Alan Wake and constructing fear

Alan Wake was, and still is, a unique take on the horror genre on a console. This piece is a commentary on some of the techniques and content used. Pages could have been filled with musings on Bright Falls, Alan’s subconscious, and the dark presence itself. Instead, this piece has been limited to around 1,000 words. Obviously, this contains spoilers.

“Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic and there’s little fun to be had in explanations. They’re antithetical to the poetry of fear. In a horror story the victim keeps asking why, but there can be no explanation and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest and is what we’ll remember in the end.” – Alan Wake

The above are the first words the player hears from Alan Wake. It’s a statement from the game’s creators to the player, a mood setter, and an insight into the mechanics of fear used within the game. At the core of Alan Wake is the developer preying on the basic human fear of the dark, both in the literal and moral sense, and what is concealed within it. Like all the good horror films it takes inspiration from, Alan Wake is a commentary on the environment within which it was created. The very developers who put the game together will have no doubt experienced the same creative difficulty that their protagonist has. The despair and rage of a creative block, and how forcing the process merely exacerbates things. The player themselves also asks the question why, as the dark presence that is the game’s main antagonist torments Alan.

Alan Wake’s opening moments show the town of Bright Falls as an idyllic rural getaway. It’s picturesque with its harbour and the Elderwood National Park lying adjacent. Everyone knows their neighbour, there’s the one sheriff, book store, café etc. It’s the ‘American Dream’, but even in its opening moments the player can’t help but have the feeling that the town’s projected image is a forced, Twin Peaks style facade.

“I think there is something about the American dream, the sort of Disneyesque dream, if you will, of the beautifully trimmed front lawn, the white picket fence, mom and dad and their happy children, God-fearing and doing good whenever they can, and the flip side of it, the kind of anger and the sense of outrage that comes from discovering that that’s not the truth of the matter, that gives American horror films, in some ways, kind of an additional rage.” – Wes Craven

That anger and outrage can be seen in Alan himself in the cabin early in the game. Alice has provided him with the typewriter and he rages at her for bringing it. To him, it is tantamount to taunting him over his writer’s block. He is barely holding his mental state together in public and he cannot communicate it effectively. His skills are in writing and (as the recording of Alice’s call to Dr Hartman shows) he struggles to verbalize these problems with his spouse. Alan’s internal struggle to continue the projection of a happy, functioning writer to the public, while hiding his demons, can be seen as a microcosm of what is happening in Bright Falls itself. It’s business as usual in public, but only the surface.

“Monsters in movies are us, always us, one way or the other. They’re us with hats on. The zombies in George Romero’s movies are us. They’re hungry. Monsters are us, the dangerous parts of us. The part that wants to destroy. The part of us with the reptile brain. The part of us that’s vicious and cruel. We express these in our stories as these monsters out there.” – John Carpenter

The majority of the ‘monsters’ in Alan Wake, the Taken, are us. They are the shells of people who lived before, manipulated like a marionette by the darkness. The voice work especially portrays this marriage of the familiar and the sinister, like the encounter with Rusty after he has been taken. While not terrifying in isolation, it certainly adds to the unsettling, uncanny atmosphere.

For all Alan Wake does right in its creation of tension, much of it is lost in the gameplay involving Alan’s manager Barry. Barry is the comic relief in a story that is very heavy on doom and insurmountable odds. The only problem is, many of his lines are just awful. One particular moment in the grounds of Couldron Lake Lodge is especially grating. As Barry fumbles for the key to the gate that Alan is on the other side of, he utters a selection of quips that are utterly moronic and completely at odds with the perceived danger of the situation. Barry certainly had his (genuinely funny) moments in the game’s cut-scenes that provide welcome comic relief, but would have perhaps benefitted from the old adage ‘less is more’.

The very limited use of any extreme violence in Alan Wake is a refreshing and deliberate choice. Since the turn of the century, the mainstream horror film industry has gone to increasing lengths to ‘show’ the viewer the horror. Films like Hostel and the Saw series being prime examples. Our movies are a reflection of our times, the same directors who watched Vietnam unfold on TV created the horror movies of the 70s. Now, those who watched the 24 hour coverage of 9/11, Iraq and Afghanistan on TV are creating the Saws and Hostels.  The video game industry is no different, a look at the saturation of extreme violence in so many of this generations horror and action games affirms this.

The decision to focus on the psychological aspect of the horror in Alan Wake makes it entirely different from almost any other horror title available on a console. The protagonist still shoots a gun, but the enemy is supernatural and the violence carried out on these enemies is never gory. It maintains a mechanic players are familiar with (shooting), and at the same time bends it enough (through the light/dark system) to suit the narrative. Remedy’s decision to tone down the gore benefits the game and further sets it apart from other comparable titles in the genre such as the latter games in the Silent Hill series.

Like virtually all studio horror movies, Alan Wake loves a cliffhanger. The final words of the (apparently) still possessed Alan, lifting his head from the typewriter, are what stays with the player long after the credits have finished. “It’s not a lake, it’s an ocean” can be construed as many different literal and metaphorical interpretations. It allows the player to use what they have taken from their time with the game and come to their own conclusion. Did the dark presence win? Or as Alice’s voice may indicate, is he just about to ‘wake up’ from a world his subconscious has created? It fulfills the prophecy of Alan’s first words in the game: “The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest and is what we’ll remember in the end.”

Alice’s final words are perhaps more important than Alan’s. Asking Alan to wake up conjures up thoughts that the whole of Bright Falls was explored by Alan through his subconscious, similar to Stephen King’s character Peter Rickman in Kingdom Hospital. As stated earlier, musings on the exact nature of Bright Falls and Alan’s exact whereabouts could fill pages, even a book.

It’s suitable that more words spoken by Stephen King, referenced by Alan at the start of the game, suit the uncertain ending too:

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.”

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