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.