Alan Wake draws on a collection of interesting sources—but if you’ve heard anything about the game, you probably know that already. Between obvious references to Twin Peaks and frequent shout-outs to Stephen King and other writers, developer Remedy Entertainment is ingratiatingly eager to share its inspirations.

The game calls out The Shining by name and shot in this early scene.

That’s a shame, since it gives the initial impression that the Alan Wake is simply the latest in a long line of games that reference but fail to reinterpret iconic entries in other media. We get Aliens more often than Paul Auster, but drawing on the work of others so flagrantly is mere borrowing—and you know what Picasso said about that. Having rented Alan Wake and played through the first of six TV-like “episodes,” I was unsure whether to press on. Only finding a very cheap copy of the game saved me from abandoning one of the most intricate and layered game narratives to date.

Alan Wake takes time to establish itself as more than a pastiche in part because the game does not speak with a single voice. Some games take very clear, cohesive approaches to storytelling—using only cutscenes and dialogue, for example, or only atmosphere and interaction. But games can do more than this. Jim Gee, one of my academic heroes, has written extensively about how video games are a multimodal literacy made up of numerous component literacies. Some of these components are traditional (written text, spoken language, interpersonal cues, visual design), some are experiential (trial and error, systemic relationships) and others are so new that they’re hard to define (the ability to do several things at once).

Remedy was clearly devoted to making full use of these available narrative channels, and although the result is occasionally cacophonous—with themes butting up against each other and disparate interpretations jutting out at cross-purposes—the attempt was admirably ambitious and generally successful. Each storytelling form within Alan Wake speaks to one or more levels of reality existing within a single narrative. Many of these elements feed into each other, changing the meaning of other elements and the overall story as they reveal more about the world. Others directly refute assertions made elsewhere about the nature of the game’s story and characters.

How Alan Wake uses multimodal narrative to build complexity (click for full size).

What’s the game about?

Fans tend to praise Alan Wake for the quality of its story, and for giving the impression of being aware of itself and its medium. Rob Zacny’s excellent piece at the Escapist is along these lines: he explains the game as an artifact of, and metaphor for, its own creation. I don’t agree with all of Zacny’s points in specific, but I think on the whole, he’s probably correct about Remedy’s intent. However, I experienced Alan Wake as a messy, emotionally fraught story, one designed to be broadly plausible on two levels (without working entirely to my satisfaction on either individually). The ways that these readings inform each other make the game an interesting storytelling experiment that overcomes undeniable problems.

Narrative A: On one level, we have the literal story of the game. Alan Wake is a writer of thrillers whose wife is abducted by a supernatural presence. Though successful, Wake is insecure about his own talent, a self-doubt that he medicates with drugs and booze. He’s an emotionally unstable wreck, an emotionally abusive “asshole” who takes his success, fans and wife for granted. Still, with a little help from his friends, he finds the strength to overcome the “Dark Presence” and save both his wife and the town of Bright Falls. By writing a novel. Yeah. People may doubt his sanity at points—even Wake himself does so—but they all come to realize that the danger is real, no matter how crazy it sounds. After his victory (i.e. in the DLC), he finds himself stuck in a place where his dreams take physical shape, where he must overcome his depression and self-loathing.

Narrative B: The other available reading is essentially the same as my initial impression of the game: dude crazy. Our protagonist is the same man, but he isn’t actually fighting a supernatural dark force. He’s going off the deep end. When his wife asks him to seek help for his longstanding, deep-seated problems, he snaps and throws her into a lake, where she drowns. In this reading, the events that follow are confusing and disjointed because Wake is moving in and out of touch with reality, trying to reorganize his life into a narrative of which he is the hero. Even through his distorted perception of events, we get hints of what is really happening—Alice screaming at the cabin (“Alan! Alan, no! No”) and Barry acting increasingly uncomfortable about his friend’s delusions. The cops after Wake aren’t led by a rogue FBI agent with a hard-on for writers (and an obsessive need to prove his deep literary knowledge). They’re just police chasing a man who has been behaving erratically in public—a man who may or may not have committed several murders.

To be clear, Remedy explicitly suggests both readings at different points—I’m not pulling any rabbits out of my hat here. Narrative A is precisely the story you’ll get if you pay attention while playing, but don’t want to worry about thorny problems like narrator reliability. Narrative B is the version of events offered in-game by a smarmy psychiatrist whose practice focuses on artists.

So much for being subtle

Neither narrative succeeds completely. Some sections fail to rise noticeably above the deliberate mediocrity of Wake’s own work. In creating a work of art intended partly to satirize bad art, Remedy set themselves a high bar. Both versions of the narrative are rather trite, and both suffer from the game’s tendency to provide unnecessary and even obvious information in Wake’s own voice. This works when the exposition comes in the form of scattered manuscript pages, perhaps because I enjoy real thrillers and horror stories and can appreciate this light poaching of the genres. Unhappily, Wake’s voice actor is simply not convincing, which means that much of the spoken dialogue—not to mention the running internal monologue—loses its impact.

Don’t get me wrong, Wake isn’t Final Fantasy XIII-bad, but he’s off-putting enough that I was constantly checking myself: returning to my notes to make sure that I wasn’t wrong; that the game really was doing interesting things; that I hadn’t become so much the game-narrative-hammer that any half-decent telling of a third-rate tale would look like a nail worthy of a long blog post. (I realize that I’m a tool in this metaphor.) The latest episode of Californication convinced me that the problem really is the acting. Watch how completely David Duchovny embodies the troubled writer Hank Moody. Then listen to Wake. Granted, the genres are completely different, but so is the ability of the actors to play a stylized character believably.

Fortunately, Alan Wake also has high points and moments of unusual depth. Many of these are slyly meta, as when the game’s lead writer Sam Lake appears alongside Wake on a late night talk show, or when Emerson, a video game developer, complains about his industry and colleagues. Emerson’s room contains a sketch of a level within Alan Wake, and an Xbox 360 with a copy of a game based on an in-game television show, Night Springs, which is allegedly based on the town of Bright Falls itself.

This circle of self-referentiality—ouroborous as plot structure—is present in other ways as well. Poet Thomas Zane went through Wake’s ordeal decades prior, and his fiction defined some of the rules that govern Alan Wake’s actions in the present, but Wake also has the ability to change reality with his typewriter, and it’s he who writes Zane into the story in the first place. The whole thing might seem like a cheap trick were it not for the fact that questions of authorship and inspiration are also central on a thematic level.

Watching Black Swan this winter, I was struck by how obvious many of the film’s symbolic choices were—and how little that mattered.  Many of the rhetorical devices Alan Wake employs are a similarly shopworn, but then the best ones always are. Take the plethora of dualities within the game:

  • Agent Nightingale/Alan Wake
  • Agent Nightingale/Sarah Breaker
  • Shadows/light
  • Sanity/madness
  • Past/present
  • Fiction/reality
  • Thomas Zane/Alan Wake
  • Night Springs/Bright Falls
  • Night Springs/Alan Wake
  • Barbara Jagger/Alice Wake
  • Barbara Jagger/Cynthia Weaver
  • Barbara Jagger/Agent Nightingale
  • Cynthia Weaver/Alan Wake

Not all of these symbolic pairings are fully developed, but even those which are not contribute to the game’s air of doubt and mystery, its themes of confused identity, obscured motive and uncertain agency.

Wake may have a lousy voice actor, but he and his world are rendered well. Sidekick/agent Barry provides needed comic relief while also undercutting the player’s confidence in Wake at key points (witness his reaction when Wake pulls a gun on his psychiatrist). I buy Alan Wake as a writer of tawdry thrillers, and I buy Barry as his schmoozy agent. Alice, though she serves primarily as a damsel in distress, is also credibly written as a woman at the end of her rope in a difficult marriage. The game’s arc away from realism towards the mystic vagaries of the ending was well-paced and felt right; in a game about the pain surrounding the process of artistic creation, the artist ends up abandoning his interest in the world around him once the muse at last returns.

Linearity and openness

Last year, I commented that linear design was entirely compatible with an exploratory approach to narrative:

[T]he player’s own sense of exploration and discovery is more important than the objective game design. An air of mystery and a sense of history—of things having happened before the player character’s emergence on the scene—can go a long way in this regard…. The result [of encouraging this curiosity] is a recurring narrative feedback loop of exploration and discovery, fed by a combination of the player’s curiosity and her satisfaction.

Alan Wake proves the point. Its levels are funnels from point to point, and although small acts of exploration are occasionally rewarded with a manuscript page or a few lines of dialogue, they are more often punished, both by monotonous combat—how much more irritating, when you know it was optional!—or through the meaningless “reward” of a collectible coffee thermos. Yet there is a palpable sense of discovery, and of exploration.

The Italian novelist and academic Umberto Eco has written extensively about the idea of “open texts,” meaning texts that leave themselves open to interpretation on the part of the reader. I’ve been thinking about this theory quite a bit in the context of video games lately. It seems to potentially overcome the primary objection to games from a traditional narrative arts standpoint, which is that the author lacks strict enough control over the pace, tone, trajectory, scope and outcome of the story. Eco’s theory (which I confess I have only encountered in summary form) holds out the possibility that these weaknesses are in fact strengths, because they require more work on the part of the player.

In games like Alan Wake, players must take the building blocks provided by the game and synthesize them together with what we have decided through our own actions and judgments. Only I can answer the question “Is Alan Wake crazy?” for myself, just as Rob Zacny had to answer it for himself, and neither of our answers should satisfy anyone else. At most, they can only inform your own reading.