Alan Wake's mixed critical reception and poor sales were a disappointing end to the saga of an ambitious project from a promising developer. Remedy Entertainment was at the top of its game with the splendid Max Payne 2, and Alan Wake was a bold departure from the noir violence it had obviously mastered. Alan Wake would be a "psychological horror story" about a Stephen King-like figure terrorized in the Pacific Northwest, and Remedy would use cutting-edge technology in conjunction with innovative game mechanics to tell it. When audiences finally received the final product, however, it was unevenly written, outdated, and powered by disappointingly commonplace gunplay. What happened to Alan Wake, the opus Remedy intended?
Remedy made a game explaining what went wrong with Alan Wake. This revelatory game is called ... Alan Wake.
From its opening scenes, Alan Wake is a chronicle of creative frustration and insecurity. The game opens on a dream in which Wake is hunted by a deranged hitchhiker. As the hitchhiker pursues Wake toward a lighthouse, he screams, "It's not like your stories are any good! It's not like they have any artistic merit. Cheap thrills and pretentious shit. That's all you're good for. Just look at me! Look at your work!" Then, in a line that sets up the rest of the game, he asks, "How does it feel to die at the hands of your own creation?"
This is not the Alan Wake we were promised in 2005. Now, as the author of a successful hard-boiled detective series, he is a stand-in for Remedy and lead writer Sam Lake. It has been two years since he made a splashy announcement about his departure from crime fiction and his next big project. Since then, he's been unable to write a word. He says, "I had lost count of the times I had wished there'd be a clear reason for my writer's block. Something to fight, something to lash out on."
Enter the Dark Presence, Wake's primary adversary. It is a force of pure uncreativity, one that rips apart worlds and characters and grows stronger by consuming artists. What makes it particularly dangerous is that artists are drawn to it, because the Dark Presence lives at a lake where they find inspiration and believe they can create great work. That is when the Darkness destroys them. The Dark Presence exists in that gap between the work we imagine ourselves capable of, and the work we actually produce. It is the perfect adversary for Alan Wake, a game intended to be so much more than it is, and that almost never was. The Darkness's weapons are reminders of creative failure like its minions, the Taken, who The Darkness turns into parodies of themselves: a park ranger will start uttering nonsense about fish and game, or a folksy gas station attendant will attempt to introduce himself again and again as he chases Wake around with an axe. The Taken are not enemies, but symptoms of the disease that the Darkness represents. For the Taken, individuality and motivation have been annihilated and they shamble on, mutant stock characters and archetypes.