Sunday, August 15, 2010

Alan Wake Special Feature 1 of 2: The Signal

First, spoilers.  Read no more.  If you have not finished The Signal DLC for Alan Wake, don't read any further.  It won't spoil the awesomeness for you, but, as anyone who's ever heard or read a spoiler before will tell you, it will ruin the surprise, which is a crucial part of many stories, and especially Alan Wake.  You have been warned.

I have loved Alan Wake all along for its portrayal of a super-star author.  From the fact that he's essentially a rock star to the terrible, terrible pages of his first draft of Departure (I'm surprised there weren't any spelling errors), it's been a fun and somewhat sobering look at the creative life some of us choose to lead.  Writing is a solitary profession.  I don't believe anyone's said contrary.  I do enjoy working in a group - I love brainstorming, in fact - but the actual writing, for me, must be undertaken in silence and solitude.  Anything else simply interferes.

The Signal is a chilling look at the self-hatred that shadows Alan throughout his first adventure.  During the game itself, there are references to how he feels about not being able to write, how he feels like a fraud since killing off his most popular character, Alex Casey.  The Signal makes this self-hatred entirely apparent.  Alan is hunted by flying versions of his own books, similar to the crows from the game, he's typing light-activated words that turn into enemies and try to kill him, and he's constantly cursing himself from inside the TVs scattered across the level, talking about how he's walking himself into a trap, how he's going to die, how the darkness is coming for him.

All of this is creepy, and there's some wonderfully subtle horror-movie-style work going on in the clips of Alan on the TV, but none of that compares to the ending.  Thomas Zane (his name having taken the place of the Poets of the Fall on the occasional in-store poster) is trying to direct Alan... somewhere.  He keeps telling him he's going too deep, and while the premise of the DLC is that the darkness is trying to kill Alan now that he's no longer of any use, Zane eventually tells him that, no, actually, this is Alan destroying himself.

He wrote himself to the bottom of an ocean.  He's trapped inside a cabin somewhere in depths unknown, after having banished the darkness at the expense of his own life - he avoided the mistake that Zane had made, the unwriting of himself that allowed the darkness to break free.  He trapped himself to save the world.  And now he's down there, down in the black, alone with his thoughts and his memories and his pain.  The last scene of The Signal is Alan lying on the floor of the cabin, surrounded by glowing manuscript pages, the camera tilting and swooping at crazy angles, and him saying, "There's no way out."

While spellbinding, this performance struck a slightly uncomfortable chord with me in terms of what it means to be a writer.  To be a writer, one has to let their imagination run free.  In many cases, that can be a terrifying thing.  No one imagines only nice situations.  No one is happy all of the time.  So, for a writer, or for any creative person, being trapped in your own subconscious, especially if you're plagued with doubt as to the extent of your creativity, will be a nightmare from which there is no waking.  Alan is correct.  There's no way out.

I sometimes wonder if only people with good imaginations are afraid of the dark.  Otherwise, really, what is there to fear?  I'm only afraid of the dark because I imagine monsters and zombies.  They don't exist, I know that.  But in the dark, they could be real.  Darkness is possibility space, simply because we can't see what's around us.  Suspended in darkness, a thousand feet down, Alan is very much in a world where anything can become real.  He's going crazy because of it.  Couple this with the higher instance of psychological illness amongst writers, and it starts to look eerily familiar.

I myself have often wondered if I'm crazy.  The only answer I have, and that I keep coming back to, is that if I'm still able to question my sanity, I can't be insane.  Right?  But who else would spend their free time talking to imaginary people?  And who else would enjoy so much seeing an imaginary character in a similar predicament?

I think, for any creative person but for writers in particular, because I have a certain bias there, being locked away with only your imagination would be the ultimate Grecian hell.  Just look at Inception.

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