Alan Wake: A Look Back At Video Gaming's Best Writer Character
Alan Wake turned 10 last year. You’re excused for not marking the occasion. I hear there was some other shit going on. But it’s 2021, I’m juiced up on vaccine, and one of the side effects is catching up with everything we missed during the pandemic.
And so: Alan Wake.
A Brief Re-Introduction
This is just a little bit for those of you who are unfamiliar with Alan Wake and for those of you who forgot. I mean, it’s been a minute.
Alan Wake, star of the game Alan Wake (not to be confused with Alan Woke, which is a different guy for a very different kind of game) is basically Stephen King. Or, the video game version of Stephen King, which means he’s a bit younger, probably reloads a pistol much faster, and...I hesitate to say he's handsomer than King, but I’m 100% sure that anyone who’s done that fantasy casting thing for the Alan Wake movie throws Milo Ventimiglia in the role. So I’ll just put it in your hands. If you want to talk about who’s hotter, a 40-something movie star or a 70-something writer who nearly got killed by a van, that's your right. You monster.
In the fictional world of Alan Wake, Stephen King does exist, by the way, as do Raymond Chandler and Bret Easton Ellis. So Wake isn’t his fictional world’s Stephen King, they exist alongside each other. This is something that I think is super interesting, whether or not real-life characters also exist in specific fictional worlds, and this is something nobody else seems to care about, so let’s move on.
Alan Wake has written some successful thriller/horror novels, and after his last book was an enormous hit, he decides that it’d be a good idea to take a little time off, recharge from his whirlwind book tour, and maybe rest his way out of some writer’s block. Why is a busy book tour always a "whirlwind"? It's never a "cyclonic" book tour. Never a real "nor'easter" of a tour.
Of course, because Wake and his wife, Alice, decide to travel to a Cabin In The Woods for their vacation, ghost-y stuff happens almost immediately, and we’re in the thick of a game that sort of crosses action, survival horror, and a little bit of underdeveloped driving because, eh, why not?
As you move through the game, it becomes less and less clear whether you're crazy or if the whole world is crazy, and the line between reality is blurred. Like, really blurred. Go into Photoshop, hit that Gaussian Blur filter, move the slider ALL THE WAY to the right, and that'll give you a good idea of the blur factor.
You take some Stephen King, add in a good dose of Twin Peaks, and you’re there.
Basically, you play as Alan, running around, getting from place to place in the spooky, scary, dark woods where every structure is crumbling to pieces and probably haunted.
The baddies in the game are ghostly, ethereal monsters that sort of materialize out of nowhere and are meant to be possessed townspeople. Because the town of Bright Falls, the game's location, is a blue collar kind of place, there are plenty of terrifying lumberjacks, fishermen, and other burly, hard-to-kill ghost types. If this happened in a medium-sized city, I’m sure the insurance adjusters would make for some resistance, but perhaps they wouldn’t be quite as intimidating.
The game relies on two basic mechanics: light and shooting. You use lights, like a flashlight, flares, or other lights that you puzzle out, to de-power the bad guys, at which point you blow them away with a pistol, shotgun, or whatever’s handy.
You’ve got your action sequences, your horror set pieces, some light puzzles and platforming, and there you go.
Wake As Writer
Your introduction to Wake comes after he’s apparently crashed his car and suffered a head injury. By the time the game ends, Wake must have an unbelievable case of CTE. He takes more shots to the head than an NFL cornerback.
Wake's backstory as a writer immediately checks out. His trunk popped open in the wreck, and Wake’s got a bunch of copies of his book stashed back there. I’m not sure that the biggies like Stephen King or James Patterson roll with copies of their books in the trunk. Although it’d be sort of embarrassing to be James Patterson and not have a book to sign, right? Those things are EVERYWHERE, so you know that the one time he actually needs one, there’d be none in sight.
Let’s tally up some of Wake’s additional writer-ly qualities:
Part of the story centers around Wake's writer’s block, and he kind of freaks out on his wife when she brings a typewriter along on their vacation, innocently thinking that maybe the vacation would break the block and Alan might want to have the option to type a little. A well-meaning person doing a nice thing but missing the mark regarding a writer’s particular quirks is dead on.
Wake is in terrible cardiovascular shape. He can run for like 30 seconds at a clip, maximum. Then he runs out of energy and he’s slower than my grandma. Well, slower than she was after her second hip replacement, once they hooked her up with that $6 Million Dollar Man shit. Even when there’s a goddamn ghost murderer with an axe chasing Alan, he can’t seem to suck it up and put on a sprint. I find this “stamina” limit pretty annoying in games, but I guess this one gets a pass. In theory, Wake is a normal guy, not an action hero, so getting winded from an uphill sprint through the woods isn’t totally unreasonable.
In an early sequence, after being chased by a murderous ghost, the ghost taunts Wake by saying he’s a hack and that his writing isn’t all that hot. I don’t know that everyone would put a harsh critique of their work on the same emotional level as a literal vicious attack from a ghost monster, but for some of us sensitive souls, it checks out.
Let's put a cherry on top: Wake has a ridiculous cardboard cutout of himself to promote his books. I love those things. Has there ever been a weirder way to promote a book than a life-size cardboard cutout of the author? "Here's a big picture of a guy who wrote a book."
Where He’s The Best
There are other writers in games. I know there are fictional writers and entire books in Skyrim and shit like that. But...these really are mostly set dressing, right? And besides, who’s going to sit there and read an entire novel, turning the pages with an Xbox controller? Although a quick search just revealed to me a Skyrim book title: The Lusty Argonian Maid, and a second quick search just revealed to me that an Argonian is like a dinosaur woman. So maybe I’m the fool who's missing out, here.
What makes Alan Wake a notable writer in games? A) He’s the main character, B) It’s actually important that he’s a writer as opposed to some other games where things like the profession of, I don't know, “plumber,” are mostly about fashion, and C) There is a game mechanic that involves finding manuscript pages, and these can reveal more of the story as well as giving you some heads-up when some scary shit might be coming up.
I won’t spoil the game’s plot, it’s not necessary to do so, but suffice to say that the writerly aspects of Alan continue to be plot-central throughout the game. The reason the events begin has to do with writing, the middle part involves writing, and the end concerns writing.
Plus, it turns out that the struggles Wake goes through to write a novel parallel the struggles the development team had when they were working the kinks out of the game. The creative process of making the game is reflected in the game’s narrative, and that’s just...cool. I dig it.
The Sexy Parts
The real title of this section is “Ludonarrative Dissonance,” but who the hell is going to read that crap? Might as well title a section, “An Academic Examination That Sucks The Fun Out Of Everything, Even Video Games.”
I’ll make it easy. Ludonarrative Dissonance (LD) is what happens when a game’s story and atmosphere don’t match the gameplay. Another way to say it, if the way the story and environment make you feel isn’t enhanced by the things you do to actually play the game, you're experiencing LD.
Bioshock is one of the most-cited examples of LD. Bioshock has an interesting story, heavy on philosophy, it's got stunning environments, and what you do within that narrative and those environments is mostly run around and shoot people in the face. It's almost like one team did story and atmosphere, and one team did gameplay, and those teams never spoke to each other.
The games that have the lowest levels of LD are probably racing games. In Mario Kart, the story is that you’re a character from this quirky world, and you’re having fun racing go-karts. The gameplay consists of you having fun, racing go-karts. The story, the environment, and the gameplay match up completely.
Alan Wake falls somewhere in the middle. Most of the gameplay is you running around and bustin’ ghosts, for lack of a better term (there’s no better term for ghost murder than “bustin,’” don't even bother looking). Hitting ghosts with light seems like a reasonable way to dispose of them, and that works along with the narrative. I'd expect an author can work a flashlight and point it at stuff. On the other hand, capping ghosts with a pistol is fucking crazy and doesn’t really fit the narrative.
Ghosts and supernatural monsters coming to life from Alan Wake’s writings is a good idea, but if the answer to confronting a ghost is to go Dirty Harry on him and blow him away, that's less interesting. Since when can you kill a ghost with a revolver?
If a gun can kill a ghost, does it even need bullets? And if so, why?
There’s a missed opportunity, and it does hurt the game a little. The best parts of the game are walking around and spooling out the story, and the scares are fun, but blasting monsters with a pistol is a little repetitive and didn’t make good use of the whole setup. I get it, it’s a video game, so if there’s no shoot-em-up parts, what’s the point? But...I think Alan Wake's cinematic presentation and interesting concept aren’t enhanced by most of the action.
Alan Wake is a good game. Maybe not a great game, although it came out 10 years ago, so it may be that if it came out today, some of the things I didn't love about it would be different. Also, I have to confess that I played through it in mostly one big, 6-hour chunk, and that's not how it's meant to be played. It's my fault for not getting to it earlier and dashing through it the same way I did As I Lay Dying because it was assigned reading, and I put it off to the last minute. See, kids, this is what's awesome about getting older: The homework you have to push through is a video game, not a long-ass, poetic novel.
Alan Wake's presentation as a video game is a benefit. Going through the events and the scares helps embed the player into the story. It makes you feel a little like you have agency in the story, like you need to take action to figure out what's going on, where a movie, you can just let it happen on its own. Video games are a great vehicle for horror in that way.
The video-game-y-ness is also Alan Wake's greatest weakness. I was a little annoyed at some of the video game stuff. Like, why do I have to press a button to pick up each individual item? Whatever you've got, I'll take it. This game isn't really one where you can leave items behind and get 'em later, so there's no reason to leave anything, and so there's no reason to have me push the button three times to pick up three flares. It breaks the dream a little, makes it a game instead of a story.
The shooting and running and stuff was fun, but it's not 8 hours of fun. Once you get the basic method of play, you've got the game. The enemy variety isn't super high. The gameplay portions and story portions just feel like two separate things, and for someone like me who was more invested in the story and puzzling out the plot, the game aspects start to feel like they're getting in the way instead of making the whole thing more fun.
Barry is the biggest missed opportunity in the entire game.
Barry, Alan Wake’s literary agent, is my favorite character. He calls Alan “Al,” and he’s a fast-talking, New-York-y guy in what he thinks of as outdoorsy clothes: a red version of George Costanza’s puffy coat, highwater cargo pants, and a Hawaiian shirt.
The moment I saw this character, I kinda wished that’s who we played as. Why can’t this guy be Alan Wake? Doesn’t a schlubby, mouthy, New-York-y guy make as much sense as the ruggedly handsome Wake? Alan Wake was fine, but after you see his agent, Alan feels a little like a porn star who threw on a pair of glasses so we could buy her as a professor. Barry is the real deal.
Am I saying that handsome people can’t be authors? No, but I AM saying that you don’t get many games where you get to play as a dumpy middle-aged city slicker being menaced by ghosts in the woods. This was our shot.
I can’t be the only one waiting on that DLC, right? Alan Wake: The Barry Chronicles?
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