Who wrote Don Quixote? Well, according to the book’s narrator, the first part of the history originates from the archives of La Mancha, while the remainder is discovered in an Arabic manuscript penned by one Cide Hamete Benengeli. But then Benengeli is never present in the tales of Don Quixote’s exploits, so he can’t have witnessed them first hand. And who among those that were present could have told him the facts in full?
This whole construct in Cervantes’ classic novel is of course not meant to add up. It’s part of a wide-ranging parody, mocking chivalric fiction and the plot device of the found manuscript. Yet even when we recognise that, we might still entangle ourselves in its impossible logic. The irony then is that, in such moments, we treat the story of a man who’s lost his mind by accepting fictitious writings as reality as if it were, well, reality. As we fall into the web of the metafiction, we come to resemble Don Quixote more than we may care to admit.
The power of metafiction spreads beyond mere trickery, though. As Milan Kundera explains in The Art of the Novel, the pioneering form of Don Quixote (and by extension the Modern European novel) was a call “to take […] the world as ambiguity, to be obliged not to face a single absolute truth but a welter of contradictory truths, to have as one’s only certainty the wisdom of uncertainty.” Indeed, metafiction, not only in the novel but in other media too, de-centres everything, including our instinct to organise what we learn into tidy narratives.
Some five hundred years after Don Quixote, we might then similarly catch ourselves attempting to assemble a jigsaw puzzle from the narrative pieces in Alan Wake II. We look to arrange the game’s story in our minds as if we’re Saga Anderson staring at her case wall, or Alan pushing ideas around his plot board, planning out a crime thriller. We witness the results pour through their fingers, as if they were trying to pull truth from a Rorschach test, while hoping to do the same. Metafiction strikes again.
The ruse is clear, but we fall into its trap, because narratives are central to our thinking, worldviews, ideologies. They are the means by which we parse the world and align its disparate strands. Alan Wake II’s dual protagonists share this instinct. Saga needs a complete story to solve the case, with Alan—the storyteller—the missing piece. Alan wants to escape a reality in which stories are everything, but can only do it by writing more. We escape into the fictional story, to break temporarily from the stories surrounding our lives.
Personally, I find myself attempting to make sense of the game’s mechanics over its dialogue, text, and characters. That’s because, in a way, the ‘game’ is the most enigmatic component of the videogame that is Alan Wake II; the missing internal reference in a self-aware multimedia extravaganza of novels, music, film, TV, photography, poetry, dance. Every medium that enters its orbit is dissected and reflected back at itself, right down to the anticipation of an internet culture that devours theory videos and threads. Yet the ‘game’ in Alan Wake II often plays things strangely straight.
As a critic, the simplest narrative to adopt here is that Alan Wake II’s game design is less accomplished than its narrative design, audiovisual design, and so on. Why else are there such meandering detours in some chapters, with arbitrary plot devices—a flooded bridge—sending you around the long way? In conventional terms, this is padding—these sequences introduce nothing new or essential—and it’s not explicitly parody either. It contrasts starkly against Resident Evil 4’s curated efficiency, but equally against its own script and imagery—the story may be over-stuffed, but it’s rarely wasteful.
If Alan Wake II seems artificially stretched for a game of its type, though, perhaps there is irony in the excess. Not least when you’re stuck in a looping section, it surely becomes a kind of trolling exercise, a means to obfuscate the story further, to delay gratification. In that sense, it’s similar to Denis Diderot’s novel Jacques the Fatalist, where stories are embedded within stories, disrupting the expected narrative flow until you almost forget where you started. Alan Wake II’s winding, shifting locations, which merge and fade in the mind over 20 hours, go hand in hand with its themes of unreliable memory.
But still, why are the game tropes not highlighted for what they are when the meta-ness in every other aspect of the fiction is so heavily flagged? This is a story full of didactic narration, explicit analogies of the writing process, clichéd crime thriller language, telegraphed twists such as the true nature of the Cult of the Tree, and so on. When so much of what is said is bolded and underlined, it’s a stretch to believe that Remedy deployed much more subtlety in the metafiction of what you have to do.
When I return upstairs in the police station after Nightingale awakes from death and murders two cops, then, the fact that their colleagues are still working quietly at their desks seems more like oversight than deliberate weirdness. In many other ways, meanwhile, Alan Wake II is simply very by-the-book as a survival horror game, even mimicking genre absurdities. Healing, ammo management, and item storage are implemented conventionally. Certain padlocks can only be opened with a specific screwdriver. Every location’s cupboards and drawers are littered with ammo, even those in a nursing home. The implication is that’s just how games work, and unlike other media there’s no need to think about it.
Again, though, I can’t help but formulate a rationale for these design decisions. The combat is almost exaggeratedly cumbersome, for instance—a frustrating challenge that mimics the difficult birthing of a story. But also, it’s fascinating to consider that the story’s existence as a game is the one frontier its characters can never traverse— the answer to their predicament that will always elude them. They know they may be taking part in an authored story, but the game itself is an invisible frame, like the edge of the universe, and they can’t grasp their actions as those of (controlled) game characters. “The story determined where I could go,” Alan says if you near the fringes of his map, narrativizing the game logic where it can’t be ignored.
Agency is also a key theme, and the question of whether you’re a participant in the story or its audience, as Saga mentions early on. It’s not rare for games to toy with the illusion of agency—see BioShock or Hotline Miami, for example—but it does fit neatly here, since interactivity places you in the story’s loop. As Saga, you are an FBI ‘agent’, but much of the game involves following paths, looking for items marked with button prompts to find a particular designated way forward. Your agency, the notion that you’re constructing the story rather than following it, is blurred by the ubiquity of these methods.
Yet even factoring in such possibilities, I can’t dispose of the sense that Remedy is far more comfortable playing with writing and film techniques than it is with game design. I wonder, for example, in what ways this marvellous production will influence future game makers, as it surely will. The most likely elements are its use of visual effects, live action compositing, and its experimental storytelling. But game design? I don’t see it, because Remedy hasn’t deconstructed those rules in such loving detail.
I wonder something else, too—whether experimentation and boundary pushing in the AAA space aren’t boxed into a specific genre niche of third-person action adventure games. Is it only the likes of Alan Wake II or The Last of Us that get industry ‘permission’ to take narrative leaps, and only on the condition that they remain orthodox genre games? As backward as it may sound, Alan Wake II suggests that the rules of game design are more calcified than those of other media.
The last thing I want to do here, however, is settle on an answer, because metafiction rails against concrete determinations to its core. In one scene of Don Quixote, Sancho Panza has his donkey stolen, yet somehow later on he’s riding it again. Is this a continuity error on the part of Cervantes, or a ‘deliberate mistake’ that adds richness to the metafiction? Does it matter? In my play through of Alan Wake II, I experienced a glitch for a few minutes which saw Alan freeze in his default position, floating around like a ghost instead of walking, shotgun and flashlight dangling loosely beside him. Within the strangeness of the Dark Place, this didn’t seem totally discordant, and even added to the experience.
Errors and oversights may thus feed into metafiction, fattening it further, beyond any individual’s control, and perhaps that’s where it truly comes to life. It reminds us that intent is perpendicular to understanding, that no voice is authoritative. As if to cement the point, Alan Wake II ends with a literal depiction of the death of the author. All we’re left with is the wisdom of uncertainty. But that’s a powerful wisdom to have.
Jon Bailes is a social theorist and freelance games critic, originally from the UK. He’s the author of Ideology and the Virtual City: Video Games, Power Fantasies and Neoliberalism (Zero, 2019), and writes for various publications including Edge, The Washington Post, GamesRadar, and PC Gamer. He can be reached on Twitter @jonbailes3.