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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

Crowd Darkening: Designing darkness in a Berlin park

Light designer Sabine De Schutter is the winner of the 2013 CLU Foundation Contest for innovative lighting concepts for exterior public space. Sabine and colleagues were rewarded for devising the concept of Crowd Darkening, using an adaptive system of illumination that uses motion tracking to respond to movement and the numbers of people in a public park in Berlin. When few people were in the park, lighting levels rose to enhance feelings of security, whereas levels fell when the numbers of park users increased. Besides minimising the effects of light pollution, Sabine and the the team contend that a sense of safety is created by the presence of several other people in such a setting. Moreover, a sense of well-being and the quality of the atmosphere can be improved by producing a pleasing, comfortable setting  in which a group of friends can socialise. This is a fabulous example of the ways in which designers are increasingly questioning the need to flood public space with light, and reconsidering the qualities offered by darkness and shadow. I envisage that we are at the threshold of a bigger process through which the relationship between light and dark will be completely reconsidered


November 21st, 2013 - 10:39am

Solar Mirror Lights Gloomy Norwegian Valley

From Lars Frers: The town of Rjukan was established about 100 years ago to harness the energy of the Rjukan waterfall by what  then was the world’s largest hydroelectric power plant. Rjukan lies at the bottom of a deep valley between Gaustatoppen, Southern Norway’s highest mountain, and the Hardangervidda mountain plateau. While this location grants exceptional access to hydroelectric power (and is the basis for a nomination as UNESCO World Heritage Site), it shuts out the sun from September to March. The town’s population has long struggled with the dark side of industrialization, even though the town’s founder, industrialist and head of Norsk Hydro Sam Eyde, has built an aerial tramway to lift people up into the surroundings of the sunny mountain plateau – to keep them happy, healthy and productive. Before the construction of this tramway, an employee proposed the idea of installing mirrors to reflect the sunlight from the sunlit mountainside into the town. This idea was considered by Eyde but set aside in favor of the tramway.










The appeal of the idea never faded completely, and a couple of years ago a local artist gathered new support for the project. Although the project faced stiff opposition because of its high cost ($851,000), it was finally completed in 2013 with a public inauguration on October 30th – 100 years after the employee’s idea was published in the local newspaper. The mirror consists of three electronically adjusted 17 square metre panels, which together light an area of about 600 square metres in the town square. That might sound like too large an area, but as the photographs show, it does make quite a difference. When the sun finally came through the clouds on the day of the opening ceremony, the crowd was cheering and you could witness the odd native shedding a tear of joy. (The warming effect however, is only just noticeable – even for sensitive cheeks.)Rjukan4Rjukan2


November 7th, 2013 - 08:56am

Two excellent websites

Firstly, it’s worth exploring the website of Will Straw and colleagues, The Urban Night: The site focuses upon the social and cultural context of the urban night , primarly in Canada, but features a host of useful links and resources. The second website is Robert Williams Night Spaces, a fascinating and broad ranging investigation that explores how the night might be theorised:

October 15th, 2013 - 09:31am

Tino Seghal’s ‘This Variation’

IMayfield Depot, Manchester‘ve just been to a magical event, part of Manchester International Festival, that relies upon the power of the dark and the ability of the eye’s cone cells to gradually become accustomed to seeing in the dark.. The location is a disused and derelict part of Piccadilly Train Station, vacant for many years, that has been opened up as a venue for the festival. Visitors enter the cavernous premises and are guided to a room along a short passageway. Inside, all is completely dark, save for a faint light in the ceiling. The room’s dimensions are impossible to guess, and imagined it had areas that sloped, with perhaps sudden drips bounded by railings. In the absence of light, the mind imagines all sorts of things. In the pitch black, we suddenly became aware of chirrupping noises all around us, and then sonorous voices accompanied these sounds, along with an array of other vocal effects. These seemed to be recorded and animated the darkness with a liveliness that had been initially absent. Yet suddenly, one’s eyes start to become accustomed to the gloom. At first, only vague shadowy forms can be ascertained, but gradually the flat, square shape of the room becomes apparent, and then the figures take on more substantial form. Magically, eyes become attuned to the darkness, and it is evident that many of the figures  in the room are performers, and they are responsible for the sounds and, we notice, movements as well. The ever-changing soundscape shifts from acapella singing to better known songs, occasionally changing into spoken words, and then a romantic slow song is the trigger for the dancers to gently draw close to the visitors, embracing them in a slow dance. It becomes comical to watch new arrivals, edging into the room, arms outstretched, but we are now part of the event, joining in the dance, responding to the performers. Tino Sehgal, designer of the event, is guided by an anti-materialistic ethos, and aims to present work that moves away from the display of (valuable) art objects and towards human interaction, creating ‘constructed situations’ that cannot be recorded and exist solely in the mind and memory of the participants.

July 17th, 2013 - 15:31pm