Remedy‘s Alan Wake is a bit of a tragedy- and I don’t just mean the story, it’s an exercise in reminding us just how much external circumstances can impact the reception of an otherwise obvious cult classic. After a lengthy development cycle and poor timing that placed it in the middle of an awkward period in Microsoft’s publishing strategies, Alan Wake performed adequately in sales but failed to garner the kind of critical reception it deserved. Once the Xbox exclusivity period elapsed, it was finally brought to the PC, shortly followed by its expansion, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare.
It’s popular these days to riff off the famous American writer, Stephen King, or pull on influences like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, but Remedy was doing it long before it was on trend. Max Payne 1 & 2 came with a parallel narrative that played out via an in-world pulp noir show “Address Unknown” which served as an allegory for Max’s own internal struggles. Remedy is fairly open about the fact that they have a proclivity for inserting homages into the works that inspired them, and Alan Wake was no exception to this formula.
Spoilers ahead, because if you haven’t played Alan Wake yet… you really should.
In part due to its initial console exclusivity and the reduced scope of the game from it’s open world ambitions, I had overlooked it on launch like so many others. After the run and gun high octane thrills of Max Payne, it felt like too much of a supernatural diversion from Remedy’s more grounded roots. Despite this, however, I decided to give it a chance years later when it came up for sale on steam, and it quickly became one of my favorite games of all time.
It’s the kind of title that feels like a slow burn; a lengthy opening sequence paired with tongue-in-cheek references to American pop culture created an unwelcoming, hard to penetrate atmosphere in spite of its intriguing promotional material like the short web series called Bright Falls, named after the fictional Washington state locale in the game. If you can get past the game’s sluggish dream sequence and lengthy introduction, you may expect a quirky take on Twin Peaks through the lens of a hamfisted Steven King pastiche, yet instead the game brilliantly reveals itself to be a practically Ballardian endeavor worthy of reverence. Alan Wake gives way to a shockingly complex, insightful homage to mid-90s American television and literature, one that thoughtfully explores the very nature of narrative itself and what it means to be a writer.
The titular Alan Wake is one part parody, one part stand-in for the likes of Stephen King, who himself is the progenitor of the American tradition of superstar best-seller fiction writer seemingly grown in a vat to produce an endless supply of pulp. Take a stroll down any American bookstore and you will quickly find yourself surrounded by whatever the latest hot thriller novel baby boomers and Gen Xers can’t seem to get enough of, a cultural touchstone that feels incredibly alien to anyone from the successive generations. Finding himself encumbered by an immovable writer’s block, Wake takes to the Pacific Northwest backcountry in hopes of solitude that will cure his inability to meet publisher deadlines and further grow his career. Away from the hustle and bustle of New York City, and hopefully even further from his fans, Wake finally begins to feel like he can relax. After a quick encounter with his fame thanks to a waitress at a local diner, he meets an ominous landlady in order to retrieve the keys for a lakeside rental who vanishes almost instantly after the exchange.
Upon entering the cabin reserved for him, Wake’s wife presents him with a small attic room devoid of any potential distractions sans an antique typewriter and the works of Thomas Zane, a fellow fiction writer whose work seems obscure even to Wake himself. Unable to shake the very anxieties he was trying to escape from, Wake storms off to cool his head and replace a faulty fuse that has left the cabin without power. Shortly after doing so, his wife yells out in terror and he quickly rushes back to the cabin, only to find evidence of a struggle and no sign of her. She cries out again from the waterfront, and he dives into the frigid waters of the lake after her, waking up moments later from a hazy vision inside his wrecked car on the cliffs nearby.
The game’s narrative takes some inspiration (as revealed by a representative of Remedy’s Creative partner, Tomas Harlan of Contradiction Films in 2018) from Director David Koepp’s film, Secret Window, itself an adaption of a Stephen King novella. A writer (played by Johnny Depp) similarly seeks out isolation in the high mountains of the northwest before finding himself harassed by the menacing John Shooter, who claims Depp’s character has plagiarized his work. Given a draft by the antagonist, he becomes increasingly unhinged in his paranoid pursuit of the truth as his harasser’s retaliation escalates. From this point, Alan Wake and Secret Window diverge heavily, but Secret Window is definitely worth a watch for those who enjoy the narrative structure of Remedy’s thrilling survival horror entry and who wish to get a glimpse at the influences on the creative team’s imagination.
Soon after Alan wakes in the wreck, he begins to come across pages of an impossible manuscript that narrates every encounter he’s had thus far and foreshadows more to come. With a headache the size of the mountain he’s stranded on, Wake stumbles down an eldritch conspiracy that threatens to shear the fabric of reality around him. As the world continues to fold in on itself, Wake finds himself lost in vivid nightmares that put him in direct contact with the booming voice of Thomas Zane, the very writer he saw the work of in the Cabin that reveals to him the nature of the lake: An Eldritch otherworldly force that lures creative minds with the promise of a muse to help unshackle it from the watery prison in which it resides, a force that is using Wake’s writing to orchestrate this very escape. Aside from his arsenal, the only true tool at his disposal to vanquish the townsfolk and inanimate objects possessed by the entity’s influence is his flashlight. Ghost-like animation of vehicles like cars or construction equipment is also a reoccurring motif, likely a reference to King’s Christine. Likewise, the only havens in the game’s darkness are well-lit areas beneath streetlights, to paraphrase Wake’s own words, they are momentary shelters where the sane world can reassert itself.
With Zane’s guidance, Wake comes to understand the reality-altering gift given to him by the Muse has already been weaponized in his favor, Wake’s true self is still in the cabin, projecting an idealized heroic version of himself through the fiction now superimposed on Bright Falls. Peppered throughout Alan Wake are references to a horror anthology series that was home to the writing work that kicked off his career with short episodes playing on TVs found throughout, the very same TVs that allow for glimpses into the room of the cabin in which Wake’s original form resides, narrating the mental breakdown that led him to the genesis of his plot to take control and turn the tides of the story against the Muse.
However, this clever jail-breaking maneuver comes at a heavy cost, Zane explains that while Wake can destroy the host of the Muse and free his wife, something must take its place in order to keep the entity from escaping, meaning he must effectively write himself out of the collective unconscious. After this revelation, Wake ruminates on light as a weapon in his final confrontation with the Muse as he shines his influence on physical embodiments of verbs and adjectives, narrating his rationalization of the supernatural ability he wields by recognizing it as a metaphor for the role of a writer: an illuminating force that shows things for what they are, and what they represent in the mindspace. It’s a visual allegory for the mental dissonance some authors are familiar with, placing Wake firmly outside himself as he manipulates the substrate of his own story.
Wake eagerly makes his sacrifice, plunging into a pocket dimension in a scene that re-enacts the dive into the lake that started the story. After this, he finds himself trapped within a realm dictated by the antagonistic manifestation of his fractured psyche, a hostile alter ego named Mr. Scratch, the representation of his shadow. Wake finally finds the isolation he was searching for in the worst way possible, the author versus the world and himself, within his self.
American Nightmare picks up where Alan Wake leaves off, continuing the Mr. Scratch subplot while leaving room for a sequel that has yet to be made, despite prototype footage surfacing in recent years online.
The narrative structure of Alan Wake is intentionally layered, the idea of a dream-within-a-dream is nothing new, but often overlooked is the role Thomas Zane plays in the story. Zane claims the reason no one has ever heard of him is that he had to perform the same act in order to seal away the entity within the lake decades prior, leaving breadcrumbs for Wake to find in order to stop the eldritch horror from taking over Bright Falls. It is heavily implied that the very mcguffin Wake relies on to strike at the heart of the Muse, a severed clicker switch for a light from Wake’s own childhood, is something either crafted from Zane or Wake’s imagination. A paradoxical deus ex machina, it leads one to wonder if Zane was created from Wake’s imagination or if Wake himself is yet another one of Zane’s creations, a mystery yet to be resolved. And if Remedy does indeed revisit the franchise, perhaps this mystery will finally be illuminated.
Of course, if that wasn’t enough complexity for your tastes, it bears mentioning that the epicenter of the plot is called Cauldron Lake, a possible allusion to the last name of one of the script writers, Sam Lake. Alan Wake is a game that keeps on giving, and Remedy is no stranger to self-referential easter eggs within it’s work, Max Payne 2’s credits theme is a reworking of a poem by the band Poets Of The Fall’s frontman, Marko Saaresto. The band would go on to return for Alan Wake, contributing multiple songs to the soundtrack, including a pivotal track (attributed to a fictional band, Old Gods Of Asgard, in-game) laced with clues that Wake and his publisher Barry use to discover the next step they must take to stop the entity that threatens the town. During a flashback to Wake’s urban apartment and elsewhere, it’s revealed that his previous works were a series of thrillers following an “Alex Casey”, a thinly disguised reference to Max Payne confirmed with manuscript pages narrated by James McCaffrey who not only voiced Payne, but also Thomas Zane.
Whatever the true thesis of Alan wake, it’s hard not to read it as an endless narrative ouroboros, a story that loops back into itself both, within the game and outside of it. Remedy remains unique in their fearless drive to tackle stories that most AAA titles couldn’t even dream of, let alone manage to get through production. They are a reminder that even the biggest budget games can still find room for charm and engaging storycraft strong enough to carry an entire game on it’s own. With a superb soundtrack, and soon a television adaption, Alan Wake is a title worth revisiting as one of Remedy’s best, just one more reason we’re looking forward to their upcoming release, Control.
I’d like to personally thank Remedy for having the guts to make these games happen. It strikes me as unfair that we frequently only know them for bringing “Bullet Time” into the mainstream and see Max Payne or Alan Wake for only their superficial elements. As far as this writer is concerned, Remedy’s technical and narrative achievements are something well worth aspiring to as an industry.
Emily Rose is an indie developer who writes for rebind.io and resides in the pacific northwest. She’s often seen in the local VR arcade and developer community participating in pushing the medium’s horizons. You can find her on twitter @caravanmalice