I feel like I know Alan Wake. Like, really, know him. That realization leaves me with a sense that I’m part of some sort of secret club and this uncomfortable feeling I can’t put my finger on. It feels too intimate.
In the first Alan Wake, I didn’t feel a particular connection to the brooding, troubled writer. He felt like a stereotype come to life, but his mission to find his wife and unravel the mysteries of Bright Falls clearly had an impact. It subtly laid the foundations for the sequel and let me into Alan’s psyche in a way that pays off dividends in Alan Wake 2.
To date, however, developer Remedy Entertainment hasn’t shown us much of Alan, instead focusing on the game’s other protagonist, FBI agent Saga. But, during a behind-closed-doors demo for Alan Wake 2 at Gamescom, I finally got to see 40 minutes of Alan’s side of the story–and it’s as bleak as you’ve been imagining.
The Dark Place
For 13 years, the famous writer has been trapped in the Dark Place, which has manifested itself as a nightmarish version of New York that’s littered with references to Alan’s life, past, regrets, and even some Easter Eggs that tie into the connection with the Control universes.
The demo started with a somewhat confused Alan in the green room of a TV talk show. In front of him is an old television set showing a live-action version of himself. By clicking on the set, he is transported to the interview with Mr. Door, who is asking about Alan’s new book that he doesn’t remember writing. The interview acts as a clever way of explaining what is going on, with Mr. Book explaining the book is about a fiction writer trapped in a nightmare, trying to find the manuscript of the book he’s attempting to write but also referencing how this writer has an evil double. Mr. Door heavily hints at the meta aspect of the narrative, almost catching players up on the premise of this game without battering them over the head with it.
After finishing the interview with Mr. Door, we get to see the nightmarish New York Alan has been living in. Imagine a more messed up Gotham, if the Joker’s worst crime was covering every wall he could with graffiti. The Dark Place is a lot to take in because it is dripping with references to Alan’s life. Everywhere I looked as the camera panned, I saw something that pinged a sense of recognition deep in my brain. The Oceanview Motel in the background, an ‘OD Diner’ sign, a billboard for a new series of Night Springs. It’s a feast for both Remedy and Alan Wake fans, and simply having that recognition made me feel more engrained in Alan’s troubled psyche.
Alan Wake 2 is certainly dark, over a decade in a nightmare city is bound to shift your perspective. But this darkness feels more fitting, more mature. Alan has adjusted to this new existence and I quickly found myself settling into this black and neon fantasy world alongside him.
Exploration has also matured. Gone is Alan’s battery-eating torch, instead replaced by an Angel Lamp, which pulls light from a chosen source and stores it, allowing you to throw the light to another source. Light still plays a key role in Alan Wake 2, keeping the shadowy figures at bay, or exposing them so you can shoot them, but it’s also used to reveal paths that aren’t visible in the darkness. In the demo, Alan used light to throw light onto a broken lamp, revealing the entrance to a subway station that was previously hidden. When he pulled the light from the lamp again, the entrance disappeared. A kind of heavenly shimmer appears when this is an option.
It’s worth noting, however, that unlike in Alan Wake, not all the shadowy figures you come across are actually out to hurt you. Some can be triggered into combat, others will straight up be out to get you, and some just want to get on with their shadowy day. Remedy’s creative director Sam Lake says this is to create a sense of paranoia and uncertainty within the player. Just in case the overall setting wasn’t enough to put you on edge.
In addition to this slight alteration, the overall mechanics have been changed quite drastically. Instead of simply running along, finding manuscript pages, and shooting at ghostly figures, Alan now is actively able to change the world around him. He can pick up plot elements and locations from exploring which combine to make new paths leading deeper into the story and altering the dark place.
These plot elements can be tracked in Alan’s writer room, which is essentially his version of Saga’s Mind Palace. He has a kind of case board that tracks different stories, the plot elements within them and their locations, and then in the game itself you can pick the element that best helps you progress that situation. For example, Alan picked up a plot line about cultists and used it when in a normal, boring room. Using the plot element made the room transform into a cultist base, offering new paths that previously weren’t available. Essentially this new mechanic turns Alan into a kind of prophetic detective and it has me intrigued, especially when I consider how this will overlap with Saga’s story.
I have never watched a gameplay demo and been completely baffled by whether what I’m seeing is live-action or CGI, until now. I have pondered for 24 hours about whether certain scenes I watched were even partly computer-generated but, frankly, I don’t want to know. Either way, the transition between the two is seamless.
This seems to be what Sam Lake is going for, as he tells us that he wanted to “use the dream-like nature of the Dark Place to do something interesting in it.” He’s certainly done that. Alan Wake 2 looks like a mind f**k and I can’t wait to get my hands on it.