People tend to conflate Lovecraftian horror with tentacled sea-monsters and secretive fish cults, but one of the absolute best of the author’s weird tales features almost none of the aesthetic elements traditionally associated with his writing. Following a college student who befriends a paranoid musician condemned to play strange melodies every night in order to ward off otherworldly horrors, The Music of Erich Zann remains my personal favorite example of a story using art to comment on the human condition.
It’s not the only Lovecraft story about a troubled artist (with yarns like Pickman’s Model likely borrowing from the poets and painters of Robert W. Chambers’ The King in Yellow collection), but I think the tale of Erich Zann still resonates today because most readers can relate to the Sisyphean ordeal of being forced to repeatedly perform a task in order to keep their world from falling apart.
I was constantly reminded of this iconic story as I played through Remedy Entertainment’s long-awaited Alan Wake 2, a game that chronicles the struggles of a similarly doomed character who finds himself forced to write forever in order to keep the never-ending darkness at bay (and also features music being used as a weapon against eldritch forces). And much like the title’s bewildered protagonists, I found myself looping back to the beginning of this meta-nightmare long after I’d already finished the game – and that’s why I’d like to take this opportunity to dive into the meta-narrative of Alan Wake 2 and why I think it pushes the survival horror genre to new and exciting heights.
It would have been easy for Alan Wake 2 to simply rehash the success of its 2010 predecessor, updating the title’s graphics and polishing the simplistic third person shooting just enough to work as a passable mid-budget title in 2023, but Remedy decided to take the road less traveled by crafting a completely new experience unlike anything else in the market.
Narratively, the sequel picks up more or less where the previous game left off, with our titular hero still trying to escape the Dark Place as FBI agent Saga Anderson investigates a murderous cult that appears to be connected to the disappearance of Alan Wake 13 years earlier. However, the mechanical elements of AW2 are nearly unrecognizable when compared to the original.
While the 2010 game saw Alan turn into a gun-toting action hero, the sequel operates at a much slower pace, putting a bigger emphasis on level navigation and puzzle-solving instead of flashy firefights (with combat being much more difficult now despite an expanded arsenal). Overall, I’d say that the game’s biggest influence comes from the glory days of experimental survival horror like Eternal Darkness: Sanity’s Requiem and even Siren, with the title forgoing contemporary hand-holding and allowing you to become truly lost and afraid in its beautifully grim renditions of both an idyllic Washington resort town (peppered with Slavic horror influences) and a surreal version of New York City besieged by shadows.
Of course, the game’s real scares don’t actually stem from its lonely environments and eerie shadow-people (or even the excellent use of live-action jump-scares, for that matter), but rather the mind-bending existential dread of knowing that your whole existence might just be a story within a story and that reality itself is a fickle mistress.
I mean, you’re basically playing a game about people who are slowly realizing that they’re just characters in someone else’s work of art, and no amount of shotgun upgrades or over-the-top musical numbers can dampen that disturbing fact. The original Alan Wake was already using narrative clichés to justify classic gaming tropes like finding conveniently placed ammo and weapons in unlikely places (with the whole thing feeling a lot like a more serious version of Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace), but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a title take advantage of diegetic art quite like its sequel.
After all, the game’s main antagonist is an eldritch force that corrupts artwork, so it makes sense that the experience is filled with songs, poetry and even graffiti that affects both the player and the characters themselves. From prophetic manuscript pages warning you of imminent danger to television sets playing silly commercials containing hidden truths, nothing is taken for granted here, and it ends up making the player feel like just another character trapped in another layer this narrative web.
We’ve seen horror games use fourth-wall breaks and meta-narratives to scare players into reflecting on their actions before, with the indie gaming boom of the past decade gifting us with titles like Hotline Miami and Superhot which questioned gamers’ disturbing love affair with virtual violence (and that’s not even mentioning Hideo Kojima’s long history of trolling players in the Metal Gear saga), but Alan Wake 2 is unique in how it gamifies the very idea of a narrative by allowing players to piece together what’s going on and become just as horrified as its main characters once they see the full picture.
The title’s climactic moments as our dual protagonists are forced to confront their deepest and most personal fears in order to overcome the very idea of a horror story are peak meta-fiction that’s usually reserved for experimental literature like House of Leaves instead of B-movie inspired survival horror titles. And while the game makes copious use of cinematic live-action elements, I don’t think any of these conceptual puzzles would hit quite as hard if wasn’t for the interactive element immersing players in the world and story.
Alan Wake 2 may not be perfect, with the story assuming that players are already familiar with Remedy’s previous output in order to fill in the gaps of its esoteric mythology (while also allowing for some unavoidable moments of mechanical frustration), but I still think that this long-awaited sequel is the last bastion of classic survival horror; a relic from a past when games respected players’ intelligence and developers were allowed to experiment with weird ideas instead of merely aping Resident Evil and Silent Hill in search of profit.
And while it’s unlikely that Alan’s journey through the Dark Place is truly over, I’d be content if Remedy stopped here and simply encouraged other developers to learn from their success and experiment with their own strangely horrific projects. If we’re lucky, studios might learn the right lessons here and we could very well be on the verge of a survival horror renaissance comparable to the early 2000s.
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