Alan Wake‘s mixed critical reception and poor sales were a disappointing end to the saga of an ambitious project from a promising developer. Remedy Entertainment was at the top of its game with the splendid Max Payne 2, and Alan Wake was a bold departure from the noir violence it had obviously mastered. Alan Wake would be a “psychological horror story” about a Stephen King-like figure terrorized in the Pacific Northwest, and Remedy would use cutting-edge technology in conjunction with innovative game mechanics to tell it. When audiences finally received the final product, however, it was unevenly written, outdated, and powered by disappointingly commonplace gunplay. What happened to Alan Wake, the opus Remedy intended?
Remedy made a game explaining what went wrong with Alan Wake. This revelatory game is called … Alan Wake.
From its opening scenes, Alan Wake is a chronicle of creative frustration and insecurity. The game opens on a dream in which Wake is hunted by a deranged hitchhiker. As the hitchhiker pursues Wake toward a lighthouse, he screams, “It’s not like your stories are any good! It’s not like they have any artistic merit. Cheap thrills and pretentious shit. That’s all you’re good for. Just look at me! Look at your work!” Then, in a line that sets up the rest of the game, he asks, “How does it feel to die at the hands of your own creation?”
This is not the Alan Wake we were promised in 2005. Now, as the author of a successful hard-boiled detective series, he is a stand-in for Remedy and lead writer Sam Lake. It has been two years since he made a splashy announcement about his departure from crime fiction and his next big project. Since then, he’s been unable to write a word. He says, “I had lost count of the times I had wished there’d be a clear reason for my writer’s block. Something to fight, something to lash out on.”
Enter the Dark Presence, Wake’s primary adversary. It is a force of pure uncreativity, one that rips apart worlds and characters and grows stronger by consuming artists. What makes it particularly dangerous is that artists are drawn to it, because the Dark Presence lives at a lake where they find inspiration and believe they can create great work. That is when the Darkness destroys them. The Dark Presence exists in that gap between the work we imagine ourselves capable of, and the work we actually produce. It is the perfect adversary for Alan Wake, a game intended to be so much more than it is, and that almost never was. The Darkness’s weapons are reminders of creative failure like its minions, the Taken, who The Darkness turns into parodies of themselves: a park ranger will start uttering nonsense about fish and game, or a folksy gas station attendant will attempt to introduce himself again and again as he chases Wake around with an axe. The Taken are not enemies, but symptoms of the disease that the Darkness represents. For the Taken, individuality and motivation have been annihilated and they shamble on, mutant stock characters and archetypes.
Along with the Taken, the Dark Presence possesses pieces of scenery and hurls them at Wake. It prompts him to recall his hero, Stephen King, and “all the inanimate objects that had come to life in his hands.” For Alan, the problem is the opposite. Animate objects turn dead and wooden. The Taken become caricatures, the world becomes murky and indistinct, and the Dark Presence grows stronger.
Alan Wake finally embraces its identity as a metaphor in “Truth,” its fourth chapter. Wake finds himself at the Cauldron Lake Lodge, an asylum for “creative personalities” run by Dr. Emil Hartman. This is where Alan Wake finally gives voice to Remedy’s frustrations with the creative process in a commercial, collaborative medium.
At the asylum, Wake meets a game developer, a pair of musicians, and a painter. They are all being treated for work-related problems, a process in which they are encouraged to create. Hartman himself remarks that what his patients need is a producer, and he nominates himself to give them guidance and direction, turning their talents to the ends he envisions.
During his time at the Cauldron Lake Lodge, Wake can talk to the other patients and explore the lodge a bit. One of the first patients he meets is Emerson, the game designer. Emerson’s room contains a 360, a whiteboard showing a level map and some diagrams for Alan Wake, and a game board covered with a map of Bright Falls. Later, Wake finds him in the midst of a monologue in which he shares his nightmare vision: other people trying to make contributions to his game. He describes how publishers corrupt his vision with market research, and how the writers pollute it with characters and dialogue. Emerson wants no part of collaboration, or anything beyond gameplay.
Out on the balcony overlooking a lake, the painter, Lane, is finishing a portrait of Alan Wake. In another room, one of his canvasses contains a version of Alan Wake‘s cover image. He has done a series of pictures showing people with the dark, blackened features of the Taken. Finally, there are the old rock musicians, Tor and Odin Anderson. The Andersons once had a band called The Old Gods of Asgard, and their songs play a key role in the plot. Their songs, however, are written and performed by Poets of the Fall, a real band that Remedy also used for Max Payne 2. Taken together, the residents of Hartman’s lodge are the people who made Alan Wake, and they are shown in the game making their contributions.
The madhouse is a bleak picture of game development. Throughout the lodge, Hartman has mounted hunting trophies on walls, symbols of Hartman’s habit of killing what is wild and using it to furnish his studio. The encounter ends with Hartman begging Wake to stay with him and continue working, just before the Dark Presence takes him. Hartman pleads, “With your talent and my-” and then is cut off, the sentence going unfinished because Hartman can say nothing to finish it. Wake and the other artists have talent, and all Hartman can do is trap them and turn them into servants.
At times Alan Wake comes dangerously close to being an embittered parody of itself, a bit of angry metafiction from a studio that has always been a bit too in love with self-referential cuteness. But Alan Wake ultimately transforms from the story of a failed project to one of inspiration and recovery.
Wake is guided by Thomas Zane, another writer who once battled the Dark Presence. He is the one who teaches Wake how to fight the Taken, and he shows Wake what must be done to save his story. When we finally see Zane, he is wearing an old-fashioned diving bell with pure white light shining out the portholes. It is impossible to look at him and avoid thinking of BioShock, which in 2007 turned the antique metal diving suit into a gaming icon.
It’s not hard to see why the saga of Irrational and BioShock would be a source of reassurance and inspiration to Remedy as they struggled with their own project. Irrational has survived a lot of creative risks and disappointments, and is unusual among development studios in that it is led by someone who is foremost a writer. Sam Lake seems to play a similar role within Remedy. More importantly, BioShock‘s example showed critics and audiences that that gaming’s thrills didn’t have to be cheap, and that it wasn’t pretentious for a game to play a role in our intellectual lives.
Alan Wake is never a horror game, but a story about its own troubled development and the toll it took on the people who made it. We see the original design founder in the clunky early sections where he reads turgid prose and shoots waves of bad guys. We see Remedy’s struggling at the asylum that shows how inhospitable to creativity modern game development can be. Finally, we see the game we’re playing take shape as Alan summons a world back to life using the power of words.
At the Cauldron Lake Lodge where Hartman keeps his menagerie of artists, there is a quote from Thomas Zane set in a plaque. Zane writes, “Beyond this shadow you settle for, there’s a miracle illuminated.” Alan Wake is about the perils of chasing miracles, and to an extent it is about letting go of them. Because Alan Wake does not turn into a story of triumph for the artist and his vision. It is not an auteur-theory manifesto. The game begins with Wake’s life and relationship being destroyed by his failure to create. Wake saves himself and the wife the Dark Presence took from him by turning to his friends, and working with the people he now realizes he can trust. Wake doesn’t slay the Dark Presence to create his masterpiece. He finishes the story to get his life back, and to protect the people who depend on him.
In On Writing, King tells a story about a magnificent writing desk he bought for himself in 1981. It was a testament to his success, and how he viewed himself as a writer. But, he says, “For six years I sat behind that desk either drunk or wrecked out of my mind like a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.” He says he got rid of the desk, put a smaller one in the corner, and converted his office to a family room. This leads him to his most important lesson, and the one that Alan Wake quietly underscores.
“It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down to write, remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art. It’s the other way around.”
Compulsive over-thinker Rob Zacny still doesn’t know exactly what Alan Wake’s ending means. You can leave your wildest theories at his website.