Without meaning to, I keep playing the new, remastered Alan Wake in the dark. Now that the sun sets earlier, when I sit down on the couch to play after work, the world descends into darkness while I play. It's like the game's darkness that inhabits the game's forests and mineshafts has reached out from the screen to consume me, ushering me further into Alan Wake's journey through its own history.
Alan Wake first released in 2010 for the XBox 360, after a long development cycle. The game seems to have been a victim of bad luck, over and over and over. Remedy Entertainment, whose previous games include the all time classic Max Payne, changed direction with Alan Wake in the middle of development, essentially starting the game over as it changed from an open world game to a more linear action game. The game then had the misfortune to release on the same day as Red Dead Redemption, a runaway success that overshadowed Wake's release.
Though Alan Wake gained a cult following over time, it was an XBox exclusive and couldn't reach audiences outside of that platform until 2012 when it was released on Steam. Even then, for about a year the game was unavailable on Steam because of issues with music licenses. For the past 10 years, Alan Wake has been more theoretical than actual for most players. While you could play it that whole time, it was more likely that you talked about it and imagined it or watched others play it, especially as it wasn't consistently available between its release and now.
"That's what happens with any idea right?" Vida Starčević, Remedy community manager told Waypoint.
"We made the game, absolutely, but then the community and the players took that game and made it their own," she continued, "with their interpretation and with their love and with their devotion."
"When I look at Alan Wake, I'm trying to see the struggles of Remedy during that seven year production of that game," Thomas Puha, communications director at Remedy said. "When people play a game, that shouldn't matter at all. But there's definitely that sort of difficult second, or in this case, third album syndrome in that game. It's always been fascinating to me because of that. You have all these things that are unearthing a lot again, like, how much of that open world is lurking in the background?"
It's all the more fitting because Alan Wake is also a game that is about these very ideas. In the game, author Alan Wake wakes up after losing a week in the idyllic vacation town Bright Falls. His wife is missing, and all throughout the town he finds pages from a novel he doesn't remember writing—a horror novel that's coming true. As Wake's ideas come alive and grow hostile to him, tainted by an evil darkness that turns the townspeople into shadow-covered Taken, he discovers how little control he's had over his own fiction.
If you want to follow that rabbit hole even further, Wake is the author of a crime novel series about Alex Casey, a character suspiciously similar to Max Payne. You can find excerpts of Wake's previous novels too, which are read by Payne's voice actor James McCaffrey. Alan Wake is a game that is self consciously about being a writer; the reason why Alan ends up on vacation is because he has writer's block. If you play the game with video commentary on, Remedy creative director Sam Lake talks about being a writer who is struggling with writing about a writer, while you play a writer with writer's block talking about writing. (For yet another layer, while developing Max Payne Remedy could not afford actors to use for their character models, so the titular character sports Sam Lake's face).
The game wears its influences on its sleeve, but not just for the sake of making references to things that people know about. When Puha describes the game as being influenced by Twin Peaks and Stephen King, he's talking less about the literal references it draws—the game opens with a King quote—but the vibes that they have. Bright Falls is a town that's a half step out of reality, like David Lynch's Twin Peaks, but in a way that's filtered through a bunch of nerds from Finland who are finding connections to their own culture through America's stranglehold on mass media.
"From my Finnish perspective, when I play Alan Wake or when I go to the states or the Pacific Northwest, it just looks like home," Puha continued. "If we go back to Max Payne, the New York of Max Payne is very much like 'Finn's first time in New York.' We've all heard about New York, we've seen New York on TV. So you feel this version of New York in your mind that's shaped by everything you've seen. And then when you actually go there, it's an assault on your senses."
Alan Wake is now an endlessly recursive object. It's impossible to interact with the game without interacting with its own history. In the days leading up to the release of Alan Wake's remaster, I found myself playing through Remedy's most recent game, Control, and watching YouTuber Christopher Odd's let's play of Alan Wake from 2013. Even though it's impossible, I was searching for the "true" version of Alan Wake, the one that wasn't already imbued with my own memories and associations of the game.
"I love remasters/remakes because it gives me an opportunity to have those 'oh yaaaaaaaaaa' moments," Christopher Odd told me. He said that for him, playing horror games is about being totally embodied in the experience.
"I play horror games because I love the adrenaline rush," he said. "As I got older I found ways to really let myself be open to being scared and that changed a lot. Instead of looking for scares, I enjoyed the experience much more if I just embodied the character and let the game do it’s thing."
The remaster of Alan Wake is doing its own thing to such a degree that it's difficult to put down. Though it's an old game, the way it's been refreshed makes it feel thoroughly modern. As I try to compare it to the Alan Wake in my memory it's hard to tell what's changed, despite seeing with my own eyes how different the game is. There are new secrets and a very obvious graphical overhaul, but there's something else that lingers after I finish playing for the day. The feeling of my own memory being called into question, like a worm through time, itches on the inside of my skull. The fabric of reality is so much more permeable than we think it is.
"With the remaster there's a pretty stark difference in terms of the quality," Puha said. "I'd say even the old game, it had the mood and all of these things but like, people's memories…"
Puha drifts off on the video call for a moment, leaning back in his chair and looking at the ceiling.
"I remember when I played the Mass Effect remaster I was like, this doesn't look that massively improved," he said. "And then I looked at the original 2007 game again, like okay, I was wrong. Your memory kind of fails everybody."