Words Can Kill

The Creative Process of Alan Wake in 'The Signal'

by Nick Dinicola

1 October 2010

The Signal takes us into the mind of a writer, where mere words have physical power.

This post contains spoilers for Alan Wake.

Events in The Signal take place right after the end of Alan Wake. Wake finds himself in a nightmarish world, a place “familiar, but wrong, somehow,” and an image of Thomas Zane in a bathroom mirror explains that Wake himself is “the one making all this happen.” That’s an interesting line because it implies that Wake is creating the world around him, not the Dark Presence. Throughout the DLC we see Wake on television screens, lying on the floor of the cabin’s attic where his typewriter is, rambling what seems like nonsense. Zane explains that this is the real Alan Wake, a claim that’s proven when the ramblings come true.
If the Wake in the televisions talks about cars flying towards him, you know that you’ll have to fight possessed cars soon. The televisions take the place of the manuscripts in the DLC. This means that events are once again predetermined but not quite in the same way as they were in the main game. In Alan Wake, the titular writer wrote a coherent story: Once he realized the power of the Dark Presence, he decided to stop it by writing its demise into its own story. He was able to save his wife because he understood how a story needs to unfold, “There’s light and there’s darkness, cause and effect, there’s guilt and there’s atonement. But the scales always need to balance, everything has a price.” He wrote in close calls and narrow escapes, never making it easy on himself, and in the end, he still had to give himself to the Dark Presence to help Alice escape.

In The Signal, the real Wake is in an attic spouting insanity, so he’s not exactly in a state of mind to tell a proper story, so it’s not surprising that the DLC plays out like an unfiltered assortment of random thoughts and ideas, a story told through stream of consciousness.

Throughout the DLC, Wake finds words hovering in mid-air, like “tools,” “recharge,” “pump,” and more, that turn into actual objects when he shines light on them. He’s literally transforming ideas into reality. Giving the player more ammo and batteries and stronger guns out of nowhere like this works wonderfully for a piece of DLC as it allows the developers to easily dole out a full arsenal of equipment over a short hour, as opposed to the six or eight hours it takes to finish the main game. In addition, players accept this setup because it’s clear that this is a dream, a stream of conscious story that’s unfolding as we play, resulting in random drops of ammo and an ever changing environment.

Eventually the floating words become weapons themselves. Wake is attacked in a basement filled with furnaces and “blast” hangs in front of each furnace; when illuminated, the words explode like a flash bang and become instrumental in surviving the big fight. Soon after that, Wake must run through a dark forest littered with the words “boom” and “fireworks.” But just as the words start to become his main weapon against the Taken, they turn against him. After crossing a bridge in the forest the “booms” and “fireworks” are replaced with “enemy” and “possessed.”

The words go from helpful to harmful, and this idea follows the same theme Wake explained in the main game: there must be balance. Even in his delirious mental state, Wake understands that a story needs conflict, so here he is creating conflict for himself. However, unlike in the main game, he now doesn’t know when to stop because he’s, well, crazy. He creates a goal that he can never reach, a signal on a GPS phone that keeps getting further away, and then he populates the world with shadowy enemies to make progression difficult. The events of Alan Wake show him wrestling with and eventually gaining control over his story, but The Signal shows him losing that battle. Wake is the protagonist and antagonist of his own story, but he doesn’t know when to let up on the antagonism and let the protagonist win.

Not much really happens in The Signal. By the end, Wake is still trapped in the Dark Place with no hint of escape, just like at the end of Alan Wake. In any other piece of epilogue DLC, this lack of plot progression would feel like a cop out, a way of extending the game without extending the story, but in the context of Alan Wake, this epilogue is a fascinating look at an out of control creative process.

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