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Alan Wake's master storyteller explains why video game took so long to make

I can picture Sam Lake, the man who wrote the story behind the great new video game Alan Wake, struggling over the plot and game for almost six years. Lake sat in the darkness in a cabin by a lake, trying to get over his writer’s block and bring his story to a conclusion. And in the story he came up with clearly carried some of his own experiences in it.

The story is about a writer who has writer’s block, moves to a small town in the Pacific Northwest, and awakes to find that his wife is missing and that the pages of a novel he doesn’t remember writing are coming true.

In my recent review of the game, I called Alan Wake the best game I’ve played so far this year. Lake and the team at Remedy Entertainment have created a unique psychological thriller game for the Xbox 360. I recently contacted Lake, at Remedy in Finland, to find out how the team tackled the process of making Alan Wake. Our interview follows.

VB: It’s appropriate we’re talking at midnight. It’s dark outside, and I’m in a light oasis. Congratulations on creating a great game. How has the reception for the game been?

SL: Thanks. When you’re a developer working for so long, it’s easy to become blind to your own work. It’s awesome to hear that people like the game. The reviews are positive, and the ratings are mostly over 90. People seem to like the story and the overall game. As a writer, I’ve heard from several different people that, when they played the game, they had someone else next to them who wanted to enjoy the ride. They sat next to the player and watched alongside from beginning to end.

VB: Almost like it’s a TV show.
SL:
Kind of. [Laughs.]

VB: You worked on this for more than five years, almost six. What was the original concept? What did you start out trying to do?

SL: We started working on new technology. We wanted outside areas. Our earlier games, the Max Payne series, were mostly interior. That was really the first starting point on technology. When it comes to the high concept of the game, we thought about it for a while. Certain concepts came early on. For a Remedy game, we wanted technology of our own, with our own game engine and tools. We wanted a¬† story-driven, character-centric game, and we wanted it to have cinematic action. From my own perspective, I knew that I wanted the main character to be an everyman, even though this was an action game. Not a professional action hero, but someone thrown into it who has to survive. Wake’s profession came from the idea in the Max Payne games, where I used voice-over narration. I used monologue. I knew it was a good storytelling tool for a video game, and I wanted to do something similar here. So that is where the main character became a professional storyteller. Quite soon, after that, I realized Alan Wake should be a writer, whose story was coming true, who was the storyteller and the protagonist in his own story.

Other elements that were there very early on were the pieces about light and darkness. Both from the story side, and with game play mechanisms, we wanted to build around light and darkness. Finding the exact mechanism took time.

VB: What kinds of things did you try out? Did you try things out other than a flashlight?

SL: We tried a variety of things. Some ended up in the game. Some didn’t. The whole concept of darkness taking over and inhabiting beings — that wasn’t there at the beginning. We were looking at different ways of having the darkness as an opponent. That really took some time. Even when we knew that darkness should be taking over and possessing objects, and locals and animals, it still took some time to find the shadows that shielded the Taken from any kind of damage. There was a long prototyping process before we felt it was fun to play.

VB: Did you know the graphics technology would be sufficient to depict this light and darkness? Did you believe the Xbox 360 would be powerful enough with lighting and shadows to do that?

SL: That was one of the goals that we set for ourselves very early on. We were building the technology around that idea. We were confident that it could be done and it would be very impressive, visually.

VB: When you first showed off the demo of Alan Wake years ago, how long had you been working on it? There was some talk of doing an open world, where you could wander anywhere.

SL: We did that around the first showing around a year into it. We were heavily in the prototyping phase. We had not finalized any game play mechanics yet. We were testing things. The purpose of the demo was to communicate the high level vision of the game and what Alan Wake was about. Who is the character, what is the setting, what were the issues. At that point, we were prototyping sandbox elements. We took that prototype quite far. But we were running into situations where we were forced to make compromises with storytelling and game play. We were not really happy. It did not make the game better, and it broke parts of the game. We put that one to rest.

VB: How many distinct times did you start over?

SL: We did not start completely over. The technology was growing all of the time. More of the story side was written. The game play locations were developed. From those earliest demos you can still recognize some of the location around Bright Falls. But when it comes to the core mechanisms, we went through a few to really nail down the concept and find the right combination of elements that felt good.

VB: Did you feel like you needed all of that time? Or do you think you might have done that game in maybe two years?

SL: It’s easy to look back and see we could have arrived at this position on a straighter path. But I really think that for various reasons, the whole journey to the finished game was necessary for us. I don’t think Alan Wake would be this game if we had gone in certain directions faster. There is a lot of material in the game that wouldn’t be there if we hadn’t taken our time and tried things out. It would be a different game. Whether it would be a good game — that’s really hard to say.

VB: On the business side, did you face some pressures? Were there difficult publisher-developer conversations about it?

SL: No one wants to spend any unnecessary time or just take it slow if there is no reason. We felt we wanted to get it done as fast as possible. We were working very hard, even close to the end. We felt we had taken a lot of time and wanted to get it out as soon as possible. Because of the long time, we also felt the game deserved to be polished. I am happy with the final product. It’s very hard to say what we could have done differently. We didn’t plan to take this long. Along the way, there were times when we felt a prototype wasn’t working and we would have to do another one. Those decisions are never made lightly. We felt the game deserved to be as best it could possibly be.

VB: What were some of the inspirations for the story?

SL: I’m sure you’re familiar with the inspirations we have named many times, like Stephen King. On a high level, it’s a very Stephen King-like setup. On one level, you can view Alan Wake as a metaphor for a long and difficult writing project. This is a theme that is visible in some of his writings, like the books where a horror writer ends up in a difficult situation because of his writings. This is about what it means to be a horror writer. Twin Peaks as well. It’s a small town. The atmosphere. We can have a very strong mood and at the same time have quirky and silly characters. That is the idea from Twin Peaks. Lost was an inspiration as well. It’s a TV series, and a thriller. They do the pacing very well. That was something we were talking about when writing Alan Wake. Lost uses a lot of pop culture.

For me, there were three books I happened to read before I started working on Alan Wake. Paul Auster‘s The Book of Illusions is about a writer who has a life crisis. Also, Brett Easton EllisLunar Park, where he makes himself the protagonist, a flawed writer who is losing his grip on reality. And then there is the very good post-modern thriller House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski. The book’s atmosphere was lingering in my head when I was thinking about Alan Wake.

VB: Hopefully you didn’t feel like Alan Wake yourself?

SL: (Laughs). I did spend some time writing a screenplay in a cabin by a lake. It was just too hectic here at the Remedy office to concentrate on it. .That was like life imitating art. But Alan Wake is his own person and we don’t have much in common except what we do for work. One of the origins for the story was a movie screenplay that I had written a couple of years earlier. It was a very rough draft of a horror story called Undertow. There was a burned out main character who went to escape to a cabin by a lake and ends up in a very bizarre missing person story. Quite a few elements of that screenplay ended up as part of Alan Wake.

VB: Did you deliberately try to avoid doing something that was over-the-top horror? It seems like this story could have been much more horrifying, much bloodier, and much darker?

SL: That was the way we wanted it from the beginning. It is why we call it a thriller instead of a horror game. We wanted to do something more stylish. Something with better taste if you will. When you are talking about video games, and you talk about horror elements, for most people it means blood and gore and big monsters coming at you. We felt that was not what we wanted to do. We wanted a smart story full of substance and cliffhangers. We wanted a good reason for the scares along the way. We wanted to build a strong mood and atmosphere. We felt that the whole package should be more of a thriller than a horror game. As such, we set our goals to tell a story. We didn’t want it too tongue-in-cheek or over-the-top. We wanted realism and believable characters.

VB: What were some of the challenges as you brought this into the home stretch?

SL: It is a very long project. Any project of this size will be hard to finish. We had to balance the game play elements and resources. If we are looking from the outside, it may seem like we had no deadlines or schedules. We definitely had these through the whole project. We had aggressive deadlines. The same goes with the ending. It wasn’t like we were taking it slow. We were working really really hard to get everything done. That can be a challenge after a very long project to do a sprint at the very end.

VB: Based on the early part of the game, I thought I would see a lighthouse in the game. Is it pushed off into the future in a sequel?

SL: We tried out the lighthouse sequence in slightly different places in the game. We did build a couple of demo sequences. In the end it ended up at the very beginning with the nightmare sequence where he escapes to the lighthouse. It felt like a very good place. We had been showing the lighthouse with our demos to many people. It is a logical and iconic element. After all that time, it felt the very beginning of the game would be a natural place in the game. It is such an iconic thing in Alan Wake. I am not sure the lighthouse will be seen in the future. It depends on how things go. It depends on the players, if they really like the game and want more. We have planned for more and would love to do more.

VB: There is a novel coming?

SL: There are two books. One is a straight novelization of the game story. With the Collector’s Edition there is a book called the Alan Wake Files. It offers another perspective to the events that take place in the game. I am quite happy with that one. We were working with several different authors to get them done on time. At the very beginning, we wanted to build something that was bigger than just one game. We have sketched out the plot to where it should go. We are actively looking for opportunities to take it to other media. There are no concrete things. We are keeping our eyes open on taking it to other media.

VB: I could see more downloadable content, as well as a TV show.

SL: We are currently working on downloadable content. (The first comes out on July 27) There will be additional content in the summer. It is almost like a special feature in a TV series, building a bridge between one season and the next, or in this case, the first game and potential sequel. There is nothing that is definitely decided. The downloadable content would be coming out soon.

VB: It seems like it would be easy to cut out an episode and postpone it until later, because you organized it all as TV episodes. Did that actually happen? Did you start with eight episodes and cut it down to six?

SL: No, not really. Certainly, there were sequences we tried out and decided it was not working out. Those were left on the cutting room floor. But the story as you experience it is the whole first season. The ending of the story was planned quite early on in the project. It has a climax and a logical ending for the story. I feel that when a gamer buys a game, you should get a story. With a TV show, you have to wait to see if it is popular. With a game, there has to be a satisfying ending, like the end of a first season. We did leave some things unanswered and we had twists. But season one had its conclusion.

VB: I felt that the FBI agent had some unfinished stories to tell.

SL: That is where you find out more in the Collector’s Edition. There are things we purposely left open so they can be revealed later on as bigger story elements.

VB: I really liked the sidekick character Barry (Wake’s book agent). I thought he was a lot of fun.

SL: Everybody seemed to like him. We had a saying here. Any scene becomes better if you add Barry to it.

VB: Are there some subjects we haven’t touched on?

SL: In doing interviews, and talking about Alan Wake a lot, I am a spokesperson. It’s very important to realize that making video games is a team effort. We have 45 full-time people at Remedy. Toward the end of the project, we had as many as 60 with freelancers. This game could never have been made without their hard work. As a writer in games, I think that the most wonderful part of writing stories for games is that as a writer, you can’t help but visualize things in your head and how they should look. The point of teamwork is that they never end up looking like that, but they almost always look better. They spent more than the last five years working on it.

VB: Did you think you could have used two or three times more people?

SL: It is true and it is one of the reasons it took so long for us. We were growing throughout the project. We have tried to do things slowly, to make sure all of the new people we get into the company are talented and motivated and able to work well with others. We are growing all of the time and doing that slowly. With Max Payne 2, we had 25 people. Now it is 45 people and I am sure the headcount will keep on growing.

VB: We talked about the graphics technology and the battle of light and darkness. Now that you are done, are there still some things you want out of video game technology that isn’t here today? Maybe in a future console?

SL: With video games, we are in some ways in a kind of an opposite situation vs. movies. For us, it is very inexpensive when you think of the budget to do very big things. Explosions and things like that. It doesn’t cost anything. The closer you get to real human characters, subtle emotional things, like a character picking things up from a table, the harder it gets. The more you try to do small and simple things, the harder it gets. Smaller is more difficult and more expensive. It is getting better and better all of the time. We are close to duplicating real human actors on screen. There is a long way to go. We are making progress. The stories are always about who we are as people. Even if there is a big supernatural element, it’s the human side we care about. That is what I am most excited about to see how it goes forward. This kind of technology to do real people is almost here.

VB: I can close with this question. I called the game a work of art. How do you feel about the whole question of whether video games can be art?

SL: As a writer, I definitely feel that anything we do has potential to be art. Through whole human history, there has been this argument about what is art. I do think that video games are art. People are constantly looking for new ways to express themselves. Video games are a new form of expression. We are still a new industry. The judgment is up to everyone one of us. In Alan Wake’s case, we makers of the game can’t make the judgment. It is up to other people to say. I don’t see why games can’t be art in the same way that movies are art.


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