We’ve all been there before. You finish a game, movie, or comic book, you put the remote/controller/book down and think: What just happened?
There are always projects that seem to leave you with more questions than answers. And Alan Wake is one of those. I remember playing it for the first time 10 years ago and being so confused by the ending. I got Control recently, so I went back to play Alan Wake, as they take place in the same universe. And, while I was playing Alan Wake for the first time in nearly a decade, I wondered: “what is this game about? I know what’s happening, but what is this about?”
Let’s Try This Again… Again
I started this feature a couple of different ways. First, I was going to try to explain the whole story by doing research and putting together a detailed account of everything that happens across Alan Wake, American Nightmare, and Control. But, that seemed like a waste of effort. Surely, the creators of Alan Wake didn’t write this for us to regurgitate the story over and over to each other. A major facet of the story was Alan taking control of himself and telling something new to finally change. And, it seemed a disservice to just reiterate their writing, something I’m sure others have done many times and much better than I ever could.
Then, in the second iteration of this feature, I was going to ask a handful of questions about Alan Wake and attempt to give any kind of answer I could muster. But now, I stand before you with none of that done. Instead, this feature took on a new life.
Much like the videogame I’m writing about, this feature transformed over time as I asked more questions. As I attempted to dig deeper into what Alan Wake really was, the more questions seemed to pour out. But, what was crazier than that? Was that I couldn’t even figure out what questions I really had? The questions turned into smoke in my hands and I was desperately trying to hold onto abstract comments to put down into words.
It sounds like I’ve chosen a third topic just because I failed at the second, and maybe that’s true, maybe that’s true for a lot of writing or artistic endeavors? But, what I wanted to talk about was the effect Alan Wake had on me. It caused me to ask questions. And not only did it do that, it got me to ask questions about the nature of questions and answers.
Answers Are Overrated
We tell stories. Within those stories, we pose questions. And at the end of the story, there seems to be a contract between storyteller and consumer that the questions will be answered. But, whoever made this promise? I think for a long time, I, and many others, have always expected those telling us stories to know everything about them.
But, something the very idea of Alan Wake questions, is if stories have a life of their own. If they change and transform. If they exist beyond us. Now, I’m not suggesting that there’s some malevolent force manipulating all writers and storytellers and artists. I’m just asking why we expect these creators to even know the answers. Isn’t it enough to just know the question?
It sounds stupid, that figuring out the right question is the goal. But, let’s think about other art forms. If you’re observing a painting or an installation or something like that, the piece doesn’t really tell you what it’s about. You don’t see paintings that say “WAR IS BAD” on them. Instead, a painting asks you questions, doesn’t it? When you’re looking at Nighthawks, you don’t immediately know the answers to the story and message of the painting. You have to ask a question: “Who are these people? Why are they out so late? Why no child? How old are they? Are they married? Is their marriage happy? How much do you get paid to work in that diner?”
From there, you might be able to figure out the answers. You might not. There might not be any answers to glean. It is important that you asked them though. In a post-internet world, we can find out almost anything in seconds. There’s not as much time to consider the questions when the answers are so readily available.
What Am I Talking About?
I’m sure this has sounded long-winded and pretentious by this point. The whole goal of this essay/article was to ask about the nature of questions and their place in art. It is up to art to pose questions to the observer. But, videogames fall into a weird category where the artistic aspect is optional. And it can be difficult to emotionally, and literally, classify videogames. They vary drastically, but Alan Wake firmly stands in the artistic landscape of videogames.
So, when you’re playing Alan Wake, hell, when you’re playing any game: ask yourself questions. And acknowledge that it’s okay to not know the answers. That may be no one does. But, it’s important that we ASK ourselves:
Do I see anything of Alan Wake in myself?
Do I see anything of Alan Wake in the creative team?
Do our artistic creations have lives of their own?
How do we manage the relationship between the writer and an editor?
Should we feel guilty if we know we are the root of our loved ones’ misery? Even if it’s not through our direct actions?
Do we do things for others or ourselves? Is Alan really trying to save Alice? Or save himself from the guilt?
Is Zane a metaphor for a writer that never made it big, giving advice to a writer on the verge of losing it all?
At what point do we as creators step away from our projects? Or, step away from art, is there a limit to when our stories’ are completed?
These might not even be the right questions either! I’m just shooting in the dark, trying to figure out some semblance of an emotional core to Alan Wake and how it affects me. How it makes me feel. And I doubt anyone has all the answers for me, but in asking this about the game, I can start to piece how to apply these questions to real life and to myself.
When you’re playing games. Ask questions. And know, that’s all you need to do. Work on asking the best questions, you’ll find some answers and some even better questions. I don’t think we learn by getting answers. And if you think that sounds stupid, ask yourself this: