header is screenshot from Alan Wake II
Television is More Fun Than Mirrors
Ed Smith

This article discusses plot details from throughout Alan Wake II.

Between SignalisEl Paso, ElsewhereControlThe Evil WithinHotline Miami, and now Alan Wake II, we have a short canon of games that literalise or physicalise a particular vision of postmodernity. Postmodernity in games is nothing new—Metal Gear Solid speaks directly to the player, the original Max Payne makes knowing references to its many literary and filmic influences, and even the first episode of Doom, from 1993, ends with a deliberate and spelled-out subversion of narrative: “Once you beat the big badasses and clean out the moon base you’re supposed to win, aren’t you?” Likewise, to put it charitably, videogames have always borrowed from other art. Medal of Honor: Frontline opens with the beach scene from Saving Private RyanGrand Theft Auto: Vice City is a softer retelling of ScarfaceDead Space takes aesthetically from Event Horizon. And so on. 

For a while, videogames felt like the cultural equivalent of what food manufacturers call recovered meat, an amalgamation of the offcuts from “higher” products that can be reconstituted and sold back to a less discerning crowd. In time, games’ financial success, and also, to a smaller extent, their rising artistic credibility, inverted or inflected this process—influences would still roll down into games, but now games would bounce their own influences back up the chain. In some cases this was very direct—movie adaptations of Assassin’s CreedUnchartedTomb Raider, etc.—and in other cases it was more formal or even linguistic, like those interactive Netflix shows, or the way people say they feel like they’re an “NPC” or like they’ve “leveled up.” And so videogames joined the infinite, ouroboric loop, where films—or TV or literature or whatever—influence games, and then games influence films, and then those films influence games, and then those games influence films, etc.

At the same time as this has been happening—and not just in games, but in everything; the spin-offs, the reboots, the multiverses, the remakes, that whole recursive cycle of culture on top of culture—the idea of truth has become paradoxically subjective. We’ve experienced the death of epistemology, where there is no knowledge any more, just ideas, ideas that are delivered to us rapidly and constantly. The internet provides 100 different answers to the same question—it obliterates even the concept of questioning, and, by its nature, ridicules and undermines the pursuit of truth, because for every truth there are myriad contradictory other truths. Our main repository for knowledge is now a bewildering gestalt of opinions, beliefs and subjective ideals. The defining phrase of the last five or so years has to be the oxymoronic “fake news,” something that is simultaneously fact and made up, and though it ought to be irrelevant ultimately has great influence over our daily lives—we’re compelled not only by the lies and pseudo truths that we encounter every day, but also by the discussion around and the wider implications of fake news, and so despite its bizarre and amorphous nature, it occupies a central role in our social conscious. We’re obsessed and consumed by the unreal.

Out of this particular cultural mien, we get those previously mentioned games: ControlSignalisEl Paso, ElsewhereHotline MiamiThe Evil Within, and Alan Wake IIEl Paso, Elsewhere is a conflagration of genres set in a world where, very literally, everything is mashed together and upside down—under the influence of a world-ending, reality—warping vampiric ritual, the architecture of the game’s various locations is transfigured and deformed, so that furniture is stuck to the walls, or the killing floor of an abattoir connects to the lobby of a motel, the tomb of an Egyptian pharaoh, the dining hall of a Gothic castle. Control is similar. The Oldest House is home to a collection of everyday objects which hold the power to bend real life haphazardly out of shape. A climactic mission, ostensibly set in a straightforward network of corridors, spontaneously changes size and shape before your very eyes—art deco luxury becomes brutalist pragmatism becomes sterile laboratory. In Signalis, it’s the character’s own consciousness and memories that become subjective and malleable. You might be this person, but you might be that person, but you might be nobody, and perhaps all this has already happened, or will happen, or doesn’t happen at all. The geometry and natural rules of the world of The Evil Within (and The Evil Within 2) are dictated not by geology, chemistry, and physics, but the subjective will of one person. Hotline Miami proposes a series of contradictory visions, hallucinations, and daydreams. Around the halfway point, it abstracts and abstruses its own established reality—as Jacket, you kill The Biker, but then you also become The Biker and, in the same fight, replayed from this new perspective, you kill Jacket. 

What these games have in common, either thematically or aesthetically, is a submission or perhaps admission to the cultural state in which we find ourselves. They reflect the impossibility—almost ludicrousness—of singular truth and moral conviction as concepts in our postmodern world. On its surface, and certainly in its initial hours, so does Alan Wake II. The game is so full of contradictions, obfuscations, and deliberate metaphysical layers that it seems purposefully impossible to parse, like its central thesis, once again, regards the unattainability of real knowledge, or perhaps an articulate and stylised recognisance of our current cultural consciousness. Examples of our postmodern bewilderment are everywhere in Alan Wake II. Alex Casey has the face of Sam Lake and the voice of James McCaffrey, which makes him the original Max Payne. He’s also an FBI agent in modern-day Bright Falls, a ghost in Alan Wake’s personal Dark Place, and a character in Wake’s novels, and the film adaptations of those novels. Alan Wake is simultaneously Alan Wake and his evil doppelganger Mr Scratch, but he also looks and sounds exactly like the poet Thomas Zane, who some sources claim isn’t a poet at all but a filmmaker.

Saga’s daughter is living with Saga’s husband, David, but the daughter is also dead, and Saga and David are divorced. The identical Koskela brothers run the Cult of the Tree, but it’s only called a cult because it’s not actually a cult. We meet Tor and Odin, the erstwhile rock band Old Gods of Asgard, as young men, while they’re also two seniors living in a nursing home. Sheriff Breaker is back, but a different Sheriff Breaker to the original Alan Wake game. The dead come back to life. People vanish from existence altogether. Saga is visiting Bright Falls for the first time, but she also lived there, and everyone’s pleased to see her.

This impermanence, and sense of a malleable reality, are explored also in Alan Wake II’s systems and mechanics. Removing a light source from one area of a level and applying it to another changes the level’s physical layout. As an artist trapped in The Dark Place, Alan can use his typewriter to rearrange his surroundings—an empty hotel corridor becomes suddenly filled with bodies and blood, its entire history rewritten on a whim. Apprehended one way, these become metaphors for the bewildering, contradictory world of Alan Wake II’s narrative. As fact and fiction combine and transfigure one another, we, as players, are capable of changing even physical structures with our own—or maybe our characters’—ideas of what is true. Subjectivity, opinion, and choice have the same stoic authority as bricks and mortar.

In its conclusion however, Alan Wake II transcends the not exactly nihilism, not exactly cynicism, but kind of surrender to postmodernity encapsulated in its videogame contemporaries. Whereas El Paso, ElsewhereHotline Miamiet al become stories about the impossibility of stories—works designed to highlight the precariousness and the ephemerality of truth—Alan Wake II is about striving and ultimately succeeding in finding knowledge. Alan’s Dark Place and the warped (or rather, warping) version of Bright Walls inhabited by Saga represent a shapeshifting postmodern world; as myth, legend, and fabrication bleed into reality, these places, and their central characters, risk losing touch with both themselves and all worldly knowledge in an ocean of—to quote ol’ Kellyanne Conway—alternative facts. But their respective ways of navigating the environment, moving light sources, rewriting The Dark Place, creating a map on the Mind Place case board, symbolize an attempt to forge and hold onto something objectively, tangibly true. Even the combat, where you shine a flashlight onto enemies shrouded in shadow before shooting them dead, represents tacitly this process— in a world (or worlds) gradually overwhelmed by misinformation, disinformation, and uninfomation, Saga and Alan fight for a kind of actualization of personal, spiritual truth. Missions conclude when you solve puzzles, rearrange reality into something that makes sense, and decipher a cogent throughline of reality from myriad contradictory sources. Finally, Mr Scratch, The Dark Place, and all they represent, are defeated by an especially symbolic MacGuffin in the form of a bullet made from pure light.

“What if there’s nothing waiting to be revealed?” Alan asks, as he allows himself to be possessed by the Dark Presence “The play of shadows fooled us all, subterfuge to get our price of admission. Darkness, not as a monster, but as emptiness. We’re none the wiser. No answers. No truths.” Then Saga shoots him with the light bullet, “a white searing light of truth.” In this final act, Alan Wake II represents a rejection, or at least a concerted, philosophical and epistemological attempt to resist postmodern despair. With the bullet in his head, Alan makes a climactic, definitive statement, one of the few times in the game he seems able to assert an observation with total confidence: “It’s not a loop, it’s a spiral.” Saga, meanwhile, telephones her daughter. Frustratingly, in a concession to franchise and sequel building, we end here on a cliffhanger, and never hear Saga’s daughter answer the phone, but the implication is heavy. She’s okay, and Saga has successfully aligned reality—or at least, her reality—into something real and coherent. In a final flourish, Alex Casey, played in live action by Sam Lake, is freed by the Dark Presence that had once possessed him. The writer and director of Alan Wake II, having reached the end of the game, returns to a stable, singular form, exorcized of the myriad ideas, machinations, and imaginations that impel the game’s creation—an ending has been reached, a moral truth has been discovered, and an identity forged and returned.

Alan Wake II illustrates the confusion and spiritual overencumberence that might result from our hyperreal postmodern world, but also an attempt—an attempt that ultimately seems victorious—to overcome the existential and identity crises that result. Flood waters evaporate. Shadows vanish to light. Despite infinite mysteries, Saga, Alan, and the player eventually make things make sense.


Ed Smith is one of the co-founders of Bullet Points Monthly. His Twitter handle is @esmithwriter.