This article discusses plot details from throughout Alan Wake II. It's also meant to be read after Ed's article on the game, "Television is More Fun Than Mirrors."
Pretty much nobody in Alan Wake II has a clear idea of what’s happening to them or why. From the moment the game opens with a man stumbling naked through a darkened forest, the game is determined to show without overt explanation. As Ed wrote, this disorientation is very much the point. Wake II can be “solved” in the same way that the tangled plots of famously complicated works of all sorts can be “solved” by those eager to lay bare their mysteries. But a large part of the game’s appeal is in its dreamlike construction and in the ways it works to wrongfoot the player, keeping them in a state of confusion.
Where most mainstream games are eager to assert an easily identifiable rhythm—to create a “loop” whose repetition provides regular positive feedback—Wake II jumps not only between character perspectives, but also modes of interaction. Playing as Saga Anderson, as much time might be spent in dialogue and exploration as in combat sequences or puzzle-solving. As Alan Wake, shadowy figures that may or may not be hostile enemies wander along his path through a surreal New York City that contorts unpredictably with or without his direct intervention. There is no rigid “loop,” only a constant change in circumstances that defies the comforts of predictability in both play and (referring again to Ed’s article here) storytelling.
Throughout this, the game centres Alan and Saga’s twin searches for important truths as the driving force of its plot: a way out of a malevolent psychic prison called The Dark Place for Alan and uncovering the nature of a deadly threat that has undermined her sense of self for Saga.
Their goals remain clear throughout Wake II though the world does everything it can to obfuscate the direction they need to take to accomplish these goals. The Dark Place literally pulls itself apart and glues itself into new shapes as Alan attempts to move from, say, the catwalk leading up the side of a building in an alleyway to a rooftop. For her part, Saga is forced to confront new faults in her own psychological foundations—every fundamental bit of who she is gets called into question: whether her child is alive or dead, whether she’s married or divorced, or if she grew up in one place or another.
Ed points out that the two protagonists search for clarity through the application of concrete, objective truth—Saga’s neatly labelled, and yarn-connected clues attempt to contain the enormity of her situation through bite-sized, manageable summaries; Wake’s “Writer’s Room” tries to do much the same by sorting the abstractions of his unreal existence into acts and scenes, plot points and a dramatis personae.
This attempt to manage the unmanageable culminates in the game’s ending, which sees the pair left with the evil influence of Mr. Scratch, a diabolic and chaotic doppelgänger, birthed Athena-like from Alan’s head, who will rot the stability of reality itself if left unchecked+. Because Scratch can only exist with Alan’s conscious mind intact, Alan eventually makes the decision to martyr himself—to ask for a bullet to be fired through his brain in order to end the dream and allow Saga and those around him to be freed of the terror that’s destroying their lives.
The ending of Alan Wake II calls to mind the conclusion of Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, another videogame that deals with the pursuit of meaning in a world where truth has become lost in a morass of uncertainty, as thick as the foggy woods from the game’s opening scene. At the end of Sons of Liberty, its protagonist Raiden, whose sense of self and external reality has been rocked off its foundations as fully as Saga and Alan, is instructed by his mentor Solid Snake that to move forward he must find something worth having faith in—worth caring about.
“There’s no such thing in the world as absolute reality,” Snake says. “Most of what they call real is actually fiction. What you think you see is only as real as your brain tells you it is.”
Alan Wake II comes to a similar point from a different angle. The confusion that permeates the game is created by Wake himself. It's generated by the writing and need to write that has led him into a labyrinth of self-obsession and self-hatred—both the natural endpoint of a life lived too much inside the mind and the focal point from which Scratch’s harm emanates. The world the characters live in is constructed by Alan. The game presents this as a magical device, but actual, individual reality is very much constructed in the same way—as much as we may try to change this through acts of consciousness reworking or obliteration, narcotic, religious, or otherwise. The solipsism that leads Alan to try to better that world he perceives—by endlessly revising; by searching for new truths that continually slip from his grasp—ends in a spiral that will only ever feed back into itself with increasingly dramatic and negative results++.
When he does free himself from this narcissistic nightmare, it’s through reaching beyond his own perception and embracing that of another: Saga. Following this, he smashes the contradictions of The Dark Place’s surreal logic with the act of total selflessness that is willingly dying to allow others to escape his influence. The only way out of the confusion that’s trapped the cast is through relation to another—a meaning drawn not from the impossibility of empirical truth but by cutting a hopelessly tangled Gordian knot in an act of ultimate empathy.
As a suggestion of something to care about, Alan Wake II echoes Sons of Liberty. It, too, believes that there is no way to escape the impossible, self-replicating maze of modern life and find a truth worth holding onto than extending beyond our own flawed perceptions to care about those who exist beyond their scope..
+ This is a simplification of a much more complicated plot, but hopefully it serves as decent shorthand.
++ Notably, not a loop.
Reid McCarter is a writer and a co-editor of Bullet Points Monthly. His work has appeared at The AV Club, GQ, Polygon, Kill Screen, Playboy, The Washington Post, Paste, and VICE. He is also co-editor of SHOOTER and Okay, Hero, co-hosts the Bullet Points podcast, and tweets @reidmccarter.