The Alan Wake 2 demo I sat through at Gamescom made me want to scream and shout. Not because developer Remedy Entertainment has stretched comfortably into survival horror territory, although this Dark Place prison is certainly an evocative tool for ratcheting up tension. I wanted to make myself heard because whoever was in command of the controller would not slow down. There was a lot of ground to cover in a 40-minute presentation, but I could have spent hours lost in the streets of this twisted vision of New York City – a space of stark contrasts, empowered by impossibly deep shadows and dying embers of flickering light.
The visual fidelity is astounding. I wanted to breathe in the atmosphere to the point of suffocation, with the Northlight Engine being employed to deliver truly staggering scale and detail. Neon hues shimmer delicately across puddles of rain, soft light from street lamps struggles to cut through thick plumes of fog, the flashlight piercing the new Fade Out enemies with explosive volatility. When Alan heads below ground, struggling to discern fact from fiction in the claustrophobic tunnels of the subway system, I'm almost too startled to track the links back to Control graffitied all over the walls.
One scene at a time
Alan Wake isn't afraid of rewriting reality. Not after 13 years trapped beneath the frigid waters of Cauldron Lake. It has become a necessity, and he's willing to do anything to escape – no matter the cost to his sanity, or the poor souls fighting to survive a fracturing reality back in the Pacific Northwest. But now isn't the time to talk about the adventures of Saga Anderson, an FBI detective working to expose a cult of ritualistic killers who appear to be following a playbook written by a certain missing novelist. No, now is where we focus on Alan's attempts to escape an auto-fictional thought experiment.
If Anderson's side of the narrative track is heavily inspired by True Detective and Twin Peaks, then Alan's line is in service of arthouse horror gods – Hereditary and Midsommar have been cited by creative director Sam Lake, and it speaks to the uncontainable paranoia running rampantly throughout the Dark Place. Shadowy outlines crowd the landscape, and can shift form into enemies at any time. Characters you encounter are off-balance, their motives unknowable. Light dictates the composition of environments and weather, a miasma of unease punctuating everything. What you see in these sections of play isn't real, per se, though they may be affecting reality – Alan Wake 2 is densely metacontextual.
Alan is trapped in a writer's room, one which is able to give unknowable power to creative works. Tormented by a dark doppelganger, Wake is able to effectively astrally project into a twisted construct of New York formed by his subconscious mind. A place where he hopes he may find the inspiration (and clarity) to finish his next novel, 'Return'; echoes of this effort seemingly seep into Bright Falls, which may be why Anderson is encountering oddities like predictive manuscript pages of a horror story and the fictional construct that is Agent Alex Casey. Or maybe not, who knows with Remedy.
What's impressive is that this notion of rewriting reality isn't being used to create elaborate, cinematic set-pieces, as it may have been in Alan Wake or Quantum Break. Instead, you're able to take a more exacting approach to writing your escape – directly manipulating the story one plot point at a time. As you explore the Dark Place, Alan will encounter sources of inspiration, ideas which he can fold into his writing. You're able to manually activate these plot elements, changing the composition of environments and narration. Dilapidated subway cars turn into tombs of ashen mass murder; forgotten supply rooms shift from mundane to macabre as new horrors are willed into existence by the rhythmic beat of typewriter keys lashing against an inked ribbon. It's impressive, and ensures that the world is always reforming around you.
Something I really appreciate about this 'Rewrite Reality' mechanic is just how much agency we're given to control it. While there is only one correct series of scenes and plot points to thread together – allowing Alan the opportunity to weave deeper into the Dark Place – you are able to experiment. Just as Saga has access to a Case Board in her Mind Place to connect vital clues in her murder investigation together, Alan is able to return to his Writer's Room prison at any time – a button press giving him free reign to watch back found footage through an old CRT or assess the structure of his latest novel. The Plot Board is where you're able to rewrite the story in real-time, shifting around plot points and scenes to unlock new lore, environments to explore, and progression paths.
It's an ambitious, layered creative concept. Seeing it in action, I couldn't help but be reminded of how this version of Alan Wake 2 is the culmination of a years-long effort to bring this sequel to life. Creative director Sam Lake has been open about the tumultuous journey to get this game made, and how much changed with each passing iteration. And yet Rewrite Reality seemingly remains. After Remedy shipped Alan Wake in 2010 it began concepting a sequel, something which Microsoft ultimately passed on (leading the studio to invest in Quantum Break); many elements of that prototype reportedly made their way to 2012's Alan Wake's American Nightmare, a spin-off adventure where Alan found himself rewriting reality to find a way to defeat Mr. Scratch, his Dark Place doppelganger. Coincidence or not, I'm happy to see Remedy finally able to invest so heavily in something so unconventional.
Unravelling the mystery
It was easy to lose focus in this Alan Wake 2 demo. Between the playful introduction of live action and the arc of multiple stories folding atop one another, there's almost too much to wrap your head around. Then again, it's the smaller hints to the wider Remedy Connected Universe which helped settle my mind. There are a couple of big questions raised in this section of play. The presence of Mr. Door, a character first referenced in Control, who we now know is an interdimensional late-night talk show host who has hired the Old Gods of Asgard as his in-house band – he speaks of a novel titled 'Initiation', of which Alan has no memory of writing. This concept of initiation fascinates me; it's the framing for the entire mission, with each chapter referred to as an 'Initiation'. It's the same concept that we find in Control, with Jesse Faden using Ritual Initiations to cross thresholds scattered throughout the Oldest House and Oceanview Motel.
The Oceanview Motel has a clear connection to the Dark Place too. In one series of events, I spotted the word 'AWE' graffitied all over the walls, with arrows pointing towards what appears to be a Spiral insignia painting sat atop an easel. We know that Alan has found a way to communicate with the Federal Bureau of Control from the Control: AWE expansion, and I can't help but wonder if the ties will be stronger in Alan Wake 2 than originally anticipated. That spiral is the key to much of the otherworldly activity, not only appearing etched into doors of the Oceanview Motel, but repeated in flashes across the latest Alan Wake 2 trailer too.
And then there's the appearance of Tim Breaker, played by Shawn Ashmore (another Remedy alum, having starred as Jack Joyce in Quantum Break). He's supposedly a friend, helping Alan to track the dream-logic neural networks of the Dark Place, but it's the surname that really caught my attention – Sarah Breaker is an ally in the first game, the local Sheriff who assists Alan in reaching Bright Falls Light and Power. Her father Frank, is a former F.B.C. agent, and the first person she turns to once the Taken take hold of the town. Is there a familial connection here, or is the name nothing more than a little joke (Tim(e) Breaker, get it?) for the Quantum Break stans out there? We'll figure that all out in time.
One thing is already clear though: Alan wake 2 is Remedy refined. The true essence of the studio distilled into a single project. An ambitious concept and outrageous attention to detail, slick third-person combat and an immersive narrative structure, and a creative blurring of lines between rendered action and live action storytelling. It's audacious, in a way that few games are outside of the first-party development ecosystem. Whether Remedy can pull it all off remains to be seen, but I can't wait to see the studio try. On October 27, two worlds collide as written words on a typewriter take on a life of their own, and I couldn't be more excited.