The Evolution of Alan Wake

by Nick Dinicola

18 May 2012

The character of Alan Wake has evolved in appropriate ways over the series, but what’s more interesting is how the mechanics have evolved with him.

There have been three iterations of Alan Wake, even though there’s only been one canonical game. There’s the original Alan Wake, the downloadable content, and the downloadable Alan Wake’s American Nightmare (which is probably canonical, but we can’t be sure until a sequel comes out and confirms it since there’s a frame story that could render everything moot). Over these three games, Alan Wake has evolved in an appropriate way, acknowledging his faults and growing as a character, but what’s more interesting is how the mechanics have evolved with him.
The original game was about writing and the power of words, but it worked as a metaphor for gaming as well: Wake was a character stuck in a story with a predetermined plot, like a player who knows that he is a player, but the metaphor wasn’t perfect. Wake was supposed to be able to change things through his writing, but he never got a chance to do this onscreen. In the game itself and while we’re controlling him, Wake is powerless. He is just another character even though he is supposed to be the Writer.

This changes in the downloadable content. At the end of Alan Wake, the story that you were stuck in came to an end, so at the beginning of the DLC, we control Wake as he writes a new story. His writing process is incorporated into the gameplay through floating words within the environment. They’re useless on their own—they’re just ideas—but they become real when you shine a light on them. The word “rock” turns into an actual rock, the word “supplies” makes ammo and batteries fall from the sky, and the word “boom” sets off a flashbang explosion. Such words are littered about the area, and as you progress, you choose which ones to make real and which remain vague ideas. Not every word is necessary. This kind of interaction with the world represents Wake’s new role as Writer. He’s no longer just a character, since he’s literally writing the story as you play it.

This mechanical evolution is only possible because of Wake’s character growth. In the DLC, he is no longer the confused jerk that he was in the original game. Before, he was selfish and took for granted those around him while wallowing in self-pity because he didn’t know his role in his own story: He was a writer with writer’s block. The Dark Presence took advantage of this flaw, taking over his mind and forcing him to write while under its influence, turning him into just another pawn to be moved about—a character. Through this ordeal he was humbled with a newfound care for those around him, growing as such a character should, and with that new inspiration. the writer’s block was gone. Suddenly, Wake had authority over the world. 

In American Nightmare, he goes back to being a character in a story, but this time it is a story that he has more control over. It is a fascinating game because it lets us experience a story that is constantly being changed and challenged by two opposing writers, Wake and Mr. Scratch.

The game has you visit three areas, a motel, an observatory, and a drive-in theatre. In each map, there’s something that you have to do, items you have to find in order to set the scene as Wake has written it, while Mr. Scratch tries to keep his version of events intact. You revisit these areas twice more over the course of American Nightmare, and this repetition highlights how you affect the story. Items you’ve collected before don’t have to be collected again, and people you’ve talked to remember you and offer their help without needing another explanation of events. The story eventually plays out the same way, since this is the same story being repeated after all, but the details are different.

We also see how the new, caring Wake reacts to those around him. He’s much more sympathetic to the people that he meets this time. Perhaps because he’s been a character in someone else’s story and knows how helpless it feels to be placed in taht position or perhaps because they’re partly his characters and he wants to protect them from Mr. Scratch.

Looking at this overall progression, it is clear that the original Alan Wake was the least effective at exploring its own themes of writing and storytelling, and also that this limitation was actually necessary. It is fitting in a very meta way. Wake constantly talked about the power of stories and fiction—how they can’t be controlled with force, there are rules to follow, consistency and context must be taken into account—and Remedy found themselves trapped by those rules. Instead, they were only able to explore their grand themes once Wake grew enough as a character to want to explore those themes. The original game had to be the least effective because it was the catalyst that allowed Wake to grow as a character and therefore allowed the mechanics to grow with him.

It is a fascinating and wonderful progression for a game series: a hero that starts off helpless with gameplay that reflects this state, then subsequent entries give the hero more authority over world and the gameplay changes to give us more authority as well. Alan Wake is a series that both explores and exemplifies the difficulty of writing a story.

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