Magical Wasteland is written by Matthew S. Burns.

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What Alan Wake Gets Wrong, and Right, About Being a Writer

Tom “actual writer” Bissell was in Seattle recently to read from his book about video games, Extra Lives. While he was here, we got into a discussion about Alan Wake, a recent game that casts a writer as a hero. I was curious to know if the game successfully evoked anything about actually being writer– or if his occupation is about as relevant to the game as Gordon Freeman being a physicist in Half-Life. What follows is our discussion.

A lot of non-adolescent video game heroes tend towards military men or criminals. Were you heartened at all to see a writer as a major video game protagonist? Do you think that makes sense?

I can’t tell you how excited I was to hear about a video game whose protagonist was a fiction writer. Then I read that this fiction writer protagonist could sprint for only about ten feet or so, and I thought, “Yes! They’ve done their research!” For a horror game– sorry, a “psychological thriller,” or whatever the hell Remedy wound up calling it– to have as its hero a horror writer sounded really, really intriguing to me. And it is a great idea. Then I learned that the game was about light and darkness, and that the hero’s name was Alan Wake. That sounded kind of hokey, a little too on-the-nose. It’d be like having a game set in a prison, with a warden as its hero, and naming him Steele Bars. Or a renegade cop game in which the hero goes around renegading while rifling through medicine cabinets for health items, and naming that hero Max Payne. Oh, wait. Remedy already did that.

So you start up the game, and there’s Alan Wake, an author so famous and successful that he apparently has cardboard standees made of him that get distributed nationwide and gets recognized instantly wherever he goes. Of course, when I think of “famous writers who write horror stories about writers,” I think of Stephen King– and it seems Remedy did too, quoting him first thing in the game. 

This is my first complaint about Alan Wake’s take on the writer’s life. There is no writer in America so famous that he would be instantly recognized in every public place he turns up in. Not even Stephen King, I don’t think. His son Owen, also a fiction writer, is one of my dearest pals, so I could probably ask him. In fact, I believe I will, for the purposes of our little inquiry here. (Also, true story: A couple of years ago, I was walking in Brooklyn one morning, and a young guy and his girlfriend walked past me. “Excuse me,” the guy said, double-taking. “Are you Tom Bissell?” Delighted, I said that I was. He said to his girlfriend, “This is the guy who wrote that book I was telling you about!” She nodded, completely not caring about that or me. The guy said he was a fan. Rather than graciously accept this and continue on about my day, I proceeded to creep both of them out by trying to extend the conversation and even intimating that I was available to have breakfast. “We just ate,” the guy said, backing away. It was as mortifying as anything that ever happened to me and marks the only time I’ve ever been recognized in public.) As for all the overt King references, the folks at Remedy obviously read the hell out of him. The flying machinery comes right out of The Tommyknockers, for instance, and the whole idea of rural, small-town, supernatural horror King pretty much invented. I should say that I’m a big Stephen King fan. He was one of the first writers I ever really loved, and who made me want to be a writer. I think he’s hugely underrated and a national storytelling treasure, so I adore the fact that Remedy’s paying homage to him. And yet… Alan Wake is a terrible, terrible writer. You read those manuscript pages and you want to pluck out your eyes they’re so bad. My buddy Rob had the single best zinger I’ve heard about Alan Wake’s debt to the Bard of Bangor: “I think the only Stephen King book they didn’t read was On Writing.”

That’s hilarious. Well, not possessing any real ability to write doesn’t seem to have stopped certain authors from tearing up the charts in the real world, has it? I mean, maybe Alan Wake is a bad writer on purpose, in a brilliant commentary on the hit-driven media industrial complex. And maybe he’s famous everywhere he goes because that’s just the kind of story a middling writer would write himself into.

Your points are valid ones. We live in a world, after all, in which Dan Brown is read by millions. But I really don’t think the intention was to make Alan Wake a cruddy writer. Do you? Let’s talk about the other stuff Alan Wake gets wrong, writer-wise. The first is Barry, his agent. New York literary agents do not talk and act and dress like Joe Peschi. New York literary agents are smoothies, fashion conscious, and extremely cunning. Would you let Barry negotiate your contract? I wouldn’t let him negotiate a candy-bar purchase. Also wrong: Barry is Alan Wake’s childhood best friend, apparently. Your agent should NEVER be your friend, much less your best friend, much less a person you grew up with. Also wrong: Alan Wake’s wife designs his covers. No publisher on this planet would let an author’s spouse design his or her book jacket. I can’t even begin to explain why that is just stupendously wrong.

Here’s a hypothetical situation. You’re been writing a lot, doing good, and suddenly it feels like you lost your inspiration - your writerly mojo. For two years you don’t put down a word. What would you do? Does a tiny Alaskan fishing town next to an Oregon-style forest sound like just what the doctor ordered?

Funnily enough, that’s the one detail I thought was actually pretty good. I went to the Canadian Arctic once to write. I was hardly attacked at all by night monsters, though.

Reader Comments (15)

Awesome post. Here's that article he was talking about at the end of the post I think.
July 29, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterGieson Cacho
As amusing as this skewering of Alan Wake is, he is merely a bad character in a bad game. As you correctly pointed out, Dr. Freeman of MIT is hardly any more realistic despite being a piece of a far better product.

Deriding Alan Wake for his lack of authenticity is a bit like mocking the Big-Mac burger patty for its lack of flavor.
July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames
Great post...though I dispute Steven King as the inventor of the rural, small-town, supernatural horror. I mean, HP Lovecraft, anyone?
July 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commentert6
Within the confines of the games' context, the story seems to hold. Alan Wake is on television shows, paparazzi fights and all the stuff Twilight 'actors' go through. I bet Alan has a Verizon-approved Twitterfeed that's being maintained by some twenty-year old as well.

Although the manuscript pages occasionally were horrible, even for someone who only writes as a pastime. Luckily, the game thrilled the player as it should.
July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterRami Ismail
Interesting post, but I would like to know why it's really that bad for a spouse to design book covers. What if the spouse is a professional photographer like she is in the game?
July 30, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAlice
Fantastic post thank you so must for posting an excerpt of this reading. Extra Lives was fantastic and I must play Alan Wake now.
July 30, 2010 | Unregistered Commentervanlandw

I'm sure, at some point in publishing history, an author's spouse designed his or her cover. But I can say--and I worked as a book editor for five years--that most big publishing houses would never let someone so close to an author as his or her spouse work on the cover. A book jacket is a hugely important part of the publishing process, obviously, and you usually go through four or five proposed jackets before settling on the right one. (And the "right one" will probably not be the one the author liked the most.) It's also an extremely rough process, because the jacket designers want to do something cool and interesting, while the marketing people want something familiar and reassuring. Mix in the editor's and author's thoughts, and you have an utter maelstrom of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, and bad blood. (More than once I saw a jacket designer walk out of a cover meeting holding back tears.) An author whose spouse was designing the jacket would doubtlessly mean even more entrenched and partisan reactions from all involved. The author would naturally want to fight for his or her spouse's work, and the publisher, if it didn't like the cover, would have to risk rupturing its relationship with the author by saying no. The problems posed are just too emotional and too wide-ranging. That said, if you had an author like Alan Wake, and he was a huge bestseller, it's possible that at a certain point the publisher would cave if it recognized that his books were going to sell no matter what.... But I still think any canny writer would avoid putting his publisher and spouse in that position.

Anyone else find it odd that the people commenting on the Kotaku link don't seem to get that Matthew and I are joking here?
July 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bissell
"I mean, maybe Alan Wake is a bad writer on purpose, in a brilliant commentary on the hit-driven media industrial complex."

Not sure how seriously you meant this, but this sort of musing comes up all the time when smart people discuss any aspect of a game whose quality falls somewhere between "actually good" and "obviously bad on purpose", and I can't help but wonder if this is part of the reason games continue to limp along as cultural stepchildren - we are simultaneously lowering our standards and giving designers the benefit of the doubt, when perhaps we should start holding them to whatever standards we would like to see them meet in our ideal future of sophistication and legitimacy.

Then maybe someday the discussion around a game won't be, by default, smarter than the game itself.
August 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJP

I didn't mean it seriously. I have never seen the "it's bad on purpose" argument borne out by what I know of the creators' intentions (at least in video games).

It's tough to maintain high standards in the face of the industry's continual disappointments!
August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew
As to the quality of the writing in Alan Wake:

I dunno, it's not terrible. I mean, I keep hearing people say they hate the manuscript pages and what not, but most aren't bad, just mediocre.

When compared to the rest of the game's script, which in my opinion is above mediocre and perhaps even borders on "good", it seems like it might be intentional that Alan Wake's writing isn't supposed to be the best, just popular.

If nothing else, it should also be considered that:


The manuscript pages were all a first, unedited draft that Alan writes while POSSESSED. It's probably not going to be the best representation of his abilities.

If nothing else, couldn't the writing even be considered genius for forcing the player to question whether or not it's intentionally bad?
August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdam
I was fully convinced Alan's writing was bad on purpose. The overall story and the in-game-dialogue are actually far better than Alan's awful prose, which to me seemed quite close to the overwrought stuff a lot of bestselling horror writers dole out. But I am not a native speaker, so I probably have no clue.
August 2, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJan
The whole thing is though, the game doesn't take itself seriously. Just having the character Barry in it proves that.
August 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterOB
Frankly, I just don't think that many writers in the video game industry - already beset with something less than respect from their peers in other mediums and even the rest of the game industry itself - would intentionally do a poor job. And any game company that possesses writers actually skilled enough to write poorly "on purpose" would be better off using them productively. It's not like the industry is suffering from a glut of excellent writing.

Also, it's perfectly possible to have writers that design story well, write compelling dialogue... And fail utterly when it comes to prose. They're completely different forms. Not all excellent screenwriters are excellent poets or essayists as well.
August 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDan Felder
Incidentally, this question kind of reminds me of Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire - I remember a pretty extensive discussion about if John Shade was deliberately supposed to be a bad poet, or not, and if that even mattered to the rest of the novel.
August 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMatthew

Re: John Shade. He is absolutely intended to be a great poet, and Nabokov instantly shunned anyone who suggested otherwise. Brian Boyd's book Nabokov's Pale Fire, which is an exemplary work of lit crit and one of the best books on VN ever written, has a long chapter on this very issue. I just taught Pale Fire last semester and, to my shame, read the poem carefully for the first time in my four times reading it. And it is pretty goddamn great, I've gotta say.

Here's the craziest thing about Boyd's theory on the other outstanding issue in Pale Fire: who the hell is writing the annotation? Boyd argues that Kinbote is writing under the spiritual possession of Shade's dead daughter. And he makes a good case for that reading.
August 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTom Bissell
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