[6 June 2012]
PopMatters Multimedia Editor
The first Alan Wake featured that rather old and decaying chestnut of video games, the quest for the princess. In this case, the princess, though, was his wife, a strange phenomenon for video games—featuring a married protagonist, whose wife isn’t at least dead enough to justify some homicidal tendencies in an epic revenge plot, is kind of unusual in and of itself.
Really, though, it was nice to see that the game’s developers, Remedy, wanted to at least try to confront some more mature topics, like an actual ongoing relationship, in a video game. And while Wake’s wife, Alice, does indeed get snatched away by the Darkness surrounding Bright Falls (and thus is absent for most of the game), Alan’s own complicity (or at least his own sense of complicity) in the abduction is more interesting than whatever it is that motivates Mario to run off after Princess Peach for the umpteenth time.
Alan is having a rough time at the beginning of that game. He is suffering from writer’s block, and it is making him more than a bit anxious and depressed. Some of that anxiety and depression manifests itself as rage at his wife’s efforts to help him out by finding a cabin in the woods where maybe he can work in some peace and quiet.
While not an especially rational response to someone doing something out of concern for you, nevertheless, Wake’s anger at Alice is unfortunately human and authentic. We do indeed do stupid things (like hurt the one’s we love) when we feel unsettled and unsatisfied with ourselves. This makes Alan a bit harder to like, but at the same time, it also makes him a much more complicated character than standard video game fare. Again, I applaud Remedy for writing with some maturity about actual adult relationships, unpleasant as well as more pleasant aspects of such relationships. It feels more real.
When Alice does go missing at Cauldron Lake, Alan himself feels guilty, having just had a big fight with her and having left her alone in the dark (a big phobia that Alice suffers from). So, his quest is not (as “princess quests” are so often representative of) an effort to save and impress the girl enough to possibly signal a consummation of a new relationship (in other words, that usually is the case in stories of princesses and plumbers—it’s a chance to “get a girlfriend”). Instead, Alan’s quest becomes one of reparation. He wants to make right that which he has blown it at—his failed communication with his wife.
Remedy’s follow up to Alan Wake, Alan Wake’s American Nightmare seems interested in maintaining this theme of reparation as a motivator for the player and for Alan in playing the game. The game, however, may exist outside the continuity of the original game, as its conceit is that the game’s story is taking place within an episode of a fictional television show called Night Springs that Alan, as a writer, has written episodes for in the past.
This particular episode concerns a man who is a champion of light battling his evil doppleganger, a servant of darkness, which is sensible since it creates a justification for continuing to use the game’s light and darkness shooting mechanics. The game is structured in a curious way, though, as there are three locations that Alan must travel to in order to accomplish his task in “re-writing” the episode with a positive outcome. The game, then, is spent exploring the three locations in the fictional city of Night Springs, Arizona, including a roadside motel, an observatory, and a drive-in movie theater, and then, of course, “setting things right” there. However, Alan fails in part in each location the first time out, and his nemesis, Mr. Scratch, in an effort to sap Alan’s will for attempting to succeed again (and indeed some players have complained about the game’s repetitiveness as a primary reason to not play this game) sends him back in time to repeat the night’s events all over again. In other words, there are nine “levels” to the game, three sets of three. The repetition is kind of like a television re-run. See how that works?
The interesting thing about the structure is how it once again revolves around female characters. Alan, of course, is present as the playable character in each setting. Otherwise, though, most of these locations are largely bereft of people. There is a dead body in the motel, there are the horrific Taken (creatures of darkness and Alan’s opponents) in each location, and Mr. Scratch appears (though almost exclusively on televisions encountered by Alan during his journey, from which Mr. Scratch merely taunts Alan). The only NPCs in the game are women. There are three of them, and each one appears in only one of the locations.
On the face of it, none of these women seem to have much in common. The first woman is Emma Sloan, a mechanic whose garage is near the motel. The second is a scientist, Rachel Meadows, who works at the observatory. The third is a woman named Serena Valdivia, a friend of Alan’s wife who is organizing a film festival, which includes a film by Alice about Alan. Alan has been “missing” for two years following the events of the previous game and Alice has created a retrospective out of old home movies of her husband (shades of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves here, in which Karen Navidson has created a retrospective film about her husband Will, who has gone missing under similarly horrific circumstances).
This game is more subtle than many others about its presentation of female characters, but the thing that they do have in common is that they are all sexualized (but this isn’t so much a Dead or Alive: Xtreme Beach Volleyball kind of sexualization, as it is an intimation of sexuality). Emma appears in a tight fitting tank top with her mechanics overalls slung around her hips. Rachel is curiously dressed in a black cocktail dress with her official white “scientist” coat worn over it. (I actually did a double take when I saw her in this outfit because I was so skeptical that she should be dressed this way. A few minutes into Alan and Rachel’s dialogue, I was surprised that Alan himself was a bit stupefied about why she is in evening attire. He actually asks her about this, and she explains that she and a co-worker had just been called away from a party because of an astronomical event. Thus, her weird combination of party wear and work clothing). The final character, Serena, has been overcome by the Darkness. She is the most overtly sexualized, as in her deranged state, she quite deliberately comes on to Alan (though, she might actually be the one most conservatively dressed in a button up shirt and jeans). However, this is not the case with the other two characters. They merely meet and talk to Alan. Though they are, of course, important to the plot sequences in these scenes. Alan acts casual and not especially interested in any of the three, including the obviously turned on and willing Serena.
However, what connects Alan to all three women is their relationship to Alan’s “evil twin,” Mr. Scratch. Mr. Scratch has visited all three women earlier in the evening, and each of them has been quite “taken by him.” While not admitting so at first, Emma eventually reveals that she “partied” with Mr. Scratch in a motel room where a man was later murdered. Rachel explains that Mr. Scratch came to view the astronomical anomaly that she came to the observatory to investigate. She says that she found him charming at first. That is, before he grew violent and threatening. Serena’s state, having her will overtaken by Darkness, is a direct result of giving in to Mr. Scratch’s evil charm. Mr. Scratch is, of course, a twisted version of Alan. Thus, all of these women are in some sense interested in something representative of Alan.
The “good” Alan, though, finds his own relation to these women to be one somewhat similar to his relationship to Alice. As a result of his failed re-writes, each of these women suffers in the story. Emma is eventually consumed by the Taken in each failed re-run of her segment of the plot, Rachel never discovers what her anomaly means, and Serena never escapes the loss of her will to Darkness. In order for Alan to move forward and for the player to finish the game, each woman must eventually be “saved.” More specifically, though, he has to make up for his failures to each woman. He has to make reparations.
Given that the conclusion of American Nightmare is one in which, when he is finally successful, Alan is transported to the big screen of the drive-in movie, where he is fantastically and rather ideally (in a cliffside scene appropriate to romantic cinema) reunited with Alice herself, there clearly seems to be some interest on Remedy’s part in the emblem of making things right with one’s female partner. It is a strangely disconnected theme, since the fiction within fiction within fiction (the movie within the television episode within the game) are all merely representations of relationships, never actual returns to anything like a “real” relationship.
While I did allude to the dead wife/avenging husband revenge plot as a kind of traditional version of the saving the princess plot, it too has qualities that are not unlike Alan Wake‘s interest in reparations being a motivating force for men’s (and in the case of the medium that these stories appear in, for player’s) lives. Remedy’s previous work on the Max Payne series might concern itself with this kind of plot, then, as well, since Max is struggling to make up for his failure to prevent the murder of his wife and daughter.
It is a bit unclear what all of this gallivanting across the Arizona countryside indicates about what Alan’s own issue is in this mess, though, in American Nightmare. Is he looking deliberately for Alice, for his wife (the game’s set up doesn’t indicate this, suggesting that Alan wants to save the world, not the girl)? Do these efforts to make things right with all these women suggest a rather wayward and distracted husband trying to eventually get his shit together and get focused back on where he was headed in the first place? Or are each of them a kind of shadow of Alice—Wake hasn’t really had the chance to make up for what happened at Cauldron Lake—and is this “writing” a representation (artificial but emblematic as fiction and the cinema are) of “fixing things?”
Regardless, the Alan Wake series does indicate the insistence that video games seem to still have in using the representation of women as a primary motivation for play. I appreciate that Alan Wake wants to progress the story past adolescent interest in simply “saving girls,” but I think that this insistence does emphasize a kind of assumption about games being targeted towards a male player. As it is always male desire or (in the case of Alan Wake) male obligations to repair relationships that are seen as relatable enough to the player to make the plot justifications for game play reasonable and clearly understood.