Alan Wake Reconsidered

I said that this year I would try and stretch myself a bit as a writer, and that’s always a fraught endeavor when you’re doing it on someone else’s dime in front off a big audience. Fortunately, The Escapist came through as it always has in my career and gave me space to do a close, critical reading of Alan Wake in order to provide a revisionist view of the game.

It’s the kind of thing that sounded awesome as I was pitching it and playing through the game for a second time, but was easy to start doubting once I began working on it. By the time I sent back my final draft, I was convinced that the response was going to be a collective eye-roll. I liked my analysis, and I thought it was pretty damned sound, but I know there are a lot of people who resist reading deeply into videogames, especially ones as flawed as Alan Wake.

Fortunately, the article got an incredibly warm reception both from the audience at The Escapist and my acquaintances on Twitter. No piece I’ve written this year has given me as much satisfaction, with several people writing to express how thoroughly my article changed their view of the game. There is not much more that I can ask of my work.

While I stuck pretty close to what is actually in the game, and I can readily defend just about every claim that I make in the article, I will admit that my interpretation still owes a great deal to my own experiences. I have written several times over the last year about the difficulty of balancing my emotional investment in my work with other aspects of my life, and how sometimes work seems to be crowding out the other things I love. Approaching Alan Wake with those fears weighing on my mind, it was not hard for me to make the connection between the game’s plot and the conflicts I face as someone doing what I love for a living, dependent on steady stream of decent ideas and good words, and the pain I feel when they seem to dry up.

A few people raised their eyebrows at the connection I drew between the savior figure in Alan Wake, Thomas Zane, and Bioshock. I think the use of an old, porthole-covered diving bell is too heavily associated with Bioshock to be accidental, but I will readily grant that once again my own experiences inform my analysis here.

2007 changed everything for me, and Bioshock was a major part of that. It was the first time I really heard the kind of serious, intelligent discussion of videogames that I had long wanted to have, and Bioshock was the topic of discussion that year (as it has remained, in many ways). Bioshock didn’t sequester itself from intellectual life the way so many games do. It was in dialogue with the books I read in college on history and political theory, and critics were receptive to that. There have been other games that could make you think, other games that didn’t flinch from asking harder questions or engaging with their historical moment, but Bioshock was the first time that the stars aligned and serious critical discussion of a videogame entered the mainstream.

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Alan Wake started production in 2005, Bioshock came out in 2007, and the character in the game has not been able to accomplish anything in two years. The game itself did not come out until 2010, and it’s not hard to imagine that 2007 might have been the year when the Alan Wake project finally started to gather some momentum after lengthy delays and creative struggles. And from my own experience, I can see where Bioshock might have played a role in the story.

Anyway, I hope you go and read the piece. This kind of analysis isn’t something I’ve done much, but I had an absolute blast with it.

    • JP
    • February 4th, 2011 5:44pm

    Rob: Glad to hear you enjoyed writing this piece, because I hope to see a lot more of this type of writing from you. I think there’s a much bigger audience for critical readings of games than you’d suspect. And your article was a damn fine example of game criticism.

    What was particularly enjoyable for me as a reader was that even if I didn’t fully agree with your reading (NB: I did), your perspective was expressed in such a clear and interesting way as to hook me anyway.

    In the last entry of my series on Deadly Premonition, I made the point that flawed games often make for much more interesting and rich critical territory. Thoroughly agree with your identification of Bioshock as a landmark for game criticism, but I think it’s telling that Bioshock has some glaring and resonant flaws. Games that don’t take any risks can be great, but they’re never as much fun to write about.

      • Flitcraft
      • February 6th, 2011 5:41am

      I think you’re right about flawed games making better subjects. I think part of the reason is that flaws become such interesting terrain for argument and disagreement. Working on this piece, I had a lot of moments where I wondered why this was worth saying. But a brief check of the game’s reviews and other reactions it garnered at the time reminded me: “Oh, yeah, a lot of people missed the point that I’m seeing.”

  1. It was a great piece. I don’t agree with you completely, but I really enjoyed it. I hope to see more in that vein from you.

    I read Alan Wake as a messier, more emotionally fraught story, one designed to be plausible on multiple levels (the literal story of the game vs. the story of an unstable, selfish man who has retreated into a fantasy). In this conception, the game has high points and moments of shining self-awareness—many of which you point out—but also trite, predictable elements. Some sections that fail to rise noticeably above the deliberate mediocrity of Wake’s own work; in creating a work of art intended to satirize bad art, Remedy set themselves a high bar.

    I agree that it’s an ambitious game, and I liked it a lot. I’m working on a post about it for my own blog.

    Keep up the good work. I envy you guys carving out the hip new criticism scene in Boston, which is my hometown.

  2. Absolutely superb piece of criticism. I’m wrestling with a similar “heavy” reading of Braid and your Alan Wake piece has been my own little Thomas Zane. Clarity and light.

    I’d like only to suggest that perhaps the theme of artistic frustration was born initially in one of Remedy’s previous games (Max payne maybe) and later arose in Wake’s development where it became core to its identity.

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