Alan Wake 2 is a writer’s nightmare, but a horror fan’s dream

 Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2

TechRadar Gaming is reporting live from Gamescom 2023 on the latest and greatest developments in gaming and hardware.

It’s been thirteen long years since the tortured author Alan Wake has seen the light of day. Outside of some nods throughout Remedy’s mind-bending 2019 action-adventure Control and its AWE DLC, the complicated Wake has been locked in an eternal nightmare, battling the Dark Place continuously since the events of the first game… and it shows.

After getting a taste of Alan Wake 2 deuteragonist Saga’s experience in Bright Falls earlier this year at Summer Game Fest, Remedy brought something new to Gamescom 2023 with a 40-minute hands-off Dark Place demo, giving us a closer look at how Alan has been coping. Unsurprisingly, he’s not doing so well.

The Alan we know isn’t lost, but there's a grim veneer on him now. His hair has grown out, and his beard is notably more grey than before. ”We were showing that he's a flawed character in the first game that's struggling with certain things; now they are kind of on the surface, and he comes across as more raw,” said Sam Lake, Creative Director at Remedy Entertainment. “(Ilkka Villi, the actor providing Alan Wake’s likeness) always kept being told in the shoot (Alan Wake) was scared but cool. And now he felt that the cool part is gone.”

Open the Door

Kicking off the demo, Alan finds himself the premier guest on a late-night talk show, In Between with Mr. Door. If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard the name before in the dreams of Control’s Dylan Faden.

While under the influence of an evil force called the Hiss, players can prompt Dylan into conversations, one of which features him speaking about a dream where he encountered Mr. Door, who explained, “...There are many worlds - side-by-side, on top of each other, some inside of others.” It’s clear that whatever Mr. Door is doing with Alan is part of Remedy’s connected universe, much like the Oceanview Motel, though we’ll get to that soon, too.

Mr. Door’s tone is commanding and firm, whereas Alan is clearly confused. Door leads the interaction by delivering some unnerving expository information surrounding the launch of Wake’s sequel book, Initiation, which mirrors the events of Alan Wake 2.

“I mean, the writer is physically in his writer's room, trapped there. And he projects himself out to this dark dream of New York through the story he is writing, like astral projection,” Door says. Alan jokes that he should be taking notes as he doesn’t remember writing Initiation, with Door rebutting, “Notes to that other Alan Wake in that room, writing as we speak… are we all in your story, Alan?”

This acts as a firm reminder that the true Alan Wake is held up in a writer's room somewhere. The rest of us, playable Alan included, are likely just further plot points in this surreal story. Trying to wrap your head around all of this is a confusing but ultimately invigorating process, and I can’t wait to find out more.

Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2

The televised portion was a live-action sequence framed between in-game interactions, a process used in Remedy’s other games, like Quantum Break and Control to unnerving effect. Unlike previous iterations, though, this implementation feels even more seamless. Across the entirety of the 40-minute preview, there were plenty of moments that left me wondering whether I was watching a real actor perform, a 3D model or a subtle mix of both. “The idea is to keep you kind of off balance, as Alan is, in these surprising moments of changing medium,” Lake explained.

“Next-generation consoles allow us to stream off the hard drive a lot faster, but our technology from Control was not up to speed to actually feed that data to the actual, like, hardware system,” said Kyle Rowley, game director on Alan Wake 2. “So we updated our technology specifically for this game, not only on how we deal with streaming, but also we have a completely new rendering technology, and we built new terrain technology. We have lots and lots of weather systems, too, lots of cool stuff that was basically built specifically for (Alan Wake 2).”

Alan’s psyche is leaking into the Dark Place, providing him minimal agency in a sinister world imbued with his memories. We watch as he explores a daunting, dimly lit New York. This fictional version has none of the hustle and bustle, trading food vendors and street performers for shadowy figures and haunting graffiti.

Curious figments of Alan’s mental minutiae pop up in this realm, including a neon-soaked Oh Deer! Diner to Night Springs posters teasing a new season for the live-action show that appeared in the original game. The bleed between Wake and the world around him seems to be closer and more cutting than ever. It’s more of a waking nightmare than a trip down memory lane.

Familiar sights

Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2

The sequel has shaken up a few of the original stylistic choices, opting this time around for an over-the-shoulder point of view evocative of Resident Evil 4. This makes things feel a lot more immediate as Alan moves around the space, adding palpable tension from the jump.

A mysterious phone call prompts Alan to find Caldera Station, with the person on the line explaining Alan has forgotten again and that they are ‘on the same team’. An unnerving starting point that puts players immediately on the back foot. Alan seems to know the voice; however, the lines cut off before we learn anything more about the caller.

Wake moves through the world, with some of the Dark Presence’s cronies challenging him, many of whom look suspiciously like Wake himself. While the team assured us this was a glitch in this demo, it wouldn’t be too surprising to find the Dark Place once again using his likeness to cause him pain, with Mr. Scratch almost certainly due for a return in the sequel if the in-game graffiti featuring his name is anything to go by. Where some enemy types are just puffs of smoke, others are volatile extensions of the Dark Presence seeking to deal serious damage.

One grievance I had with the original Alan Wake was the combat, which was relatively simple and could often feel repetitive as you followed the story. From what we could see in the demo, there’s been quite the overhaul, with Remedy opting for tension and larger enemies over sheer quantity.

"The Angel Lamp plays a big part in the traversal of this fantasy New York, as you’ll need it to reshape entrances to find a way forward."

In the first game, Bright Falls was a tactile place with living citizens taken by the Dark Presence and twisted into zombie-like enemies, providing a permanent bond with reality. But here in the Dark Place, every shadow has the possibility of being an enemy, so you can never be sure whether you’re safe. This adds an eerie atmosphere to the imaginary city. “In Wake’s experience, we call them fade-outs; we wanted to really focus on this idea of paranoia and not being able to trust what's real,” explained Rowley.

As you explore, Alan uses a new tool called the Angel Lamp that can capture light and transfer it, illuminating certain dimly-lit areas of the Dark Place with the press of a button. The Angel Lamp plays a big part in the traversal of this fantasy New York, as you’ll need it to reshape entrances to find a way forward. The Angel Lamp is also linked to ‘The Clicker’ from the original Alan Wake, being the light source the switch was severed from.

On the streets, Alan encounters Alex Casey, a fictional detective from Wake’s own mind who is suddenly brought to life in this damned city in an on-the-nose reference to Remedy’s Max Payne series. Alan Wake 2 gives us quite a few versions to check out, from the fictional, suspicious detective in the Dark Place to the very real FBI agent assisting Saga in Bright Falls. In the Dark Place, Casey is angry, believing Alan to be involved in a series of murders enacted by a ritualistic group called the ‘Cult of the Word’, who may or may not be linked to the serial killings occurring in Saga’s portion of the narrative, by the ‘Cult of the Tree.’

When Casey meets a quick demise after meeting Alan, he is sure to tell Wake that he’s not going to get what he wants and that he doesn’t, in fact, “know shit”. Much like Mr. Door, Casey is likely to be an important character in Alan Wake 2, making appearances all over the game’s narrative as we progress.

The safe place

Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2

An over-the-shoulder viewpoint isn’t the only comparison between Alan Wake 2 and other survival horror games, as Remedy has opted for save rooms this time around, giving Alan a break in brightly lit areas with the former collectible Oh Deer! Diner Thermoses finally being put to good use as save points. It appears these rooms will also have more significance than just a place to stop, save and take a break from the darkness.

Lake explained that you’ll be able to switch between Saga and Alan’s story in special break rooms. You can actually play out the entire game as either protagonist or jump back and forth at will. “We alter it at the very beginning to introduce both sides of the story and mechanics involved,” Lake says. “But once we are up and running, it's up to the player.”

As Alan moves into an abandoned subway station, we’re introduced to another new puzzle solution called 'Rewrite Reality,' which appears to be a fully-realized version of the mechanic seen in Alan Wake’s American Nightmare. As Wake uncovers important areas or plot points, he finds inspiration that he can use to alter inaccessible parts of the Dark Place with his reality-bending writing skills.

Things get very meta when using this mechanic, as players will be transported to a pocket reality, Alan’s Writer’s Room, where they can play with a storyboard full of cue cards to open up new pathways in the Dark Place. Rowley confirmed that there’s only one correct path that allows you to progress in the game; however, exploring alternative options allows you to find hidden secrets and lore - so it’s worth investigating.

Our journey down below also led us to a new character, Tim Breaker, who is played by none other than Shawn Ashmore, the actor who portrayed Quantum Break’s protagonist, Jack Joyce. While we don’t learn a lot about Breaker’s place in this world, it seems like there may be a link between this Dark Place Tim Breaker and Sarah Breaker, the Sheriff of Bright Falls, where Saga is investigating. Sarah’s father, Frank Breaker, is a former agent of the Federal Bureau of Control, creating another fascinating Remedy Connected Universe link. Could Tim be Frank’s son? Who knows, but we’re excited about the possibility.

Alan Wake 2
Alan Wake 2

At one point in the latest Alan Wake 2 trailer, we see a dishevelled Wake bursting through a spiral door that Control players will recognize from the Oceanview Motel, which is something of a gateway to the wider Remedy Connected Universe. “This is a Remedy Connected Universe experience,” Lake explained. “So Alan Wake and Control are part of it, and we have versions of certain elements coming into play, Oceanview being one of them. You get to visit A Dark Place version of it, and you get to explore it plenty.”

However, new players won’t feel left out if they haven’t played the studio’s other games. Remedy wants this highly anticipated sequel to be playable even without prior knowledge, “That's very much the kind of philosophy behind creating the Remedy Connected Universe experience; every one of them needs to be still contained,” Lake said.

The demo draws to a close with Alan entering another liminal space underneath the subway station where, in the distance, we see a mutilated body on a stone slab. As Wake moves forward, a forest scene overlays on the screen, evocative of key scenes from Twin Peaks: The Return.

Flickers of Saga break through and begin to talk with Alan as he arrives at the corpse of what is clearly FBI Agent Robert Nightingale, a character from the first game who also plays a part in Alan Wake 2’s Bright Falls storyline. Alan begs Saga for help and explains that he’s trapped and he’s getting close to an escape, but the Dark Presence is after him. Their temporal transmission cuts off shortly after, leaving questions about what may connect the dual protagonists.

Suddenly, Alan feels a shift in the Dark Place as Parliament Tower, his former home that he shared with his partner Alice Wake, emerges from the rubble. Wake feels closer to home now, though what’s waiting in that cursed apartment is anyone's guess.

Thanks to its atmospheric visuals and the introduction of several clever new mechanics (including a warranted perspective shift), Alan Wake 2 makes a seriously compelling impression. Remedy’s unique commitment to storytelling made each new area of the Dark Place feel like a treasure trove of information you could spend all day unpacking. Wrapping up, Lake and Rowley mentioned inspirations such as Twin Peaks, Midsommar and True Detective Season 1, and I’m keen to enter the nightmare on October 27 and see how these eclectic influences unravel first-hand across Alan and Saga’s intertwining narrative.

Alan Wake 2 is one of the year's most anticipated upcoming games. If you're looking for a spooky fix in the meantime, though, be sure to check out our best horror games list ahead of Remedy's latest release.