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Alan Wake: The Signal and The Writer Review

October 21, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

By Tom Dann

[Warning: contains spoilers for the end of Alan Wake]

The Signal begins exactly where Alan Wake left off, with Alan trapped in “The Dark Place.” (a name bringing to mind Channel 4’s exquisite “Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace,” a hospital-based horror series lampooning the kinds of shows Alan Wake homages. A neat reference? Or a lame title proving that Marenghi was, in fact, spot on?) Alan has saved Alice and Bright Falls, but is trapped having sacrificed himself to do so. As with the main game, there’s more to the story than the madness that’s on the surface. While the game, superficially, has Alan trying to escape from his imagination, symbolically the story can be seen to represent the problem artists have letting go after large projects. When something has dominated your life for a period of time, especially writing, readjusting to the real world can be tricky. The Signal and The Writer represent this by trapping Alan in his own imagination, struggling to escape after his magnum opus, Departure.

Those turned off by the occasionally abstract nature of Alan Wake should steer well clear of these Special Episodes. The world you inhabit is a dreamscape, and as you progress through the story and gradually become more aware of that fact, the more wild and dream-like the lansdscape becomes. Eventually, the world will start to fall away, sometimes leaving barely enough for you to continue. This is an interesting counterpoint to the effort put into the main game to make Bright Falls seem like a real, living place. It also makes for some fascinating gameplay elements. The written word is given genuine power here, as words float in the world, bursting to life under the gaze of Alan’s torch. From obvious basics, such as “Bridge” or “Phone,” to cleverly placed “Roll” (drops a flammable barrel), “Fireworks” (obvious) and “Enemy” (one to avoid). There’s a thrilling section in the Church basement, where Alan must keep his torch away from furnaces which will explode if exposed to light, but must also utilise them to hold The Taken at bay.

The Signal and The Writer are laid out similarly to the main game. Each is a little longer than a standard level, but still see Alan with a goal, some guns, and plenty of shadows for Taken to ambush him from. There are no new enemies here, excluding the bosses, so those seeking deeper combat may be disappointed in that regard. There are plenty of new ideas keeping the chapters fresh: a bizarre rotating house, evoking a hamster wheel; a scene involving the beam of a lighthouse; and the aforementioned word power. Remedy have tied these elements together with incredible dexterity.

Manuscript pages are present in the specials, but in a very different capacity. Rather than collecting and reading them to gain greater insight into events, pages are occasionally rewarded to Alan by Zane. They generally provide more words to turn into helpful objects. Replacing the previous function of the pages are bizarre collections of TV sets, with footage of a hysterical Alan literally screaming out descriptions of events, rather than the calm Alan who would read out the pages in the main game. This barely sane Alan represents the part of him who can’t get a grip on the reality of the Dark Place, while the Alan you play is the last rational part of his psyche, fighting to dominate. The television set is a recurring motif in the specials. Is the television a challenge to the written word? It’s a common fear among writers: television is easier to digest, though it requires less imagination than literature. Alan Wake represents a bizarre combination of the two.

Considering the future of Alan Wake may well be balanced on the success of The Writer, Remedy have made a very bold move indeed. The “Season One” swansong is an incredibly abstract affair, strangely evocative of something like Super Mario Bros.: a world of pure imagination just not seen in modern gaming, typically preoccupied with the “realistic” representation of more literal locations.

The Signal and The Writer add to an already rich game: a surreal, poetic journey through a barely sane dreamscape, while giving the story a little more of a conclusion, and providing a stepping stone into a potential sequel. Many will find the ending unsatisfying, though just as many will be delighted at the opportunity to piece together the puzzle themselves. The final moments will either be a contrived cop-out or emotional crescendo depending on the player. Alan Wake is a story to be read on multiple levels, to be dissected and considered. The Signal and The Writer are great value for money, great fun and are essential for Alan Wake fans.

Copyright Tom Dann 2010

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