Alan Wake

Platform(s): PC, Xbox 360
Genre: Action
Publisher: Microsoft
Developer: Remedy
Release Date: May 18, 2010 (US), May 14, 2010 (EU)

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'Alan Wake' (X360) Developer Interview

by Adam Pavlacka on March 27, 2010 @ 12:00 a.m. PDT

Alan Wake, the game's protagonist, is a bestselling horror writer, who writes a novel about his darkest nightmares. In the game, those nightmares come true.

WP: Who has the honor to speak with us? State your name, rank and occupation!

I'm Matias Myllyrinne, and I'm the managing director of Remedy Entertainment, so I head the studio.

WP: Alan Wake definitely appears to be heavy on the story. What was the drive for making such a story-based game when so many blockbusters today focus heavily on action and shooting?

MM: I think we wanted to explore a space in gaming that hasn't been delved that deeply into and hopefully push the envelope slightly on that front. Yes, we have the body of a cinematic action game, but we have the mind of a psychological thriller around that. Hopefully, we can touch on some emotional touchstones with the audience that'll strike a chord, if you will: fear, a sense of loss, a sense of love and emotional attachment to the characters and caring about them. We hope to push the art form just a couple of notches further.

WP: In terms of presentation, Alan Wake seems to have some distinct television influences. It's almost episodic, and even when you do the flashbacks from when you load a save. Are you guys big TV fans? Did someone on the staff formerly work on a TV show? How did that come into play?

MM: We're huge fans of popular culture in general; we're mass consumers of TV series, movies, graphic novels, and books. So we draw inspiration not so much from games but from other sources of entertainment and hopefully bring those into games to build it into something unique in that sphere. The TV series format really seemed like a good structure to tell a game story as well. When we tried, in our previous Max Payne games, to tell a story in a movie format, when you stretch that over a longer period of time, it easily becomes diluted, and you're working against that.

With Alan Wake, a TV series structure was something that we had our minds on from the very beginning. The "Previously on" is actually a nifty way of reminding the gamers about the relevant story points and plot twists and also to accentuate certain things from prior events that will become relevant shortly. For those of us who have a life and can't binge on games, it's very important that you can play for a few hours and come back to it a day or two later or a week later, and you can be reminded of what's gone on and what's relevant for you. Granted, if you want to binge the entire DVD box set of the first season, if you will, go crazy. Some of us at the office do that, but I just can't forgo sleep anymore.

WP: Let's talk about visual detail. Even when you're just wandering around the first area in the coffee shop, it was almost a seamless transition from the intro movie to actually moving around. You have control, and you can interact with a lot of stuff. In terms of man hours, how much work went into that one scene in the coffee shop? What does it take to populate a building to that level of detail and then expand that out to an entire world?

MM: Just building the diner scene was a long journey. We've redone that various times, but we tend to do that with earlier levels in our games anyway. We build them once or twice and then we redo them and then we redo them again until we're happy with the end result. We wanted to get the vibe of a quirky, small town with these characters coming to life and then also give the player the opportunity to explore it a bit. It was a massive undertaking just for such a short level. We find that building those classical thriller moments in the woods was something that maybe flowed more naturally than getting that intricate dialogue with these characters into the first diner scene.

WP: From a developer point of view, when you're sitting there and putting in all those details, does the team ever sit there and think, "We've put in all of these details but no one's going to notice." How do you know when you've put in enough and more detail is not going to be appreciated?

MM: I think you don't necessarily pay attention to one single detail, but when there are a lot of things that are happening and they're done right, it adds to the immersion. It adds to the feel. You can't necessarily put your finger on it, but you know it's right. For example, we have a landscape architect on our team so the topography of the locations is actually real and makes sense. A sawmill is located by water and there's a trucking road and so forth. It just feels genuine. The night sky and the constellations are actual stars, and they're in the right place. The soundscape is recorded in the Pacific Northwest so we have somebody who went camping during the night and recorded the wind and the sound of the owls and everything. Everything like that is authentic, and you can really tell. Equally, we have an architect on our team to make sure that the buildings are in the right proportion and they're structurally sound. Everything like that, and over 60,000 digital photographs of the area just to make sure that we make sure we get all the details right. We went as far as to do multiple location scouting trips in the Pacific Northwest just to capture the essence of that area.

WP: The hero of the game, Alan Wake, is a writer. As much as all of us on the journalism side would love to cheer on another writer, you don't typically think of writers as being action heroes, getting out there and kicking ass. How did you guys settle on a writer as the lead character of the game?

MM: We felt that a writer is a natural storyteller, so that's one aspect of it. We wanted to use his monologue and his narration as a storytelling device as well. Alan Wake as a character is very much an everyman, somebody who has to grow and rise to the occasion, almost like a young Harrison Ford, if you will. For us, having somebody who's flawed as a character — he has problems with his marriage and he has writer's block so he's not doing terribly well in his job, either — makes him more credible, makes him more believable and easier to attach to emotionally. We didn't want to do a Navy SEAL or a ninja or someone like that.

WP: Light versus dark: That's one of the most primal fears or conflicts, even when you're a little child. What have you done to really pull that out from a basic concept into a mechanic that works for a full game experience?

MM: It starts with something that's probably a bit counterintuitive, but we didn't want to use the flashlight as a source of vision. A lot of the environment in the dark woods, you can actually see without a flashlight, but the flashlight becomes more of a gameplay element. We looked at, for example, some episodes of "The X-Files," where the flashlight is actually almost like a movie-realistic flashlight so it's overpowering in the dark woods. It's almost like the headlights of a car, so that was one of the effects that we wanted to have for that particular element. There are a million things that go into building light and dark as gameplay elements. Light is a combat tool for the gamer. It's a safe haven in the night. There are a lot of light-related tools that add to the gameplay, and then escalation on that side as well so when you have a threat escalation, you also have your abilities are getting improved as you're finding new and better sources of light and light-based weapons.

WP: While you were developing Alan Wake, what did you consider to be some games over the last decade or two that have done the story aspect really well?

MM: You know, when we're looking at pushing the story envelope, we're really looking at other forms of media to do that. Movies, certainly, and a TV series like "Lost" is a very good example of the pacing of a thriller and how to carry that off. Bright Falls, as a small town, has an echo of "Twin Peaks" in it. We tip our hats to masters like Alfred Hitchcock and Stephen King in terms of a writer as a main character. Even M. Night Shyamalan, I can't pronounce his name, but we love his work. There are a lot of those influences that go into building the game, and Sam [Lake] is a huge fan of literature so I know that "House of Leaves" has been an influence for him in terms of a book, and [the movie] "In the Mouth of Madness" and so forth. There are various works he draws inspiration from. Personally, for me, it's interesting to see these different elements and see how we can deliver them in an interactive medium. Games are interactive, and that means that it's at least as important as how things flow and how it feels to play, not just what you're showing on-screen. I'm particularly proud of how these elements are actually interactive and flow naturally on-screen for the gamer.

WP: If you had to sum it up in two to three sentences, what really makes Alan Wake a game that's worth playing?

MM: Alan Wake combines cinematic action and storytelling in a new and unique fashion, and it pushes action gameplay and storytelling a few notches further.

WP: Is there anything about the game that we haven't talked about that you wanted to add?

MM: Not really. I wish we would have had an opportunity to show the game in a quieter environment. A psychological thriller really isn't a party game, but it's a pleasure having you over, and we've really enjoyed showing the game to you.


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