My issues with Alan Wake were numerous, and my criticisms focused on how the creators didn’t utilize the medium to tell their story. Bright Falls (2010)—the live-action mini-series released prior to the game—avoids egregious sins of cinema and thus faces a less fundamental flaw than the game, but doesn’t feel much better for it. While better than one might expect from a live-action tie-in to a game in terms of production values, it contains in spades what subtly plagued Alan Wake: an obsession with intertextual references that do nothing to deepen the viewer’s understanding.
When I ask myself what Bright Falls is “about,” I don’t have a substantial answer. The most obvious answer is that it tells the story of Jake Fischer (Christopher Forsyth), a journalist who travels to Bright Falls on a lead. He hits a deer and finds himself blacking out, with only vague recollections of his actions during the episodes. Author Alan Wake, who will be visiting the town soon in the story that makes up the game, is merely an anticipation.
But is there anything more to it? Well, in terms of the game, it serves as not just a vague prequel, but a serious component of what Alan will have to face. Watching the Dark Presence overtake and consume Jake is heartbreaking, because it shows that every individual that Alan kills in Alan Wake was a human being. Actually, I’m amazed that developers Remedy Entertainment and director Sam Lake didn’t incorporate this idea into the game itself more, because it would add a dimension of tragedy to the mechanistic and detached combat.
While there is potential to explore some interesting themes or take a unique approach to territory that will draw inevitable comparisons, Bright Falls can’t be bothered. The questions or subconscious fears evoked by Jake’s transformation are left out for unimaginative scenes that journey from trope to trope in an attempt to please the audience by reminding them of better versions of similar stories. For example, there’s an old-school diner with a bizarre clientele, evoking Twin Peaks‘ Double R, but how does it connect to what the story is trying to do? Well, it doesn’t. Further, the most the script can muster in terms of “unique” writing is an exchange between Jake and a waitress: he explains that he’s a journalist, and she responds, “Kinky.” Why? Who knows. Does it work, make sense, or add anything? No. Even the “unique” moments manage to bore.
The only moments that don’t result in glazed eyes are when Jake is “asleep.” Remembering that Alan Wake is going to be a horror game, the director goes from scenes of little action to smash cuts and volume spikes in an attempt to…scare the viewer, I think? I’ll admit that I jumped each time it happened, but mostly just to grab the remote and turn down the damn volume. Techniques like this aren’t just lazy, they’re obnoxious and cheap. They push a movie from “forgettable” to “irritating.” And while Bright Falls avoids the “irritating” end of the spectrum due to a somewhat clear story and capable production values, it drifts closer and closer each time it pulls these kinds of cheap horror tricks.
Perhaps criticizing a live-action video game tie-in for failing to exceed “passable” is unfair. Yet, much like Alan Wake, I’m frustrated because I want to like it so much more. I want to see something capture the poten tial of passionate creators and good ideas regardless of budget. The desire to tap into the magic of bygone media like Twin Peaks, Stephen King books, and The Twilight Zone is admirable, but there’s more to each of those media than memorable scenes or settings. There’s heart, and themes, and interesting questions.
I will praise the cast of Bright Falls, who add continuity to disjointed characters. I will repeat that the production values are actually quite solid given the low-stakes nature of a live action video game prequel miniseries. Still, I can’t help but wish someone had pushed the series to be something more, something beyond a reliance on other media.
If nothing else, Bright Falls can serve as an important lesson to the increasing number of nerds making media in the image of their faves: nobody cares if you can drop a reference to something you like. They care if you tap into what made them memorable, and share that experience with the rest of us. While not unique in this aspect, Bright Falls ends up being less like that nerd who helps you engage with something they love, and more like that nerd who makes you watch something while they quote every other line.