A gritty crime thriller with a dreamlike tone and dense postmodern flourishes, the survival horror video game Alan Wake 2 is often weird and always unpredictable, veering off from its small-town murder-mystery setting to follow surreal and mind-bending digressions. It has few, if any, video game precedents.
But Alan Wake 2, which has received effusive praise for its tense atmosphere, innovative style and sophisticated writing, does take inspiration from a variety of other art forms, drawing on experimental fiction, art house film, immersive theater and more.
The first Alan Wake, released by the Finnish developer Remedy Entertainment in 2010, was widely regarded as a Stephen King riff: Its tale of a troubled novelist facing a nightmare straight out of one of his own tales was reminiscent of King’s stories “Bag of Bones,” “1408” and “Secret Window, Secret Garden.” But according to the Remedy writer and director Sam Lake, those comparisons downplayed the sweep of the game’s influences.
“The aspects of Alan Wake that were like Stephen King were very easy for people to understand,” he said. “But for me, writing the game, there was plenty more to it.”
Lake said that video game storytelling had come a long way since the original Alan Wake, whose offbeat style had concerned some publishers: “There was always a worry that it was too weird.” But now there is more tolerance for an unconventional approach, which Lake said liberated him to embrace many creative inspirations.
“To me there’s always been so many different things to be excited about in popular culture,” he said. “I try to find my inspirations through other mediums, so that we can do something that has not been seen in video games before.”
Lake explained some of his biggest influences and how they fit into Alan Wake 2, which was released for the PC, Xbox Series X|S and PlayStation 5 last month.
‘House of Leaves’
Mark Z. Danielewski’s sprawling “House of Leaves” has developed a cult following since it was published in 2000. Its story-within-a-story about a film that documents the exploration of an impossibly large maze within an ordinary house is equal parts deconstructionist metanarrative and haunting thriller, and you can feel its influence on Alan Wake 2 in the blurring of the lines between reality and fiction (as well as fiction within fiction).
“The layered structure of the narrative, the way it comes together and is interweaved, so that you get lost in the labyrinth of it — all of that has been a big inspiration,” Lake said.
As a nod to “House of Leaves,” Lake commissioned a song for Alan Wake 2 by the musical artist Poe, otherwise known as Anne Decatur Danielewski, the sister of the book’s author. (A track from Poe’s album “Haunted,” which was recorded as a kind of companion piece to “House of Leaves,” was included on the soundtrack of the first Alan Wake.)
‘Twin Peaks: The Return’
Alan Wake 2 begins with an F.B.I. agent arriving in a small town to solve a murder with supernatural dimensions, making comparisons to David Lynch’s landmark series “Twin Peaks” inevitable.
But Lake was more keenly influenced by “Twin Peaks: The Return,” the ambitious 18-part revival series by Lynch that was broadcast on Showtime in 2017. “I watched every episode with a wide grin on my face, feeling like I’m home, like I’m warm and safe,” Lake said.
The series was the basis for how Alan Wake 2 treats the return of its protagonist: Like Dale Cooper in “The Return,” the writer Alan Wake is trapped in a dark reality from which he cannot escape, helpless as an evil doppelgänger wreaks havoc in the real world. “What Lynch did with Cooper’s arc, and how much pressure there must have been to do it differently, was amazing,” Lake said.
And the title of the book that Wake writes in the new game? “Return.” “I had that idea back in 2010,” Lake said. “So it felt almost like a message.”
‘Sleep No More’
At one point in Alan Wake 2, the player must investigate a cult that has infiltrated an immersive play set in a New York hotel. The play is strikingly similar to the experimental theater production “Sleep No More,” with its interactive structure and 1930s hotel setting.
Lake has never experienced “Sleep No More,” which is closing in New York in January, but said the concept was an inspiration. “We are dealing with this almost mystical idea of the power of fiction, and I was thinking about an interactive game, interactive theater, what can we do with that?” he said. “It was about adding even more layers, layers upon layers.”
One of the most surprising sequences in Alan Wake 2 is a full-blown musical number in the middle of a nightmare: Wake, the writer-hero, turns up as the guest on a late-night talk show, which soon devolves into an elaborate song and dance involving hair metal, pyrotechnics and group choreography. (Lake, playing himself, joins in the dance, adding to the meta fun.)
Lake said he had wanted to do a musical sequence for a long time, unsuccessfully trying to work one into his studio’s previous game, Control. For inspiration for Alan Wake 2, he looked to the title sequence of the DC Comics series “Peacemaker,” which features the cast doing “a slightly clumsy dance” with total earnestness. “It needs to be a bit goofy, and something an amateur can learn and can dance convincingly,” Lake said.
‘The Dark Tower’
Although the first Alan Wake was compared to many Stephen King stories, the novel that Lake said had the strongest influence on the sequel — “The Dark Tower,” King’s fantasy adventure series — was not about a struggling writer at all. “I was thinking about, not quite a multiverse, but that there so many layers, and that there is this metanarrative,” he said.
At one point in “The Dark Tower,” King shows up as a character — just as Lake does in Alan Wake 2. “That was certainly part of the cauldron of inspiration soup that we kept ladling from,” Lake said.
‘Taxi Driver,’ ‘Fight Club,’ ‘Hannibal’ and More
Long stretches of Alan Wake 2 are set in a nightmare version of New York City cast in dark shadows and swaths of neon light, which Lake said was derived largely from the look of Martin Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver.”
For the murder-mystery sections in small-town Washington State, Lake looked to “True Detective,” where “we are being teased about this supernatural side of the case,” he said, “but which has a lot of restraint and never fully goes there.” The TV version of “Hannibal,” which ran for three seasons on NBC, was the inspiration for the game’s profiling mode, in which the player can probe the mind of a suspect for clues.
The unreliable narrator in Alan Wake 2 was borrowed from David Fincher’s “Fight Club,” Lake said, while the game’s use of memory lapses can be traced to “Memento,” Christopher Nolan’s second feature film.