Alan Wake Is A Dude From A Lana Del Rey Song
Did you know there’s an ocean under Cauldron Lake?
6:20 PM EST on December 1, 2023
Every time I play Alan Wake II, or even just think about the game’s protagonist, I am filled with the urge to listen to Lana Del Rey.
Alan Wake is an unusual male video game protagonist in that he is not simply a man who sucks, but a man who sucks in a game that appears to be aware that he sucks. In 2010, Alan Wake was the kind of male video game protagonist that was a dime a dozen: ornery, lashing out at the people around him, smug and confident in his own self importance.
Before the beginning of the first Alan Wake, Alan and Alice Wake have already fallen in love and are well on their way of falling out of it. Alan, unable to write after killing off the main character of his hacky detective novel series, has descended into substance abuse, anger, and attacking paparazzi. The incident that kicks off the plot of the game is Wake being so offended by a kind gesture from his wife on the vacation that she begged him to go on that he runs off, leaving her to be captured by supernatural forces. But unlike Joel from The Last of Us, another brusque brunet with anger problems, the narrative of the game doesn’t affirm Wake’s worldview but instead humiliates him. The more he uncovers the mystery of where Alice is gone and where he can find her, the more he understands how much he has failed her as both a husband and as a person.
At first, I thought my conflation of Alan and Lana was mostly about how they both romanticize bad relationships. It’s clear that Alan loves Alice, but in both games you see how despite loving her, he doesn’t treat her very well. Alice is his muse, we are told, a status that makes her important to him and his career, but renders her and her personhood invisible. Both Alan Wake and Alan Wake II are told in a way that submerses the player totally in Alan’s mindset, meaning that Alice’s interiority is a mystery in comparison to Alan’s. We know that she’s a photographer, that she does the cover artwork for Alan’s detective novels, and that she’s afraid of the dark. Otherwise, we don’t really know much about her, including why she loves this man who pushes her away.
It’s in that vein that I started making a playlist of songs that reminded me of Alan, beginning with Lana Del Rey’s “Norman fucking Rockwell,” a song that begins with her singing, “Goddamn, man child, fucked me so good I almost said I love you.” It’s a song that covers a familiar series of topics in the Del Rey oeuvre: sad men, loving them, and trying also to love yourself. The whole song drips with Alan Wake vibes. “Your poetry’s bad and you blame the news,” Lana sings, “but I can’t change that, and I can’t change you.”
The more songs I added to this playlist, the more I began to understand Alan not just as the subject being sung about, but also as the singer of the song. It’s true that Lana’s lyric “You’re just a man, it’s just what you do, your head in your hands as you color me blue” is a taut encapsulation of the dynamic between Alan and Alice. As Alan gets more and more desperate to return to Alice in Alan Wake II, we also see that he’s not just the man being sung about, but the singer drowning in his own Del Rey-esque self loathing.
Alan is undeniably the kind of guy that Lana would sing about, but Lana, for all her melodrama, seems perfectly aware that the men she sings about are all big losers. In “Brooklyn Baby,” a song I identified with perhaps too strongly in my mid twenties, Lana sings of her man, “My boyfriend’s pretty cool, but he’s not as cool as me.”
She loves the losers because they are losers, because they are all wastoids who only really care about video games, drugs and fucking. In her languid voice she valorizes and also mocks them, becoming even sexier for the way that she calls them out. Alan Wake II functions in that way in the Alan portions of the game, where Alan is trapped in a supernatural representation of all his worst fears, which mainly amount to being called a bad writer. I started to like Alan a lot more because I realized how pathetic he is, just as he realizes how much he needs Alice, needs to know that she’s okay without him.
In these portions of the game we do finally get to see Alice and learn more about her than we did in the first Alan Wake. Without Alan, Alice has dived into her own art and put on a solo show of photographs of her own greatest fear: what lingers in the dark. Despite clearly longing for him, Alice doesn’t lose herself in her grief in the same way that Alan has. In fact, she appears to have grown emotionally stronger on her own, facing not only her own phobia of the dark but the supernatural bleedthrough that’s been harassing her since Alan’s disappearance from the material plane.
Alan, by contrast, is doing a lot worse. He’s now the deuteragonist of the game, and it’s seeing him alongside the much more competent Saga Anderson that Alan’s squishy moral center becomes more clear. Unlike Alan, Saga doesn’t immediately fold when faced with a supernatural force that tries to drive her crazy. She looks it dead in the eyes and tells it that it’s wrong about her, wrong about her life, and that she’s going to kick its fucking ass.
Alan has sometimes been self righteous enough to mistake that for confidence, but he’s too aware of his own fuckups not to suffer from self loathing — and this is where the forces of darkness in both the first Alan Wake and II make their home. By the time we meet Alan again in II, his only real tether to reality is his relationship to Alice. It’s the only thing he doesn’t hate about himself, the only thing that the darkness can’t corrupt.
Sad girl music like Lana Del Rey — alongside musicians like SZA, PinkPantheress, Snail Mail, and Sky Ferreira, who all also surface in my mind as I play Alan Wake II — is so affecting for me because it is all about the futility of loving someone. You can love until your heart aches, but still know it’s not enough to save them, save your relationship, save yourself. This is also true for Alan — he can’t love his way out of the dark place he’s trapped in, and by the game’s end, it’s his love for other people that keeps him trapped in his nightmare. His love for Alice motivates him, but also isolates him from her. He’s just a man, that’s just what they do.
As much as Alan Wake and Alan Wake II are an action game and a horror game, respectively, they are also first and foremost love stories. Love stories aren’t always about the joy of love. Lana, despite the success of her artistry, is still singing about the men who dispose of her after they’ve gotten what they want. Her love isn’t enough, either.
“Don't forget me,” Lana sings on the title track for the album Did You Know There’s A Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd? “Open me up, tell me you like me. Fuck me to death, love me until I love myself.”
Long after Alan resigned himself to the Dark Place at the end of Alan Wake, long after he submerged himself in the darkness that he declared was not just a lake but an ocean, he is still trying to find and save his love. But without him, Alice has learned how to save herself, fighting off the darkness he allowed into her life without his help at all. Playing as Alan, I got the sense that despite the depth of his love for Alice, maybe their relationship can’t survive the wreckage of their love. As much as he loves her, he can’t save her. She doesn’t need to be saved. He can only emerge from his nightmare having learned how to finally survive on his own.
Like Lana sings, and in my mind what Alan is singing to Alice from deep in his nightmare: “Do you think about Heaven? Do you think about me? My pastor told me when you leave, all you take is your memory. And I'm gonna take minе of you with me.”
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