This article contains some spoilers for the first Alan Wake, but none for its sequel. If you know the premise of the sequel, or played it, you shouldn’t find much here that would dampen an eventual playthrough of the original game!
The writing in the original Alan Wake is really smart, which is typical for a Remedy game; their work is almost always literate and stylish, with a clarity of vision and an incredible command over form. Their games, even when they falter, are always driven by thoughtful creatives working in tandem with an incredible team that prioritizes interesting ideas communicated expressively.
But Remedy games aren’t always operating under the typical audience-held banner of what “good writing” is. In the AAA space, games often court the same breathless prestige reserved by filmgoing audiences for souped-up junk food movies. Beyond being unimaginative and incurious, they primarily focus on “writing” as a kind of overarching series of loose bricks that appear, at a distance, to form a structural wall. Their narratives read as having been curated from Serious Elements to say Serious Things, but only succeed as mirages, paying lip service to ideas and themes in the way a child assumes they’ll grow up faster by celebrating their birthday every day.
The technique is similar to a sci-fi artist inundating an environment with greeble: the resulting detail is often vapid and overcompensated, but only if you care to notice.
Remedy games take the craft of storytelling seriously, and this means they chase ideas without paying thought to how “intellectual” they appear to be at surface glance. They embrace panache, thoughtful pastiche, and the modalities of pulp fiction. They are unapologetically, confidently writing smart stories that embody passionate thoughts.
But because this is a bit of a rarity in the creation of big-budget games, and because Remedy allows their work to be willfully silly and relatively weird, folks sometimes struggle to grok the literacy of a game like Alan Wake. This kind of unrestrained, enthusiastic approach to meaningful fiction tends to engender bogus observations about how “pompous” or “pretentious” a story is. It’s a mindset trained by exposure to a particular kind of thing that invariably harms your ability to engage with the wonderful, full spectrum of what art can be.
Wake is great, and worth developing the set of eyes it requires to unpack and appreciate. With the recent release of its sequel seeming to finally cement the totality of Remedy’s many narrative achievements, I thought it’d be a great time to briefly touch on what the original Alan Wake accomplished, particularly at a time when its vision and story-driven ambition made it a risky oddity.
Released in 2010, Alan Wake is a game about the title character, a writer struggling to follow his previous success. He’s led to a vacation retreat in the small town of Bright Falls by his wife, Alice, who hopes a change of scenery and a bit of professional help will help him write again.
After an argument, in which Alan angrily rebukes the thought of seeing a professional, Alice appears to fall into a nearby lake and drown. Diving after her, Alan suddenly regains consciousness… somewhere else. Trapped in the wreck of a car he can’t remember getting into, let alone crashing, Alan only recalls as much as we saw; his last memory, which appears to have happened days prior, ends after he dives into the lake.
Alan is quickly beset by dark, supernatural forces in his quest for clarity, but not before making a bizarre discovery: a manuscript that appears to describe real events, even before they occur. These pages of prose appear, impossibly, to dictate the course of reality.
That manuscript is titled Departure, and he’s horrified to discover it credited to himself. It turns out that Bright Falls lies on the threshold of an alien force that can use works of art to reshape reality. Attached to this force is an eldritch intelligence named the Dark Presence, whose only goal is to use that power for evil, compelling it to manipulate artists into creating whatever it can use to escape into the physical world.
Its latest target becomes Wake, who has spent the intervening days writing Departure at the behest of the Dark Presence. Taking his wife as collateral and convincing him that the manuscript will allow him to “save” Alice, it gradually manipulates the shape of the story until it allows the Dark Presence to wreak havoc in the physical world.
Trapped within the narrative of the pages he’s already written, Alan Wake becomes the protagonist of a story he must desperately try to subvert.
The genre of that story, of course, is horror.
Alan Wake immediately throws us a curveball by subverting the tradition of a story-within-a-story by making that story the actual story we’re experiencing outside of the pages of prose we find, as experienced by its unwitting architect. Alan Wake is a story about Alan Wake living through the events of a story by Alan Wake, and this is why italicizing titles is worth it.
Fundamentally, the game is a story about art and the artists that create it. On the surface, it touches on the cerebral nature of writing— a fun way to ask questions like “what if a genre study described actual natural laws?” Wake’s ability to alter the course of the story he’s written is, regrettably, limited by the rules of conventional storytelling rather than those of Warrior Cats roleplaying chat rooms (no writing down “then I won” and securing a victory for RiverClan). More insidiously, he’s trapped in the modalities of the work itself: since the manuscript is a horror story, it has to be a horror story no matter what.
So Alan has to do everything he can to “win” within the confines of the tropes he’s established. With the final pages of the story unfinished, he sneaks what amounts to a literal deus ex machina into the narrative and ends his tale with the Dark Presence removed from the physical world… at a cost. The world (and Alice) is saved, but he’s unable to finish his horror story with a happy ending. To maintain the balance of the narrative, Alan channels the genre’s necessary darkness into his own fate, becoming trapped in the very realm the Dark Presence was attempting to escape. The day is saved, but Alan is not.
Alan Wake is a story about stories, which is already a tough trick to pull. It’s a narrative driven by writers who are talking about the craft of writing, and on that basis it’s a pretty fun tale— like if you could make a Faustian bargain with the unspeakable horror that lives in your word processor. It makes sense that little episodes of a Twilight Zone parody are dotted around the game, because Wake at surface glance appears to be cut from the same cloth as most of that show’s (less philosophically dense) oeuvre. On a list of plots, “writer whose scary story comes to life” slots perfectly next to a camera that shows echoes of a future, or a gambling addict haunted by visions of sentient slot machines.
And because this feels like such a natural point to stop thinking about it, Wake can feel shallow. It has a certain “that’s it?” quality that almost makes you feel like you missed something. When people criticize the game as lacking substance, I find this is usually why; if you don’t invite yourself to assume there’s anything else happening on a textual level, then the ambitions of the story end here.
But if you go a little deeper, and maybe chase a few of your lingering suspicions, you start to unravel bits of greater intent. The truth is that Alan Wake isn’t just a horror story about a writer whose horror story comes to life; it’s a horror story about a bad writer whose bad horror story comes to life.
This is the piece that makes Alan Wake as interesting as it actually is, and it’s easy to see how folks miss it. Alan’s writing, portrayed in the pieces of the manuscript you collect, doesn’t have the exaggerated quality of a lot of intentionally bad writing — he’s not misspelling words or using straight-up incorrect grammar. If you aren’t someone who does a lot of writing or reading, it might even land as fine. Even trickier is that, if you don’t have enough confidence to assume that it’s being done on purpose, you’re more likely to parse Alan’s bad fictional prose as simple bad writing in the game you’re playing.
The reality is that all of this is pretty standard stuff for Remedy, whose interest in adapting pulpy genre formats for serious storytelling began with the Max Payne games in 2001. I’ve seen critics complain that the Payne games are overwritten, which is a product of their frame of reference being entirely separated from the authors of hardboiled crime fiction that Remedy riffing on. Payne’s writing isn’t trying to evoke stylistic sucking, but it is eccentric if you have no idea what the point is.
Alan Wake takes a similar risk, trusting the audience to understand what it’s going for. Once you step back, it becomes clear that Wake is a commentary about bad stories, turgid prose, and Alan’s own creative bankruptcy. He’s a pulp writer who, rather than embracing his own shortcomings, can’t accept that his work isn’t actually that interesting or smart. His prose is a clunker that flows like cement; Wake is the kind of writer who would use dialogue attributions like “he said angrily” everywhere because he’s not sure if the reader will be able to tell if the character is angry or not.
The game begins with Alan reciting a Stephen King quote, specifically to show that he’s a fan. Most people read it as a simple wink at an author that heavily inspired the game, but I think it serves a dual purpose; if you’ve read King’s own On Writing, Alan not only ignores his advice but actively misunderstands it. He’s not just a generic bad writer, but commentary on a specific bad writer. Alan Wake is making fun of Alan Wake.
If you’ve ever heard of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace, the game is doing something a bit like that. In both, we watch the machinations of a shitty writer who can’t take a hint. But where Darkplace was outwardly satirical (“I’m one of the few people you’ll meet who’s written more books than they’ve read.”), Wake is less direct in its approach. He’s more like a guy who would actually get published, with a kind of solidly medium talent approach to genre fiction. The result is often silly, but not always explicitly comedic.
This is where it’s tempting to say that Alan Wake falters by not making it clear enough that this is all intentional, but I think this would miss the point. When a story of any kind discusses “bad art”, the result usually skews toward being really bad, such that the audience will parse that it’s not very good. This is a functional approach, and great when comedy is the intent, but limiting as a serious narrative device.
A lot of stuff that’s bad isn’t hilariously horrible, it’s just… bad. The Harry Potter books were bad even before their author turned out to be a horrible, bigoted crank; they just weren’t bad in a way that made you fall out of your seat laughing, because you had to spend time reading them to realize the specific ways in which they were suckass. Wake seems to understand this time as a necessary narrative device for a story about bad art, pacing out the realization and allowing it to become an important lede to the real point.
Besides, the game actually does tell us that Alan Wake is a bad writer, though critically chooses to approach the subject through the lens of other people. Characters call his work pretentious, uninspired, and difficult to read. In one later interaction, a character says his work is too heavy on metaphors, and he replies that “nobody’s ever said that before.” The joke is that we’ve read it, and know this can’t possibly be true; he just wasn’t listening.
This approach clues us in to what other, reasoned people think about his work while telling us just as much about Alan himself. Indeed, “wasn’t listening” is the undercurrent of his entire character. His ignorance towards the situations he finds himself in is a continually inciting incident, fueled by a combination of emotional illiteracy and general arrogance.
Alan Wake is never listening. Alan Wake is, in fact, a pretty shitty guy.
The realization that Alan’s a bad writer is simpatico with the gradual understanding that he’s a bad person, and that this is what the bad writing is meant to underline. Alan’s bad personhood isn’t clear at the beginning of the game — they don’t immediately open on him doing some obviously shitty thing, which is what you do when you’re afraid the audience isn’t going to understand that they’re following the exploits of an asshole. When he explodes at his wife’s efforts to help him, having given her no other outlet to communicate with him emotionally, some players invariably assume he’s right to do so because they’re playing as him.
Alan’s shittiness is everywhere. There’s a tiny bit of it in his thoughts, actions, and the way he speaks to everyone around him; it’s in the scenario that causes him to lose his wife, Alice, in the first place; it’s there, now and then, on every bit of prose he writes. He’s a self-destructive, moody, inattentive jerk who pushes people away as quickly as he shuts them out. Subconsciously, though he’d never admit it, he views many of the people around him as lesser than himself. When he drinks, which is often, he gets angry. To really send it home, the events of Alan Wake depict his own egocentrism and incuriosity quite literally hurting the people around him in the form of the story he’s written.
A lesser version of the narrative would emphasize the bad writing more, picking apart the structural flaws in his work while failing to ask how an artist begins to produce work that sounds like Alan’s, which is not simply a bad style from a learning artist but an entrenched bad style from an artist who has stopped learning. Ultimately, we’re only supposed to focus on the bad writing insofar as it leads us to its writer; all of that is just a product of Alan, The Bad Person.
There’s no easier place to see the jerkish folly in how Alan treats others than his own wife, Alice. Alan Wake released at a time where wife-saving protagonist plot conceits were common and thoughtless enough to be pretty trite. This can make it tricky to realize that what’s happening in Wake isn’t intended to be about a damsel in distress — Alan is only saving his wife from a situation, otherworldly horrors aside, that he largely created in the first place. Taking her away is important, because it forces Alan to stop taking her presence for granted.
It surprised me to realize that there’s a little bit of Alan in James Sunderland, Silent Hill 2’s perpetually schlubby, ineffectual wifeguy. James is a foundational character for games about skewed protagonists whose motivations are revealed to be selfish and immoral, particularly through the framework of matrimony; he’s often replicated, but rarely understood by the writers who want to draw from the example. Wake, likely because it draws more from literature and film instead of other games, understands the assignment set for most by Silent Hill 2 better than any of its contemporaries.
They’re both games that interrogate and subvert the trope they utilize. Both involve protagonists whose goals center around saving or otherwise reuniting with their wives. But both of them, as we grow to understand, like the idea of their wife more than the person they actually chose to marry. The second their partner becomes more than a static ideal they can use or rely on, as they subconsciously believe is inalienably granted to them, the friction is immediate.
When Alice shows agency in helping Alan confront the writer’s block which is steadily driving him into fits of enragement, Alan angrily rebukes her; when she says she’s contacted a professional to help him, he accuses her of wanting to have him committed. Here, James actually contrasts an opposite kind of dying marriage to that of Alan’s: James can’t help his wife as soon as doing so requires serious emotional effort and sacrifice, whereas Alan can’t help himself but refuses to accept help from Alice out of a masculine urge to Do It Himself.
Alan can’t be emotionally honest because men like Alan view themselves as “above” emotions, just as they’re above the people who force them to confront the things roosting inside their brain. It goes without saying that this kind of shitty masculinity runs rampant among weird jerks like Alan, and I think it’s really commendable that the game takes this approach. In the hands of most, a “writer protagonist” would imply a specific kind of meek, tortured nerd — Wake understands that weird nerds are usually the group buying the most into emotional illiteracy in the service of faux superiority, a fact which became particularly clear in the subsequent decade.
Alan talks about the “laws” of a horror story often. He tries to tell us that a horror story leaves its characters with little room for comfort, and he’s right. He just doesn’t realize that he’s talking about himself. It’s fitting that Alan writes himself as the protagonist of his own story — a victim in a horror novel, comfortably helpless to change the world around him. But as the genre of that story continues to abide by his own set of strictures, it becomes his own behavior that is challenged, mauled, and thrown back at him in spades.
By the end of both the game’s story and his own, Alan can no longer ignore the way he’s treated the people around him. With mere pages left to write, he saves his wife, undoes as much harm as he possibly can, and removes himself from reality — at least for the time being. For the people he’s finally learned to respect, he makes the ultimate sacrifice.
Alan Wake refuses to let its title character hide behind the superficial flaws of his shitty art.
It’s no secret that Stephen King’s work runs deep in the game’s veins, and several novels — The Shining, Misery, and The Dark Half to name a few — are either directly referenced or clearly a source of inspiration. Alan Wake largely draws from the famous elements of King’s early bibliography: most predominantly a writer character whose own struggles are often as internal as they are external.
King’s affinity for writer protagonists has a lot of practical merit — there’s no easier way to write what you know than writing about someone who does the job you’re currently doing. Many of his novels, particularly in the 80s, feature such characters wrestling with an inner turmoil embodied by an outer threat. However, these mental struggles begin to take on a certain pattern; in allowing a small, direct part of himself to be injected into the work, King’s own struggles take center stage.
The Shining is a novel about his own experience with alcoholism, stemming from the unvoiced anger he felt while drunk; Misery touches on his (at the time) reliance on drugs and alcohol, and what he believed was the redemptive power of writing; The Dark Half manifests King’s own experience writing under a pseudonym at a time when he was worried, above all else, that cleaning up his act would result in the loss of his creative ability.
Many of these books, written in the most troubled decade of the author’s life, reflect a growing and often unconscious psychoanalysis. Their realization is clear: choosing to continue destroying himself and the people around him would, inevitably, destroy everything.
King’s journey to sobriety and self-improvement is chronicled in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. I mentioned earlier that the book, which is partially a writing guide, likely informed the specificity of Alan’s bad prose. But in King’s discussion of this harrowing period, where his craft intertwined with and fueled the suffering of his family, we find the core theme of Alan Wake laid bare.
In On Writing, Stephen King tells a story about a desk. King had always dreamed about having a huge writing desk, so when he got one, he put it right in the middle of a spacious study where he did his best to work alone. He spent years behind that desk drunk or wrecked out of his mind, ignoring his self-destruction like “a ship’s captain in charge of a voyage to nowhere.”
When King sobered up, he junked the desk and put a living room where it used to stand. He put his new, smaller desk in the corner of that same room under an eave, enabling his family to occupy the space he left behind. It’s here where he shares a quote I think about often:
It starts with this: put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there 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.
Alan Wake is a game about a shitty guy who learns how to coexist with others. It’s a game that understands that, to develop as an artist, you need to develop as a person. It understands that art, no matter its quality, is sabotaged by a lack of empathy. It understands, above all else, that the quality of your craft is second to the quality of your care.
To understand the same thing, we just need to move our own desks under the eave.