In a sea of exemplar video games released in 2023, “Alan Wake 2” is the work most interested in pushing the boundaries of its franchise, its genre and even its medium.
More than any recent year, 2023’s guntlet of critically acclaimed games made it exceptionally difficult to choose a single title as the best. “Baldur’s Gate 3” ends the pursuit of a long-held dream to replicate the experience of playing “Dungeons & Dragons” and is a monumental achievement of script structuring and game design. “The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom” makes a strong case as the best in a series long considered the zenith of creativity and innovation in the industry.
But there’s a common thread among all of these titles: They are paragons of evolution. Their biggest concern and eventual success focused on perfecting their respective series or genres. That’s a feat to be celebrated and honored for sure, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that although these diverse experiences were excellent, we weren’t seeing anything wildly new from the industry. And then came “Alan Wake 2,” created by Remedy Entertainment and co-directed by Sam Lake and Kyle Rowley.
The game’s nature as a sequel is right in the name, but it belies a rebel spirit. It’s the continuing story of Alan Wake, a famous but hacky novelist who suffered writer’s block in 2010 and suddenly found that the real world began to reflect a book he doesn’t remember writing. Wake went missing soon afterward. In this year’s sequel, FBI agents Saga Anderson and Alex Casey investigate a series of murders in the rural Washington town where Wake was last seen. At a murder site, Anderson finds a page of writing that describes exactly what she and Casey are doing. The pair begin to question the nature of what’s real and what’s fiction.
It seems like a fairly standard thriller with a twist, clearly inspired by Stephen King books and David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks,” but it’s how this narrative unfolds that makes this game stand out even among those works. Remedy Entertainment is keenly interested in how media and communication shape understanding of ourselves and history. “Alan Wake 2” experiments in various forms of media, art and human expression.
“Alan Wake 2” isn’t just a video game, it’s also episodes of a late-night talk show, a jubilant rock opera, an anthology of cheap, local TV commercials, a book’s rough draft, a serial network TV show, an art house short film, a tell-all memoir and a concept pop album. The game argues that everything, from advertising to subway signs, is art, and it matters in our world, regardless of how we pay heed. Games such as “Baldur’s Gate 3” ask us who we want to be, grant us the power to fulfill that wish and take control of our dreams. But in dreams, we’re never in control. “Alan Wake 2” doesn’t ask who we want to be, but who we were, who we are and who we might become.
It’s no accident that Wake’s main trade is the printed word, the engine for some of humanity’s most deeply embedded ideas and beliefs. Today with mass media, literary and cultural archetypes like the “hard-boiled cop” or “protective mother heroine” (both of which “Alan Wake 2” employs in its two lead characters) hum in the back of our minds and memories, like an old TV jingle or nursery rhyme. “Alan Wake 2” interrogates how these ideas come into existence, how they flood our head space through media, how they change us and how we change them.
Like stanzas in a poem, chapters in a James Joyce novel, or verses of a surrealist Bob Dylan song, all these disparate moving parts and media formats complete each other’s meaning so thoroughly that this game can only exist and be consumed in totality. Even the sections with interpretive dance (yes, that’s here too) drip heavy with meaning and metaphor.
This wouldn’t be as good if it was just a dour mental exercise. But this game’s ebullience shines in numerous sequences, and one of the simplest takeaways of this otherwise confounding text is that Lake and his team clearly had a lot of fun. This might be a horror thriller, but it’s also exceptionally funny in many sequences. When the characters laugh or smile, it feels honest. The small towns of Bright Falls and Watery are completely explorable with optional objectives, foreboding cabins in the woods and hidden treasures. And while its action doesn’t quite hit the high watermark of the Resident Evil series, it’s clear that was never the intention.
Despite all of its cinematic and multimedia trappings, the game always remembers and acknowledges the player’s involvement. This elevates “Alan Wake 2” above its contemporaries such as the critically acclaimed “The Last of Us.” The player can choose to play as Wake or Agent Anderson at almost any moment of the game, granting audience autonomy in how the story unfolds. The context of certain scenes and your interpretation may differ depending on what order you tackle these chapters, or even how many times you replay the entire game.
As Agent Anderson asks herself, “Are we the characters or the audience?” This game addresses that question with the utmost seriousness and sincerity, threaded across several chapters of thrilling survival horror gameplay.
Within “Alan Wake 2’s” sometimes impenetrable imagery is an obvious truth: Video games can encompass every form of art, and the act of creativity, no matter its shape or form, can lodge itself into our hearts and minds and never leave. It is about the untapped potential of the medium and the pains it takes to create such a piece. I’m reminded of a quote by legendary French filmmaker and critic François Truffaut: “I demand that a film express either the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not at all interested in anything in between.” Here is something that houses both ambitions, a game of enormous depth, wit and passion. Remedy Entertainment created the game industry’s most vital work of 2023.