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Wake-ing Up; Creating Deeper Player Experiences in Alan Wake 2

Wake-ing Up; Creating Deeper Player Experiences in Alan Wake 2

Taking a deep dive into Alan Wake 2’s narrative mechanics
art by Remedy Entertainment

Welcome to Realms, a sci-fi and fantasy newsletter and podcast. I’m Zach Roush, the writer of this publication. You can sign up to get posts like this one, as well as short stories and short reviews right in your inbox:

Okay, Realm Walkers, here’s a special review I’m calling a Deep Dive. Appropriately, I’ll be analyzing the video game Alan Wake 2, a game with a story that’s all about diving into stories and darkness. If you’re not a gamer, that’s all right. You might learn something new about games. If what you read draws your interest, here’s a no-commentary playthrough of the game. It’s a fantastic game that will feel like watching a film. 

If you’re not familiar, Alan Wake 2 and its predecessor are survival horror games that resemble Steven King novels brought to the video game medium. There’s a haunted writer. An inimitable force of darkness. Crooked cops. Mysterious allies. And, of course, murder. Unlike any other games I’ve played, though, Alan Wake weaves in multimedia formats.

There are live-action commercials and visual overlays, type-written scripts, and more woven into the game. It’s fascinating and adds complexity to what you see and experience. This multimedia element is something the developer, Remedy Entertainment, has used in its games to challenge the divide between video games and film. It’s a visual treat and works to draw in the player in new ways. 

Now, the Deep Dive…

How the Mind Place and Writer’s Room Create Deeper Player Experiences in Alan Wake 2

The world of Alan Wake has always concerned itself with the relationship between shadow and light, both in literal and metaphorical terms. What greater source of shadow and light is there than the human mind? And, though every human being must deal with the layers of their consciousness, there might be no better mentalists than writers and detectives. These two occupations are very concerned with light, darkness, and their borders.

In Alan Wake 2, our main characters are Alan Wake, a writer, and Saga Anderson, an FBI detective. These characters must take deep dives into themselves to peel apart the many layers of things going on around them; sussing out the motivations of their peers and enemies, discovering truths hidden and forgotten, and striving to keep ahold of the light even when powerful forces threaten to steal it. 

In Alan Wake 2, Alan and Saga have their own tools for bending the world and shadows to their will: the Writer’s Room and The Mind Place, respectively. These are perfect tools for players to take control of these characters and their supernatural abilities to rewrite and un-puzzle reality.

In Alan Wake 2, Alan and Saga have their tools for bending the world and shadows to their will: the Writer’s Room and The Mind Place, respectively. These are perfect tools for players to take control of these characters and their supernatural abilities to rewrite and un-puzzle reality.

The Writer’s Room and the Mind Place put the player directly inside the mind of the characters. You can walk around in these two places, interact with the objects and materials there, and find inspiration that affects the game outside their confines. This creates one of the most satisfying and interesting gameplay-narrative interactions in my personal gaming history, and I’d argue Remedy Entertainment’s history as well. 

What’s so brilliant about these tools is that they function within a believable scope of the game’s universe. As mentioned above, we are explicitly concerned with the the conflict between light and dark. Using the minds of our two heroes as a deeper layer to understand the game is but one method for dispelling the darkness. It’s these tools that make Alan Wake 2 a fantastic, meaningful experience for players.

Below, I discuss why this is true and also offer ideas on how these tools might be incorporated more deeply into the game narrative. 

Creating Emotional Connections via Meta-Narrative and the Mind Place

The First Alan Wake was fun and inventive but stifled. Boiling it down, gameplay amounted to shooting droves of enemies to get to a safe place, listen to the dialogue, and maybe get a cutscene. There was little for the player to do to get closer to Wake and understand his journey besides paying close attention to dialogue and poring over in-game documents.

Alan Wake 2, in comparison, is nothing short of a quantum leap. For one, game levels are large and semi-open. Players have to explore them in a certain order, but they’re large enough that it feels like you’re discovering the path. Expanding playable areas alone would not be enough to create a meaningful game experience, however. It is only through the aforementioned Writer’s Room and Mind Place that players can engage in a meaningful relationship with the story.

Let’s discuss Saga’s Mind Place.

Not only is the Mind Place a thematically interesting gameplay mechanic but it’s also designed to invite players to engage more deeply with the narrative.

As Saga, an FBI detective, one of your objectives is to put together clues and solve several mysteries. You do this by placing pictures of scenes and Saga’s notes on the Case Board in a particular order to unlock deeper story insights. While filling out the Case Board, you get to hear Saga’s thoughts and commentary, hence the meta-narrative.

This is not common in narrative games in general. Many games don’t bother with these things, as most players want to get back to playing the game, i.e. shooting and looting. You might have characters that make comments to themselves or have personal notes on quests, but these minor details alone do not reveal an entire character. This is one of the confining elements when developing narratives for video games: it’s a visual medium. To truly explore a character deeply, you need large volumes of dialogue and text. 

Alan Wake 2 gives us both, but in digestible doses. Items on the Case Board, and other lore items, are easy to read. Take the Witcher 3, as a counter-example. It’s full of lore and dialogue, which suits conventions in the Fantasy RPG genre, but there’s a daunting amount of each. The dialogue can be verbose. The lore documents and journal entries are very long, and the text cannot be scaled to legible sizes on console. The Mind Place offers that sweet spot of narrative intrigue and digestibility.

As you unravel the mysteries in Saga’s mind, you begin to think how she thinks. You learn where clues should go and how they fit together in the scheme of things. You begin to look for more opportunities to fill in the gaps, uncovering clues just so you can see deeper into the narrative. In the latter half of the game, players discover that Saga’s story is more deeply intertwined with the game world than previously thought possible. This element raises the stakes of the game, making the Mind Place even more crucial to both Saga’s and the player’s success.

The stakes increase because the Mind Place has created an emotional connection between the story and the player. Not just by putting elements on the Case Board, but also by showing what and whom Saga cares about. Thus, we have something much more substantial than your typical linear narrative. We have one that teaches what Sagar care’s about and why we, as the player, should care about those things too. 

How the Writer's Room and Mind Place Provide Character-Player Agency

Most players just want to stay in the action. Alan Wake 1 keeps you there relentlessly. Alan Wake 2 does not. It emphasizes narrative complexity and rewards players for spending more time in the Writer's Room and Mind Place. How does Remedy do that without sacrificing player interest? 

It makes players do all the work and rewards them for doing so. In both the Writer’s Room and Mind Place, it is players who must put the pieces together. I’ve explained this already for the Mind Place: You take clues and put them in the right order to unlock more story and action. 

In the Writer’s Room, however, this works a bit differently. Alan Wake, as a writer, uses a Plot Board to uncover his own story. At times, when playing as Alan, the player will hit a dead end, sometimes literally. There will be physical obstacles in their way. Alan can remove these obstacles, but only if the player can discover new “plot elements” and apply them in the Writer’s Room. These change the navigable map in real time. After spending some time in the same map area, there will be multiple plot elements the player can place on the Plot Board. These affect the world in different ways, allowing the player to advance and unlock additional areas. 

With multiple plot elements available, it’s not always easy to find the way forward. This is the nature of Alan’s story. Both Alan and the player have to discover the correct series of events to advance. Besides moving the story forward, Remedy rewards players who explore every possibility with items, lore, and upgrades.

It seems so simple! To get the player more involved with the story, turn the story-making into a mechanic. To get the player to enjoy this mechanic, provide visually striking design and also in-game rewards. It’s these two details that transform this mechanic from chore to delight. Sure, the fancy Plot Board could just unlock a door, or it could change the entire level before the player’s eyes. The player could simply advance the story, or they might discover a ten-minute in-game film. Players are thus encouraged to play the game as much as possible to see all possible variations of the story that Alan Wake can conjure.

In this way, Alan Wake’s superpower is also the player’s. They are aligned in their actions and rewarded for their persistence.

It seems so simple! To get the player more involved with the story, turn the story-making into a mechanic. To get the player to enjoy this mechanic, provide visually striking design and also in-game rewards.

Player Choice in Alan Wake 2: The Double-Edged Sword

While the Mind Place and Writer's Room are fantastic gameplay elements, they have their weaknesses. For one, Saga’s Mind Place has more layers and offers more interaction than Alan’s Writer's Room. Secondly, there’s very powerful narrative dissonance when interacting in these places, due to the constraints of the linear narrative. Both issues can be fixed with simple solutions that will deepen the narrative and offer more choice to players. 

Saga’s Mind Place has multiple interactive areas where players can interact with her as a character. There’s the Case Board, a desk where she can “see” into other characters’ minds through her insights, another desk where she can read fragments of manuscripts, a TV for in-game live-action ads, a radio for lore and news, and many mementos from her life that let players learn more about her.

Alan, in comparison, only has the Plot Board, a TV, and a desk with a typewriter that’s non-interactive. There’s simply more to do in Saga’s Mind Place than in Alan’s equivalent space. This does have narrative precedent, as the Writer’s Room, unlike the Mind Place, exists in another dimension entirely. Furthermore, Alan has amnesia and doesn’t remember his life in the real world. 

The imbalance between these two places is too strong, though. Primarily because the player can get to know Saga so much more deeply than they can Alan. It would be easy to argue that there’s no need for better balance, as Alan is the primary character in the first game. I disagree.

The first game doesn’t provide much in terms of character depth for Alan. His motivations for stopping the darkness and saving his wife are surface level - he’s doing these things because the darkness is bad and he loves his wife. That’s it. Alan Wake 2 should delve deeper into Alan for better narrative balance, and also to provide a narrative as emotionally potent as Saga’s. 

Speaking of Saga, while everything I said about player and character agency in the Mind Place is true, it’s also a point of weakness.

When trying to put clues together, players will not always get it right the first time. Saga responds to these attempts with dialogue like “that doesn’t feel right.” This can occur for every clue that’s found. Not only can this get annoying, but it can also encourage a “try it till it’s right” approach. You can simply place clues in every available spot until it works and the game allows you to advance. 

Once you finish the game, you’ll find that there are only a few mysteries on the Case Board that are necessary to progress. Essentially, in many cases, this crucial game mechanic is optional. Also, once the player advances beyond certain plot points, the clues will automatically sort themselves onto the Board. Remedy probably made this optional so players weren’t forced into something that could feel like a chore, yet this decision devalues the player’s work of putting the case together.

Remedy made this optional so players weren’t forced into something that could feel like a chore, yet this decision devalues the player’s work of putting the case together.

On balance, my issue is not with the linear narrative. I love it. But the execution of these mechanics puts players at risk of falling out of the narrative and treating it like something to grind through. 

I propose these fixes. One is to reduce Saga’s commentary when clues are not in the right place. Two, I would like it to be possible for those clues to go in different places, even when it’s wrong. Later on, when the player has more information, they can be prompted to re-organize the clues. Thirdly, and this one is more resource-intensive, would be to incentivize player interaction with the Mind Place further by giving more dialogue options with characters when clues are tied together.

Personally speaking, completing the Case Board should be mandatory for completing the story. It’s an amazing mechanic that Remedy should double-down on.

For Alan’s Writer’s Room, there needs to be more interactive elements that reveal his inner state.

Here, I see a larger opportunity to explore the game’s themes through Alan himself. We know from the first game that Alan had a creative block and became depressed as a result. He turned to drinking and became angry, thus making his marriage suffer.

What if his lore documents explored his feelings of helplessness as well as his need for control over his world? What if we explored his past beyond the first game? Where did he get the desire to write detective novels?

A simple fix would be a desk in the Writer’s Room where players can sift through incomplete manuscripts or journal entries found when playing as Alan. These pieces of lore could detail Alan’s emotions toward getting back to the real world, and even flesh out his motivations for saving his wife. This is the least that can be done. I’d also suggest mementos and more like what players can find in Saga’s Mind Place. These items wouldn’t conflict with Alan’s amnesia at all (which is narrative-necessary) and would be a boon for players. 

What if, for example, there was an empty bottle of Alan’s favorite whiskey? On it, an inscription: For getting those creative juices flowing again, Barry Wheeler. Alan would react to this with dialogue, saying, “A drink doesn’t sound so bad…” Here’s another idea: an old film camera, its bottom engraved with, For Alice, don’t you stop going down the rabbit hole. 

Through this analysis, you, like me, might see that there are other narrative weak points.

Perhaps the reason Alan’s Writer’s Room does not have the elements I mentioned is because he is not truly evil on the inside, or, in other words, the writers do not present him to be. The darkness that Alan (and Saga) faces is an external force, not a personal one. Another thing: Alan wears his flaws on his sleeve. He’s flighty and intense. His ego is huge. But how come, through his journey, he never deals with these things?

Where you might see in a Stephen King novel that the forces of darkness enhance a character’s inner, personal demons, in Alan Wake 2, the darkness doesn’t touch the soul. It doesn’t make anyone evil, truly. Just takes over their mind and soul and makes them into monsters that must be vanquished, rather than people-monsters that must be redeemed. 

DLC is coming out for Alan Wake 2. Perhaps, as the story expands, we will see darkness explored in more personal ways that relate to our heroes. Maybe the narrative will gain a deeper resonance. I certainly hope so.

Alan Wake 2 is a Fantastic Narrative Experience and Everyone Should Play!

Alan Wake 2 is an incredible game. It intertwines gameplay and narrative in fascinating and satisfying ways. Critiques aside, Alan Wake 2 offers a visceral experience that serious narrative-holics will find particularly enjoyable.

It draws you into the story and doesn’t let you go until the credits roll. The gameplay is fun. The characters, on the whole, feel original and fleshed out. Even with themes as lofty as “defeating true darkness”, Alan Wake 2 succeeds in delivering a grounded, emotional experience due to Remedy’s smart and effective gameplay tools.

This is a game I’m going to play over and over until I find every last shred of story. 

Thank you for reading and listening to this Realms Deep Dive. This is a special article taking a closer look at something I’m really passionate about.

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