Alan Wake and Paratext
StoryScan: Critical Hit
StoryScan: Critical Hit highlights specific aspects of individual game narratives that are exceptionally well done. In this essay, we’re covering Alan Wake (Remedy, 2010), a metafictional thriller about a writer who must fight his inner darkness. This essay will cover content up through the end of the game, but does not include the DLC. Players who have not completed the base game may want to set this article aside until later, as it contains substantial spoilers for the main storyline.
If there’s one thing writers love writing about, it’s other writers. Films like Adaptation and Barton Fink add drama to the writers’ everyday struggle to put words on the page, and authors as varied as Stephen King, Robert Heinlein, and Louisa May Alcott built entire careers off of their author protagonists. There are countless reasons for writers to portray their field in their work—simplicity, authenticity, and vanity being just a few—and these varied motivations can lead to a wonderful range of characters. Writing about writing also allows creatives to explore the concept of metafiction: the self-aware story that engages the audience on multiple layers. Whether it’s a subtle wink at the camera on a television show or a bombastic monologue about a flawed script on the stage, metafiction can come in many forms and accomplish many different tasks. It’s only natural that the combination of the fictional author and the metafictional story is such a potent one, and it’s no surprise that said combination found its way into the world of video games.
Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake (2010) is a video game that owes its existence to other media. Although Alan Wake bills itself as an action-adventure video game, its roots are tangled up in literature, television, film, and radio. Titular protagonist Alan Wake is an author in the midst of a multi-year slump, and his previous creative output quite literally haunts him wherever he goes. When a relaxing trip to a little town in Washington turns into a nightmarish case of kidnapping and mistaken identity, Alan must rescue his wife from supernatural forces to clear his name with the local police. In the process, Alan must confront his creative works from both past and future, and the juxtaposition blurs the line between imaginary and reality. To further break down this crumbling border, the developers of Alan Wake inserted paratextual elements that made the most of their protagonist’s writing career. Manuscript pages and television shorts remind the player that the line between fiction and fantasy isn’t always solid, and the truth can be hard to find.
Alan Wake is ostensibly a writer, but his recent output has left something to be desired. In the two years before the game’s events, Alan hasn’t written a single word, and it’s become a problem for his career and his marriage. That’s just one of the reasons why it’s such a surprise when pages from a new Wake manuscript start appearing all over the town of Bright Falls, Washington. Alan has no memory of ever writing these pages, nor does he recall ever having the inspiration for them. Still, the ideas come together fast as he starts experiencing the events from the story in real life. As players guide Alan through the game’s six episodes, they’re able to collect and read dozens of manuscript pages from this latest novel, The Departure, and each page corresponds to something that either has happened or will happen within the narrative of the game. Some pages are from Wake’s perspective; others follow familiar faces like his agent, his wife, and the many strange people he meets in Bright Falls. The inclusion of future events and outside perspectives suggests that Alan couldn’t have written the pages, but the supernatural elements of the story mean all bets are off. The developers don’t clarify the truth one way or the other, so it’s up to the player to choose their preferred interpretation of the game’s events. Maybe it’s all in Alan’s head; maybe it’s not—or maybe the story was real, but Alan wasn’t the author.
In Alan Wake, player-character Alan is initially presented as both the protagonist and the author of the in-game manuscript The Departure. As if this weren’t confusing enough, the game further blurs the line between reality and fantasy with the introduction of Thomas Zane, the former owner of Alan’s rental cabin, and a possible source for The Departure’s pages. According to local lore, Zane was a poet who lived in Bright Falls until his girlfriend drowned in the same lake that stole Alan’s wife. Desperate to bring her back, Zane channeled the dark power he felt in the water and literally wrote her back into being with his typewriter. The plan didn’t work as intended, however, as she came back tainted by the very darkness he’d used to revive her. Once Zane realized what he’d done, he sacrificed himself to keep the dark power at bay, but first, he devised a contingency plan. To ensure someone would always be there to fight the darkness, he wrote a new character into being: another author named Alan Wake. In Zane’s story, Alan was born with a determination to fight darkness with light, and his desire would inevitably lead him to Bright Falls. If Alan himself is a work of fiction, then Zane is the true author of The Departed; if Alan is real, Zane might be in his head. To save his wife, Alan is willing to accept the idea that he’s a figment of someone’s imagination, but the game leaves enough ambiguity that it’s never entirely clear. All that’s certain is that no matter how blurry the line between fiction and reality gets, on some level, Alan will always be a character in someone else’s story.
Metafiction in Night Springs
Alan Wake’s paratext doesn’t stop on the page; it also extends to the television screen, where Alan had some of his earliest writing gigs. As a writer on Twilight Zone-pastiche Night Springs, Alan explored “the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition…the dimension of imagination.” His job was to toe the line between the real and the unreal with his writing, and the fruits of that labor appear on televisions throughout Bright Falls. In each episode, players can find a different episode of Night Springs playing on a television set somewhere in the area, and they can stick around to watch the entire thing play out if they choose. Although the episodes are only a few minutes long, they tell complete stories that share can thematic significance with Alan’s struggles. In a nod to Alan’s ongoing identity crisis, ‘The Man in the Mirror’ tells the story of a man murdered by his doppelgänger, while in ‘A Family Occasion,’ a writer gets more than he bargained for when he visits a small town to study the occult. The other episodes have similarly eerie connections to Alan’s journey, which ties back to the questions presented by the missing pages of The Departure. Is Alan’s reality merely a work of fiction created by someone else, or is it a world he can control to help him fight the darkness? Or, if none of it is real, and it’s all in Alan’s head, how can he return to reality when he’s surrounded by proof of his creations?
Like the player-controlled Alan Wake, Night Springs is well-known to the people of Bright Falls. One of the police officers who helps him along the way is a fan of the show, and the town is sprinkled with hints of Night Springs’ past success. Alan can’t even escape the show when he wakes up in a mental institution, as the merchandise is displayed throughout the building. Two inmates can be found playing a board game based on the show, and another room hides an XBOX 360 with a copy of a Night Springs game. The idea of multiple in-universe games based off of Alan’s writing distorts the barrier between fact and fiction that much further, raising even more questions about Alan’s role in the world as a creator and a creation. Was he a driving force behind the games, or are they just another figment of another author’s imagination? Does Alan exist to shape Night Springs, or does Night Springs exist to shape Alan? With each additional piece of paratext, the metafictional mystery deepens, and the boundary between truth and fiction fades away.
As a plot device, amnesia is fraught with problems. Time travel has its own hurdles, as well. Combining the two has disastrous effects for goals, stakes, and urgency, which is why the plot of The 3rd Birthday feels like it’s going everywhere and nowhere at once. Writers and developers who want to use these plot devices should think long and hard about combining them, as the plot problems they present together can be difficult for even the most seasoned storyteller to overcome.
Paratext is the material that exists to support, contextualize, and promote a creative work.
StoryScan: Team Fortress 2 and Paratext
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