At a glance, Alan Wake II might seem like the kind of story you’ve seen a few dozen times already. A corpse has been discovered in Washington State. A couple of FBI agents — one gruff and hard-boiled, the other a talented young prodigy who sorts out evidence in her “mind palace” — have been dispatched to figure out who tied him to a picnic table and surgically removed his heart. Within hours of arriving, our heroes have encountered bumbling lawmen, quirky locals, and hints about a strange cult that lurks in the surrounding forest.
All of this is weird but in a familiar way — the kind of “weird” that has been increasingly normalized by a steady stream of artsy prestige TV crime dramas, beginning with Twin Peaks and continuing in shows like True Detective and Hannibal. If Alan Wake II stayed on this track, it would be a pretty good cover version of a song you already like.
As longtime fans of Finnish game developer Remedy could have guessed from the start, Alan Wake II does not stay on this track. The first hint that something is wrong comes early, when the player-controlled character, Saga Anderson, discovers a page from a manuscript describing the events they’re experiencing. This is where Alan Wake comes in. Players of the original Alan Wake, from 2010, will remember Alan, a writer who found himself at the center of one of his own horror novels with no obvious way to write himself out. Saga might not realize it, but she’s trapped in one of his books too. The things that might seem obvious or hackneyed about Alan Wake II’s premise are purposefully obvious and hackneyed. They are, after all, being influenced by the feverish typing of a hack genre writer. “This is not the story I hoped it would be,” narrates Alan in the opening monologue. “This is not the ending I wanted. This story will eat us alive.”
It’s not entirely accurate to conflate Alan Wake with the game’s creative director, Sam Lake, but it’s hard not to do it anyway. The first Alan Wake was a game about a writer who got so lost in his own story that he couldn’t write himself out of it. Lake, for his part, has spent the past 13 years trying to get Alan Wake II off the ground. Even what that failed — and it repeatedly did — references to Alan Wake turned up repeatedly in the studio’s other games, Easter eggs that only reinforced the purgatorial place he’d been left at the end of the first game. “I wouldn’t say there’s been a very deep, overarching plan. But I’ve had these specific ideas,” Lake tells me.
Lake came to video games more or less by accident. An English major whose first job in the video game industry was writing text for the not especially plot-driven vehicular combat game Death Rally, his true debut in video-game storytelling was writing the script for the hit 2001 third-person shooter Max Payne. It was hard to miss him; owing in part to the relatively small budget, Lake himself served as the physical model for Max Payne, and his smirky squint became its own enduring meme.