[27 May 2010]
I really loved Alan Wake. I mean both the game and the character of the same name. My Moving Pixels comrade, G. Christopher Williams, was a little harder on the game than I would’ve been, but the differences between us come down to taste and not any disagreement about what the game does well and what it doesn’t. When we discussed Alan Wake on the upcoming episode of the Moving Pixels Podcast (which you can catch on Monday), I was surprised to hear Chris, Tom, and Nick all basically agree that in the beginning of the game they thought Wake was kind of a jerk. I didn’t think he was a jerk at all. Indeed, I entirely empathized with him from the beginning.
Which is not to say that Wake doesn’t have his problems or that he doesn’t do some jerky things. But one of the game’s many virtues is that we get deep inside Alan Wake’s head, mostly filtered through the narration of the novel that we’re living with him. Alan’s a successful, super-famous novelist who’s suffering severe writer’s block and hasn’t written a word in two years. That’s some serious stress, and he’s maybe not handling it as well as he could, but he’s not terrible either. Late in the game we witness a scene in which he stays out all night and comes home drunk, but his wife is both angry and understanding. The two of them clearly have a decent, working relationship and genuinely care for one another.
I think that most people’s opinion of Wake hits its nadir early in the game when he yells at his wife and storms out of the house. It’s not a pretty moment, but I think, really, his wife is the one in the wrong here. She tricked him, not only into doing the thing that he doesn’t want to do, but also signing him up for therapy with some stranger. I believe that she’s acting out of love and thinks that she’s doing the right thing, but if someone did that to me, I’d yell and storm out too. Note that even before she gets into trouble, Wake is already realizing that she means well and that he overreacted. None of this is being a joke. All of it is being human, and I don’t think that we’re used to our video game characters acting like real, live people.
I’ve seen several reviews mention that Wake acts like a jerk towards his biggest fan, Alice. In fact, he treats her just fine. He just thinks some negative thoughts about her, mostly because he’s frustrated with himself and is trying to escape his own success. Since we’re in Wake’s head the whole game, or rather, a narrative that peers into his POV, we get those private moments. If he was a jerk, he would’ve been rude to her. In fact, he did what most of us do—he kept his cruelest thoughts to himself and then kept things civil but distant with her. Just think about all the things that you think but don’t say and imagine what a jerk you’d sound like if we were listening into your private narration. Or is that just me thinking ill of my fellow man?
Drawing back from my own empathy for Wake, I think that most reviewers agree that, jerk or not, Alan Wake redeems himself by the end of the story. This is, I think, a notable accomplishment. I’ve played plenty of games where an unlikeable hero never does get likeable enough for me to appreciate his triumphs. Kratos from God of War irked me from moment one to the very last. The nasty, jerk-face hero of the new Bionic Commando was set to maximum unlikeable for the entire game. Wake has just exactly the arc that you would want from a hero’s journey.
Which leaves me wondering about my own affection for Wake. Do I give the credit to the designers and say they intended for him to be a jerk early on? Who then wins the player over? Or do I give myself credit for seeing Wake for the troubled, likable, totally-not-a-jerk character that he’s supposed to me. I tend to err on the side of crediting me, but here I think that I might be wrong. Alan Wake probably was supposed to be a jerk. If so, what does that make me? Lemme guess, I’m a jerk too. Fine. Wait ‘til you see what I do to YOU in my next novel . . .