The Making Of: Alan Wake

The Making Of: Alan Wake

When Sam Lake was a kid, he spent his summer holidays on an apple farm in Raasepori in the south of Finland. One day, while exploring the rundown outbuildings, he stumbled across a treasure trove of junk. Among it was an old light switch. He called it his “clicker”. 

“To me, stuff like that always felt particularly mysterious and magical,” the 41-year-old creative director tells us. “I love old rusted machine parts that you can’t quite figure out, old telephones and radios.” The switch became one of his favourite toys, a magical totem with secret powers. It wasn’t until the little boy grew up and became the lead writer at Finnish videogame developer Remedy Entertainment that he realised what the clicker was really for. In Alan Wake – a game about a horror novelist’s attempts to save his wife from a supernatural power – the clicker becomes a metaphor. Terrorised by an evil force using his own fiction against him, Wake is trapped between waking reality and nightmare.

“A light switch felt like the perfect symbol,” Lake explains. “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; light equals sanity and safety.”

The clicker had revealed its true power. “Follow the light” is the most basic instruction in Alan Wake. When Wake’s wife disappears, the player goes on a terrifying journey to rescue her. Wandering through dark, empty forests, deserted saw mills and creepy diners, you encounter the Taken – possessed townsfolk who inhabit the shadows and can only be banished by light – flashlights, flares and the odd UV spotlight.

“Lighting is probably the most important technical aspect in Alan Wake,” says Oskari Häkkinen, Remedy’s head of franchise development. “Light is a weapon but it’s also thematically important throughout the game. 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. There are so many layers to it that there weren’t any off-the shelf solutions for the lighting. Building the tech allowed us to fulfil the creative vision.”

For Remedy, journeying into the light wasn’t simple. Development took five years, with more twists and turns than Wake’s stumbling, midnight sprints through the woods around Bright Falls. A PC version was started then scrapped, and an episodic XBLA release was mooted then abandoned. Had the team realised how long it would take to escape the darkness, they would have reached for the clicker themselves. 

What really delayed Alan Wake for so long? “The biggest mistake we made,” Häkkinen admits, “was following a sandbox design. It simply did not fit with our story-driven focus.” Originally, the game was an open-world experience set across a huge map with mist-shrouded forests, an eerie lake, power plants and a Twin Peaks-style rural town that players could explore.

Like novelists, game designers need to create their worlds and populate them. Unlike novelists, though, game designers also need to create every tree, shrub and rock that world requires. With that in mind, Remedy sent a research team through Oregon and Washington State and across the border into Canada. They took photos of mountains and lakes, diners and motels, visited the Washington locations where horror movie The Ring was shot, and camped out in the Pacific Northwest’s woods. Even after they returned to Finland with 60,000 photos on their hard drive, they still sent the odd request to their publisher’s Seattle offices asking Microsoft to fill in some gaps, according to Häkkinen. “We asked them to take reference photos of shrubs and trees, or to go out into to the woods to record ambient sounds… at night!”

The research fed into the team’s tech, including a proprietary world editor featuring a number of procedural tools that evolved out of Max Payne’s MaxEd level editor. With only 55 on-site staff at the peak of production, a surprisingly small number for such a sprawling game, Remedy needed to generate environments quickly.

“An unconventional game requires unconventional tools,” Häkkinen explains. “We spent lots of effort in the early stages of development creating biotypes that meshed together, based off the research photos we took. Now, if we place a road in the middle of the world, for instance, the system automatically knows not to put trees or grass on the road. It also automatically generates sprouts of grass coming through the edges of the tarmac and [ensures that] the grass type is in line with the vegetation surrounding the road. In addition to that, it’ll add gravel and a ditch on the sides of the road. The effort put into making these systems work saved us time later as no post editing was needed, and they allowed our artists to work very efficiently.”

As the team built its sandbox prototype, though, it was apparent that something was missing. The freedom to go anywhere robbed the story of its purpose. As any good horror novelist will tell you, the slow creep of dread requires careful pacing. When players can abandon the search for their wife and go off logging instead, it’s hard to maintain the requisite atmosphere.

“A thriller is very much like a rollercoaster,” Häkkinen says. “You need those build-ups to make the plunges feel all the more exhilarating. We just weren’t getting this in a sandbox design because all the game-istic things you need were detracting from the story being the focal point.”

Although ditching the sandbox was frustrating, the game benefited. The open-world engine gave this now-linear horror story an agoraphobic feel. Häkkinen: “Because the environments were naturally much larger, we could make reference to things that could be seen in the distance and so foreshadow events. We could create landmarks so the player always had a sense of direction.”

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