Note: If you haven't played through "Alan Wake," you should be warned that the focus of this post is on the very ending of the game. If you don't want it spoiled for you, you should stop reading now."
I finished "Alan Wake" a few weeks ago, and since then I've been scratching my head trying to think of a more memorable final line to any video game than the one that closes Remedy's thriller. Maybe it's the game's focus on story, or the gut-wrenching cliff-hanger in which the game ends, but since I finished it, that final line keeps ringing in my head, begging for explanation. "It's not a lake, it's an ocean." Powerful and mysterious at the same time, it has since led to numerous discussions with other games writers and friends.
I recently spoke with Matias Myllyrinne, Managing Director of Remedy, about the future DLC plans for "Alan Wake," but during my interview I couldn't help but ask a few questions about the original release, specifically regarding that mind-bending final line.
Myllyrinne has worked with Sam Lake, the game's lead writer, for 11 years, so he has come to anticipate curve balls like, "It's not a lake, it's an ocean."
"He has a sense of humor with some of these things. Stuff like [the final line], you almost learn to expect from him. For me, my first reaction when I saw the line in the script was that it's a pun on his name. That was my initial reaction."
But there's obviously more going on in that last line than just a play on words. I pressed for more of an explanation, not really expecting him to give me one. What he gave me, though, was a more concrete interpretation of how that final line could be read:
"You could say that you look at the lighthouse [on the ocean] in the beginning of the game, in the nightmare, but on the other hand there's Cauldron Lake in reality, so there's the duality between the subjective and the objective. Is it all in your head or is it really happening? In the dream, it's an ocean, but in reality, it's a lake. We're playing with that fine line of subjective and objective there, and I think that comment alludes to that. That's my interpretation, anyway, not a writer's explanation of it."
Granted, it's not "the ocean means X and the lake means Y" but that's never been Remedy's style when it comes to storytelling. Even the "Max Payne" games were constantly making users question what was real and what wasn't, and "Alan Wake" is pressing the point even further. The important thing to note, and the point I believe Matias is trying to make, is that you can't simply read the line literally. Like the sleepy town of Bright Falls, there's more going on well below the surface.
The lake and the lighthouse aren't the only symbolic elements of "Alan Wake," though they may be the most prominent. You may have missed some of the more subtle symbols scattered throughout the game, just as Matias admitted he did when he first read the script.
"If you look at the character of Barbara Jagger, interestingly enough in Slovak folklore there's a character called Baba Yaga. Phonetically they're fairly similar. Plus, some of the Norse mythology with Thor and Odin and The Old Gods of Asgard and themes of that sense are mixed and intertwined. And once you start to look at the birds as a mythological element and not necessarily just a Hitchcock element, it just touches on various mythologies that you don't see at face value. There are different levels and not everything is always clear cut and explained."
"Alan Wake" may be an enjoyable action game with an interesting story, but it's clear that the developers had considerably more depth in mind when they were creating this world. Oftentimes in video games, the story gets short shrift. In the case of "Alan Wake," it seems there was simply too much to fit into a single game. Hopefully next month's first DLC pack will shed some light on the fascinating world of Bright Falls and the plight of the beloved, gun-toting author.