Alan Wake: Gaming’s Greatest Stephen King Story

Remedy's macabre masterpiece, Alan Wake, is frighteningly close to a true Stephen King tale.

2010’s Alan Wake opens with these lines: “Stephen King once wrote that nightmares exist outside of logic and there’s little fun to be had in explanations. They’re antithetical to the poetry of fear.”

It’s rare to find a piece of entertainment that so openly boasts about its influences. Yes, we as consumers recognize when a title has been influenced by another work, but for creators, there is a value – whether tangible or perceived – to originality. After all, there’s always a worry that the work that you do will be considered a “rip off” of something else.

It’s not exactly bold to proclaim that Alan Wake is like a Stephen King book in game form, especially when Remedy Entertainment has been so open about the writer’s influence on project. Aside from the game’s opening line, the studio has spoken about King’s influence on the game since the beginning of its development. Remedy writer Sam Lake even name-dropped King way back in 2005 when Alan Wake was a very different project.

Despite the writer’s obvious influence on the game, the scope of the connection between King and Alan Wake remains somewhat out of focus. You see, Alan Wake isn’t just borrowing heavily from King’s horror fiction. It’s a game that so closely follows the structure and ambition of a King novel – for good and ill – that it arguably serves as the most authentic King story not written by the man himself.

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Burn While Reading

Some Stephen King stories have a tendency to start strong and wane a bit in quality as the flipped pages pile up. This can lead to Constant Readers performing self-edits when relating some of his stories to friends. It’s a kind of “burn while reading” approach.

The most common critique of the writer’s work is that he’s awful at writing endings. That’s occasionally true – The Dark Tower and Under the Dome are two notable examples of King finales that fell flat – but that’s not really a fair claim if you’re talking about King’s full body of work.

Instead, King’s approach to writing is best summarized by the quote that opens Alan Wake. He’s a writer who often elects to delay revealing the source of unimaginable events. This approach is part of the reason why supernatural King stories like It and The Shining are particularly effective. They keep readers in the dark for as long as possible because wading through the darkness is still the most common source of fears.

The problem is that King sometimes can’t help but try to craft a reveal as incredible as the mystery that preceded it. He once told John Carpenter that “the cliches in Hollywood are that you keep every monster in the dark. You never see the face of the Devil…don’t ever show it. However, if you can come up with something that’s so astonishing looking on-screen, you’ll hit a home run out of the ballpark. They’ll never forget it.” Carpenter states that this quote inspired him to feature the creature so heavily in his masterpiece, The Thing.

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That may sound like a contradiction to King’s other statement, but that’s only because it kind of is. Hey, he’s just a human, and humans sometimes express contradicting views. Unfortunately, that contradiction may be the source of questionable King endings, such as Pennywise’s spider “final form” in It or the God of the Lost being bested by a thrown Walkman in The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon.

It is important, though, to consider the context of both those King quotes. King told Carpenter that in regards to movie scares, and he wrote the “nightmares” line in an article for Entertainment Weekly regarding how film studios were now convinced that they needed to justify a big-budget horror movie by telling the audience everything.

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Perhaps what King is trying to say here is that horror is a very difficult medium to get right and it’s only made harder by a creator’s desire to create a compelling mystery with a perfect payoff.

That’s a lesson that Remedy learned the hard way during the years it took them to develop Alan Wake.

The Trouble with Terror

The abbreviated version of Alan Wake’s troubled development cycle (which you can read more about here) goes something like this:

Following the studio’s work on Max Payne 2, Remedy Entertainment decided to develop its most ambitious game yet: a horror epic. The developer essentially wanted to make an open-world Silent Hill that focused on an author with writer’s block whose stories begin to come to life and haunt him.

That sounds great, but Remedy soon discovered that such a project demanded several compromises. Namely, the studio couldn’t tell the cohesive cinematic story that had defined its past games while also affording players the ability to abandon that narrative at any time. It was like trying to scare a friend by hiding behind a door in a house they may or may not visit that day.

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Even though Remedy abandoned the open-world concept roughly six months into development in order to focus on the game’s narrative, the studio’s initial efforts haunted it throughout the making of Alan Wake. You actually don’t need to know that last piece of the story to understand that something went horribly wrong during Alan Wake’s development. That much is made clear when actually playing the game.

Remedy often found itself trying to fit a round plot into a square engine. This is the source of some of the game’s technical problems, such as its superfluous vehicle segments – leftover from the open-world model – and numerous bugs. It’s also the most likely culprit behind Alan Wake‘s repetitive light-based combat. 

True to the work of King himself, Alan Wake’s most persistent problem is the inconsistency of its narrative.

Alan Wake’s opening segments are certainly its strongest in terms of story. It’s the section of the game that doesn’t feel the need to tell the player everything. Instead, it presents a somewhat simple premise – a writer named Alan Wake travels to the small town of Bright Falls as a retreat but is interrupted by malevolent forces that seem to be tied to his writing. Soon enough, Wake is on a mission to rescue his kidnapped wife from evil.

The first act of Alan Wake‘s story adheres to King’s quote regarding the poetry of fear. It’s presented in that intentionally vague way that “exists outside of logic.” It successfully makes us fear the unknown through sparse dialogue sequences and the lingering sensation that all of this might be the result of our heroes’ fragile mental state. Ironically, that search for answers provides more incentive to explore than even the largest of open-world game settings. 

The serene sunset view that compliments Wake‘s opening also affords us a look at the plot’s most overt nods to King’s works. Fans will instantly recognize Wake himself as an amalgamation of several of King’s writer protagonists. There’s a bit of Ben Mears to be found in Wake’s belief that his writer’s block can be cured with a change of scenery. The same can be said of Secret Window‘s Mort Rainey, who suffered from a similar affliction. 

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It is the 1998 King novel Bag of Bones that serves as Alan Wake‘s most obvious structural influence, though. Both feature writers heading to vacation homes to combat writer’s block. Both rely on a lost love as a plot device (one dead, the other missing). Both even feature a finale involving a lake. 

There is an undeniable sense of flattery to these early imitations that have long lent Alan Wake the reputation of an adaptation. The game’s beginning certainly gets the most mileage out of the sensation that you’re experiencing a beloved story through a new medium that makes the familiar feel bold again.

Unfortunately, Alan Wake’s story falls apart when it tries to answer the many questions it proposes. The source of Wake’s nightmare is gradually revealed to be an entity called the “Dark Presence” that can use the fiction to influence the real world. The Dark Presence is later defeated with the help of a light switch that contains the pure force of Wake’s writing…

It’s an ending so childish and convoluted that you’d almost swear it was designed as an intentional reference to King’s worst finales. Something to slot alongside killer automobile Christine’s cameo in the game and The Shining reference Wake makes when an ax comes through the door he is hiding behind. Much like how King broke the fourth wall to warn readers that it would perhaps be best not to read the Dark Tower‘s finale, Remedy presents these finale moments as so overtly absurd that you begin to wonder if their winks are a tribute to King or insurance against the strong possibility that Alan Wake‘s conclusion may disappoint. 

That aspect of the game is not truly a reference, though. It’s the result of Remedy’s ambitious attempt to echo King’s own desire to have his Devil and show him, too.

The Devil in the Details

The one thing all great King stories have in common is their ability to keep the reader engaged. Whether you like King’s writing or not, it’s almost impossible to deny that the man’s biggest gift is his ability to tell a story in a way that ensures you must see it through to the end.

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Alan Wake is able to hook the player early on because Remedy knows how to tell a story even when the narrative itself isn’t all that great. Part of the studio’s success in that regard can be traced to the decision to present Alan Wake as a TV show via episodic interludes. It’s a strange style, but former CEO Matias Myllyrinne once stated that Remedy chose it because the studio was impressed with the way this delivery of media helped kick off the “DVD boxset boom” which later became binge-watching.

Every episode in Alan Wake ends with an accompanying song, a credit sequence, and is followed by a “Previously on…” montage. It’s somewhat disorienting if you’re experiencing it all at once, but the style mostly does a tremendous job of keeping the player engaged by doling out plot points in sizeable – and stylish – chunks.

The crown jewel in Remedy’s storytelling is Alan Wake’s atmosphere. We’ve seen small town settings beset by the supernatural before in the works of King and in shows like Twin Peaks – this game borrows heavily from the latter – but Alan Wake joins the ranks of those greats through its ability to turn that environment into something that is as entertaining as it is frightening.

On its own, Alan Wake’s small town is enjoyable enough to explore. Even its familiar elements – the diner, the reluctant sheriff, the simple townsfolk turned demonic – benefit from your desire to interact with them after years of watching these tropes on TV and reading them in books.

Yet, the little touches of detail Remedy has sprinkled throughout are what truly make the game’s atmosphere special. Radios around town relay the musings of a local DJ whose rhythmic readings and creepy call-ins hint a the evil occurring around the player, but are also just distant enough as to appear surreal. Televisions, meanwhile, play old episodes of the Twilight Zone-esque “Night Springs” series, a surprisingly deep show filled with tales of twisted morality.

All of these niceties are implemented in service of keeping you engaged so that you fall prey to the game’s ingenious scares. There are jump scares in Alan Wake – many of which are quite effective – but this is a game that aims to maintain a general sense of unease. The game’s creative scares ensure that you’ll never feel comfortable in the dark while its moderately functional combat system means that you’ll feel capable, but rarely confident.

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This is how Alan Wake constructs its devil. Much like how King made vampires a threat in Salem’s Lot by vividly painting a small town before gradually turning it into a living nightmare, Remedy builds a convincing and serene setting that is utterly decimated by an unimaginable force. By the time you realize what is going on, you realize that you’ll likely never truly be able to defeat the evil that plagues you. 

It’s hard to deny that the reveal of Alan Wake‘s macabre machinations hinder the legacy of its set-up, but this is not a game defined by its flaws. It’s an experience defined by what it accomplishes in spite of them.

Fatal Flaws

While an abbreviated description of King’s novels can help disguise some of their less appealing aspects, you can never truly separate them. It, for instance, contains both a graphic underage sex scene and an undeniably compelling coming of age story presented as a truly great horror tale.

Similarly, Alan Wake is always going to be “that game.” The game that was hyped for over five years and never quite lived up to the expectations that surrounded it. The game that’s recommendations come with the qualifier “If you can get through [insert worst section here], then…”

While it’s easy to wish that Alan Wake‘s clunky gameplay, unfinished open-world, and flat finale had been improved upon, the game’s scars do afford it a quality of character that wouldn’t exist if it were a “better” game. It’s the difference between a blockbuster by committee that is safe but predictable and a passion project that is rough but always intriguing. 

That quality binds Alan Wake and the stories of King tighter than their shared fondness for small towns, wayward writers, and objects come to life ever could. Both benefit from their creators’ desire to push the perceived limits of the genre by testing them at every opportunity with stories that are remarkably engaging throughout.

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Alan Wake is a true King story because only the King of Horror is capable of delivering such a blend of originality, familiarity, frustration, frights, and adventure in a package that leaves us with no doubt that we’ve experienced something special – even if we’d rather gloss over that “one part” while telling you about it.

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