We are afraid of something unnamed, of something, perhaps, in ourselves. In short, we turn on the light.
– Virginia Woolf
One of Alan Wake‘s most inspired creations is the in-game television show Night Springs. In a blatant homage to The Twilight Zone, human actors play out the various themes of the larger text; on the screens of sporadically placed television sets, the virtual Wake can watch a live action performance of his own exegesis. Now that we understand the significance of Cauldron Lake, players can never be sure of the cause and effect on continuous display: are the human Wake’s actions a subsequent reflection of our own, or are we–Wake and the player–actually dependent on them?
Reminiscent of Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw (to which Virginia Woolf is responding in the quote above), the denizens of Bright Falls are made afraid by the manifestation of the hitherto unnamed Dark Presence. Jame’s novella’s teaches us that the remedy to these personal horrors is not found in suppression; Alan Wake goes a step further to find that the solution to the Dark Presence’s output is the creation of improved discourse, new truths. In short, Wake and his cohorts must turn on the light.
Turning on the light can be a traumatic experience, but Remedy simultaneously cedes to and softens the impact of coming into knowledge. Wake’s recognition of his literary progenitor is not met with existential terror but one of the game’s visually brightest moments. In a reversal of Oedipus’ descent into blindness, Wake receives the burden of his father in a flurry of immaculately placed lights, free from any possible shadow–except, of course, those cast by himself and his companions. If Thomas Zane was the first to fully understand the consequences of Cauldron Lake, he was also the first to use it in order to take a decisive stand against the Dark Presence. Mirroring metafiction author John Barth’s assertion that a fictional character may live an entire life on the strength of a few well placed lines*, Zane gives birth to Wake with a proverbial stroke of his pen.
If Alan Wake is separated into reversals of power, Wake’s anagnorisis and attainment of the clicker tips the scales heavily in his favor–it is in these tools that he gains the ability to wholly counter both the physical and mental properties of darkness. And they work surprisingly well: Wake is able to overcome the Dark Presence through the identification and naming of an alternative ending, one in which Alice is freed and the influence of Cauldron Lake is limited. The evasive infamy of his predecessor, however, suggests the necessity of balance, as Zane’s attempts at playing god through the written word led to the Dark Presence’s rise in the first place. Wake himself realizes that “the scales always need to balance, everything has a price.” In the end, the writer offers his own voice as atonement for the sins of the father, finally abstaining from the authorial control the player has struggled to achieve.
The final moments of the game–almost a literal reenactment of Roland Barthes’ “Death of the Author”–indicate the receiver’s experience of the writerly text.** Wake’s writing doesn’t stop, but the burden of his presence does: while undeniably the author of the town’s survival, Wake is nowhere to be found in the scene commemorating the fruits of his labor. Free from Cauldron Lake’s tyrannical effects, the various characters are able to approach the world on their own terms. It’s not a perfect solution–Nightingale makes a disturbing reappearance, introducing shreds of darkness to the triumphant brightness–but these concessions are more evidence of a realist influence (think Le Guin’s The Lathe of Haven) than faults on behalf of the player-author. The potential for oppression is limitless, and Wake’s negation of self connotes that our protagonist has grown from the lessons of Cauldron Lake. Whether or not the ending signals as tragedy is up in the air; what’s not is the impressive depth of Remedy’s insight. Alan Wake leaves us with the truly terrifying notion that Cauldron Lake, a fictional entity in a video game, already possesses the advantage of existing in social reality. And it is much, much larger than we thought.
It’s not a lake, it’s an ocean.
* From Barth’s “Life Story:”
If so it followed that the years of his childhood and younger manhood weren’t ‘real,’ he’d suspected as such, in the first-order sense, but a mere ‘background’ consisting of a few well-placed expository insinuations, perhaps misleading, or inferences, perhaps unwarranted, from strategic hints in his present reflections.
** A situation in which, according to Barthes’ S/Z, the audience is “no longer a consumer, but a producer of the text.”