Why Alan Wake 2 deserves to win Game of the Year

Too many people are sleeping on this gem, so it's time to (Alan) Wake up

Alan Wake 2 header

Way back in January, Martin Scorsese heaped praise on fellow director Todd Field for Tár, a mind-bending Cate Blanchett-led 2022 drama.

In his speech, the legendary Goodfellas filmmaker lamented how it’s “insidious” that many films nowadays “pretty much let us know where they’re going” as they “take us by the hand.” When that happens, he proclaimed, “dark days” fall on cinema. But the “clouds lifted,” he said, after he watched Field’s slow-burn thriller, which dives into the unraveling mental state of a renowned composer during a scandal.

Was Scorsese being a tad dramatic? Sure, but it’s a totally understandable viewpoint considering he’s spent nearly 80 years living and breathing cinema. And if we’re being honest, it’s a sentiment that can apply to multiple art forms, not just film. In fact, I think it’s a pretty accurate assessment of the so-called “AAA” video game space.

As Xbox chief Phil Spencer astutely pointed out in a leaked email, “most publishers are riding the success of franchises created 10+ years ago.” Hell, this year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 — the second game with that title — is so half-baked it rehashes all of the maps from 2009’s beloved MW2. And yet, the game is still selling well and breaking engagement records. Even AAA games that I love, like God of War Ragnarök, tell surprisingly moving stories while also still frustratingly holding your hand as you play, with characters quickly and blatantly spelling things out unprompted.

Modern Warfare 3

The latest Call of Duty feels particularly half-baked in how it repurposes so much old content. Image credit: Activision

It really all stems from that same sense of complacency and risk aversion that Scorsese was talking about. I found myself thinking about that — and his Tár speech, in particular — as I played Remedy Entertainment’s Alan Wake 2. At many points throughout the roughly 18-hour survival horror campaign, I marvelled at how much of a breath of fresh air it all was. Like Tár, it uses the unique strengths of its medium — in the case of gaming, interactivity — to tell an utterly mesmerizing tale that completely transports you into the protagonist’s declining mental state. To use Scorsese’s analogy: playing Alan Wake 2 was like seeing the clouds lift on the AAA space.

So what’s the deal with Alan Wake 2?

It’s difficult to really discuss what Alan Wake 2 does well without spoiling it, but what I will say is that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever played. On paper, there are familiar elements. The game’s tight third-person shooter gameplay and resource management are straight out of Resident Evil, while the trippy story-within-a-story narrative in which tormented horror novelist Alan Wake creates an FBI agent to save him from a nightmarish world owes much to Stephen King and David Lynch.

But it’s how Remedy Entertainment mixes them all together that makes Alan Wake 2 a truly unique experience. Here’s a game that draws on writer-director Sam Lake and his team’s 20-plus-year ludography in utterly clever ways — the pulp noir of Max Payne, the extended live-action cutscenes of Quantum Break and surreal and supernatural Lynchian visuals and setpieces of Control. Moreover, it pulls together story threads, both directly and indirectly, from all of those games to create an impressive shared ‘Remedy Connected Universe.’

Alan Wake 2 city

Spooky. Image credit: Remedy Entertainment

Rockstar owns the rights to Max Payne, so Alan Wake 2 instead features a similarly hard-boiled detective named Alex Casey who shares Sam Lake’s distinctly structured face and James McCaffrey’s gravelly voice. With the Quantum Break property belonging to Microsoft, Alan Wake 2 offers up a mysterious suited man named Mr. Door (David Harewood) who is more than a little reminiscent of the former’s Martin Hatch (the late Lance Reddick). And since Remedy has thankfully always retained the rights to Control, it can freely bring that game’s mysterious Federal Bureau of Control (FBC) organization straight into Alan Wake 2.

Even if you haven’t played all of those games, you can’t help but admire the ambition. It’s a multiverse (of sorts) built not on an unwieldy and ever-growing list of movies and shows like Marvel’s, but on a small handful of creative, genre-bending works. Not only does it give Remedy the well-deserved opportunity to revisit its greatest hits, but it also allows the Finnish developer to get metatextual. It’s easy to draw parallels between how the titular writer tries to escape his all-encompassing Alex Casey novels and Remedy itself charting its own path post-Max Payne.

But to be clear, no prior knowledge of Remedy is required to enjoy Alan Wake 2. In fact, you can even go in having not played the first game and be able to follow along pretty well. Because the other half of Remedy’s storytelling prowess — the use of multimedia — needs to be experienced by as many people as possible. All too often, games feature prolonged movie-like cutscenes in a grand effort to be “cinematic” at the expense of interactivity. Indeed, that was an issue for many with Quantum Break, where entire live-action TV episodes broke up the gameplay. None of this, however, is a problem with Alan Wake 2.

Alan Wake 2 dance

Hell yeah. Image credit: Remedy Entertainment

Quite brilliantly, Remedy uses those live-action segments to enhance the interactivity, not remove it. Instead of having Wake run through a maze to illustrate his conflicted, labyrinthine inner thoughts, let’s have an entire live-action musical number featuring live-action versions of himself, the recurring fictional Remedy rock band Old Gods of Asgard, Mr. Door and none other than Lake singing and dancing around him. When Saga racks her brain over a new lead in an investigation, we don’t just hear an inner monologue — we have a dialogue with the ghostly live-action silhouettes of persons of interest. Even some well-timed jump scares come not from enemies jumping out at you, but FMV versions of Wake or other characters snapping into frame before dissipating.

Pretty much any other game that intertwined in-game visuals with real actors like this would look goofy, but here, it adds to the uneasy, out-of-body atmosphere. While I fell off the original Alan Wake due to its maddeningly stiff and repetitive combat, Alan Wake 2‘s infinitely better shooting and pacing, on top of its captivating multimedia storytelling, result in a moment-to-moment gameplay experience that never ceased to amaze me.

This deserves more recognition

Alan Wake 2 is undoubtedly a critical darling, especially in the games media space — so much so, in fact, that it’s tied with Baldur’s Gate 3 for the most Game Awards nominations, and one of those eight nods includes Game of the Year. But so far, it seems like not that many people are playing it. While Remedy and publisher Epic Games have been quiet on sales figures, analytics firm Circana suggests that Alan Wake 2 wasn’t among the top 150 most-played games last month. You’d also imagine we’d have heard about the commercial performance if it was strong, as companies are wont to do. It kills me to see that at the same time something as embarrassingly lackluster as a regurgitated Call of Duty is doing so well.

I don’t know what the answer is to get more people to give Alan Wake 2 a chance. Of course, more marketing from Epic Games and Remedy will help to some extent. But what I do know, if nothing else, is that we need to celebrate what Remedy has done here. It’s a game that features jaw-droppingly gorgeous AAA-level production values yet refuses to settle for something generic. In an industry that can often feel homogenous, Remedy’s clear and unmatched vision — its willingness to take such big, weird swings as live-action musical numbers — must be commended.

For those reasons, I’m rooting for Alan Wake 2 to sweep The Game Awards — hell, every award. Maybe that added exposure will help sell those who are sleeping on it, or, even better, inspire another game creator. And I say all of this as someone who doesn’t even consider Alan Wake 2 his personal Game of the Year (that would be Baldur’s Gate 3). But I can’t deny that Alan Wake 2‘s win would further validate Remedy’s unwavering commitment to wholly original games. To paraphrase Martin Scorsese, let’s lift those dark clouds.

Alan Wake 2 is now available digitally on PS5, Xbox Series X/S and PC (Epic Games Store). The Game Awards will be held on December 7th.

Header credit: Remedy Entertainment

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