How Do You Know
Esther Rosenfield on Alan Wake II
It’s been thirteen years since the 2010 release of Alan Wake, a game whose cult status arose less from underseen greatness than from blatant weirdness. Alan Wake remains difficult to categorize, fusing elements of survival horror with adventure games and third-person shooters. Its story melds Stephen King-style horror tropes with David Lynch-inspired abstraction, following the eponymous protagonist, a bestselling author, who is vacationing with his wife in the Twin Peaks-like town of Bright Falls, Washington in hopes of curing his writer’s block. There, he encounters a phenomenon that causes his writing to manifest in reality, and a malevolent presence from a parallel world called the Dark Place kidnaps his wife. That same year, Red Dead Redemption and Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood struck the industry like lightning, creating the Expensive Open World Action Game template that would serve as the default for studio tentpoles going forward (Skyrim cemented things in 2011). Alan Wake and Red Dead Redemption were released the same day, but in comparison to that other game, Alan Wake’s jumble of narrative and mechanical genres came across to many players as clunky, a word which also describes how it felt to actually play it.
In Alan Wake II, this blending of styles and mechanics comes to full fruition; this is a game explicitly about narrative, adaptation, and the multifaceted nature of games as a medium. The game was produced by Remedy, a studio now blessed with not only the budget to fully realize their vision but also implicit permission to experiment from a gaming public weary of copy-paste open world games. The result features such breathless imagination and masterful technical execution that it could be a shock to the system for the entire industry.
The game opens with coffee-sipping FBI agents Saga Anderson and Alex Casey rolling into Bright Falls thirteen years after Wake’s disappearance. The body of fellow agent Nightingale, an antagonist from the first game, has suddenly appeared at the site of a cult ritual with its heart missing. Meanwhile, Wake is still trapped in the Dark Place, slowly losing his mind as he tries and fails to write his way out, terrified of the havoc that the Dark Presence is wreaking in the real world in the guise of a Wake doppelganger known as Mr. Scratch. If this setup sounds remarkably similar to Twin Peaks: The Return, that’s intentional. Alan Wake took plenty of cues from the eccentric world of the show’s first two seasons, and Alan Wake II does even less to hide how much it’s drawing from Lynch’s years-later follow up. Some of these concepts were present years before The Return, however, teased across other Remedy projects and various Alan Wake spinoffs. Great minds, it seems, really do think alike.
The game splits its runtime between Wake and Anderson, with players controlling each of them in alternating chapters. You can swap between them at will, telling most of the game’s story in whatever order you desire, but the game begins with Anderson as she investigates Nightingale’s murder. She quickly encounters spectral humanoids wreathed in darkness known as Taken, the familiar enemy from the first game who can be defeated in the same manner—burn away the darkness with a flashlight, then shoot them. Yet Alan Wake II has much less of a focus on combat than its predecessor, pivoting to new mechanics which are more difficult to classify.
In Saga’s case, this manifests in the form of her “Mind Place,” her visualization of the facts of the case. The player can walk around inside her brain and rifle through it. The key mechanic here is Saga’s Case Board, a corkboard full of pushpins and red string on which players must place cards representing the clues they’ve discovered. These clues can’t simply be added to the board as they’re discovered, however. You must place specific ideas in the correct physical location on the board by riddling out which of Saga’s questions they seem to answer. Some clues cannot be placed when they’re collected, because neither you nor Saga have enough context to understand their relevance. Once enough clues are placed, Saga can deduce new facts which can open up new questions, eventually leading to cases being closed. In many games with detective protagonists, the actual act of detectingis abstracted or relegated to narrative cutscenes; in Alan Wake II, investigation can be engaged with by the player in a mechanical sense.
Alan’s chapters give players a similar way to act upon the game’s world. In the first game, Alan’s ability to write things that come true is not dictated by the player. In II, this ability becomes a core mechanic. Alan has his own “Mind Place”, but instead of a Case Board he has a Plot Board. While exploring the Dark Place, he can encounter “scenes,” or locations that can be altered with his writing. On the Plot Board, Alan can swap different ideas into scenes, which physically change the space around him. A point of inspiration regarding the NYPD (the Dark Place resembles a dystopian New York City drawn from Alan’s memories) may manifest a cop car, whose flashing lights can be used to solve a puzzle. Adding a reference to a murder cult ritual may help unclog a blocked passage. As with Saga’s Case Board, the scene/theme pairs that allow Alan to progress are fixed, meaning there’s not much potential for creative problem solving. Still, it’s fun to experiment with different ideas and see the effects particular themes have on particular areas.
The game’s most immediately striking quality is its look. Video games have pursued photorealistic images for almost as long as they’ve existed, often to pointless effect. What looked strikingly real on one console generation looks obviously fake as soon as new technology arrives. In 2023, games have seemingly reached yet another technological apex. The average AAA release has never looked more photoreal, but that’s not synonymous with looking good, or even artistically worthwhile. The drive towards realism has become such a given that most games seem to have forgotten that this is in itself an aesthetic choice. Not so with Alan Wake II, one of few games for which realistic graphics seem to be a conscious artistic decision. The game introduces itself with a moody prologue in which the player controls a naked corpse-like man as he shambles out of an ink-black lake and into a sinister forest. This section features no on-screen HUD elements, like a health bar or minimap, and minimal pop-up directions to explain the controls, and its moonlit beach and shadowy forest are rendered with shocking clarity. It looks like a cutscene, but you’re actively playing it.
The game plays with that dichotomy, between photoreal graphics and live-action footage, throughout its runtime. A little later on, Saga uses a quasi-psychic ability called Profiling, in which she interrogates her mental projections of other characters to gain insights they might not openly reveal, on a true-crime writer couple named (cheekily) the Bookers. As she does this, sitting at a desk in her Mind Place, live-action footage of the Bookers is superimposed over her. The visual obfuscation and generally high-detail of the animation makes it hard to discern at first whether the live-action is actually animation. This is compounded by a later segment in which Saga enters an “Overlap,” a place where the lines between the real world and the Dark Place are blurred. As she walks through a thicket of trees and bushes, we see a totally different location shadily superimposed, fitting its geometry but not its imagery. The game briefly tricks your brain into thinking you’re in a different space entirely.
Alan Wake II takes this even further once you take control of Alan himself. His first chapter teleports him to the set of a talk show where everything is filmed in live-action. (Alan is played here by his motion-capture model Ilkka Villi, with his voice actor Matthew Porretta dubbing the dialogue, a touch which suggests uncanny Black Lodge-style backwards-speech.) The game’s Instantaneous cuts from gameplay to live-action (putting modern gaming hardware through its paces) help to blur the lines between them. When the talk show ends, the live-action suddenly snaps into animated gameplay again, though the talk show set is rendered with exacting verisimilitude. Remedy previously explored this idea in Control, which featured scattered televisions playing live-action footage for protagonist Jesse Faden and the player to watch. In that game, the clips helped to sell the setting as a real place with real people. Alan Wake II is doing just the opposite, deliberately confusing the player as to whether anything they’re seeing is real or not.
The illusion isn’t perfect, of course. You’re never truly tricked. But the success of the trick is less important than the awareness that it’s being played on you. The game’s narrative constantly challenges Saga to decipher which of the facts she uncovers are real and which have been written into reality by Alan’s story. The game comes to an ambiguous conclusion on this point, never really drawing a clear line between the two. Maybe, you’re left thinking, that was the wrong question to have spent the game asking.
The mixed-media work in Alan Wake II fascinates less for its innovation than for how it iterates on a history of games incorporating live-action footage. Long before gaming hardware could reasonably approximate photoreal imagery, developers frequently integrated live-action footage as a replacement. FMV (full-motion video) titles were a staple of PC gaming in the 1990s, games built entirely around (blurry, choppy, compressed) live-action footage. 1995’s Phantasmagoria (1995) and its sequel A Puzzle of Flesh (1996) interspersed live-action cutscenes with interactable point-and-click gameplay featuring lightly animated images of the same actors and environments, dissolving boundaries between the two. Even earlier, in 1992, the first Mortal Kombat game’s roster of martial arts competitors were played by actors on a soundstage, their moves captured by a Hi-8 camera. Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger (1994) made its approach even more explicit with the marketing slogan: “Don’t watch the game, play the movie!” Alan Wake II suggests a decades-old trend coming full circle.
What makes the game truly special is how its level design departs from realism entirely. The game’s environments are built around loops and spirals, impossible spaces with their own twisted logic. Saga and Alan are both frequently trapped in locations where hallways seem to bend in on themselves, sending them back to the start no matter how deep they progress. Occasionally they’ll speak up to say something like, “Guess I have to keep going forward,” as if to reassure the player that they aren’t doing something wrong. It’s a necessary concession; seeing the same environment you just encountered a minute ago is usually a signal that the player has strayed from the critical path. The design here recalls P.T., the erased-from-existence teaser for the never-made Silent Hills, which had the player traverse the same circular hallway again and again, solving creepy puzzles and avoiding the wrath of a vengeful ghost who was always just a few steps behind. Alan Wake II gives a clue to how to navigate these spaces in one of its end-of-chapter musical segments. Many of these feature an original song by the musician Poe, whose album Haunted was written in concert with her brother Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, itself a work concerned with looping impossible spaces. The game’s song is lyrically unsubtle: “And some say that it loops forever, this road/that I lose you on every time.”
The best games tend to brand their spaces on your brain; I could play most Hitman levels with my eyes closed. Alan Wake II does the opposite–its spaces are chaotic and transitory. It refuses to let you understand their geometry, to let you absorb their logic and navigate them by intuition. These spaces would seem hostile and upsetting even if they weren’t chock-full of shadowy enemies to shoot (the game’s combat loop, directly copied from its predecessor, seems a superfluous concession to the market given the new focus on exploration and puzzle-solving). You’re never quite sure if you’ve been somewhere before, forcing you to key in on the smallest environmental details to see if anything has changed.
At the ends of each of their chapters, Alan and Saga speak to each other across dimensions, but the connection is fuzzy. We can only ever fully make out the words of the character whose chapter we’ve just played, and we must play from the other’s perspective to comprehend what they were saying. This serves as a fitting metaphor for Alan Wake II. It is a game that can only really be understood as a whole work; in the moment, it throws so much information at you that you can only make sense of it later. It left me with questions unanswered, quests incomplete. When I finished the game, I still had clues for Saga’s Case Board, impossible to place because I hadn’t found all the necessary information to contextualize them. Alan Wake II lives inside you long after the credits have rolled, letting its mysteries and contradictions float aimlessly through your head. Some say that it loops forever.
A review code for Alan Wake II was provided by Epic Games and Remedy Entertainment for this review.