters a longstanding tradition which the developers obviously know enough to manipulate and eventually betray the player’s expectations. Wake’s character draws his own parallels to Stephen King, and for good reason: the two are terse, prone to quipping, and their creative oeuvres share an undeniable knack for violence and horror. When his visit to Bright Falls takes an unfortunate turn, Wake finds himself both the victim and creator co-author of events which inspire him to ask difficult questions about his sanity as well as the fate of the town he has just entered. To make things worse, each of the various circumstances he faces–namely his wife’s disappearance and the shadowy specters he fights with increasing regularity–can be found in an obscure manuscript with none other than his own name in the credits. If this sounds vague, it is intentionally so; the player doesn’t so much uncover the plot of Alan Wake as shed light on the sequence, as the story upends the unity of time while vying for the much more valuable unity of place.

In his lectures at Harvard, Nabokov dissects Don Quixote into Victories & Defeats; Alan Wake may be similarly separated into reversals. Horror narratives often place their victim into eternally subjugated positions so that they might extend the tension, but Alan Wake periodically grants its eponymous hero both the physical and mental tools to overcome specific threats. As the Dark Presence gains more influence, Wake’s constant self-discovery keeps his identity safe from the former’s obliterating power, seen in all its horrific glory in the evisceration of co-conspirator Ben Mott. The player’s collection of flashlights, flare guns, and other sources of light allow Wake to reverse the state of darkness and discover the path to his missing wife. Similarly, the author’s limited creative output is reversed as the horrific events that surround him become his twisted muse; these and other aids (not the least of which being the various characters of Bright Falls) demonstrate the back and forth demonstrated in the game’s rising action.

Wake’s motive throughout all of this is easy enough to decipher: he wants to save his wife from the enigmatic Dark Presence. This unique antagonist, however–a manifestation of literal darkness that takes multiple guises throughout the game–is somewhat more difficult to place in terms of motives and desires.

This is because the struggle for power that permeates Alan Wake and its reversals is driven in part by the the manifestation of control made possible by cultural texts and works of art. Once Cauldron Lake has been identified as a place of interest in the narrative constantly uncovered (or recovered) by Wake, Remedy affirms the lake’s import by placing the protagonist on its shores at a critical moment in the game. Early on in the narrative, Wake is notified of a lodge on Cauldron Lake run by Emil Hartman, renown for helping struggling artists and other certifiable psychopaths (ahem) on the road to creative recovery. When Wake awakes (just one of many ways to view the significance of our hero’s name) to find himself enrolled in the lodge, he discovers that the lake turns the work of these artists into a substantial reality. Bright Falls writer Thomas Zane had stumbled onto this power by accident, and it is Wake’s task to reverse Zane’s unfortunate conjuration of the Dark Presence.

In effect, the Dark Presence desires complete authorial voice over the texts created in Bright Falls. Seemingly innocuous, the game’s manipulation of reality through the arts and their effects offers an interesting inquiry into the very consequences of the act of writing. Few games–much less other, more decorated forms of art–take full responsibility for any lasting cultural effect they might enjoy. Here we find the most obvious influence of postmodernism, as metafictional authors such as John Barth (who makes an appearance in the follow-up to this discussion) are known for diving into the zeitgeist of words, art, and the oft-overlooked influence they share on the construction of cultural (i.e. physical) reality. In Alan Wake, we learn that Thomas Zane did much of the same on Bright Fall’s Diver’s Isle. Remedy’s deliberate inclusion of this idea into an otherwise backwards-looking (in regards to influence) action/horror game is an impressive feat that kept me on my toes more than Wake’s enemies ever did.

For Episode 2, we’ll look at how Remedy resolves Wake’s psychoses. Look forward to stories within stories, Oedipus, and postmodern/semiotic bard Roland Barthes.

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One Response to Unpacking Alan Wake: Episode 1

  1. Pingback: Unpacking Alan Wake: Episode 2 | The Bombers' Notebook

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