Alternate Reality: Alan Wake, Synchronicity, And The Dark Presence

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[As I was going through the cblogs, looking for the first July Monthly Musing to promote, Wrenchfarm’s caught my eye. I expected most people to use the topic of Alternate Reality to talk about bringing something from a video game into real life. Wrechfarm takes a totally different approach, one I didn’t even think of when I made the topic, and talks about a personal connection he has to the story of Alan Wake, and how it almost seems like the Dark Presence is bleeding into real life. Like he says, it’s a bit of an odd read, and it’s also rather long, but I think it’s a great (and unexpected) use of this month’s theme and definitely worth reading. — JRo]

I am not writing fiction. I am not going to fan-fic a scenario of how cool it would be if Mario were real and we could go squish some turtles and get messed up on shrooms together. I am going to be real. I am going to talk about how the dark presence from Alan Wake has managed to escape from the confines of that narrative and spread itself into my life through the artists I know and love.

Synchronicity is a concept created by famed psychologist Carl Jung. Really quickly, its about how things that are not directly related interact together in a meaningful manner. The off the cuff example of this in my life is encountering the same unique high score initials on a Marvel Super Heroes cabinet in a tiny arcade in London, Ontario as I constantly did on the one cabinet in the theatre in my home town. What were the chances of running into the same highscore name so far from home? Clearly this guy, whoever he was, was my destined Marvel rival. If you want to be academically critical about it, it’s kind of a lazy theory based on pseudoscience and mystical thinking. I don’t care. Being honest with myself, the distance to London from my home town only felt long because I never drove anywhere; to a mobile gamer it would be no big deal. Plus, its not like there were a ton of arcades or Marvel cabinets out there, and its natural that dedicated players would get around, but at the time it seemed cosmic — like I had this enemy cloaked in shadow staying one step ahead of me. Frankly, I prefer it that way. Like I said, I don’t care. I love the idea. Its something that just caught in my mind, always there at the back of my skull, and it is particularly applicable to the way I experienced and enjoyed Alan Wake and why it has had such an immense effect on me.

I should probably say, this is an odd post. I going to discuss the variety of weird coincidences of overlapping themes and connections between some of my favourite artists, their works, and the game Alan Wake. I can see this has being kind of weird and awkward for other people reading it, sort of like when someone insists on telling you all about this dream they had and you are like “yeah, I’m sure its all deep and involving for you, but to me its just boring and kind of embarrassing.”

Assume some spoilers along the way.

I was super hyped for Alan Wake before its release because it looked like it was a game that was custom made to my tastes.

I was the number one fanboy of Max Payne. I must have pushed that game on every person I knew at the time (even the non-gamers), insisting they pick up a copy or barrow mine. I STILL use the mouse pad that came with the first game. Its is about 7 x 6 inches, far too small for playing FPS games and my mouse constantly falls off the edge and gets me killed. Its picture is stained with a spirograph like design of coffee rings and its surface is roughly 25% dead skin cells. I should get rid of it; get a mouse pad that actually fits my needs and isn’t a disease ridden bio hazard, but I can’t bear to part with it.

I considered it an abomination when Max Payne 2: A Noir Love Story, started populating bargain bins and being unceremoniously lumped in 2 for 1 deals with shovelware not fit to lick its boots. I chafed at the notion and more than once actually considered spending $10 dollars of my hard earned money to rescue a copy from the bin, just to give it the respect it deserved (I never did — I’m a fanboy, not an idiot). I loved both games. The John Woo gun fighting, the gimmicky battle and health system, all of that gameplay stuff. But what I loved the most, what really made me glomp on those games like a 15 year old girl was the writing. That heavy handed noir delivery which some enjoyed ironically (so bad its good) and others (like me) just loved on its own merits. The darker than dark plot of a man who had nothing to lose descending into a nightmare of narcotics and bloodshed. The story of two utterly broken individuals trying to find some piece of happiness with each other ripped apart by betrayal and ambition.

This is infected. Don’t touch.

When I learned about Alan Wake, the notion of the same developer creating a game based on a writer struggling against malicious phantasms of his own creation — possibly real, possibly all part of a psychological break down, sent shivers down my spine. Details about the game came slow and were occasionally contradictory, but I kept my eye on the title over its long development cycle. When I heard that the devs were using the same writer from Max Payne, I rejoiced. When I heard they were taking stylistic cues from David Lynch, Stephen King, H.P Lovecraft, Twin Peaks, and the Twilight Zone, my jaw hit the floor. It was like they were reading from a list of things Nic wanted to hear. Its long development cycle seemed designed to torture and tease me. Its nebulous nature as quasi-vapourware gave the game itself a kind of mythical quality. Like if only true fanboys like me tenderly flamed the tiny light in our heart for this game would it actually come to pass. It gave it that underdog appeal that I’m drawn to.

When the game finally passed the threshold from vapourware to “actual thing that is going to happen soonish” I started easing back on consuming info on it. This is a game based on a thrilling suspenseful narrative filled with twists and surprises, and I didn’t want the fun being spoiled by a loose lipped dev or some forum detective. Hell, I tried not to look at the trailers too hard. I wanted my experience with the game to be as fresh and unexpected as possible.

So I was totally unprepared for it when it happened.

I was wandering just outside the lumber mill. It was dark (of course) and I was scared. I only had a revolver and a torch, wasting the only flare I had fumbling with the shoulder buttons trying to doge. I took refuge in a tiny shack and listened to the radio trying to collect my bearings. Pat Maine, the old DJ I met on the boat, was going on about something – trying to sooth the other night hawks still wandering in the dark. He had no idea what was really going on, who really needed help. He hung up on the caller, spun a little old school wisdom and said it was time for some music. A low and sinister bass line instantly pierced my subconscious. “I know this song…” and my ears perked as my mind processed why it seemed so familiar. “What? No way, nothing this cool could ever possibly happen.”

But it did.

On the radio was Nick Cave’s “Up Jumped the Devil“.

You know how I described what a fanboy I am for Max Payne? My love for that title is nothing compared to my adoration for Nick Cave. Nick Cave is a musician who has been working since the earlier 80’s making some of the most provocative, scary, and beautiful music that will never be played on the radio. His early years in the Birthday Party had him screaming and gnashing his way through songs describing civil war in heaven and a murder’s self-pity. Two decades in Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds had him singing about doomsday and hope in equal turn. Beautiful melodies filled with regret, longing, and love, balanced out by an album comprised of nothing but murder ballads. He has had a faithful cult following for years, but perhaps his largest commercial success was a duet he performed with pop star Kylie Minogue called Where the Wild Roses Grow, in true Cave form it is a dark love song that manages to be poetically beautiful while ending in murder that somehow managed to slip into the collective mainstream.

Notice how the cover of The Boatman’s Call looks similar to the cover of Max Payne? Synchronicity strikes again.

There is no genre for Nick Cave. The most accurate description I ever heard was “evil folk”, but that ignores his post-punk roots. I had the pleasure of seeing him live a few years back. The audience was comprised of bikers with more tattoos than braincells, skinny nerds in Elvis Costello glasses and trilby hats, old ladies who were politely asking the doorman if it was ok to bring in some chocolate they had purchased earlier in the day.

It was a weird group is what I’m trying to say. His music connects with the outcasts, the nuanced, and the literate.

So here we have a game that already seemed custom made for my tastes coming out of nowhere to deliver a a precision guided strike against the endorphin factory in my brain. Too good to be true. The developers had already listed a dream team of literary and thematic influences that fit perfectly in line with my tastes and interests, but I had never even considered their musical background. Clearly the fans and makers of this game are on the same mental wave-length. The darkness in Nick Cave’s music was an inspiration for Sam Lake and the dev team. It resonated on the same frequency so well that it fit in smoothly and naturally with the narrative. The dark presence recognizes its paths of contagion and seeks them out.

To me though, this was a meeting of my favourite things. This was peanut butter wrapped in chocolate. This was Spider-man and Batman shaking hands. There was no way things could get even better.

But they did.

Not only did I hear “Up Jumped the Devil” again when it was used as a chapter break, I was also treated to Poe’s “Haunted“. Poe is another relatively unpopular artist I have loved for years and was completely floored to hear the game.

Now you have to understand, Poe actually has a special connection to gaming for me. Back in the year 2000 I was introduced to the wild and crazy world of multiplayer frag fests through the combined magic of a few pirated copies of Quake 3 and the poorly supervised computer lab at my highschool. Although I would become an avid multiplayer gamer, at this point I was still hooked on consoles, our family had yet to join the modern age with a computer capable of running games more complicated than Scorched Earth. My friends, man, they were sharks. They all had computers at home. They had all been playing Q3 for nearly a year before I even saw it in motion. Worst of all, they all had cool handles for themselves online. Fancy names with lots of weird symbols in them that I didn’t even know where to find on the keyboard. When I was prompted to enter a handle I almost put “Nic” before my senses stopped me. Dear god, can you imagine the shame? Can you imagine seeing “Nic was humiliated by {FAIL}Sk3lt0r Zer0” up in the kill log?


I needed a name, something that would show them I couldn’t be pushed around, something that spoke to my teenage rage, that immature but all consuming urge to lash out at everyone and everything around me. I selected the guy with a bandana and goggles and dubbed him “Angry Johnny” from the Poe song of the same title, I was ready to rock. Once I got online at home I ditched that identity for the less angsty “Raindog”, but I still rocked the Angry Johnny tag whenever I played at school or with that group. I would have never thought that I would hear Poe, an artist so indirectly but inseparably linked in my mind with gaming, actually in a game! It is a weird sort of coincidence for me, but pretty much only for me. Thankfully, there are more coincidences to mine with Poe’s appearance in Alan Wake’s soundtrack.

(Oh hey, just as an aside. The name Raindog, a handle I used for years in Counter-Strike and Day of Defeat? It comes from a Tom Waits song called Raindog. Tom Waits is of course another cult music deity who specializes in noir-jazz send ups and madness soaked carnival music. At one point in Max Payne 2 you can listen in on two thugs who quote part of the song. I flipped when I heard it. Again, the guys at Remedy are tapped into the same cultural, cosmic, meta vein I am. It gets even more fun when you know that Nick Cave also cites Tom Waits as a influence and has done covers of his songs, as has Rich Terfry who I will get to later.)

Poe. This is me putting a hot girl in my post so people will stay awake. I am shameless.

Here is where it gets weird. Poe’s brother is Michael Danielewski. Back in the year 2000 he wrote a book that featured a lot of cross referencing and over lapping themes with his sisters album Haunted, they worked as kind of companion pieces. The book was called House of Leaves. In this book, a photographer has to confront an immeasurable and malicious darkness that is consuming the interior of his newly purchased house. The darkness is totally alien and incomprehensible. It distorts the physical reality of the house, creating a impossible network of never ending hallways, doors, and a decent deeper than the most abysmal cave. The hallways and passages shift and change at their own whim, navigation is impossible. A dark entity stalks the labyrinth, its evidence in claw marks and growls, but it is never seen. The darkness of the house creeps into those that venture into it. Or maybe, the darkness of the person who enters it creeps into the house.

I was vaguely familiar with the book before Alan Wake came out, but it snapped to the front of my mind when I heard Poe in the soundtrack. I purchased a copy the next day and read it over the course of the week. If you enjoyed the plot of Alan Wake I strongly recommend it, they compliment each other nicely. Its like they are separate stories written in the same universe, kind of like when a character from Sandman (Neil Gaiman’s big old mystical epic) makes an appearance in Sandman: Mystery Theatre (Neil Gaiman’s treatment of the pulp-era “mystery man” of the same name). It just fills me with that fanboy zest. Yes, I am zesty now just thinking about it.

So, we have another artist protagonist with a slew of personal problems, especially friction with the wife. Its actually flipped between the two characters. While Alan chafes when his wife ambushes him with a typewriter and again encourages him to buckle down and get to work, David Navidson of House of Leaves is chomping at the bit to work (taking photos in dangerous locations is his forte), its his wife that is insisting it is time to slow down and concentrate on her and the family.

Playing Alan Wake while reading House of Leaves is a very odd experience, its like the two characters are linked and repeating the same drama; David and Alan even arm themselves the same, attacking the darkness with flares, flashlights, and the power of their creative imagination. Alan manipulates the dark presence writing in loopholes and plot twists designed to save himself and his wife. David uses his skill as a photographer and videographer to frame, capture, and condense the darkness into a form that is more manageable to consider and comprehend, an act that seems to dis-empower the darkness. Considering this cyclical nature of the darkness confronting and using up artists (Thomas Zane, the Anderson brothers, and god knows how many others) is a major plot point in Alan Wake, that makes it all the more stimulating. The whole idea of the impossibly deep and empty darkness residing in, under, and around the house reminds me of the final words of Alan Wake in the game *SPOILER ALERT* “It’s not a lake. Its an ocean.” The darkness is far greater than anyone could be prepared for. Its so vast it is actually bleeding into multiple works of art written at different times and by different authors/artists.

More coincidences pop up among my favorite artists. Canadian rapper Rich Terfry has been laying down real science for years as Buck 65. His songs are often uniquely personal and eloquent for hip-hop, and over the years he has genre shifted from orthodox hip-hop to something more like a country-soul-hip-hop blend. His side project “Bike for Three!” has a song called The Departure. Those of you who have played through Alan Wake know that “Departure” is the title of Alan’s supposedly unwritten newest novel. Listening to the lyrics reveals a disjointed story of a man dealing with the sudden disappearance of his wife and railing against a malicious and encroaching darkness. There is a lot of word play about, well, words and meaning strewn throughout the song echoing the self-aware nature of Alan Wake’s narrative (particularly near the end when things get downright matrixy).

To me at least, the lyrics just scream of the same themes presented in Alan Wake. Another of my favorite artists producing an unrelated work that fits within the same grooves. Its just too much for me. I like to imagine an alternative telling where the darkness pulls in a musician rather than a writer to work its influence on. This is implied with the Anderson’s, but its evident that they never got as deep in as Alan. Near the end, when Alan is pulled close to the darkness, he sees the world as unrealized typed words like a novel he says that it would look much different to a different kind of artist. How would Rich Terfry, with his weird lyrical style of disjointed but connected rhymes, and vocabulary heavy on imagery and word play, see the Dark Presence? How would he sum up the events in the game? Probably a lot like he just described in The Departure, which is coincidentally the title of the infamous manuscript. Ooh spooky!

(See, that was the embarrassing part I was talking about. Nobody ever likes hearing about someone else’s deep personal interpretation of a song. That kind of shit is only forgivable when all parties are deeply intoxicated and the music in question is Pink Floyd. I apologize for inflicting that on you.)

And this is just the start of the rabbit hole for me. Buck 65 references Neko Case in one of his songs. I wasn’t familiar with her so I randomly went on YouTube a few weeks ago (just after beating Alan Wake) and checked out some of her work. First song I hear is Things That Scare Me which starts with the lyrics “florescent lights engage, blackbirds frying on the wire.” I flash back to Bright Falls in a snap. The song and the game are forever linked in my head. I know how my brain works, I will never hear that song again without thinking of Alan Wake and every time I encounter the crows in the game I’ll always think, “these are things that scare me.”

And to wrap it up. The Police song Synchronicity II, a song dealing with the same concept as my blog post here is about a man who’s psychic stress is awaking a monster at the bottom of a deep dark lake.

This goddamn Dark Presence is everywhere I turn.

This is not for you.

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