Games

Words Can Kill: The Creative Process of Alan Wake in 'The Signal'

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.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

The Top 20 Punk Protest Songs for July 4th

As punk music history verifies, American citizenry are not all shiny, happy people. These 20 songs reflect the other side of patriotism -- free speech brandished by the brave and uncouth.

Books

90 Years on 'Olivia' Remains a Classic of Lesbian Literature

It's good that we have our happy LGBTQ stories today, but it's also important to appreciate and understand the daunting depths of feeling that a love repressed can produce. In Dorothy Strachey's case, it produced the masterful Olivia.

Music

Indie Rocker Alpha Cat Presents 'Live at Vox Pop' (album stream)

A raw live set from Brooklyn in the summer of 2005 found Alpha Cat returning to the stage after personal tumult. Sales benefit organizations seeking to end discrimination toward those seeking help with mental health issues.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

‘The Avengers’ Offer a Lesson for Our Time of COVID-19

Whereas the heroes in Avengers: Endgame stew for five years, our grief has barely taken us to the after-credit sequence. Someone page Captain Marvel, please.

Music

Between the Grooves of Nirvana's 'Nevermind'

Our writers undertake a track-by-track analysis of the most celebrated album of the 1990s: Nirvana's Nevermind. From the surprise hit that brought grunge to the masses, to the hidden cacophonous noise-fest that may not even be on your copy of the record, it's all here.

Music

Deeper Graves Arrives via 'Open Roads' (album stream)

Chrome Waves, ex-Nachtmystium man Jeff Wilson offers up solo debut, Open Roads, featuring dark and remarkable sounds in tune with Sisters of Mercy and Bauhaus.

Featured: Top of Home Page

The 50 Best Albums of 2020 So Far

Even in the coronavirus-shortened record release schedule of 2020, the year has offered a mountainous feast of sublime music. The 50 best albums of 2020 so far are an eclectic and increasingly "woke" bunch.

Books

First Tragedy, Then Farce, Then What?

Riffing off Marx's riff on Hegel on history, art historian and critic Hal Foster contemplates political culture and cultural politics in the age of Donald Trump in What Comes After Farce?

Reviews

HAIM Create Their Best Album with 'Women in Music Pt. III'

On Women in Music Pt. III, HAIM are done pretending and ready to be themselves. By learning to embrace the power in their weakest points, the group have created their best work to date.

Music

Amnesia Scanner's 'Tearless' Aesthetically Maps the Failing Anthropocene

Amnesia Scanner's Tearless aesthetically maps the failing Anthropocene through its globally connected features and experimental mesh of deconstructed club, reggaeton, and metalcore.

Music

How Lasting Is the Legacy of the Live 8 Charity Concert?

A voyage to the bottom of a T-shirt drawer prompts a look back at a major event in the history of celebrity charity concerts, 2005's Live 8, Philadelphia.

Music

Jessie Ware Embraces Her Club Culture Roots on Rapturous 'What's Your Pleasure?'

British diva Jessie Ware cooks up a glittery collection of hedonistic disco tracks and delivers one of the year's best records with What's Your Pleasure.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews

Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.