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The Alan Wake Story - How Post-Modernism Can Work In Game Storytelling
Some video game players insist that narrative elements are either unnecessary or unbecoming of an interactive medium where controller input and near-unlimited player expression are two of its greatest advantages. However, we still see the majority of games embroil themselves in some type of storytelling experience, with unplayable cutscenes and dialogue that players need to sit through. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, by complimenting gameplay with a solid story developers can create a unique and engaging experience. The Alan Wake story is one such example and it is this article's task to provide analysis and discussion on the themes the narrative is trying to put forward to players of the game.
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Alan Wake - Story Self-Awareness
Firstly, as the title suggests, we concentrate on the notion of post-modernism and in particular the use of self-awareness in the Alan Wake story. Plenty of films, books and even some games have leaned towards the styling of the post modernist era. American Psycho and its camp parody of high society American life or the gruelling angst of Dostoyevsky’s underground man in Notes From Underground are two prevalent examples. Even in the gaming sphere, the use of post-modern techniques has been observed, in games such as Metal Gear Solid 2 or Deadly Premonition. The Alan Wake story carries the baton into a relatively under-appreciated gaming genre, that of both horror and thriller.
As mentioned above, there are examples of games, books, films and other mediums providing the meta-literary themes of Alan Wake. While books like Notes from Underground or The Crying of Lot 49 provide two different types of both meta-critique and post-modern writing, the most important frame of reference for this kind of work in video games certainly comes from Metal Gear Solid 2 and its elongated climax in particular. Not only does Kojima excrete a difficult-to-comprehend amount of information to the player, but he also presents it in a meta-game sense, by directly addressing the person holding the controller. This is reinforced further through the use of Raiden as a cipher for the player himself during the events of the game.
With mentions of Stephen King, scenes taken straight out of The Shining and some consistently hammy dialogue, the deliberate catalogue of different horror cliches adds a layer of sub-text to each of the dramatised scenes within the game. It should also be mentioned that the television depicting a real-life actor as Alan talking about events happening at the time to virtual Alan, is another example of self-awareness present in the game. To emphasise this even more, the idea of Alan watching himself write a book about what he himself is about to do sounds ludicrous, in an astronomically comedic fashion. With that said, there are other areas where the Alan Wake story takes on a post-modernist form.
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Inception & Multi-Layered Planes of Existence
This aforementioned self-awareness perhaps applies most to the way in which the game handles its narrative misdirection & presentation. While Hideo Kojima likes to break the fourth wall to the amusement of many, Alan Wake instead breaks its own in-game walls, creating a new facet or layer for the player to think about. In a similar way to Inception and the dream-within-a-dream device, Alan Wake tests players with a variety of visual and audio cues that hint at multiple states of consciousness or planes of existence for the characters of the story. Players can never truly be certain whether Alan is in his own dream, that of the dark presence or in the real world.
To further confound, players are introduced to the possibility that Alan is a deranged lunatic, currently in a mental hospital, living out a delusion after his wife Alice died on Cauldron Lake. The two downloadable content add-ons for the game, named The Writer & The Signal respectively, further confuse and obfuscate the player as they reinforce two separate theories, that Alan is dreaming & that he is still trapped in the world of the dark presence. The final line of the main game, spoken by Alice, is even more pertinent when these special episodes are taken into account. When she says “Alan, wake up...", it could mean a whole host of things regarding his book, Bright Falls and everything in-between.