Storytelling must, by definition, be linear. Not linear in the sense that the plot must proceed with a unidirectional motion in time from point A to point B and so on, but in the sense that a plot is a series of individual events that tell a story when placed in sequence. There is no rule that that sequence must run in a straight line in terms of time; Pulp Fiction is a well-known example of how fractured chronology can brilliantly enhance the telling of the story. But stories must have a beginning and an ending point, that is how they function structurally, even if the beginning and ending points of the story are totally different to the beginning and ending points of the plot. Scholars recognise this as the distinction between fabula and sujet – the difference between the story and the way it is told.
Propps to my main man, Vladimir. Rocking it Russian Formalist style, biatch.
In this sense, there is no such thing as thing as non-linear storytelling, for you cannot pick up a book, read chapter ten and then read chapter one expecting the plot to make any kind of sense. Even stories that flitter backwards and forwards in time do so (or should) for dramatic effect. An excellent example of this is the film Memento, where the story is told backwards to mimic the effect of Leonard’s debilitating memory loss. It’s a genius conceit: like Leonard, we have no idea what has occurred before the beginning of each scene, and like Leonard we fly by the seat of our pants trying to figure out what’s going on. Unlike Leonard, however, we are afforded the hindsight to see where the story will end, and the narrative trajectory hinges on discovering what started this whole crazy mess. That is the dramatic effect of the device.
Even stories in videogames must have a structure to have any impact, which is why the plots of games like GTAIV and Red Dead Redemption will always lack a crucial element of urgency – there shouldn’t be any time to herd cattle when the life of your family is at stake. Which is why it’s interesting to learn that murky nocturnal horror hitch-hike Alan Wake was originally envisioned as an open-world game, even more interesting to learn that Remedy made the decision to excise the free-roaming elements for a more focused story arc. Sandbox games always feel distinctly unsatisfying as narratives because it’s hard to create any kind of narrative tension when the player is free to forsake the story at his leisure to explore the game world. This is the unusual tension you always find in open-world games – if Niko Bellic’s reason for coming to America is to seek vengeance upon the man who betrayed him, then why does he spend ages cruising around trying to run over pedestrians and going for burgers with his cousin? His all-consuming thirst for revenge must not have been all-consuming enough.
Pictured: Not revenge.
Not only did Remedy remove the free-roaming element of Alan Wake, they created a game that nakedly, self-consciously announces its own linearity, slowly bringing the player to the realisation that they are journeying down a pre-ordained path. It is no coincidence that the game’s main character is a writer, because his role as an author – an arranger of stories – pervades the game. Wake is an unconventional video game hero: a bestselling writer of trashy thriller novels, arrogant and self-obsessed, he has no skill with weapons or indeed with women. Crippled with writer’s block, he heads with his wife Alice to the sleepy forest idyll of Bright Falls for a holiday, partly to seek the inspiration to lift his current literary slump, partly to repair his marriage.
It is not long before Alice is plucked from their lakeside retreat by a dark, malevolent presence, and Alan wakes up a week later with no recollection of the previous seven days. As you seek to rescue Alice, you must do battle with the monstrous “Taken” – regular human beings who have been possessed by the demonic darkness, destructible only by shining light on them. Meanwhile, Alan starts mysteriously finding pages of a novel he has yet to write, and he pieces together that the novel he doesn’t remember writing is starting to come true.
Ah, the library. The perfect place TO BROOD.
So far, so Stephen King. I mentioned before it’s no accident Alan Wake’s main character is a writer, and the relationship between author and reader neatly mirrors the relationship between game-maker and game-player. Just as the discrete events of a story are ordered by the writer to form a compelling plot, so too do developers structure a world and shepherd us through it. What makes Alan Wake uncommon is that it is always reminding the player that they are being led down the developers’ yellow-brick road, utilising a text-diary storytelling mechanic familiar to the survival horror genre in the form of the myriad manuscript sheets that litter the game’s levels. These pages of text, delivered in monologue by Alan himself, eerily foretell not just major plot points, but entire portions of gameplay; I remember beating a boss and then reading over a manuscript page I had collected earlier that warned I had been about to encounter him. The narrative effect of these manuscript pages is to hammer home that the the game is a constructed thing, just like a novel, the journey you are undertaking has been decided far in advance. It is ironic that Alan Wake, a man who by trades in yanking readers down the corridors of his fictions, finds himself fatalistically trapped in a real life thriller plot of his own invention.
The ultimate revelation in the story is that the otherworldly darkness is trying to enter our world by willing Alan to write it into existence. In this way, the game’s literal battle between light and darkness becomes a metaphor for the act of artistic creation – the writer conjures worlds and stories into light from the darkness. That may sound like a laboured interpretation, but I think it has genuine consequences for how the game tells its story. By acknowledging the role of the writer in a story, the game sacrifices itself to it, taunting us with the fact that we have no real agency as players, that we are slaves to a narrative already written.
I love how all stories about writers involve a typewriter somehow, even though they are charmingly anachronistic.
Having successfully defeated the evil presence, Alan rescues Alice. Realising that there must be some kind of balance between darkness and light, Alan offers himself to the darkness in exchange for his wife’s mortal soul. Claimed by the nothingness, Alan cryptically exclaims: “It’s not a lake – it’s an ocean.” How do we interpret the game’s final line? For what it’s worth, I think the game kind of gets it wrong. If Alan Wake is a game intensely preoccupied with the role of the author and his control over the reader, then the game must be a lake, taking a self-contained, determined form at the behest of the creators. It cannot be an ocean, a story cannot support itself if it thrashes and swells endlessly like the churning of the waves. Alan Wake embraces linearity, flaunts it, weaves it into the fabric of its gameplay and story; it seems oddly disingenuous for the game to imply, however nebulously, that its intentions were any different.
Admittedly, it wouldn’t make for half as good a closing line: “It’s not an ocean – it’s a lake.” Talk about anti climax.