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Light Research @ MMU

Exploring the Virtual Darkened Landscape: Light and Dark in Alan Wake

Video game designers work in light and dark. In a medium in which all actions are ultimately represented in pixels of light, what to brighten and what to darken is central to the decision making process. Over the last few years, games such as The Last Of Us, L.A. Noire, The Walking Dead, Silent Hill and BioShock have paid increased attention to creating stories which derive from the atmosphere generated by this interplay of dark and light across a virtual landscape. The clearest example of this is the 2010 release Alan Wake. A Stephen King-inspired homage to American literary and film horror, Alan Wake is the story of a novelist who travels with his wife to the remote New England town of ‘Bright Falls’ in order to try and overcome his writer’s block. After his wife disappears, the protagonist – Alan Wake – becomes involved in a supernatural adventure in order to save her.

It’s here that light and dark enter into the game. During the day Bright Falls is a normal, if slightly eerie, small American town. But at night the town, and the wooded landscape around it, becomes haunted with the ‘Dark Presence’, a ghostly spirit which inhabits people, objects and buildings. Wake defends himself with a series of ‘light’ weapons: torches of varying strengths, flare guns and flash-bangs.  These lights, when focused on a possessed body, damage the Dark Presence and allow Wake to progress in his search for his wife. Street-lights and brightly lit buildings – often powered by small generators that the player has to start as part of the gameplay – are areas of safety, in which Wake’s health is restored and in which he is protected from attack.

Alan Wake 1






In Alan Wake, the landscape at night is a dark, threatening expanse, from which danger and demons emerge – sometimes slowly shifting out of the background, other times charging quickly from nearby. The gameplay mainly takes place in dark forested landscapes, with the moon and artificial illumination providing limited lighting. Phenomenologist Eugene Minkowski argues that in darkness, as we can’t see people and objects around us, we cannot as easily make the distinction between the self and the Other, between the internal and external. We are therefore rendered more vulnerable and open to other bodies, with our sense of self reduced. To quote Minkowski, darkness “does not spread out before me but touches me directly, envelops me, embraces me, even penetrates me, completely, passes through me, so that one could almost say that while the ego is permeable by darkness it is not permeable by light. The ego does not affirm itself in relation to darkness but becomes confused by it” (E. Minkowski, Lived Time, 1970: p429)

Similarly, the game is often unclear as to whether events that are taking place should be as interpreted as real, or a fiction of Wake’s mind. Alan Wake’s creative designer Sam Lake sets out this relationship:“In Alan Wake’s world, the monsters that your imagination conjures up in the dark come true, but they are still destroyed when the lights are turned on. Darkness equals madness and terror, nightmares and death.” To experience the darkened landscape of Bright Falls is to experience an atmosphere of perpetual threat, never knowing where the self ends and where the dangers of the dark begin.

Alan Wake 2






By contrast, light in Alan Wake takes on multiple protective roles. The light of the moon is often all that guides the player, with reflections on lakes, buildings and wispy clouds helping light the way. In the beam from Alan’s torch, or bright shine of the flash-bangs, light becomes the game’s primary weapon. Then in the protective glow of streetlights, or in lit rooms, light acts as a forcefield, a cone within which both Wake and the player can briefly rest, safe from the intensity of the dark landscape surrounding them. Here, the games designers set out to explore how the presence of light builds protective atmospheres: “We wanted the player to really feel different emotions depending on the amount of light that was present – safety, fear, insecurity, resolution – and to have the feeling of being either totally lost or having a sense of direction by following light.”

Again the experience created reflects Minkowski’s argument that to experience light is often to experience protection. In light, objects and people are ‘held’ safely at a distance: light acts as a protective field, allowing us to create a sense of bounded, independent self. The players in Alan Wake finds themselves pausing under lights, enjoying the experience of safety and comfort before plunging themselves into the gaming action of the dark again.

While the story of Alan Wake might draw from a contemporary alienation from the night, in which darkness is always presumed to be negative in relation to light, it also builds on longstanding literary and narrative tropes. It then ties these into the established architectural and design practices of using light and dark to create atmospheres in physical spaces. By doing this in the context of a video game, the designers are able to create and discover a new series of possibilities for experiencing atmospheres and landscapes in which the player’s emotional responses to the game reflect the varying levels of light and dark.

Posted by Dr Robert Shaw, Durham University:

December 11th, 2013 - 10:32am

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