The Audacity of Alan Wake II

Previously on Alan Wake…

In 2010, bestselling author Alan Wake took his wife Alice on vacation to Washington State. There—after enduring years of writer’s block—he was finally motivated to embark on a manuscript for a new novel, Departure. But when the events described in that work-in-progress started coming true in real life, Alan realized he needed to hurry up and write an ending. Extenuating circumstances forced Alan to jump into a lake, which was actually a hellmouth to another dimension, which is where Alan’s fractured psyche is still trapped. So concludes the cult-classic videogame Alan Wake.

Thirteen years have passed since the writer’s untimely disappearance, but this isn’t to say Alan hasn’t kept himself busy. After the events of two DLC episodes, Alan—ever resolved to escape the confines of the “Dark Place” and resume a life in New York City—begins work on yet another infernally-inspired manuscript, this one fittingly entitled Return. Alan is also confronted by his nemesis, an evil doppelgänger who is able to cross dimensions, known only as Mr. Scratch.

And Remedy Entertainment hasn’t been asleep at the wheel, either. In 2016, the studio released Quantum Break, then Control in 2019. Both games strongly suggest that Alan and his manuscript have continued to influence the multiverse in supernatural ways. And “AWE,” a Control expansion released in 2020, makes explicit that Mister Scratch has crossed paths with Alan’s wife. (How’s Alice? How’s Alice?)

Recently, Paste Magazine was invited to preview Remedy’s latest title, Alan Wake II. Slated for launch next month, Alan Wake II is the studio’s most ambitious entry yet, promising over 20 hours of survival-horror adventuring. Here’s what we experienced.

Introducing Saga Anderson

In Paste’s hands-on time with the game, we were first introduced to a new protagonist, Saga Anderson (portrayed by the excellent Melanie Liburd). Saga is an FBI agent who, along with her partner Alex Casey, is investigating a slew of grisly murders in Bright Falls. You read that right: Anderson’s partner shares the full name, as well as the full likeness, of “Alex Casey,” the hero of Alan Wake’s best selling detective fiction series. Yep, the weirdness is already underway.

For this chapter (“Local Girl”), Anderson’s investigation has brought her to the Finnish-American village of Watery, which neighbors Bright Falls, Washington. Anderson is shocked when everyone in town seems to already know her; in fact, she’s a resident herself, they tell her.

We shudder to admit we allocated Paste’s time somewhat poorly during this particular mission—partly because marinating in the fully-realized town of Watery is such a pleasure, and partly because of our own reluctance to go out wandering into the forested wilderness, where members of the local murder-cult like to hang out. (From where we were sitting, we could hear another journalist shrieking regularly and, as a shrieker ourselves, we were alarmed.)

“What was that?” Saga asks, scanning the woods around her. “FBI! Show yourself!” A hatchet whizzes into her leg. The player’s instinct to flee is rewarded, but soon enough two more of the Taken are blocking Saga’s path, skidding and scuttling around in a humanly-impossible way. Welp, it looks like we’re doing this. After a few minutes grappling with these two interlopers—and, more important, shining a flashlight directly into their eyes—Saga is still alive but now looking much worse for wear. She limps forward, shoulders stooped, both arms close to her chest. Fortunately, a small shack is just ahead: One slurp of coffee, and Saga is on her way. (The iconic blue coffee thermoses are now save points.)

A quick visit to Saga Anderson’s “Mind Place” (this is not a typo, for it is not a mind “palace” but, rather, the exact mental representation of a cozy wood-paneled office), and we are able to riffle through Saga’s current case files. Next, Saga takes a look at her “Case Board,” a wall where the facts so far can be reordered—lined up and pinned down, strung together with red thread—enabling Saga Anderson to make some much-needed critical deductions.

Collectible “Clues” are sprinkled around each important destination; adding these clues to the Case Board in the right spots will update Saga’s list of mission goals. Superficially this may seem like a fluffy, almost extraneous puzzle mechanic, but it’s one that we deeply appreciated: The protagonist, as a fully-fleshed character, always has an explicit stated goal motivating her onscreen actions at any given moment. In the original Alan Wake, immersion could be fragile, just because the text and narration did not always support—or sometimes even felt wholly disconnected from—the action occurring onscreen. (This phenomenon is what we in the biz call “ludonarrative dissonance.”)

“Yeah,” writer and creative director Sam Lake agrees. With the first Alan Wake game, “the action-adventure nature of it was very focused on… on the action! And the story existed on its side, and gave it context, but you were not really, really engaged with the story, on the level of mechanics.

“And that was a big part of the ambition, now, coming back to it years later—that ‘how can we find methods of marrying the gameplay more closely with the story.’”

During our time with Saga, we solved other, more straightforward puzzles as well: A locked box seemed challenging at first glance, but the answer was evident in our immediate surroundings. (Thanks to our powers of observation, we won a round of ammunition.)

The Return of Alan Wake

Later in our hands-on, we are piloting Alan Wake himself through a film noir approximation of New York City. The streetlamps burn an eerie gaseous green, while bits of city waver and ripple ominously. This is Alan’s “Dark Place,” a nightmare that is constantly shifting, spatially reconfiguring itself on the fly.

Presently, Alan will realize he can enact certain environmental shifts of his own: In his satchel is the “Angel Lamp,” a supernatural, rechargeable torch that is used for light adventure-game puzzle-solving. A specific audio/visual cue—the metallic tink-tink rhythm of a flickering bulb overhead—clearly signals where Wake can stop to recharge the lamp. With it, Alan can perform a sort of light transfusion, transferring illumination between bulbs.

Other locations and scenes can also be altered—in effect, rewritten—using a new puzzle mechanic called “Plot Elements.” Like Saga Anderson’s “Case Board” and its clues, plot elements are also collectible items, to be used on Alan’s “Plot Board.” (Alan Wake’s writing process is no longer just a narrative motif, but a play mechanic unto itself: “Now you are actually, you know, actively creating the story with Alan Wake,” Sam Lake tells Paste.)

Alan’s dreamscape is populated by hazy, shadowy apparitions—ghosts of Alan’s own fictional characters. As Alan attempts to jog past, many of these furious specters become semi-corporeal and lunge at him (everyone’s a critic, apparently!). The player’s view is close behind Alan’s shoulder as he tries to dodge the specters; there is a sense of real, bodily mass and heft. One apparition successfully tackles Alan to the ground, and their bodies collide with a nasty, meaty thud.

The word “visceral” is overused, but it’s the correct word to use here. The trundle of Alan’s footsteps has realistic weight; the soles of his shoes audibly scrape across the pavement. As we throw open a door, Alan’s own breath judders and hitches (this is honestly some of voice actor Matthew Poretta’s best work, if possibly the most thankless).

Alan has been trapped in this Writer Hell for the past 13 years. Alan Wake’s physical actor, Ilkka Villi, has obviously aged in that time—which, onscreen, looks magnificent. Under harsh fluorescent lighting, Wake’s hair is almost ashen. His jaw is fuller than it was in his 30s. Light and shadow play across our hero’s face, illuminating a crease along his orbital bone. This is middle age with “full ray-tracing.” (To achieve the same stunning effect on your computer at home, the developers recommend a GeForce RTX 40 series GPU.)

Prior to previewing Alan Wake II, we were concerned that, in order to be a “pure” survival-horror experience, elements of combat, stealth, resource management, might potentially come at the expense of story. “Yep,” Sam Lake says in validation. Then he visibly beams: “No, it’s the opposite!”

Indeed, there’s plenty of flavor here for even the most conflict-averse player to chew on. And when there is unavoidable combat, it feels well-timed—earned, even—not a chore, but a little treat.

If we have any remaining concerns, it’s just that the game’s prose is still given, at times, to overexplanation. That’s probably a videogame thing, though; players tend to dislike ambiguity.

The Audacity

Alan Wake II never hedges its bets. In what has become a much-hyped moment of theatricality, Alex Casey—that’s Alan Wake’s literary alter ego, voiced by James McCaffrey and physically portrayed by creative director Sam Lake himself—confronts Alan in a dark alley, to Alan’s utter horror. It’s delightful. It’s campy.

It’s also just one of many moments that are, for want of a better term, batshit insane.

“The thing about a game like this that is the most exciting,” says actor and videogame fan Janina Gavankar, “is that this studio… this studio does not fuck around, okay?” She goes on to describe “the audacity level” of, for example, Remedy’s Quantum Break.

This feels significant. Embracing “batshit,” it would seem, is the way forward: Even if an idea happens to fail creatively, at least it’s fun for everybody. Having the Audacity is also increasingly necessary, if a studio is to differentiate its own work from the glut of games available. With their latest title it seems as if Remedy really trusts the player, as well as themselves. It’s an admirable sure-footedness, a hard-won sort of courage.

It’s also abundantly clear that Remedy has spent the past decade ruminating on critical feedback, ultimately settling on “go hard or go home” as a guiding philosophy. Will the risks pay off? Players have waited 13 years to reunite with Alan—or at least 11, counting up from the spinoff American Nightmare—and, put plain, gamers aren’t known for their generosity. The stakes are high.

If what Paste saw is representative of the full game, Alan Wake II will come to fans as a pleasant surprise—where “surprise” means being blindsided by a wrecking ball. Welcome back, Alan.

Alan Wake II is set for digital release October 27, 2023 for PC, PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X|S.

Jenn Frank has emerged from a seven-year retirement to write this preview. Yes, she is aware of the narrative parallelism.


JForiginally published at Paste Magazine


Jenn Frank

I started writing about videogames professionally in late 2005. I like vintage computer games and preservation, books, and horror games.