Alan Wake 2 is a tonal masterpiece

(Plot spoilers for Alan Wake 2, which if it isn’t obvious from the article title, you should go play)

I don’t think there’s any other game I’ve played in recent memory that is as confident and bold in its presentation and conveying of tone and atmosphere than Alan Wake 2. It deftly blends and moves between cerebral detective procedural, surreal psychological horror, and post-modern metatextual irony with skill, mastery and impressive levels of self-confidence. Hideo Kojima could only dream of making a game with the mood and atmosphere that Alan Wake 2 has.

Tonally, Alan Wake 2 operates in three tonal spaces and it shifts constantly between them in a delicate balance. A lesser game would struggle to even manage two, yet Remedy, Alan Wake 2’s developers, managed three and they interplay with each other in important ways, supporting and enhancing each other. The first of these three tones we are introduced to is the moody and cerebral detective mystery, embodied in the story of our first protagonist, FBI agent Anderson Anderson. We don’t play her just yet though. The game starts by establishing its dominant moods, of horror and mystery. As the game starts, we fade into the shores of Cauldron Lake, a location players of Alan Wake 1 are intimately familiar with. A disheveled and naked man emerges from the murky waters. Who is he? What was he doing in the waters? Instead of answers, we get control of this man. We stumble through the forest, lost and confused.

A light in the distance? We walk to it. It’s surrounded by men in raincoats and peculiar deer masks. We’ve been spotted. They approach. They grab our man and tie him to the table. With an unearthly chant of ‘We are the Cult of the Tree!’ they plunge a knife into the man’s heart.

Pan to the lake. Bold text and a booming brass ensemble plays.


It’s a powerful introduction. On the one hand it’s a classic of a detective mystery to show us the perspective of the murder victim. Yet we are also teased with questions that creep out beyond the crime and begin to suggest elements of the supernatural. What was the man doing in the lake? How did he survive submerged in the water? Who is he? Who are those cultists? What is the purpose of this ritualistic murder?

This is the crime that our first protagonist, Saga Anderson, has been sent to investigate. Much like the game’s introduction, Anderson’s story remains fairly rooted within the realm of the detective mystery, but has enough of the paranormal elements to keep us ever so slightly off kilter. She fights the supernatural enemies, the Taken, here and there, but a lot of time is spent investigating the mysteries of this town. A key mechanic we have access to when playing Anderson is her ‘mind place’, with her mental investigation board where we can piece together and connect clues to unravel the mystery. To be honest, it’s one of the weaker aspects of the game (worth discussing why in its own blog post perhaps), but its intention is clear: emulate the feeling of solving a crime as a detective. The world of Alan Wake 2 is mysterious and filled with the paranormal, but Anderson has a process by which to understand it. It’s mostly familiar, but not too familiar. With Anderson’s story we have a root in reality, but a bridge into the weirdness.

Alan Wake’s story rests firmly on the other side of that bridge. Wake is trapped in the ‘Dark Place’, which manifests as a nightmarish and apocalyptic version of New York City, Wake’s personal nightmares brought to life. The city is abandoned, streets filled with litter, walls utterly flooded with haunting graffiti. Street signs and posters are taunting distortions of their real world equivalents with their messages attacking and mocking Wake personally. In lieu of human beings roaming the streets, the city is populated with twisting shadows, silhouettes of human beings. In the dark quiet, they utter tormented whispers.

In this nightmare, logic is tossed out the window. Streets and alleyways loop upon themselves. Rooms distort and transform with the light. As Wake roams the city, he can transform its various locales by literally rewriting them. The city is composed of his stories made manifest. To unlock the city’s secrets, he must write a new manuscript telling the story of a cult murder investigation (that interestingly resembles Anderson’s investigation) by his hard boiled noir detective character, Alex Casey.

Wake’s nightmare city lies at the heart of the game’s psychological horror. Beyond the twisted vision of New York City described above, the visual iconography of fiction-turned-real murder cult investigation is hauntingly powerful, echoing some of the demented imagery of cult classics like Se7en and Hannibal. The combat segments here are designed to induce a degree of paranoia in the player. The shadowy silhouettes of people in the city remain inert, staying still as they mutter their pained lamentations, until they don’t. Some of these shadows will follow Wake and attack him if he ever gets within melee distance, but it is never clear which shadows attack and which don’t. You could expend your flashlight charges or revolver rounds to attack the shadows, but these resources are limited and the shadows infinite. You can only skulk around them, keeping a watchful eye and hoping to pass unnoticed.

As Wake discovers new locations in this city, he gets flashes of inspiration that allow him to write new scenes and plot beats in his Alex Casey story. The scenes he write alter the city’s locations, allowing Wake to travel deeper into his own nightmare, but this isn’t Casey’s story. We only get brief vignettes of this story, and partly by necessity Casey’s story is a pastiche of the mystery thriller genre, and the game knows this. Wake may perceive himself as a tortured artist but he is at heart an entertainer, the sort of schlocky mainstream novelist who goes on late night talk shows, more Dan Brown than Stephen King regardless of his own writerly aspirations. The nightmare city reminds him of this fact in one of gaming history’s best sequences, a 20 minute long in-game musical. Through scenes filmed in live action, Alan Wake, Alex Casey and the nightmare city’s talk show host Warlin Door dance and sing on the topic of Wake’s own self-doubts and anxieties (and also elegantly recapping the events of Alan Wake 1).

A 20 minute long musical seems rather at odds with the nightmarish horror, and it is. That’s because the musical segment is an expression of the game’s third tonal space: metatextual irony. There has always been a certain cheesiness to Alan Wake’s story, both his stories and his own story. A noir detective? A cult murder? A small town with idiosyncratic people? The game take elements from David Lynch and Stephen King and genre clichés and it does so knowingly. So the game winks at you every now and then, through the musical segment, or the self-referential Finnish arthouse horror short film you can watch in a virtual cinema, or the almost fourth wall break by Alex Casey. At times the game laughs at itself and other times it expresses itself sincerely. All of this is in service of an implicit social contract with the player: We know that some of this horror stuff is kind of schlocky and cheesy in places, and we know that you know, but if you trust us and embrace it wholeheartedly, we promise you’ll have a great time. After all, these horror tropes became tropes and clichés over time because they were so effective in the first place.

And it works! One moment you’ll be bobbing your head and grinning ear to ear as Alan Wake dances to a operatic guitar solo. and the next you’ll be furtively dodging shadows in abandoned subway tunnels. The contrasting moods in the game interface with each other and enhance their impact. And if the wild images of Wake’s nightmare ever get too much, you can switch realities back to Anderson’s story at will at regular intervals. Her story does not lack in supernatural elements, but she is fundamentally a detective and has the skills to unravel the mysteries she is faced with. Where Wake is buried in mystery and confusion among murky waters, Anderson stands on the shoreline. If Wake’s Casey detective story bears resemblance to Anderson’s investigation, than discovering answers in Anderson’s investigation hints at answers to Wake’s nightmare reality. Conversely, if Casey’s detective story is a fiction in Wake’s mind, it suggests that Anderson’s entire story might just be a fiction in Wake’s mind. Wake’s and Anderson’s stories inform each other just as the game’s contrasting moods and tones inform each other and comment on each other. The entire game is a delicate balancing act of multiple moods and multiple plots, and it’s quite the miracle that it comes together so incredibly well.

Alan Wake 2 is the result of a studio building and improving upon the lessons learnt from over a decade worth of games. If you were to play through their back catalog titles, from Alan Wake 1 to Quantum Break to Control to Alan Wake 2, you’d see clear patterns in how they present the worlds of their games. Whether its the use of diegetic music (with their frequent collaboration with Poets of the Fall), or the bold in-your-face typography in their chapter title cards, or the interweaving of live action video with gameplay segments, we see a studio defining and refining a unique aesthetic identity that has become more and more polished over the years.

I can’t fucking wait for Control 2.