Spoilers: Alan Wake, BioShock 2, Lost Highway and a couple of Stephen King novels.

Lost Highway? Alan Wake at E3 2006.

The first time I loaded up Alan Wake, I was hanging out with a friend. We were playing, but we were also chatting, and I was lending only half an ear to the dialogue during the game’s tutorial nightmare (a literal nightmare, that’s not a value judgement). I started paying closer attention when a bright light with a deep voice and a Canadian accent appeared. The light addressed Wake, reciting an odd poem and telling him that the man from whom he’d been running “had been taken over by a dark presence.” Wake blinded the man with a flashlight, but the light informed Wake that the darkness was still “inside of him, controlling him….he can’t be saved.” Then the light gave Wake a gun. I waited for a minute or so before I used it, just dodging the man’s attacks, but there was no choice to be made; it was kill or fail to progress.

My immediate thought: “This game isn’t about the supernatural, it’s about a guy having a psychotic break. Those are going to turn out to be real people he’s killing.”

Alan Wake isn’t the first game to tread this territory. Several of the Silent Hill games showcase horrors of the characters’ own making. A famous line from Silent Hill 3 (“They look like monsters to you?“) distills this potential plot twist down to its essence. Even the first Postal did it, way back in 1997. BioShock 2 briefly pulls the reverse trick, showing you what the spoiled world of Rapture looks like through the eyes of a little sister.

I’ve restarted the game since then, to catch quotes and reexamine the opening. Thus far, my initial reading has proven supportable. It’s not even much of a stretch. The enemies I’m encountering are saying things you might expect locals to say to a guy visiting their town: describing cabin rental policies; offering restaurant suggestions; making comments about their work (“Logging is a hazardous occupation” got a laugh). Still, it’s early hours, and Remedy might be lobbing a red herring.

Even outside Alan Wake‘s nightmare world, there are several hints at some emotional disturbance in the titular protagonist. He has trouble sleeping. He cannot write. His nightmares torment him with allusions to his writing (“How does it feel to be destroyed by your own creation?”). These things seem related, as does his wife’s fear of the dark, which I’d like to read as a subconscious acknowledgement that she is in fact afraid of her husband, who writes and dreams of darkness. This last would require an unreliable narrator and a modicum of subtlety on Remedy’s part, something that has not been their strong suit to date (trouble sleeping, get it? A. Wake?).

The relationship between Alan and his wife Alice is clearly troubled, and Wake himself seems to be the problem. Wake’s agent Barry calls him every five minutes, which seems initially like a joke, until it becomes clear that he’s really keeping tabs on his friend. In one of the game’s mysterious manuscript pages, which describe events that Wake cannot directly observe, Barry calls his client “unstable” and “messed up.”  Barry is unable to believe that the temporary loss of contact could mean that Alan and Alice are “on a second honeymoon”; more likely, “something was wrong.”

The game’s central quest to find Alice is set up by a scene in which she and Alan argue over his inability to write, and his unwillingness to seek help. During this argument, the lights flicker, and we see a menacing, shadowy figure in the darkness. Alan checks his wife with his shoulder as he rushes past to leave the room, and she looks down—dejected? Resigned? Regardless, I wondered whether his failure to pause or apologize meant that he had laid hands on her in anger in the past.

Wake tells us he leaves the house to cool down and take a walk, but I’m not sure we’re meant to believe him. Certainly, his wife’s screams back in the house (“Alan! Alan, no! No!”) would tend to implicate rather than exonerate him. After Alice disappears, Wake recalls their fight when he sees a book by the therapist whom Alice asked him to see. He says doesn’t want to think about it.

I understand why Twin Peaks comes up again and again in discussion of Alan Wake. As with another recent game, Deadly Premonition, the deeply quirky television classic is a clear inspiration. Small northwestern towns, good coffee, eccentric side characters (log lady, lantern lady; owls, crows; the homages are exactly what they seem). In truth, I think that Alan Wake may have more in common with another Lynch masterpiece: the film Lost Highway.

Lost Highway is surreal and open to multiple interpretations, but my take is that it tells the story of a man who jealously murders his wife, and then constructs a completely new persona and imaginary life for himself in order to escape the pain of realizing his crime. This escape is unsuccessful on both an emotional and physical level; he cannot shed the darker aspects of his self, and he is ultimately executed in the electric chair.

Stephen King is also often cited as an inspiration for Alan Wake. As with Lynch, King is concerned with the duality of identity: what we show to the world, and what we keep hidden even from ourselves. King often uses writers as protagonists—men who often don’t know what their dark sides are up to until it’s too late. Jack Torrance of The Shining and Thad Beaumont of The Dark Half come immediately to mind.Remember those manuscript pages that Wake keeps finding? They remind me of nothing so much as the videotapes mailed to Fred Madison, the main character in Lost Highway. In short clips, the tapes show someone walking through the Fred’s home while he and his wife are asleep. They culminate in images of his wife’s dismembered corpse. Within the film, the key to understanding these tapes is Fred’s explanation of why he hates video cameras: “I like to remember things my own way”—i.e., not how they actually happened. Is it possible that Wake’s reality is false, and that the pages tell the truth? Is this why he’s unable to write?

Of course, King is himself possessed of a strong dark side. He is a recovering alcoholic, and was for many years addicted to cocaine and pills. In addition to this, King literally has another self: he wrote many novels under the name Richard Bachman, a bifurcation of identity that began for prosaic reasons (it’s hard to sell two books a year from the same writer) but which he eventually worked into his fiction and his real-life mystique.

Wake may also have a second identity. On arriving at his vacation cabin, he encounters a box of novels by an author he says he has never heard of, Thomas Zane. Zane’s books have his name in big gold leaf letters down the spine, with titles all in the same font and only different colored covers to differentiate them—all evidence that he works in the same commercial vein as Wake himself. The titles of Zane’s novels don’t all make sense to me at this point in the game, but two of them—Kept from Sleep and The Labyrinth of Me—make it clear that this isn’t just a minor decorative touch. Zane and Wake are, somehow, mirrors.

Is Wake’s apparent waking life unreal? Remedy at least holds out that possibility.

Unfortunately, I can’t spend all day playing Alan Wake, and I’ll have to wrap up here. I wouldn’t usually post impressions so early, but in this case I think that the fact that I might prove wrong about the plot is actually quite interesting. How well was Remedy foreshadowing? Did I read into things too far (I always do)?

Odds and ends

The game has fantastic lighting effects, and it uses them to build atmosphere effectively. Walking through dark woods filled with mist and shadows drew me in to the spirit of the game. Unfortunately, the distractingly awful lip syncing along with other questionable choices regularly broke the immersion. This sentence brought to you by SYNC from MICROSOFT. Who thought it was a good idea to include collectibles in a tense thriller? Every time one appeared on the horizon, it completely spoiled the mood by immediately turning me into Homer Simpson. “Running… fighting… waiting… man, this game sure is cree—Ooh, a shiny thing!”

The combat became boring just three or four fights in. I’m not looking forward to another eight hours of this. Not every game needs combat, folks! Not much of it, anyhow. So far, I think this game would keep me enthralled without it. There have to be other ways of building tension besides being worried about impending character death.Wake himself is somewhat unconvincing as a character, mostly due to poor voicework. Hearing him exclaim, over the opening credits, that “I’m a writer” called to mind Keanu Reaves playing big boy lawyer dress-up in The Devil’s Advocate. I did enjoy Wake’s odd sartorial choices, though. Nothing says “I’m 40, I’m cool, and I love layering” like a blazer over a jacket over a hoodie.