Maybe It's a Lake After All
"Stephen King once wrote that "Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear." In a horror story, the victim keeps asking "Why?" But there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end."
The opening line to Remedy's 2010 thriller, Alan Wake, is meant to convey the tone that would blanket the narrative-driven title. Across ten hours of TV-style presentation, Alan and players fall deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of blurred reality, fiction coming off the page, and more than a few lingering mysteries.
The game famously didn't set the world on fire when it launched. Following a half decade long development cycle with of at least one major shift in the game's direction, Wake eventually hit stores here in the states seven years ago to the very day this editorial is being published: May 18th, 2010. Unfortunately for Remedy and Alan Wake, the spring release didn't provide the refuge a somewhat niche title like Wake might have sought, distanced from the busy end of year window. That same day brought to the world one of the most beloved games in the medium, Red Dead Redemption. Like stumbling out of the gate, Wake was never going to be the bigger game anyway, no matter how far apart they launched, but arriving on the very same day and for the same price as a Rockstar open world title is either incredibly daring or a regrettable mistake — maybe both, in retrospect.
Despite those launch troubles, Alan Wake proved itself to be special in the months and subsequent years since that day. It's developed a cult-like status among Xbox gamers who recall its intoxicating atmosphere and memorably bizarre story, with brushstrokes of Lynch's Twin Peaks all across the Pacific northwestern town of Bright Falls. It skillfully utilized cliffhangers at the end of each of its eight episodes, just like a modern serialized television drama from which it borrows so much of its format. The game famously even ends on a cliffhanger, whether you played the DLC or not. A few years later, we got what I and others call a semi-sequel, Alan Wake's American Nightmare. That follow-up was fun and improved on a lot of the gameplay flaws on the original game, like a lack of weapon and enemy variety. It even extended the story in interesting and confusing ways. And yes, it ended on a cliffhanger again.
That means for a half-decade fans have been waiting to hear more about Alan's escape from the Dark Place. What did the ending of American Nightmare mean? How much does it change where we last saw our titular hero in the original game? Where's Alan now? What is the state of Bright Falls and maybe the world? Famously, the game ends with the cryptic quote, "It's not a lake, it's an ocean." It was seemingly meant to introduce more story with the vague release window of "someday."
I count myself chiefly among those who look back fondly on my experiences with the game. After multiple playthroughs, plenty of forum chatter all over the internet, and even hosting the recent inaugural episode of the TA Playlist podcast devoted to the game, I find myself coming out the other end of a transformative process regarding my feelings on the future of the series.
The psychiatrist Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, famous for her studies on death and dying, developed the theory of five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. It's meant to describe how humans deal with loss and grieving in their lives, how we all move through those steps in that order and at variable speeds. Of course, words like "depression" and "grief" are much too strong for my feelings on an Alan Wake sequel, but the coping process of living in a world without more Wake draws some parallels in my mind.
DenialThe nature of video game development dictates that we wait at least a year, usually several years, before we receive word of a sequel to a beloved game. I'm not sure I started denying the poor prospects of Alan Wake 2 until some time before American Nightmare arrived. I had read that the original game undersold according to projections. I knew Remedy's reputation for crafting their games slowly and carefully. Such an approach doesn't mesh well with poor sales. Video games, sadly, are a business after all. Microsoft publishing a AAA sequel realistically shouldn't have been very likely given not just the financial commitment, but the time commitment too. Would Microsoft or anyone else get behind another half decade of funding while Remedy pieced together their follow-up thriller, just for it to underperform?
The truth is I should have known the climate was at least wrong at that time and maybe it would never be right, but I was in denial. Alan Wake scratched an itch for me that still no game has to this day. Sometimes I've felt it was made for me in a sense. Its focus on a writer, its not so subtle allusions to Twin Peaks and The Twilight Zone, its pacific northwest setting — it's all taken right out of my own heart. Such elements are what make up my precise taste in media. I couldn't believe one game was all we would get in an industry where sequels run amok and drive the majority of AAA projects. I couldn't see the writing on the wall.
AngerTruthfully, I'm not a very angry person. A few months ago I texted my girlfriend about a problem at work and said 'I'm so mad', and she immediately called me, panicked at what drove me to speak so harshly. I'm just generally able to take things in stride and keep my cool, but in so far as I can get upset, the announcement of American Nightmare put me in that position. Ultimately I enjoyed it for what it was, but it wasn't the direction in which I wanted the series to go. An XBLA title at that time was limited to a 2 GB download, so it felt like any hopes of another thickly settled and detailed setting in Bright Falls or elsewhere was out of the question. To their credit, Remedy smartly found a way to work around such limitations by scripting the story to play out over the same trio of locations a total of three times each, but that was also an obvious concession they had to make in order to get the game to work on the XBLA platform.
Maybe this is untrue, but it seemed Microsoft agreed to fund this smaller project as either a favor to Remedy or to test the waters for a true sequel. I was upset that fans like me wouldn't get the true sequel we were so desiring.
BargainingThe bargaining phase of Dr. Kübler-Ross' theory is described as when the grieving person starts to make concessions in their mindset — to bargain with the world around them. As mentioned, American Nightmare did improve on its predecessor in some important gameplay ways, like more enemy variety and far more weapons. I began to think any more with the property was a good thing. "At least we got this semi-sequel", I thought, "it actually does add some cool things to the series. Maybe Microsoft will see that a sequel is worth publishing." This was my way of dealing with the increasingly troublesome prospects of that proper sequel ever arriving. American Nightmare is a good game, especially as an XBLA title. Still, the story asked more questions than it answered, which only further muddied the waters of the alleged Alan Wake "ocean."
DepressionAt some point my bargaining phase had ended and gave way to the stark blue reality that a sequel is probably never coming. For the better part of the last few years, I had almost given up on the idea of such a game coming to fruition. This was only made worse when I saw they had released scrapped gameplay footage via Polygon. It was real, it was being worked on. Then it was thrown away.
Remedy moved on to do Quantum Break, another fantastic game in my eyes (though scarily positioned for a sequel itself) and has since announced two more games in development. One of them is the story mode for Asia's most popular multiplayer shooter, Crossfire 2. The other is still a mystery but is referred to as "P7", or "Project 7", their seventh game. What the game is not going to be, hurtfully, is Alan Wake 2. They've already said as much because they know otherwise people would speculate and with good reason. Living in a world where the window of opportunity for Alan Wake 2 was at least closing fast, if not locked tightly, it has been one of which I couldn't stand to be a part — until recently.
AcceptanceRemedy has never been shy about wanting to do another game, but there was always an issue of timing. The green light wasn't there post-2010 to get to work on a true sequel, and thus American Nightmare was born in 2012. A year later, they revealed Quantum Break and finally released that last April. Now with P7 not being Alan Wake 2, perhaps it's time to face reality; Alan Wake 2 is a dying dream that will probably never happen.
To my surprise, I've become more comfortable with that as of late. In part, I actually owe it to a community member here on TA. Over in the TA playlist hub, community member FFX Brotherhood provided some valuable insight regarding the future of the series.
At the start Alan tells us that in a horror story there can be no "How or why" because when something loses its mystery it's less interesting. The ending even with the DLC leaves it on a bit of a mystery; anyone think they only ever intended a single game?We know from the concept demos, early builds, and all of Remedy's words since 2010 that Alan Wake was built with a sequel in mind, but I believe this comment still holds a lot of weight because it allows for this apparent goodbye to be more ceremonious than once believed. We have no sequel. Increasingly it looks as though we will never get a sequel. That should tear me up inside, but I think this is what acceptance looks like. The many mysteries of Alan Wake may not ever be answered, but at this point maybe they shouldn't. Could more story and another game ever live up to what I've spent years imagining they would be like?
If ever there comes a day where Alan Wake 2 is revealed, I'll still be elated. Maybe there's still some small chance of that happening. To journey into his world and his mind again is something I would always enjoy, but those opening words ring very true with me now more than ever. I've always appreciated ambiguity in my favorite stories, yet I never wanted it with Wake. Only now, seven years later, am I comfortable with these mysteries forever lingering. "The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end." Even if we never see more of Alan Wake, I won't ever forget it.