Interview: Writing Alan Wake
Psychological thriller Alan Wake was first announced at E3 2005. Since then, updates on the title’s progress have been sporadic, but with the game finally due to hit shelves next spring – on Xbox 360, at least – we met with lead writer Sam Lake to talk about the current state of development, how Remedy’s vision for the title has changed since its 2005 reveal, and the developer’s ambitions for the franchise.
Alan Wake was first announced over four years ago. Has Remedy’s vision for the game changed since then and how different will the finished product be to what was originally planned?
It’s been a long journey and I think we’ve been in the fortunate position where we can take our time and make a game that matches the [original] vision and is a fun experience. I would say that the original vision as we had it back then has remained pretty much unchanged, but that was a high level vision of the game, so many things related to gameplay and even in some areas related to the story have changed along the way.
Early on we made different kinds of prototypes, tried out different things, trying to find out the best combination and the best balance between different elements in the game and we are happy with the result, but naturally there was certain things that we tried out and felt they didn’t work, or we would have a situation where we would have to make compromises that we were not happy about.
This is a story-driven experience so we wanted to make sure that it’s a game where we can tell a tightly packed thriller story. There is a lot of material that we decided not to use in the game because we felt that the game is a stronger experience with different types of elements that we tried out. I think that that’s a natural process of doing something new – you have to test out things and see what works and what doesn’t.
The game was originally announced as having a large open world to explore. Is that still the case?
We did try a more free-roaming approach at one point but decided that’s not really the way we wanted to go. We want to deliver a good story and a good thriller and create the best possible rollercoaster ride through the game for the player. So the story is the means that guides the player through the game and through the game world. That being said, this path that the player is on is quite wide at times and all through the game there is a lot for the player to explore, but it’s not a free-roaming sandbox.
Remedy said recently that it’s focusing all of its efforts on development of the Xbox 360 version of the game. Is the PC version now a secondary concern while you work to hit the spring 2010 Xbox 360 release date?
Yes, that is correct. We are fully concentrating on the Xbox 360 version. Other than that the plans are up in the air and open and once we get this version done, we’ll see.
Will the game still be coming to PC at some point?
As said, the plans are open and once we are done with the 360 version, we’ll evaluate the situation and see what makes sense.
How many staff are currently employed at Remedy?
We are 40 plus.
Being an independent studio, has Remedy been hit by the current economic climate?
Not really. After the success of the Max Payne games we have been in a position where we can do our own thing and concentrate on developing something new and taking our time with it. It’s not a usual position for an independent developer but we’ve been lucky that way.
Can you tell us a bit about the proprietary engine Alan Wake’s built on and what Remedy has been able to achieve with it?
We have a history of creating our own engines and all of our own tools as well. We are a relatively small team and making a game of this scale takes a lot of effort. There are many development houses that have a lot bigger headcount so we need to make sure, when creating our tools, that they are also very much a part of figuring out how we can create enough content for the game and make sure that they are very good to use. Tools are very much part of the development cycle as well. With the engine we have the goal is to both create very good looking games and to work with our main themes of darkness and light, so that the night-time and daytimes scenes and all the light sources look very impressive. From the beginning the idea was not to use an urban setting but a large wilderness area to make those as beautiful and realistic as possible.
The E3 Alan Wake demo was very combat heavy. How will this action be balanced out in the wider game?
The idea of the demo was to show the core action gameplay and concentrate on that. Definitely that sequence was kind of a nightmarish night-time sequence in the forest. The game is structured so that you get daytime sequences as well. Since action and danger is concentrated on the presence of darkness, the daytime sequences naturally are a counterpoint to that so yes, in a few places you will be exploring the world during daytime and meeting NPCs and talking with them.
Can you tell us about the storytelling techniques you’re using in Alan Wake and how you plan to ensure they keep the player engaged?
It is a cinematic experience, as all Remedy games are, but that being said we definitely want to make sure that it’s a game, so it’s interactive and the player is the one who ultimately decides and sets the pace for how he wants to experience the game. Our main character Alan Wake is a writer and as such a natural storyteller. This is his story and we are using his narration as a storytelling device, something that stylistically is very different from Max Payne, but as a device it is something that we used in Max Payne already. That was actually one of the reasons why we ended up choosing the writer as the main character – we wanted the main character to be a very integral part of storytelling as well. So his narration is something that will be driving the player along the way.
Other than that Wake’s lost novel, or manuscript of that novel, is in a very central position in the whole game. It’s very much part of the story and along the way the player will find pages of this manuscript and that’s one part of the storytelling as well. Naturally we will have cutscenes in there [and] NPC interaction is something that is part of the game as well. As a counterpoint to the more hectic action scenes you will get to explore the small town and meet the quirky locals.