Remedy Entertainment spent five years developing Alan Wake; an unusually long development time for what is a linear narrative-driven game. Their creative efforts were continually reshaped much like the eponymous character's own story. Reality then, found its base in the fiction they were striving to produce. And thus, the fiction they concocted became their journey. A single game that represents the collusion and conclusion of two tales. This is Alan Wake Remastered.
Pastiche or Inspired Narrative?
No sooner does the game begin than the player is met with the unabashed announcement of its credo. Alan Wake narrates: "Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic and there's little fun to be had in explanations. They're antithetical to the poetry of fear." It's a bold choice to freely admit the inspiration behind a story. Whilst pastiche is often denigrated, it doesn't have to be a bad thing. H. P. Lovecraft not only welcomed the use of his mythos, but he also encouraged many of his contemporaries to partake in it and share their versions of his creation.
Alan Wake isn't just a paean to Stephen King either. It's littered with references to all sorts of work. Some notable inclusions are The Twilight Zone and Twin Peaks. If such a rich body of material is necessary to create a single game, it follows that this could be used as an example of the process through which new art is created. All practising artists - whether that be painters, writers, actors or the variety of disciplines involved in game design - carry with them a multitude of influences. These multifaceted, complex assortments (each person has their own) of inspiration, pave the way for those after them.
There is a trail to be followed here: From Dunsany to Lovecraft to King. That is one minor example of the chain of influence. There are far more chains to be followed backwards from King, and due to King's age, I'm sure there are more contemporary writers who list King as an influence on themselves. The chain is never-ending. My point here is that Alan Wake is a continuation of that creative network, where it seems new and old ideas alike combine to form new entertainment for those living in the present.
Alan Wake doesn't shy away from what kind of a game it's going to be and the story it wants to tell. The quality of the writing in Alan Wake however is mediocre. The writing suffers from being over-familiar and frequently uses horror movie cliche. Whether that be on-the-nose dialogue that doesn't say much, or the overuse of hyperbole throughout the narrative. I also didn't like the longwinded exposition that occasionally drifted into the story.
Despite these criticisms of the writing, the standard is ample enough to convey and showcase what is actually a gripping story. Though it's not an original idea - having already been explored by Stephen King, and I'm sure many more - Alan Wake manages to delve a little deeper to the crux of the idea by using the supernatural, as opposed to straight horror.
Are You Afraid of the Dark?
Darkness is frequently explored in thrillers and horrors for good reason. Darkness provides the opposite of light. In most games that aim to fright, the player is usually given weapons for comfort. Alan Wake emulates its predecessors but it adds a twist to the predictable formula. The 'Taken' that have been afflicted with the 'Dark Presence' is shielded by darkness. Why wouldn't they be?
By using a torch to shine light at them, the player can banish their armour. This renders them vulnerable to the weapons you have at your disposal. What this mechanic also does is prolong the combat, making it a slightly more strategic affair. Whilst Alan Wake isn't a difficult game, it can occasionally be frustrating when fighting multiple enemies.
The Taken have a neat party trick: They often appear from nowhere and in numbers. You can find yourself handily dealing with a batch of Taken, only to be caught off guard by two stray Taken that appeared behind you. Sometimes it's easier to run to the light, where Alan Wake's health is renewed and the checkpoint saved.
Linearity: Show Me the Way
Before Netflix became the streaming service it is today, Alan Wake gave players a glimpse of the future. The story is broken into six episodes, similar to a television series. At the beginning of each episode, there is a 'Previously on Alan Wake' clip that reminds the player of the events leading up to the cliffhanger. This is an effective technique to make sure the player doesn't forget key moments in the story.
This style of writing lends itself well to thrillers, where momentum and pacing are key in keeping the player engaged. Gameplay can be limited in linear games because of their narrow scope and so more emphasis has to be directed to the story.
The narrative arc is held together by a series of plot twists that derail the player's thinking. By continually being led astray, I became more intrigued by the story being told. Whilst my mind worked at trying to comprehend the overarching narrative, I was continually excited by the progress of each episode.
I can even remember thinking to myself at one point how eager I was to uncover the story. At no point was I in a rush to get through the game, but it was the equivalent of reading a traditional page-turner. I had to find out the solution, the explanation to the events in Bright Falls.
There is urgency in all aspects of Alan Wake. Whether it be to discover the mystery behind his wife's disappearance or making your way as quick as possible to the nearest light source. This urgency propels the player down predetermined paths, to a predetermined end and it does it well.
Camera Perspective and Narrative
I've become accustomed to seeing through a camera that is positioned to the left side of the player. Alan Wake switches the camera to the right and although this can be changed, it reverts back again seemingly when it wants.
It would be complicated to make any drastic changes to the camera location because of the effect it has on players. We've become so used to how our games look that there is very little point in developers trying something too new.
Though subtle, the switch from left to right disturbed me enough to make me think the choice wasn't coincidental. In Alan Wake, you will occupy a world where the Dark Presence has begun to control the fiction Alan writes. The opposite of light is dark and so it makes sense that Remedy adjusted the camera to subconsciously imply this switch to darkness. They relocated the player to the realm of fiction where not everything is as it seems.
This ensures a feeling of detachment. One of unfamiliarity and unease. I knew there was something not quite right about how I was viewing the game. I didn't realise until later that it was the shift in perspective that was making me feel off. It elicits an emotional response that mimics that of the altered reality of Bright Falls. Even by the end, I don't think I was ever comfortable with the change. That's not to say I didn't like the change, on the contrary, it added further depth to my playthrough.
Night and Day
As I mentioned previously, Alan Wake focuses heavily on the distinction between light and dark. The torch is the most memorable technique the game uses to bring that distinction to fruition. However, there are additional techniques that are used to highlight this dissonance.
The game fluctuates between night and day. Both scenes are used for particular aspects of the story. During the nighttime, the story unfolds through woods, mines and lumberyards. Enemies appear mostly at night and they add to the trepidation of these abandoned nighttime environments.
When the sun rises there's a true sense of relief. I felt rewarded for having got through another night. These scenes are accompanied by narrative and they're where most of the story unfolds. Alan is usually supported through these periods of respite by those who are helping him: his agent Barry and later on, the sheriff Sarah. These daytime scenes are devoted to the manoeuvring of narrative and do occasionally fall into the trap of explaining too much. It's also during these lulls in combat that you get to explore various locations in Bright Falls.
This swinging then between night and day is a multifunctional tool: it relieves the player from the action; moves the narrative along further in a way that doesn't overwhelm the player; is a persistent reminder of the light and dark binary, emphasising safety and danger; and allows some exploration.
A Warning from the Future
Pages from Wake's latest novel 'Departure' litter the world, and as far as collectables go, are a rewarding addition to the story. So much so I found myself actually wanting to find them. They're narrated by the voice actor of Alan Wake and can be listened to as you continue playing the game.
These manuscript pages, you quickly learn, are out of sync with what's happening on the screen. They're foretelling future events that haven't yet happened. The narration of these I found to be a fun experience and they helped to reinforce the tone of the game and affirm the intrigue created by the mysterious events occurring in Bright Falls.
Telling players what's coming is an odd thing to do. However, in this instance, it heightened my uneasiness, making me concentrate harder and thus drawing me further into the world of Alan Wake.
The Writer's Mind and Writer's Block
It's typical of writers to become so embroiled in their stories that reality perhaps begins to alter accordingly. A writer is in charge of creating entire worlds for their character to occupy. These worlds have to be lived in by the writer. The writer must also know their characters as if they were real people.
Like method actors who aim for complete emotional identification with their roles, the writer must also ensure an even more complete identification with their work. Reality and fiction merge at this junction.
Throughout Alan Wake, the player navigates a flux between the reality of the story and the fiction being told. There are two fictions at play, the actual narrative and the story being written by Alan Wake. But in this instance, one is a reality, the reality where Alan Wake's wife has been kidnapped.
The strength of this narrative lies very much in its duplicity. As the binary of light and dark, the narrative's binary is reality and fiction: True and false. The game relies on these multiple expressions of duality to shift, manoeuvre and confuse the player. This sustains the intrigue and creepiness of the story throughout.
Now, Alan Wake isn't an out and out horror. It's not meant to terrify. It's more 'Strange but True' (if you remember that) than 'Candyman'. It wants to make you uneasy. And for someone like me, I dislike uneasiness more so than fear. Fear stems from a real source: an axe-wielding murderer, being shot at, having no control over a situation. But the supernatural never has an explanation, it merely forces us to question whether what we thought we knew was right.
Even at the end of the game where the plot begins to congeal into a semblance of denouement, truth is suspended. It warrants interpretation and its essence is ambiguous.
Where Do We Stand
Alan Wake Remastered is a study of artistic creation and the processes that entails. Alan Wake (who himself was suffering from a lengthy bout of writer's block) represents the hardship of expression, and the difficulties Remedy themselves experienced in creating the game.
Their original conception was an open-world title. The leftovers of their original vision can be found throughout the game, though they never fully encroach or disrupt the continuity of the action.
Most recently, in the game Control, we find out that the Dark Presence is an AWE (Altered World Events), and with both games so intrinsically linked, it's conceivable Control could be another Alan Wake novel. Or is it the reality that Alan Wake occupies? Either way, they're both fiction to us.