Catching Up With… Alan Wake (and the Media Monster)

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There are a few pet peeves of mine that have become more prevalent in gaming. As mentioned before, one is the imitation of TV and movies. Another would be the licensing of popular music. Lastly, incessant use of references to other media. Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake has all of these things, but this is one of those rare instances where it actually has synergy with some of the themes of the game. A conflict between artist and medium is the focus throughout Alan’s personal horror. Through the game’s structure of storytelling and some of its enemy encounters, modern media becomes represented as a horrifying labyrinth of personal torment.

Déjà vu

As we learn from the start of the game, Alan Wake is a familiar concept. A writer is drawn into his own world and imagination becomes reality. We’ve heard this idea a few times, but it’s become such an archetype at this point it would be pointless to list any and all predecessors. The story not only seems familiar, but the way it’s presented should feel familiar. Alan Wake is divided up into episodes and treats them as if they really were aired on TV. Each episode begins with a “Previously on” segment and ends with a cliffhanger accompanied by credits music from recent or modern music artists, including David Bowie. Essentially treated as a HBO or Showtime special, these segments may seem a bit gimmicky. In reality I found it quite helpful to have a recap after I took a lengthy break from the game, but it also contributes to what is one of the greatest horrors in the game: commercialization.

Interactive media. Literally … or figuratively?

Even though Alan is primarily an author and as such the writing of fiction becomes a recurring element, the medium of television is also represented just as much. Here a game has one of those rare instances when seeking out collectables or Easter eggs actually contributes to an understanding of the character’s horror. Along the way, the player can interact with radio and TV sets. Flicking them on will as you might have guessed, play a show. Quite often it will play a show from Alan’s resume called Night Springs which the developers stylized after The Twilight Zone, while the setting of the game itself is fashioned after the show Twin Peaks. It is a fitting pair of homages since Alan is descending deeper into a zone of sorts for the unreal.

It’s a mad house.

Without spoiling too much of how his adventure plays out, the TV sets begin to depict Alan himself, narrating his own story. This blends in well with the idea of Alan becoming sucked into his own story, but it also serves to blur the lines between what the player can interpret as true or false. It creates different possibilities of what the reality is for Alan. However, television gradually begins to represent something dreadful for the writer. In one portion of the game, Alan reflects on his experience on a talk show discussing his latest novel. Though the show seemed to go well, Alan was none to pleased about the experience. The Alan on the TV sets that narrates your experience starts to become more delirious and less reliable of a narrator. In the additional episodes from the DLC, the TV Alan becomes completely mad acting more as an antagonist. The TV sets also appear in more unusual settings as Alan delves deeper into the unknown, appearing to be infused into rocks and even as enemy boss encounters at times.

Kill your darlings.

The use of TV as a horrifying motif comes back to Alan’s own personal woes about his writing. Early in the game, other characters express their disappointment with his decision to kill the hero of his long running series. Alan tries to dance around the questions his readers have for him, but he ultimately expresses that he wanted to simply end the series. Alan appears to have grown jaded with the repetition of his work, lamenting on its commercialization which is represented by the repetitive occurrences of the supernatural TV sets possessed by his own image. Ironically, the product placement used in the game from companies like Verizon and Energizer contribute to this sensation of media bombardment; this was probably a happy accident. In essence, he has become horrified that his art has become mainstream.

If we presume that certain parts of his books are reflective of himself, then this leads to what could possibly be an even deeper horror concerning Alan’s mindset. Alan wished to end his character and his series. Leading up to the story expanded by the DLC chapters, it becomes apparent that a part of Alan wishes to end himself. The character Zane, a fellow writer and supernatural presence, suggests to Alan that part his obstacle is that there is a side of him that wishes to give up. In the course of the game, this could be interpreted as giving up on his work or giving up on his own life.

Anyways…

Alan Wake takes some familiar tropes that could have gone in a gimmicky direction, but the developers took care to ensure that it was always used to support the journey through Alan’s nightmare. The horror of Alan’s experience is presented not simply as a fright fest in the dark, but tackles a more personal horror between the artist and his sense of self. The stylized use of narrative and level design creates a series of introspective reflections as if from two mirrors set across from one another.

Alan Wake is available through the usual digital distributors on PC and possibly still on console in some places.

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