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30 Mar

"I'm a Writer": (De)Constructing Authorship in and of Alan Wake

Written by Michael Fuchs
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"I'm a writer": (De)Constructing Authorship in and of Alan Wake

Discussions of authorship seem to be trending in literary and media studies these days. The e-journal Authorship was launched in November 2011 as part of the University of Gent's project on authorship as performance, the German journal Zeitschrift für Anglistik und Amerikanistik had a special issue devoted to authorship in 2012, a book on media authorship was published in the American Film Institute's Film Readers series (published by Routledge) earlier this year, Jonathan Gray and Derek Johnson's edited volume A Companion to Media Authorship was published earlier this year by Wiley-Blackwell—and this is just sampling.

When talking about authorship in the video game industry, it should be obvious that the creation of video games is a collaborative effort. As Judd Ethan Ruggill and Ken McAllister have stressed in their contribution to one of the edited collections just mentioned,

the[ principal authorial] forces [involved in contemporary computer game development] are obvious, even commonsensical in terms of traditional notions of authorship: level designers, concept artists, 3D modelers, scriptwriters, programmers[, etc.]. These are the people who invent games, whose intentional and focused labor produces a particular furnished product. (2013, p. 138)

In addition, there are beta testers, ratings boards, and many other entities that influence the final shape of a video game, not to mention the prominent role that hard- and software—and the designers and producers thereof—play in game design.

While one could investigate each and every single one of these groups' influences on the eventual shape of a game such as Alan Wake—most importantly the role Remedy Games has taken prior to the game's release and the role lead writer Sam Lake has assumed after its release, my following talk will focus on how the question of authorship is being thematized in the gameworld and the potential implications of these discourses on the conceptualization of the player's authorial role.

"I'm a writer"

This cold opening to Alan Wake (Remedy, 2010) raises more questions than it provides answers. Indeed, its elusiveness, the mystery it evokes, is the opening's entire point. There is thus little surprise that the opening also provides little information on its character-narrator who also serves as the player's avatar and the game's protagonist—Alan Wake. The only piece of information on Alan provided in the exposition is that he is a writer, a writer who is obviously quite fond of Stephen King. Alan's role as author of crime fiction in the past who is, more importantly, working on what at first appears to be a thriller but turns into a horror story, proves key to the game's narrative, yet it also serves as a reflection on (poststructuralist) conceptualizations of literary authorship and establishes several meta-textual connections to the question of 'authorship'.

Authorship in Alan Wake

As I've just indicated, the game's protagonist's identity is very much defined by him being an author, a character trait that effectively bookends the game's narrative. While the cold opening might at first suggest Alan's identity to be of a more traditional, easily definable kind, already the cinematics following the title screen and the subsequent tutorial complicate matters, as they conflate believed to be separate ontological worlds. The cinematics just mentioned introduce the player to one of Alan's dreams:

As the car's headlights go out and the body disappears, cinematics fade into gameplay. Some minutes later, Alan encounters a strange figure that attacks him with an axe: "You don't even recognize me, do you, writer? You think you're God? You think you can just make up stuff? Play with people's lives and kill them when you think it adds to the drama? You're in this story now and I'll make you suffer," and Alan comes to "realize[] that the hitchhiker was a character from a story [he]'d been working on."

As the story unfolds, Alan (and the player) begins to understand that not only is that dream based on a story Alan was working on, but so is his life. Yet, it's not 'simply' Alan having basically written himself into existence, drawing on Brian McHale's observation that the postmodernist artist is free to "represent himself in the act of making his fictional world—or unmaking it, which is also his prerogative" (1987, p. 30), but 'real' Alan is, in fact, merely a character in a story written by a certain Thomas Zane in the late 1960s or early 1970s. Obviously, Alan Wake strongly draws on tropes, motifs, and themes characteristic of postmodernist literature, constructing the "heterotopian space" McHale discusses in Postmodernist Fiction by metaleptically conflating various ontological realities.

This blending of ontological realities goes hand in hand with a proliferation of narratorial agencies who represent various interpretive frames that are continuously interwoven subjective viewpoints: Alan appears as the writer of the manuscript of Departure, the story his life is based on (at times, this dimension seems to temporally (and causally) precede Alan-the-character's life, but at other times, it seems to be situated at the same time, serving as a sort of alternate universe); Alan also is a character(-narrator) in his life-story (a story that is being played out in Departure, but at the same time played by the player) who provides voice-over narration; there is Thomas Zane, who repeatedly appears as a God-like narrator figure, intervening in Alan's life, and who is first seemingly located external to all of the diegetic sub-worlds, but increasingly becomes part of them; and at one point, Alan even suggests that he has written Thomas Zane into existence (who, in turn, could have, yet again, very well have created this very Alan). As Roland Barthes once wondered: "Who is speaking thus" (1978a, p. 142)? Barthes himself answered this question by suggesting that "[t]he origin […] is indiscernible" (1974, p. 164) and embraced this effective untraceability, for "[t]o give a text an Author is to impose a limit on that text, […] to close the writing" (1978a, p. 147). Indeed, Alan Wake wallows in this borderless textuality envisioned by Barthes by incorporating intertexts ranging from the eponymous Stephen King to James Joyce, proving that any "text is a tissue of quotations" (1978a, p. 146) in the process. The author's power is thus rather limited, as "[h]is only power is to mix writings" (1978a, p. 146). Here, the questioning of authorship also becomes a questioning of authority, for the author cannot control his fictional world.

Indeed, Alan, the most prominent representative of authorial power in the game text, has obviously lost his privileged position outside the text. In fact, he truly has gotten sucked into the fictional world he had created. And while Alan's attempts to regain control over the story partly succeed—he succeeds in saving his wife Alice, after all—he can only do so by effectively sacrificing his own life, for he is lost in an alternative reality.

While Alan's disappearance from the 'real' world can be likened to a quite literal 'death of the author,' one should not forget that Barthes's stance on authorship is by far not as clear-cut as (especially) Anglo-American literary theory tends to construct it. After all, in Pleasure of the Text, he writes that even though "the author is dead […] as an institution, […] in the text, in a certain way, I desire the author" (1975, p. 27; emphasis in original). The author, as the figure controlling the work and its meaning, might have disappeared, but the author still exists in the text. This type of author can take the shape of authorial self-figurations—think John Barth's unnamed author in Chimera's first part (1972), Artie in Art Spiegelman's Maus (1980–1991), or Wes Craven in New Nightmare (1994)—but this existence in eternal textuality goes beyond the mere representation of the 'author' in his work.

In a flashback sequence in Alan Wake's sixth episode, Alan—together with the player—watches his TiVoed appearance on The Barry Garrett Show the previous night. As Alan watches the show, we become increasingly aware that 'Alan Wake' (that is, the concept of 'Alan Wake' as established in discourse) merely exists in mediation, as a result of which he "has no unity" (Barthes, 1989, p. 8), a point that is arguably made even more explicit in the second DLC episode, in which Alan's memory of talking to psychiatrist Dr. Hartman shows Alan's head replaced by a television, a moment that is uncannily reminiscent of the appearance of the Marshall McLuhan stand-in Brian O'Blivion as merely a televisual signal in David Cronenberg's Videodrome.

Alan's appearance on The Barry Garrett Show, however, also highlights the important role the long-assumed dead author plays in our commodity-driven culture. That this statement holds true not only for Alan Wake, author in the diegetic universe, but also for the 'authors' of Alan Wake, video game in the 'real' world, is emphasized (but at the same time complicated) by lead writer Sam Lake's appearance on the show alongside Alan.

Even though Sam Lake's presence in the game may suggest his prioritized role in authoring the game (to shift to another dimension of authorship), an aspect that is supported by him being featured prominently in interviews to promote the game, he didn't necessarily help his cause by repeatedly demonstrating an incredible hesitancy in embracing the role as author (in the traditional sense), for he has repeatedly highlighted the various other texts that reverberate in Alan Wake, including The Twilight Zone (CBS, 1959–1964), Poltergeist (1982), Bret Easton Ellis' Lunar Park (2005), and Mark Z. Danielewski's House of Leaves (2000), effectively suggesting that Alan Wake is "woven entirely with citations, references, echoes, cultural languages […], antecedent or contemporary, which cut across it through and through in a vast stereophony" (Barthes, 1978b, p. 160).

Where's the Player in All of This?

Since I'm discussing a game here, one may wonder what role the player plays in all of this. As Katherine Hayles has cunningly observed, "In his influential essay 'From Work to Text,' Roland Barthes uncannily anticipated electronic hypertext by associating text with dispersion, multiple authorship, and rhizomatic structure" (2002, p. 30). Ten years earlier, George Landow had already similarly argued that "[w]ithin a hypertext environment, all writing becomes collaborative writing" (1992, p. 88). This overidealization of user interactivity in the first generation of hypertext theory has strongly reverberated in Game Studies discourses in the early 2000s. Comparing the active user participation in video games to cinema's supposedly passive spectators, Mark J. P. Wolf has, for example, argued that "[r]ather than merely watching the actions of the main character, as we would in a film, with every outcome of events predetermined when we enter the theater, we are given a surrogate character (the player-character) through which we can participate in and alter the events in the game’s diegetic world" (2001, p. 93). Along the same lines, Jo Bryce and Jason Rutter have opined that players "are more actively engaged than film viewers in both the narrative and the other events within the game environment" (2002, p. 77). The active role of players is repeatedly highlighted in these examples (and discourses on interactivity at large), granting players agency and choice in the process. However, already more than a decade ago, Lev Manovich warned media scholars of the dangers to "interpret 'interaction' literally, equating it with physical interaction between a user and a media object […] at the expense of psychological interaction" (2001, p. 57). As he continues, "Before, we could read a sentence of a story or a line in a poem and think of other lines, images, memories. Now interactive media asks us to click on a highlighted sentence to go to another sentence. In short, we are asked to follow pre-programmed, objectively existing associations" (2001, p. 61).

Alan Wake truly plays with these ideas. Towards the end of the original retail game—and even more so in the two additional episodes released as DLC (included in the PC release)—Alan (and the player), in fact, create the storyworld, write (parts of) it into existence. The tension between Alan's voice-over narration in the past tense and his creation of the world in the present (which, of course, coincides with a tension between the past narration and the presence of playing), indeed, highlights that, as Barthes argued, "the Text is experienced only in an activity of production" (1978b, p. 157). As Barthes continues,

reading, in the sense of consuming, is far from playing with the text […]: the text itself plays […] and the reader plays twice over, playing the Text as one plays a game, looking for a practice which re-produces it, but, in order that that practice not be reduced to a passive, inner mimesis (the Text is precisely that which resists such a reduction). (1978b, p. 162)

Since Alan Wake so strongly highlights the user's role in creating its text, it becomes all the more apparent that the game's 'interactive experience' (that is, an interactivity that is not primarily psychological) is limited. Yes, Alan Wake provides players with spaces to explore, but, overall, the game is highly linear. The game's structure thus highlights how players are very much limited in their actions by the rules of the game imposed by the game designers—much like Alan and all the other 'living' beings in Bright Falls are limited in their actions by the manuscript of Departure written by Alan in a story by Thomas Zane (in a video game designed by Remedy). Much like Alan's compliance with the wishes of the Dark Presence are rewarded with his saving his beloved wife, so is player compliance with the rules of the game rewarded with beating the game.

However, Alan Wake's final moments open up a potential space for player authorship, as Alan seeks to write a counter-narrative that asserts his agency, his control over his life. While it is interesting to note that this hint at agency takes place in a cinematic sequence, the gesture still points towards possibilities of taking a more active role. Without a doubt, Alan's attempt to write a counter-story and to challenge the elusive author's authority over the story that is his life shares similarities with various kinds of fan productions. Through this gesture, Alan Wake points towards its surrounding participatory culture in which the relation between audiences and media producers (in the narrow sense) is increasingly transformed from "a one-time exchange to a continuing conversation" (Robertson 1998, p. 49); a culture in which no speaker "is the first speaker, the one who disturbs the eternal silence of the universe" (Bakhtin 1986, p. 59).


Barthes, Roland (1974). S/Z: An Essay. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang.
——— (1975). The Pleasure of the Text. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill & Wang.
——— (1978a). The Death of the Author. In Stephen Heath (Ed. and Trans.), Image—Music—Text (pp. 142–148). New York: Hill & Wang.
——— (1978b). From Work to Text. In Stephen Heath (Ed. and Trans.), Image—Music—Text (pp. 155–164). New York: Hill & Wang.
Bryce, Jo, Rutter, Jason (2002). Spectacle of the Deathmatch: Character and Narrative in First-Person Shooters. In Geoff King and Tanya Krzywinska (Eds.), ScreenPlay: Cinema/Videogame/Interfaces (pp. 66–80). London: Wallflower.
Hayles, N. Katherine (2002). Writing Machines. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Järvilehto, Petri (2010). Alan Wake. [Xbox 360], USA: Microsoft Game Studios.
Landow, George (1992). Hypertext: The Convergence of Contemporary Critical Theory and Technology. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.
Manovich, Lev (2001). The Language of New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McAllister, Ken, Ruggill, Judd Ethan (2013). Invention, Authorship, and Massively Collaborative Media. In Cynthia Chris and David A. Gerstner (Eds.), Media Authorship (pp. 137–150). New York: Routledge.
McHale, Brian (1987). Postmodernist Fiction. New York: Routledge.
Robertson, Douglas (1998). The New Renaissance: Computers and the Next Level of Civilization. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wolf, Mark J. P. (2001). Narrative in the Video Game. In Mark J. P. Wolf (Ed.), The Medium of the Video Game (pp. 93–111). Austin: University of Texas Press.